The Unwritten: On To Genesis
The Unwritten is said to be a a book about books but more specifically it is a piece of writing about words and as such it is important when reading it to pay very close attention to just what those words may be. On To Genesis, that is the title of this, the fifth volume of the ongoing Vertigo comic series and it is a phrase potent with meaning: at first you may have thought that it was signalling a sacrilegious turn – the series has already entered Moby Dick and satirised the success of Harry Potter so surely The Bible is as good a book as any to move the spotlight on to – and then you read the thing and another meaning becomes clear, crystal clear in fact thanks to one characters straight out explanation; it’s a play on words, ‘ontogenesis’ is a term that means “Coming into being. The start of a life, entity or unique individual,” so there you have it, problem solved.
Only it’s not, because knowing the definition is only half the battle you see; that may be what the word means in a dictionary but in the context of this comic it could be converted into any number of things. Personally the prism that I created to view it through was this, a more literal translation of the words, perhaps for plebeians: ‘Forward to the Beginning’. For me this is the best take on the books title, and thus the book itself, because it is paying attention to the same things as the pages inside : narrative progression and Origin stories. On To Genesis is basically then a lot of dry bread.
If perchance the last phrase has lost you, if my simile seems insane, then please keep reading and I promise that the words will all come together, they always do one way or another. There is a phrase commonly used in this series that reads as follows, or in some similar form: ” Surely you of all people understand the need for circuses and dry bread?” and it is a phrase that can quite easily be applied to the book itself for writer Mike Carey surely understands the need for both and for both to be in their balance. Through the run of the series he has artfully managed to dish out both exactly when they were needed, if not exactly when they were wanted which is an important thing for a writer to do.
In the case of a comic book the ‘circus’ is the action, the splash pages and the pulpy plot twists; these are there to keep us entertained, to tug at the emotions via those phenomenological parts of the mind, they are there to make the book a story and not a thesis (as this review may well feel like). The dry bread on the other hand is the heavier lifting, the hours of deep-thinking and researching that Carey undertook spilt out in panels for us to pick up in seconds; this stuff is for the most part infinitely less palatable but it is what nourishes us and deep down this is what keeps us reading, after all don’t they say that we ‘hunger for knowledge’. So when I say that On To Genesis is a lot of dry bread you’ll understand that I mean it is crumby but not necessarily crummy.
The yeast in this paper-crusted loaf is character, specifically finding out where they came from. Though it is usually the case in comics that the main characters origin story comes in the first issue, or at least within the first few, The Unwritten has needed to be an exception to this unwritten rule because who, or rather what, Tom Taylor is stands at the very centre of the stories suspense. We have been given hints before that he may actually be a character from a book – the lost eponymous Tommy Taylor, note the ‘my’ – or a literary creation akin to one – simply written into our own world instead of some imagined one – but here we are given our most concrete evidence yet; though of course that doesn’t necessitate in any way that it actually be corporeal. At this stage my theory is that Tom is both, that he is an avatar of sorts created by fiction; as we all kind of are, our perceived persona’s are separate from our physical selves. But as with all definitions it is meaningless without the merit of evidence.
The other ingredient is of course exposition, the dryest of the dry. Thankfully though Carey has a knack for baking and so his bread often tastes moist; he has a habit of making even the heaviest of info-dumps seem heavenly by disguising it as circus, a loaf in a clowns loafers. He does this here by crafting the origin story into a series of comics. Now you may be saying, “comics? Isn’t it all a comic?” Well yes of course, but this book takes a lead from Last of the Innocents by styling its flashback sections after other era’s of comic books, such as golden-age superheroes and crime pulp; there is even a two page spread spread over the middle of a two page spread, the epitome of meta You may be sensing a pattern there, both genre’s stem from the thirties and that is when the flashbacks take place; it is a period piece but given the other times that Tom has visited the thirties are thoroughly modern, going back to go forward.
The style of the series as a whole, flashbacks aside, also helps sweeten the loaf, making it easier to swallow. The way that Carey and lead artist Peter Gross structure the story is simply stunning, dedicating whole pages to detailed renderings of things like the character’s computer screens; allowing us to read the unabridged versions of blog posts and forum back-chatter if we so will it and skip it if we don’t. Making the back story self-managed is a great idea and allows the audience to choose their own level of interaction depending on time and mood. This fictionally-mixed-media format also furthers the post-modern feeling of a book that is already as meta as one can be and more.
Most of all though it is the writing that sells us on these sections of exposition and on the story as a whole, was it any less well done then we would likely lose ourselves when lingering in it all. That the writing is of such a high standard even clears away the fact that for all the exposition delivered in this volume we only really take two steps towards clarity and one back withi confusion. So the words are everything, though the fact that they stand as the calm before the storm, or to make a better metaphor, the arming before the charge certainly helps. What comes next will no doubt be big and the title, those blasted things, confirms that without context or translation. Coming soon: The War Of The Words, so eat up while you can because tomorrow we hit the circus and hard.