There are many great indie comics. There are some famous ones like The Walking Dead and Saga. But for every Y the Last Man and Sandman, there a dozen other indies that are brilliant in their own rights. The Unwritten is one of those series. Written by Mike Carey (X-Men, The Girl with all the Gifts) with art from Peter Gross (Books of Magic, Lucifer). The art and writing are both great, but what makes The Unwritten stand out the most is the ambitious scope of the creators. It’s a book exploring literature…literally…by traversing through literature. Sounds confusing? Well, the complexity is part of the joy.
The Unwritten – Great Indie Comics to Read
Tommy Taylor – Don’t Call Him an Icon
The Unwritten starts as an homage to Harry Potter. The world is more obsessed with “Tommy Taylor” than they are about Potter, Frodo, or any other famous book character. But the difference here is that the character Tommy was based on the author’s son, Tom Taylor. Poor Tom. Everyone calls him Tommy and asks him questions about his “adventures.” It’s taken over his life so invasively that he makes a living by going to Tommy Taylor conventions.
The other boy wizard.(Vertigo Comics)
Disgruntled Adult Wizard
And he hates it. But then something strange happens. Tommy’s nemesis, Count Ambrosio, appears to come to life and tries to kill Tom—who survives Ambrosio’s bomb, making the world believe that he really is Tommy Taylor.
By itself, this would make for one of the greatest indie comics out there. Who wouldn’t want a grown-up meta Harry Potter story? But that’s just how this series begins. It grows into something much more epic—a love letter to literature. All of literature.
The Characters of Unwritten Comics
As described before, he’s our disgruntled hero. This is because the character was inspired by a real-life counterpart, a boy whose father turned him into a literary character and basically stole the kid’s childhood: Christopher Milne, otherwise known as Christopher Robin. In an interview with SciFi Pulse, Carey explained that both Christopher and Tom “grew up feeling that his father had stolen his childhood from him, turned a profit from it and then given it back to him in a form he couldn’t use.” Now, there’s one little difference here. Tom might be a bit more Tommy than he realizes, especially as more and more literary characters, including Tommy’s pet cat—which has wings.
Lizzie may or may not be a character from a Dickens novel, but she is one of the first characters who finds and helps Tommy. This character is an enigma, and her story gets more and more intriguing as we learn about her motives. Early on, she’s kind of Tom’s guide. He’s very reluctant to trust her, especially since she insists on calling him Tommy. But Lizzie holds all the secrets to Tom’s mysterious upbringing and the world of stories he’s about to enter.
Remember in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring—the movie, not the book—when Merry and Pippin run into Frodo and Sam, and then they just kind of find themselves on an epic quest that changes them forever, even though they just wanted to kick back with some pints of ale at the Green Dragon? That’s Richie. He’s just a journalist, kind of lazy and cowardly, but he gets caught up in Tom’s whirlwind and becomes part of the adventure—and a vampire.
This guy is evil—really evil. At first, it seems that he’s a henchman, but it becomes very clear that his motives are far bigger than anyone realizes. It’s hard to describe how evil this dude is without spoiling too much, but great comics need a great adversary—and this indie has one of the best.
A whale that eats stories. Need I explain more?
Rausch is probably the best example of a chaotic neutral character. She has creepy powers where she can make dolls of people and control them. Those characters in indie comics that are so weird and twisted we feel a little panic every time they come up? That’s Rausch.
Tom’s father and the author of the “Tommy Taylor” books. Dick.
Needs no explanation.
The Collections of Unwritten Comics
Vol 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity
How does a great indie comics start? With a slow build. There’s a deep mystery here involving a secret cabal, history, and literature. As things get strange, Tom has to ask himself how fictional the world of fiction really is.
Vol 2: Inside Man
Do you like massacres and Nazis? Good news! Tom has to live through some of the harshest writings of all time, including the Song of Roland and the journals of Joseph Goebbels. Now, this is meta-story gets meta on itself. It’s a long tradition that the second part of a serial story goes darker. Think Captain America: Winter Soldier, Lost Season 2, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, etc. Looks like great indie comics are beholden to this rule too, and Carey takes it to the extreme. Again—massacres and Nazis.
Vol 3: Dead Man’s Knock
The evil cabal tries to destroy Wilson Taylor’s work by releasing a new Tommy Taylor “story”—and purposely make it absolutely terrible. But why? And where is Tom’s father anyway? And what exactly is Lizzie Hexam?
Vol 4: Leviathan
If more indie comics want to be as great as The Unwritten, they need to include more meta-whales made up of all the world’s stories. Or does that not work for The Walking Dead?
Vol 5: On to Genesis
If you talk to certain (wrong) literary scholars, they will tell you that comics are not great literature, indie or not. Well, now Tom is stuck in the Golden Age of comics witnessing the birth of superheroes, and it’s all part of this literary realm we’ve been exploring for 4 volumes. It’s another meta moment. This volume firmly places comics not simply as great literature, but important literature at that.
Vol 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words
It’s only fitting that after introducing superheroes into the story, that we get a volume that feels like a comic book event. The title says it all. Tom and his friends vs. Pullman and the evil cabal. What’s at stake? Just the world—every world. From every piece of literature ever written.
Vol 7: The Wound
After the war ends, things are chaotic. The real world and the fictional world are both severely damaged. To make matters worse, people are disappearing, seemingly at the hands of a cult that worships Tommy Taylor. Leviathan is wounded (poor whale!), everything is falling apart, and it is clear that there won’t be any happy endings for anyone.
Vol 8: Orpheus in the Underworld
So, there’s no way to describe this volume without spoiling a MAJOR part of the plot. So won’t. If you know the story of Orpheus (or watched the amazing Broadway musical Hadestown…or just googled it), you’ll get an idea of what this volume explores.
Vol 9: Unwritten Fables
A crossover of two great indie comics! Bill Willingham’s Fables becomes part of the literary world—and we needed something like this to happen. The stories explored beforehand were mostly older stories. At the time this was published, Fables and The Unwritten were still coming out monthly. So, when the Fairly-tale homelands are threatened, the witches summon a great and powerful wizard…but they get Tom.
The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice
A great original graphic novel from a great indie series. It’s important to read this after Vol 9 and before Vol 10. It reveals what Wilson Taylor did to create Tom/Tommy.
Vol 10: War Stories
While it’s Vol 10 in trades, Vol 9 ended the main series. The last two volumes are part of The Unwritten: Apocalypse. The world of stories has collapsed, and Tom has to get back to the real world one way or another, traversing through a world that is both real and fictional, and perpetually at battle.
Vol 11: Apocalypse
Of all the indie comics I’ve read, The Unwritten has one of my favorite endings of all time…That’s all I’ll say.
Reading Great Indie Comics (The Unwritten) – To Binge or Not to Binge?
Like TV, we can binge read comic series too, but is this one good to read as fast as you can without anything else in between?
Not really. You need to let each volume breathe a little and absorb the intricate narrative Mike Carey weaves and the fantastic art from Peter Gross. Thankfully, Mike Carey doesn’t just write great indie comics, he also had a fantastic run on X-Men and the post-Messiah Complex title X-Men Legacy. So between each volume of The Unwritten, read one of his X-Men trades (he has my favorite take on Professor X so far).
But definitely read this series. You will never look at stories the same way again.
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.