Unraveling the Unwritten

Having never been a fan of the graphic novel or comics, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from The Unwritten.  After reading the first two volumes, I was surprisingly impressed.

What starts as a seemingly straightforward story, grows steadily more complex as the line between reality and fiction blurs.  In this same instance, the reader becomes connected to Tom Taylor as the two simultaneously attempt to discover Tom Taylor’s true identity (apologies for the alliteration).

Who is Tom Taylor?

This ongoing struggle to find a true sense of identity paired with a sense of adventure that seemingly spans multiple realities makes The Unwritten series a thrilling adventure that plays into Jason Mitell’s theories on narrative complexity.  In his article, Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, Mitell talks about a shift towards a more active audience that discovers relationship and character drama through plot development.  Additionally, Mitell discusses how complex narratives “[reject] the need for plot closure within every episode” and how “narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories” (32).  Although Mitell refers specifically to television shows, the same concept of narrative complexity can be applied to many media, including graphic novels, and specifically The Unwritten.  The reader makes discoveries about Tom Taylor’s identity as the plot progresses.  His true character is not immediately revealed.  Further, each volume provides no certain ending.  Rather, it serves to further an overarching plot that spans multiple volumes, similar to episodes of a TV show.  In this sense, The Unwritten embodies the characteristics of a complex narrative.

One of my favorite panels (actually an entire page) that seems to illustrate this idea of a complex narrative through character development and blurred lines between reality and fiction can be found towards the end of the second volume.  On this page, Tom Taylor is shown being shot in the head by Joseph Goebbels, and in the final panel we see Tommy Taylor asking, “I’m dead?”  This leads readers to further question the relationship between Tom Taylor and Tommy Taylor.  Is Tom Tommy and is Tommy Tom?

There are many aspects of The Unwritten that make it relevant to transmedia storytelling.  Perhaps the most pertinent is the manner is which the story of Tom/Tommy Taylor is unraveled: it spans nearly every medium possible.  Although fictionalized, the reader as well as characters within the graphic novel piece together the “Tom Taylor Story” through books, Internet fan sites, news shows, blogs, on-air debates, and even maps.  Each one of these media has the ability to stand on its own.  However, it is not until each them is combined that the story truly develops and progresses.  This is essentially the idea of transmedia storytelling.

One of the most striking aspects of the first two volumes of The Unwritten is the idea of

Where does reality end?

blurring the lines between reality and fiction.  In the story, a young girl named Cosi becomes so engrossed in the world of Tommy Taylor that she must get psychiatric help.  In a series of panels she tells the psychiatrist, “Sometimes… even if it’s a game… it’s real, too.  Sometimes it’s not up to you to choose.”  The psychiatrist later tells Cosi’s parents “her ability to discriminate reality from fantasy has been eroded, in a way that I think is dangerous.”  This plays to Jane McGonigal’s examination of alternate reality games.  In her article, This is not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play, McGonigal talks about how total immersion in a game world, or in this case a story world, creates less of a “virtual” reality and more of an “alternate” reality (3).  In other words, this type of immersion creates an equally plausible reality to our own, thusly blurring the lines between what is real and what is not.  In her article, The Puppet Master Problem, McGonigal further mentions how this type of immersion can potentially lead to the cease of free will in which an individual, such as Cosi, appears to have no ability to make choices.

The Unwritten seems to be a complex and enthralling story.  Although I previously had little to no expectations for this graphic novel, now I am dying to know what happens to Tom/Tommy Taylor.

Andrew Hoing

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