The Comic Book Club: “The Unwritten” and “Ultimate Avengers 3”

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up talking about what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Lev Grossman, Mike Williams and Graeme McMillan discuss The Unwritten, Vol. 2: Inside Man and Ultimate Avengers 3 #1.

DOUGLAS: As a series, The Unwritten has never quite done it for me, even though it’s by creators whose work I often find interesting. As of Inside Man, I think I’ve realized that it’s done in by the terribly weak, amorphous concept at its core. It’s metafiction, right; it’s all about the way that stories leak into the world, and it’s built around the most culturally effective new work of fiction of the last couple of decades (that would be “Harry Potter,” which is way, way too thinly disguised here). Except its thesis is basically nonfictional history, so Mike Carey has to throw so many contrivances at it to get it moving that it ends up being badly cluttered. You can tell the first story in this volume pulls in all its “Song of Roland” material just so Carey can get off that line about how “this place was on the map… not because of the battle, but because someone told the story of the battle.” And the second story needs to be about stories whose function changes drastically, so Jud Süss gets pulled into it (by the way, would it have killed Carey to mention Lion Feuchtwanger or Wilheim Hauff by name?). But the problem for me is that these don’t work as stories; all the characters get to do is bang the symbols and references into place.

That said, I really did like the last issue collected here (“Eliza Mae Hertford’s Willowbank Tales,” from #12). Its conceit–Beatrix Potter x A.A. Milne, except with the central bunny character desperately trying to escape from the story and cursing like a Warren Ellis who’s just hit his thumb with a hammer–is pretty funny, and the art (Peter Gross with Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon) captures that sweet, painterly, illustrative vibe spot-on.

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GRAEME: I think I like The Unwritten more than you do, Douglas; enough to follow it in serialized form, anyway. But I agree that the issues in this collection never really come together as stories for me. They’re the issues that, theoretically, show that the series is about something more than the Harry Potter analog at its center, but the problem for me is that I’m much more interested in Tommy Taylor than I am prison escapades or Nazi art propaganda. Both the first collection and the most recent set of issues – in which the new Potter (I mean, Taylor) book is released amid a wave of fan craziness that hides the real life craziness – seem much more successful to me than what’s in this book, sadly. It all feels very… dry, I guess. I can tell that Carey’s done his homework, but he just doesn’t really manage to get me to connect with the story at all.

But Yuko Shimizu’s cover artwork continues to almost be worth the price of admission by itself, I have to add.

DOUGLAS: No kidding. This is one handsome-looking comic. Actually, you can say that about basically the entire Vertigo line at this point–their cover-art is stellar nearly across the board.

LEV: I’m either the best or the worst qualified person in the world to comment on The Unwritten, since I wrote a whole novel the premise of which is perilously close to that of The Unwritten.

Obviously I’m very on board with what they’re trying to do here: interrogate via metafictional means what is (as Douglas says) a very culturally central fantasy, that of the Magic Boy. And just as I did, they’ve even hybridized it with a Narnia/secondary-world fantasy story, to avoid getting trapped in too much of a straight satire of either one. No wonder Vertigo passed on adapting The Magicians.

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They’ve definitely got a very good feel for the source material, good enough that they can improvise on it excellently. The winged cat and the magic doorknob both feel like authentic artifacts from a well-built fictional world.

I guess where it goes astray for me — and not so far astray that I don’t read it, but astray — is that it doesn’t seem to be enough for them. Instead of delving down into that well-built fictional world, they seem to be running the story anywhere but into it, taking on horror and German-Jewish fiction and The Song of Roland and whateverthefuckelse they can get their/Tommy’s hands on.

The results feel dangerously eclectic to me. The excursion into the writing workshop and the prison and now Nazi Germany just feel perverse. I feel jerked around. Don’t they realize they’re sitting on the motherlode? And it’s not Jud Süss or whatever? I get the impression they feel like they can bring down bigger game, conceptually, some idea about the Nature of Story Itself. Better writers than them, or me, have wrecked themselves on that idea. Leave Roland alone! You’ve got Harry P where you want him, and the Pevensies too. Interrogate the bastards! It’s like they don’t trust that there’s enough there.

That last little romp through the 100 Acre Wood was fantastic, though. Magnificent. I wish I’d written it — so sweet and nasty. Like A.A. Milne rewritten by Harlan Ellison (I Have No Mouth But I Must Eat Some Delicious Honey). See, Bill Willingham would have gotten an 8-volume series out of that one premise, but they’ll probably kiss it goodbye after another issue or two.

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