This week in comics, I finally read the newest Avengers Vs. X-Men and realize that I wish I hadn’t, Before Watchmen gets naked with Dr. Manhattan, and I, Vampire has a game-changing twelvth issue that will leave you clamoring for more.
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.
Hello again, read/RANT fans! Cal here. I know updates have been few and far between around here, but now that I FINALLY have a) an internet connection (well… kind of) and b) the ability to purchase comics, I hope to start posting a little more regularly.
I’m still working on a way to revamp The Unread Canon, to move the focus away from ongoing story-arcs and towards a more coherent look at some ‘classic’ books, but for now, I hope you folks enjoyed my One Shot colums (from the number of readers I got on the Astro City and Animal Man issues, I’d imagine you did). I’m going to ease back in, and the first part of that will involve starting up my looks at standalone issues of comics, some great, some merely okay, once again.
This, hopefully, is what my schedule will look like for One Shot this year…
6/12/11 – The Unwritten #5, “How the Whale Became”
7/10/11 – All-Star Superman #10, “Neverending”
8/14/11 – X-Factor #13, “Re-X-Aminations”
9/11/11 – Ex Machina #40, “Ruthless”
10/09/11 – Tales of the Slayers, “Righteous”
11/13/11 – Daytripper #8, “47”
As ever, any suggestions for future issues are more than welcome, and hopefully I’ll get more writing coming up soon!
I apologize that life has pulled so many of us away from the site, particularly given how exciting things have gotten with DC’s recent announcement – more on that later.
Glad to be back!
– Cal Cleary
When I initially reviewed The Unwritten #1, I said that “Carey and Gross bring a compelling first issue to a series with a great deal of promise,” and then questioned whether the series could live up to such a fantastic opener. Twenty issues in, I think it’s safe to say that the promise has been fulfilled and then some; in fact, it’s probably fair to say that The Unwritten has spent the last two years becoming not just the best Vertigo comic going on today and not just the best fantasy comic on the shelves, but consistently one of the best comics currently being published, period.
The Unwritten #12 features the series’ second stand-alone issue, and much like “How the Whale Became”, “Eliza Mae Hertford’s Willowbank Tales” takes the series to a new level, deepening the world in a significant way while telling an engaging, entertaining story. The Unwritten #12 is also definitely the funniest issue of the series, as Pauly Bruckner, a petty criminal trapped in a children’s story by Eliza Mae Hertford. He tries to assert his will against a powerful narrator, escape the , and take his revenge on the story’s inhabitants, all while reduced to the form of ‘Mr. Bun’, an adorable bunny who goes on adventures in a wonderland of cute anthropomorphic animals.
The art remains spectacular, with Gross joined by Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon on finishes and colors, and it manages to capture the innocence of landscape and the way that Pauly, despite his attempts otherwise, can never truly corrupt it or turn it dark. Humorous and memorable, The Unwritten #12, like “How the Whale Became”, serves as a notice for the rapid-fire shifts of tone, setting, character, and theme the book is capable of without losing sight of what it wants to do or how it wants to do it. The Unwritten continues to cement its status as a modern classic.
– Cal Cleary
As The Unwritten‘s third arc begins, Carey and Gross take us to a profoundly strange place. At the end of “The Inside Man”, Tom and his new companions escaped the rioting prison housing them all by means of magic doorknob. They left in their wake a great deal of devastation, a pair of profoundly tragic deaths and a powerful enemy none of them know anything about. But as always, The Unwritten never takes you where you think you’ll end up, and in this case, that means #10 begins with the three wanderers dropped in a dreamlike version of Hitler’s Germany, learning about an obscure story co-opted by the Nazi propaganda machine.
I have praised the art of The Unwritten before, and while Gross and his team, including Jimmy Broxton and Christ Chuckry here, are getting more confident, the action remains slightly stilted. That said, The Unwritten generally bypasses that my focusing on the drama and the atmosphere, and those are two things Gross & Co. do quite well, a talent that comes in handy in the dreamy half-world of the current arc.
The Unwritten continues to be one of the strongest titles on the shelves. Smart, fast and literate, Carey and Gross have crafted an unpredictable adventure. “Jud Suss”, the newest arc, follows the same pattern as before: even as the story moves forward, the setting continues to get deeper and more elaborate. The issue ends on a shocking moment, but even if it hadn’t, my response would be the same. I can’t wait for more.
– Cal Cleary
#9 marks the conclusion of The Unwritten‘s second arc, and gives the book another huge push forward as Carey and Gross take Tom and Lizzie, along with a few new companions, out of the jail. While the events of “The Inside Man” have certainly wrapped up, once again, Carey and Gross have dramatically changed the book’s status quo, moving forward at a lightning pace towards a conclusion I couldn’t begin to predict. It’s exciting, well-characterized and excellently illustrated – “The Inside Man” did not serve to deepen the world quite as much as “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity” or the excellent “How the Whale Become”, but it nonetheless illustrated the book’s many strengths while moving yet more pieces into place.
Gross continues to provide some memorable images to the issue, from tragic death to shocking transformation, as he illustrates the chaos Tom’s present has brought to Chadron’s French prison. Gross’ action remains a little static, but otherwise the issue finds him in top form. The Unwritten suggests with every issue that it is a future Vertigo classic in the making. Even if it doesn’t live up to that promise, however, “The Inside Man” definitely ends with a bang.
– Cal Cleary
The Unwritten #8, billed as an Interlude to “The Inside Man” arc currently running, runs concurrently to issues #6-7, this time following the family of Governor Chadron. Chadron’s two children are Tommy Taylor superfans, to the point that the daughter has trouble separating the real world from Taylor’s fictional one, while Chadron himself nurses their fantasies as the last, precious remnants of their childhood innocence. In a continuing theme of The Unwritten, the line between fantasy and reality blurs, and people get hurt.
Gross continues to do excellent work, ably illustrating the children’s world. The Unwritten #8 is an interesting twist on the story, further setting up the climax of the “Inside Man” arc and setting up a potentially tragic endgame. As the cover suggests, this issue follows two children pulled too far into the wonder of Tommy’s world, left to deal with the darker side of a conflict they have no part in. Carey has alluded before to the immense popularity of the Tommy Taylor books, and later to the possible negative effects his arrests might have on the fans, but this is the first time he’s dealt with either issue directly. The results are suitably chilling.
After last month’s surprisingly informative one-shot, we’re back to following Tom Taylor, possibly the living incarnation of fames fictional boy-wizard Tommy Taylor, in the aftermath of the book’s opening arc. Following the slaughter at the Villa Diodati, which nearly claimed Taylor himself, Tom is on his way to prison, to be tried for the murder of the group of writers who had met at the Villa for a horror convention. With the world turned against him and his name ruined, Tommy is left defenseless in a famous French prison.
Carey and Gross give the story’s small details a loving attention. As in early issues, we get snippets of the news, blogger reactions, forum posts and more in an effort to show the effect the plot is having around the world, the most fascinating of which comes in a late-issue scene between the children of Tom’s jailor and their father as he, nearly in tears, endeavors to hide from them the truth of what’s become of their hero. Despite taking the time both to paint a picture of the state of the world underpinned with small, emotional moments, the issue also manages to move the plot along nicely thanks to Lizzie Hexam’s shocking new orders and an excellent cliffhanger.
Peter Gross continues to turn in fine work, alternating with ease between the dreamy fictional segments in which we visit “The Song of Roland” or Tommy Taylor’s clash with Count Ambrosio and the ‘real’ world. The issue introduces a number of new characters, each of which manages to be distinct and recognizable without becoming cartoonishly exaggerated. It was far from Gross’s strongest work, but he remains an excellent fit for the title.
The Unwritten is Vertigo’s first new must-read ongoing in years, a smart examination of the power of fiction that also serves as a fun, intriguing adventure. The book manages to confound my expectations at just about every turn, but it isn’t frustrating. Instead, there is a sense of something grand being laid out, one small piece at a time. I can’t rightly say what The Unwritten is building towards, but if each issue is as enjoyable as this one, I can’t really say I’m worried.
– Cal Cleary
The fifth issue of The Unwritten takes a break from the established story to take us back in time. Looking at the life and works of Rudyard Kipling (most notably today of Jungle Book fame), The Unwritten #5 at first feels fairly self-indulgent. Kipling, a struggling writer, is contacted by the mysterious Mr. Locke. Shortly after that meeting, circumstances begin to arrange themselves in his favor and his writing proclaims the grandeur of the British empire wide and far. The issue follows him from there to the downfall of his career, to the birth of his children and on through the rest of his life.
For much of the issue, I was confused. The shift in tone, theme and setting was so vast that it seemed wasted on so utterly unnecessary an issue. As it moved along, however, and the issue came into focus, I found it more and more impressive. The tale is, for the most part, engaging, though the extreme amount of narration slows it down to a crawl at a few points through the issue. The plight of Kipling is creepy and insidious, which Carey does quite well.
The Unwritten #5 is creative and clever. Despite occasionally suffering from cramming too much information into too little a space, it remains a worthy entry into Vertigo’s newest series, and a surprisingly vital one. Late game revelations give some of the biggest hints thus far at the backstory of the series. “How the Whale Began” serves most of the functions of a great one-shot in its lush sense of history and more personal feel, but it certainly isn’t a jumping-on point in the series. Slow, ponderous and powerful, it resembles in some ways the whale of it’s name.
– Cal Cleary
The collaboration between Carey and Gross on The Unwritten continues to provide top-notch entertainment, though this might have been the weakest of the issues to date. Carey and Gross take things pretty dark in this issue as the book opens with a grotesque parody of the Tommy Taylor books (imagine Saw crossed with Harry Potter) and follows with Pullman, sent after Tommy Taylor by a mysterious group, systematically murdering a number of people in horrible ways.
This issue is, just as much as the last one, about playing with the conventions of horror – Pullman says as much during a Scream-like monologue as he begins his wicked hunt – but it adds to it the touch of surreal wonder that Carey has become so adept at blending into his work. Tommy and the enigmatic Lizzie Hexam dig deeper as we continue to piece together the background of the story even while things fall apart all around the pair, all of which builds up to a relatively shocking final page.
Gross continues to do fantastic work setting up the atmosphere of the book and jumping gears from the macabre to the fantastic. Especially impressive are the scenes of Pullman’s hunt. Gross’s figures in action sequences sometimes seem a bit static, but there’s no illustration of that problem in this issue; every action segment is brief, creepy and to the point.
This is a book in which Carey seems driven to make sure we’re never comfortable as it hurtles at a break-neck pace through plot-twists and revelations that many books might’ve drawn on far longer. In the end, though the issue is creepy and creative, the plotting slowed down significantly, the danger felt hollow, and the whole thing felt far narrower in scope than any previous issue. Despite those problems, though, it remains an interesting chapter in a story you should all check out.
– Cal Cleary
You may have noticed, but the first two issues of The Unwritten, the new Vertigo series from Mike Carey and Peter Gross, were relatively highly praised by me on this very site. It’s almost inevitable in a serialized medium that there will be a stumbling block somewhere along the line, an issue that just doesn’t click, but thankfully, The Unwritten #3 not only avoids this curse, but manages to improve and elaborate upon many of the most intriguing elements of the early issues without sacrificing quality in any area.
Tom Taylor, who may or may not be the grown version of fictionalized boy-wizard Tommy Taylor come to life, continues to be drawn into a surreal world while investigating his own muddled past. Pursued by the mysterious, deadly Pullman, this issue finds Tommy at an infamous mansion – the one he grew up in, yes, but also the mansion in which Mary Shelley first thought up Frankenstein. Tommy is joined once again by Lizzie Hexam, a graduate student who seems to know more than she lets on, and a circle of horror writers at a weekend retreat to the mansion to discuss the impact of Shelley’s most famous creation on modern horror. Though this is perhaps the least action-oriented issue of the series so far, Carey does an excellent job setting up the next issue without letting things get dull or repetitive.
Gross continues to be an apt collaborator for Carey. Though this issue features none of the flashes to the Tommy Taylor books, it does open with a wonderfully illustrated scene from Shelley’s Frankenstein. Gross can still capture the various shifts in atmosphere of Carey’s books, a skill that Carey used well in this month’s homage to the horror genre.
Carey and Gross have created a number of interesting characters and used them to populate a fascinating story. This issue sees us branching out just a little from the meta-plot, as it hardly touches on the idea that Tom may be the boy-wizard grown up, but it also gives us an example of the narrative flexibility the premise has, and the deft hand with which the creative teams can pull off the changes of pace.
– Cal Cleary
There were a lot of honorable mentions this month – June 2009 was one of the best months for comics in a good long while. From Gail Simone’s always fun Secret Six to the sleeper hit of the month for me, Rucka’s Action Comics Annual #12 – and, spoiler alert, tomorrow’s review of Kathryn Immonen rock-solid first issue on Marvel’s Runaways – June made this a pretty damn hard call to make. I’ve given out a few pretty bad grades this month, but for the most part, the average was high – there were more A-‘s than B’s for the first time in my reviewing history on the site!
To my surprise, as someone who doesn’t particularly care for Batman as a character or as a mythos terribly much, three of the best books I read this month were newly-launched Bat-books/arcs. Also a first? Two different Marvel books were edging in on the top 5. Any other month, Runaways #11 or Captain Britain and MI:13 #14 would’ve had a strong shot at prime placement.
Edit: Since I hadn’t put the review up yet, I forgot, but a Marvel title actually did make the Top 5. Sorry, Paul Dini.
#5 Incognito #4
There hasn’t been a bad issue yet of the Brubaker/Phillips collaboration Incognito. I don’t yet know if it’ll be able to match Sleeper or Criminal – two absolutely stellar works in a similar vein… and yes, they have one or two other things in common with this book – but this issue kept the story moving along faster than I could believe and with a great deal of style and a sense of pulp adventure. Incognito is a blast to read, without a doubt.
#4 Batman and Robin #1
Splashy, gorgeous art? Check. Interesting new villain? Check. Rousing adventure? Check. Batman and Robin #1 has all that along with great panelling and the coolest sound effects you can imagine. Morrison and Quitely make quite a team, as they’ve illustrated numerous times in the past, and this looks to be no exception.
#3 The Unwritten #2
Carey and Gross continue on with a second issue every bit as good as their first in one of the strongest Vertigo launches I’ve seen in awhile. There are so many small touches that go into making this book great that I can hardly list them, but this is definitely a title to be on the lookout for. If you aren’t picking it up monthly, be sure to be on the lookout for the trades.
#2: Detective Comics #854
Together, J.H. Williams III and Greg Rucka delivered a stellar opening issue to Batwoman’s stint on Detective Comics… and that’s before you add the talented Cully Hamner into the mix with his and Rucka’s The Question backup. The book was fast-paced and exciting while still introducing a supporting cast, a new villain, and a personality in the formerly personalitiless Kate Kane. It did a whole lot in a tiny space, and left me eagerly awaiting more.
#1: Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #3
God, what a strange, strange book. Wonderful, though. As a surreal adventure books, Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye is a satisfying book with a sharp edge of humor and a knack for innovation. As a meta-commentary on super-hero comics, it was cutting, clever and fun. As the finale of a three–issue mini that wrapped up the middle-child of Morrison’s planned three-volume Seaguy trilogy, it was pretty nearly perfect.
– Cal Cleary
Despite my general preference of buying Vertigo books in trade rather than floppy, The Unwritten #1 seduced me with its tantalizingly low-cut… uh… price. The first issue in hand, I found myself getting rather excited about the next one, and then all the subsequent ones, however many that may be, and with that excitement came the resolve to pick up this particular Vertigo book on a monthly basis.
Once again, Carey opens with a couple illustrated pages from the Tommy Taylor books, this particular set illustrating a darkness that Harry Potter lacked as it built up Taylor’s world. From there, we pick up right where the last issue left off. After Tommy’s faux-miraculous escape (with the help of the mysterious Lizzie Hexam), Tommy is leaving the hospital in fine shape. All around him, the theories grow – can the angry Tom Taylor really be fictional childhood icon Tommy all grown up and somehow brought to the real world? All signs – however fake some may be – point to yes, and the world is awash with curiosity. Carey and Gross do an excellent job at this, tossing in the occasional page of news site headlines, fan-sites, and message board exchanges.
Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious group of people pursuing Tommy Taylor with malevolent intent, people with strange abilities involving words. Despite all the mysteriousness that abounds in the book, however, the plot seems to be moving at a brisk clip. This seems to be some of Carey’s most focused work yet, with all the fantastic design and tone of his excellent Lucifer but with little evidence of its occasionally meandering plotting.
Similarly improved is Peter Gross, who does a fine job blending some of the more fantastic elements – and a flat-out excellent job on the bizarre segments taken from the Tommy Taylor books – with distinctive character designs and backgrounds. Carey and Gross appear to be working quite well together on the book.
In fact, there are very few aspects of the book that aren’t working well right now, if any. A book that tells us so little at the outset runs the risk of falling into the same storytelling issues that plagues things like LOST, but the book shows none of them. Instead, it suggests an excellent young suggestion to the already immensely respected library of Vertigo titles.
– Cal J Cleary
A new Vertigo #1 is often something to check out. A new Vertigo #1 that’s $1.00 is almost always something to check out. A new Vertigo #1 that is 1.00, written by Mike Carey, and is 40 pages long? Well, that right there was enough to get me to give Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s new book, The Unwritten, a shot. I’d heard a little about it and read some of the preview, but it wasn’t particularly on my register.
The story, for those who haven’t seen it about, stars Tommy Taylor. Tommy is a real guy in his 20s, but when he was a child, his father based a series of fantasy novels very much reminiscent of Harry Potter on him – the Tommy Taylor books. The books quickly eclipsed Potter, Twilight, and a great many other fandoms to become a 13 book juggernaut… but after book 13, writer Wilson Taylor mysteriously disappeared. Tommy, desperate to disassociate himself from the infamous boy-wizard character, has become a bitter drunk working the convention circuit for easy money, but going nowhere fast.
Everything changes for him when it is revealed publicly that his life might be a lie – his National Insurance number is faked, pictures of children identified as Tommy are, in fact, others, and there is no record of his mother ever giving birth to him. Things fall apart quickly, but Carey maintains everything with a deft hand and a lot of interesting stylistic changes, going from a normal paneled page onto a page meant to be a screen shot of a blog report on the situation through a series of panels depicting the news cycle coverage of the incidents and into a more muted set of panels that represent scenes from the Tommy Taylor novels and films. Through it all, Carey sets up a lot of what the book will be about – the power of stories. The power of stories to change our lives and shape our beliefs and more. Whether Carey can pull that off remains to be seen, but he’s already proven adept at high-concept epic fantasy in his excellent Lucifer.
Accompanying Carey is another veteran from Lucifer, Peter Gross, who does some great work here. The characters are clear and expressive, the backgrounds are thorough, and the frequent shifts in tone are well-handled. While the art is unspectacular, the quality never falters.
On the whole, Carey and Gross bring a compelling first issue to a series with a great deal of promise. The modern comics fan is reluctant to try his hand at fantasy, but hopefully, The Unwritten will be given plenty of space to breathe. We’ll see whether it lives up to the promise displayed in the first issue, but regardless of what comes later, Carey and Gross did rock solid work here.
– Cal Cleary