Since I have only read two volumes of The Unwritten, I can only offer speculation as to what the overall meaning of the narrative is. Nevertheless, I believe that I have been able to determine the broader themes of the plotline and will attempt to reconstruct them into a cohesive interpretation of the story.
The surface story revolves around Tom Taylor, the son of a hugely successful and mysteriously absent author of a fictional children’s series Tommy Taylor which mirrors Harry Potter in terms of both its theme and popularity. Tom is profoundly embittered by his father’s exploitation of his childhood as the inspiration of his books (a call back to Christopher Milne as the inspiration for Christopher Robin from Winnie-the-Pooh), yet ironically exploits the success of his father’s books and his consequential fame. Tom’s life begins to change, though, after meeting a mysterious girl named Lizzie Hexam who questions his identity during a comic convention by showing him that his childhood photographs feature a different person than himself and that his national insurance number belongs to a dead woman. As Tom attempts to search for his true origins, his life is thrown into turmoil and is quickly forced to the forefront of a harrowing adventure in which a cabal of men secretly controlling the stories of the world attempts to keep him from discovering the reason behind his father’s disappearance and the meaning of his existence. During Tom’s many travels across Geneva, Donostia and Stuttgart the boundaries between fiction and reality are in constant flux as Tom is chased by the vampiric Count Ambrosio from his father’s books, encounters Mary Shelly’s creature from Frankenstein, sees Sir Roland blowing his horn and meets his fictional persona’s flying cat Mingus. With each encounter Tom grows increasingly uncertain whether he is actually a real person or whether he is indeed the fictional Tommy Taylor.
Of course, it would be nearly impossible to completely flesh out every theme of the entire comic series within this one blog but I believe that The Unwritten is nothing short of a meta-fictional/hyper-realist love note to the power of self made truths within stories. Mike Carey and Peter Gross saturate the narrative with an incredible level of intertextuality that continually builds upon itself, adding layer upon layer of referential texts and images that it begins to resemble the concept of the simulacra as portrayed in the fable by Jorge Luis Borges. The fable depicts a foreign Empire which is completely devoted to creating a perfect map of their land. As such, the Imperial mapmakers of this great empire create a map that is so excessively large and detailed that it covers the entire empire. The map exists as a life-sized version, with the grounds underlying it and the people living on top of it; this map is a flawless imitation of the empire. Many years go by and the map starts to wear out and reveals the actual ground under the map, which had turned into a barren land. In the empire, the simulacrum of reality, there was nothing left but a frayed map. Jean Baudrillard, a renowned French social theorist and philosopher, used this fable as an analogy to illustrate his theory that “the simulacrum is never that which conceals truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” By claiming this, he argues that the simulacrum (the map of the story) is not merely a cheap imitation of the reality, but becomes the truth itself through the importance which society places upon it. Therefore, a copy can be treated as though it was the original object and the hierarchical relationship between what is real and what is imagined is ultimately deconstructed. Like T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland and the movie/comic book Southland Tales, The Unwritten exists as a work purely conceived from a pile of broken texts and images, reconstructed to create something completely new.
This sharp focus on intertextuality, narrative layers and the blur between fiction and reality relates directly to two of our class readings: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television and Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling. In the Narrative Complexity reading Jason Mittel examines the shift in televised programs toward a more active audience by generating content that focuses on long-term character relations, continual storylines, operational aesthetic and narrative spectacle. Such narrative complexity is found throughout The Unwritten as exemplified in one of the very first panels in which Tom is signing the afterword on one of his father’s books. The page reads “Let Tommy tell it his way now./ Let Tommy take the burden up,/ Chooses sides, choose weapons, keep the vow/ Or else refuse the proffered cup./ My story’s over. On into/ Elsewhere must I make my way./ Trust him, and with your trust renew/ Our faith, our fortune and our day.” This poem that serves as the conclusion of a fictional book, ironically set as the beginning page of a real comic book serves as a prophetic allusion to how Tom’s father will disappear and leave it to him to tell the story. However, Tom will not simply tell the story through the written word but through his own actions, thereby creating a complete union between fiction and reality. In the Origami Unicorn reading Henry Jenkins explores The Matrix as an illustration of transmedia storytelling within convergence cultures through which a story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new and distinct text contributing to the narrative as a whole. The use of transmedia storytelling is essentially the entire plot behind The Unwritten. I believe that the last panel of the opening Tommy Taylor book in which Peter blew the final note of the trumpet literally caused a rift to occur between fiction and reality, allowing the fictional characters to pass directly into real life. This jump from fiction to reality is the ultimate manifestation of the transmedia storytelling philosophy. It is the point at which the story expands beyond the realm of media, audiences or fiction and becomes the truth.
Overall, I believe The Unwritten to be an almost archetypal manifestation of convergence culture, hyper-realism and the transmedia philosophy. The entire book is absolutely charged with countless instances of intertextual references and narrative complexity that continue to reverberate throughout the overarching narrative, lingering and intermingling to produce something new and different.