The Unwritten #5, “How the Whale Became”
Mike Carey broke in a big way with Lucifer, his spin-off from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – a spin-off that managed to build into one of the most satisfying fantasies in the medium, turning an already well-drawn character into one of comics’ best. Afterwards, he crafted and contributed to a few fascinating Vertigo books – including one that I firmly believe deserves more discussion, Crossing Midnight – and some noble failures, but none took off the way Lucifer had… and he was busy becoming one of Marvel’s superstars, as well as a successful novelist. His big creator-owned-comics success story would have to wait.
A couple years later, The Unwritten launched. The Unwritten was ambitious, literate fantasy, three things that comic audiences often shy away from. But against all odds, the high profile book became something of a success story. Following Tommy Taylor, who may or may not be the real-life grown-up incarnation of the beloved boy wizard his neglectful father created, The Unwritten blends character-based drama with elaborate fantasy story-telling as Tommy becomes more and more embroiled in a vicious literary conspiracy to control the public consciousness.
“How the Whale Became” has… well, nothing to do with pretty much any of that. Abandoning the setting and cast of the main book almost completely, The Unwritten #5 instead takes us back over a hundred years, when we meet Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book among other stories. The book opens with Kipling meeting Twain in a brief, enigmatic conversation before we flash back to see just what Twain is talking about.
Kipling, it seems, got his start writing in India, an under-appreciated junior staff-writer at the Civil and Military Gazette. He’s covering card games and polo tournaments for a boss that doesn’t care about him – he’s so minor a literary figure that his boss won’t even give him a by-line on his stories. But a chance meeting with the mysterious Mister Locke turns things around for him. His editor gets malaria and is replaced by someone who loves Kipling’s work, who gives him all the leave he needs to start writing about his true passion: the majesty of the British empire. Kipling’s career sky-rockets after that, as his work first gains popularity with the military men and then with all of the British empire.
But Kipling soon realizes that something is off. Just as his editor mysteriously caught malaria in India, Kipling’s harshest critics and any literary trend-setting who speaks ill of the virtues of empire and sacrifice meet untimely ends, most notable among them one Oscar Wilde. His first meeting with Twain finally confirms his fear, that he is being used by these men, but by then it’s too late: asked to stop chronicling the last days of the British empire and start extolling the virtues of the rising new one found in America, Kipling refuses… and a mere three days later, his eldest daughter is killed.
Just as his original stories about the glory of empire had power, just as they spread a certain message across the world, he begins to write new stories. Fairy tales. Silly children’s stories. His “Just So Stories”. Cute fables, yes, but also veiled attacks at Mister Locke and his shadowy associates. But when his son, mindful of the importance of duty and the Kipling name, dies in a war, Kipling finds himself unable to continue writing, unable to continue to wage his own war.
The vast literary conspiracy of The Unwritten was at best vaguely defined in the first arc – Carey could tell us their power, but any writer knows that it’s always better to show. And “How the Whale Became” was a solid example of showing us who Tommy’s enemies are, what they do and how they operate. They’ve existed for hundreds of years. They destroyed Oscar Wilde and murdered one of Kipling’s children. They controlled the voices of England and did PR for the rising empire of America. In the first arc, Tommy is fighting an assassin with supernatural powers; after “How the Whale Became”, Tommy is fighting a centuries-old conspiracy that influences the rise and fall of nations. Consider the stakes raised.
One of the best things about “How the Whale Became” is that it doubles as both an interesting comic book and as one of Kipling’s “Just So Stories”, like “How the Whale Got Its Throat” or “How the Camel Got Its Hump”. Kipling’s were short, expository stories meant to give a mythologized origin story for simple things found in nature – why whales, despite their size, can’t eat people, for example. “How the Whale Became”, meanwhile, is a mythologized origin story for Wilson Taylor and, by extension, Tommy Taylor and Lizzie Hexam.
“How the Whale Became” is a neat little short story set in the universe of The Unwritten. It isn’t necessary to the plot. We don’t necessarily need to know how Wilson Taylor found out about these people, after all. I doubt Kipling, Twain or Wilde will come back in any form. In fact, readers probably could have missed this issue and they may not have even noticed for a few months.
But one common thread of many of the issues I choose to write about for “One Shot” is that they expand the universe of their title. Just as “Coyote Gospel” introduced the thread of metanarrative that would dominate the latter-half of Morrison’s run on Animal Man to the book and “The Sound of Her Wings” freed Gaiman’s Sandman from the strict confines of the horror genre it had existed in before that issue, “How the Whale Became” opens up the kind of stories Carey and Gross can tell here. The first arc was a blend of fantasy and horror, and it could have told a very interesting story sticking just to that… but it would be a story where something like “Eliza Mae Hertford’s Willowbank Tales” or “Stairway to Heaven” couldn’t exist. It would be a book that would have trouble including a Choose Your Own Adventure issue, or abandoning most of the cast for an arc to have Tommy join the Pequod in a not-quite-right version of Moby Dick that briefly includes Frankenstein’s monster.
In short, it would be a much less engrossing book. Still good, of course – Carey and Gross are top-notch creators, and if they wanted to do nothing more than an urban fantasy with elements of classic gothic horror and a literary theme, I’d trust them to make that tense, interesting and well-characterized. But what they have now is more unpredictable and, ultimately, a bit more engaging.
– Cal Cleary
Coming Up 7/10/11 – All-Star Superman #10, “Neverending”
One Shot 7: Detective Comics #826