Unwritten Ties Between Reality and Fiction

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The Unwritten is the newest ongoing series Vertigo really wants you to give a try. Like Air #7 back in March, today’s The Unwritten #1 carries a lightweight $1.00 price tag.
There’s very little risk involved, and the reward is likely to be much, much higher seeing how the book’s creative team of Mike Carey and Peter Gross fared when they last worked together under DC’s mature readers umbrella.

That collaboration resulted in the Eisner-award winning Sandman spin-off Lucifer, a series exploring the boundaries between reality, magic and mythology. Where reality ends and where it begins is a theme Carey and Gross will also explore in The Unwritten, but they’ll gladly fill you in themselves about what they’ve got in store exactly.

BROKEN FRONTIER: What brought you back together? Who reached out to the other?

MIKE CAREY: It was by common consent.  We'd been wanting to work together again ever since Lucifer wrapped, but somehow it had never happened.  There was a stage when we were actively putting together lots of pitches, then we got dragged off in opposite directions by other projects, then we came together again and this time it stuck.

PETER GROSS: We hadn't come up with the right project, and we were both busy with other things but I remember insisting to Karen Berger that Mike and I had a "Preacher" quality project in us somewhere. Karen humored me and encouraged us to give it our best shot--We decided to work with Pornsak Pichetshote as editor because we both had good experiences working with him on separate projects and about a hundred emails later we came up with the idea for The Unwritten.

BF: How far do you guys go back, really? Did you know each other well before doing Lucifer?

MC: No, that was when we met up.  I'd seen and admired Peter's work on Books of Magic, but we'd never bumped into each other at San Diego - the only US con I used to do back then - or corresponded online.  And when Peter stepped in on Lucifer, it was in a very dramatic way, to save us from the disastrous implosion of our art team.  I started out just being hugely grateful to him.  Then I saw the pencils for Lucifer#5 and I began to get hugely excited, too.

PG: The first that Mike really registered with me was when Shelly Bond asked me to come in on Lucifer right as I was finishing up Books of Magic. I think I'd read Mike's Petrefax mini series but I really didn't become aware of him until I read some of his Lucifer scripts. I really liked what I read so I jumped on board and it's worked out really well.

BF: No pun intended, Mike, but did you ‘tailor’ The Unwritten to Peter’s strengths in any way?

MC: Well, bear in mind that the core ideas here are at least as much Peter's as mine.  This book has grown organically, with the two of us launching off each other's inspirations in some weird and wonderful ways.  But if you mean in the scripting, yeah, I do write differently when I know that Peter is going to be on the other end of the see-saw.  I push myself further, I think, because from the very first arc he did on Lucifer he made it clear that there was nothing I could give him that he couldn't transmute into beauty.  I'm going to try to explain what I mean, even though my artistic/technical vocabulary kind of sucks. 

Some artists can do spectacular visual effects - beautiful images - but lose track of the storytelling along the way: Peter can realise scripts that simultaneously express complicated ideas and complicated visuals, and he can keep a narrative through-line that's clear and beautiful and compelling.  So I write knowing that dimension will be there on the finished page.  I don't hold back or equivocate, because I don't have to.

BF: What makes the book so attractive for you as an artist, Peter?

PG: The fact that I'm really involved in the story end! I'm a bit of a lazy writer so I get to be involved in all the fun bits like brainstorming on the concepts and storylines and thinking through a lot of little details, but then I don't have to do any of the actual writing:) But more than that it's being involved in a book where we're building everything up about 10 times more levels than an ordinary book.

The one thing I learned about Mike while working on Lucifer is that when you give him a lot of good input on story ideas he's takes it and turns it into gold. THere are writers where that just isn't on the table--and it's a bit awkward to suggest anything, But with MIke and I it just seems to work. (Now all of Mike's artists are going to turn into story prima-donnas and give him a hard time!)

BF: Can you each describe the book’s premise from your own creative point of view?

MC: It's the story of a guy who's famous - but as a fictional character.  Our protagonist, Tom Taylor, had a father who wrote probably the most successful series of books ever published: the adventures of the lovable boy wizard, Tommy Taylor, named after and modelled on his son. 

Tom has spent a lot of his life rebelling against that legacy, but keeps getting sucked back into it - earning a reasonable but demeaning living by working the convention circuit and signing his father's books.  But then some information surfaces which raises a hideous possibility - that he might actually be  Tommy, the fictional character made flesh.  Ultimately it's a story about stories, and why they matter to us.

PG: We've been talking about this so enough that I'd use pretty much the same description, so I'll just add that there's a secret cabal that's been manipulating writer's and stories over the centuries for wealth and power and maybe something deeper. And that leads to questions about what is the purpose of stories, and what happens when that purpose is subverted.

When you look around the world now you can see a million instances where story energy has turned into internet gossip and obsession with celebrity and 24 hour news bits. Something's out of whack there and The Unwritten is set in that place where the line between fact and fiction has gotten blurry.

BF: I’m sure when your book is about ‘the adventures of a lovable boy wizard’, someone’s bound to mention Harry Potter sooner or later. Is that something you’re aware of? If so, did you go about shaping the character – visually or in terms of his behavior – differently from Potter especially for that reason?

MC: Peter drew Books of Magic for many years, and wrote it for many more.  I don't think we need to justify our boy wizard to anybody: he has an impeccable pedigree.  But in fact both Harry Potter and Tim Hunter are iterations of an archetype: young witches and wizards at school are a perennial theme of fantasy fiction, with Ursula LeGuin, Jill Murphy and Diana Wynne Jones all contributing their own takes alongside Rowling and Gaiman.

PG: When we initially talked about this series we didn't have a boy-wizard character involved. We knew the main character's father wrote the most successful books in history, based on his son, then abandoned him. I think from there, given the Potter phenomenon it was logical to jump to the boy wizard theme, and from that it was a "duh" moment to realize I'd already done a body of work with that sort character in Books of Magic so it brought so many levels of interesting things to the table.

If anyone accuses us of ripping off Harry Potter all I have to do is point to years on Books of Magic and show that we're clearly ripping off that. [Laughs] For me the fun part is that in our story the sales of the Tommy Taylor novels  are to Harry Potter what the sales of Harry Potter was to Books of Magic. So in fiction at least I get my revenge.

BF: What made your run on Lucifer so memorable from a creator’s point of view? And what do you think made fans respond so well to it?
MC: It's one of the few books I've written that did everything I wanted it to do.  It's fashionable to say this, but it's true: we knew what the ending was going to be.  We didn't know all the stories we'd tell along the way, but we had all the climactic beats clear in our minds, and we got to play them out exactly as we planned to.  Then - the icing on the cake - we got to do a series of codas that gave a proper send-off to everyone in the core cast. 

You never leave a project that big without regrets, but with Lucifer, the satisfaction is so much bigger than the regrets, I scarcely feel them.  Maybe a twinge every now and then, when I think of another Gaudium story we could have slipped in...

PG: I think for me it was the range of the material, and the strength of the characters Mike created. MIke has the ability to write smart, scary, funny, tragic--and all in the same scene! That's a nice challenge for an artist, and I enjoyed that.

BF: What were some of your favorite moments working on Lucifer?

MC: In the book's scond year we got five Eisner nominations.  That was a high point of my career up to that time.  But most of my best memories relate to specific storylines and how they came together.  I love Dalliance With the Damned, because of some of the amazing things that Peter did to the storytelling.  I love all the Gaudium stuff: he was a character who we invented as a plot convenience, and then kept revisiting because he was so much fun.  And the whole of the Morningstar arc, where we brought our massive cast together for the big finale: that felt terrifying, like plate-balancing or juggling chainsaws, but really exhilarating.

PG: There's a scene in Dalliance of the Damned that taught me all about working with Mike, and about how I want to work with writers in general. Mike knows it well because we both talk about it a lot. But basically it was a sequence of 4 or 5 pages where I knew that if I drew it as written it would be terrible, not because it was badly written but because it had a bunch of things in it that I just didn't draw well. So I ended up transcribing all the dialogue and cutting out all the panel descriptions and coming up with something absolutely completely different than what Mike asked for.

But in the end it was truer to the story than what was written. I figure that the artist is the visual thinker in the process and when needed should be able to come up with visuals that the writer never even thought of. The difficulty is that those visuals have to get to the heart of what the writer wanted. When it works, it's fabulous and exciting. When it doesn't its frustrating and embarrassing for everyone involved. But Mike gets that, and he wants to work that way with me.

BF: Is Vertigo the same place since you guys left Lucifer? I think that one’s a little easier for you to answer, Mike, since you’ve been in and out of Vertigo since, doing other stories, like Crossing Midnight, God Save The Queen, and Faker…
MC: Peter has, too, but some of the books he's worked on haven't been announced yet.

Is it the same place?  Yes and no.  The identity of any imprint rests in its editors, and most of the editors I've worked with over the years are still there.  But new editors have come in, broadening and changing the line in subtle and not so subtle ways, adding their own styles and perspectives to the mix.  Over time, the tune slips in and out of different keys.  Pornsak Pichetshote, who edited Crossing Midnight and is now editing The Unwritten, is a relative newcomer, but already it's hard to imagine Vertigo without him.  His other credits, in case you're wondering, include Seaguy, Vimanarama, The Losers and Unknown Soldier.

PG: That's a great question--and one I've never been asked before! Over the years there I've had long periods working with different editors, and you form a really tight bond with them, It's a very intimate sort of thing, making a Vertigo book. There is far more interaction between writer, artist and editor than there is anywhere else I've worked--and that isn't for everyone. I think the reason I've had a long career at Vertigo is because I thrive in that environment and I like that feeling of collaboration.

That way of working has been very consistent all the time I've worked there, but each editor is different and it's like getting a new family every time a new project starts up.

And like Mike said, Pornsak is a huge part of the creative process on this book. I don't know if anyone else would have the patience to encourage and adapt to the constant new twists we keep adding in to the story. I'm sure we'll be tweaking things on the first issue even as it's going out the door to the printer.

BF: Will reality and fiction – or perhaps I should call it ‘the other-dimensional’ – meet in this book as much as it did in Crossing Midnight?

MC: Actually more so.  The inter-weavings are more complex here - or at least, there are many more different flavours of them.  We're playing a lot of games with that real/fictional interface - showing the fictional world of the Tommy Taylor books from a lot of different angles, and progressively kicking over the traces that separate what we think we know from what we think we've only imagined.  That's really what The Unwritten is all about.

PG: That said, the Fantasy/Fiction elements of the book are very human driven. It's a different sort of fantasy than you've seen before. I can't say more than that without giving too much away!

The Unwritten #1 goes on sale May 13 through DC and Vertigo. It only costs a dollar, so pick it up!

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