Mike Carey and Peter Gross discuss all things Unwritten in the first of a massive three-part interview!
Mike Carey and Peter Gross form the creative team behind two of the greatest comic series of the modern era, Lucifer and The Unwritten. With the third trade due to hit comic book stores March 23rd (and all other bookstores March 29th), both Mike and Peter took time out of their busy schedules to talk with the Outhouse about all things Unwritten. In the first of a three-part interview, Mike and Peter discuss the background of The Unwritten and the book's successes and challenges.
OH: Gentlemen, on behalf of the Outhouse, it's an honor to be talking to you. Let's get started with an easy question. For those people who haven't read the Unwritten, what's the story all about?
Mike Carey: It's about a guy, Tom Taylor, who's one of the most recognizable faces around the world. He's famous primarily as a fictional character. His father, Wilson Taylor, has written a series of best selling novels, which star a boy wizard by the name of Tommy Taylor and is obviously based on his son. Tom grew up with this legacy and learns how to deal with this burden of being famous because of someone else's achievement.
At a certain point in his life, someone challenges Tom and asks, "Do you have proof of who you are? All the documentation relating to your life is fake." It becomes apparent that there is a possibility that he may actually be the fictional character somehow brought into the real world. This appalls Tom because it makes him entirely contingent on his father's creative power. So he sets out to prove who he believes he is while the evidence begins to pile up that he's not.
OH: You're approaching the end of the second year of the Unwritten. What do you think has been the book's biggest success so far?
Peter Gross: I think it's been a great success just for the overall theme for the book and the feeling that The Unwritten really is a story about how stories work in our world right now. In terms of individual issues, the "Choose Your Own Adventure" issue, Issue #17, has gotten the most acclaim.
MC: Keeping in mind what you just said, Peter, about the way stories are told in the modern world, one of the big successes, and I would credit Peter more than myself, is how we've developed a new storytelling idiom in the book, which uses not only traditional comic panels but also book pages, chat rooms and online transcripts that convey the path that stories are spread through digital medium. And that's been very challenging and exciting for me.
PG: We're really trying to make The Unwritten about how information travels today. It's been very interesting working on this and seeing what's going on in Egypt right now. You realize that while it's not the same thing we're talking about, it's definitely the same area. They've used Internet media and social media to back this revolution. It's kind of where we want to go, that information is power.
OH: Following up on that question, is there anything that you could have done better or different?
MC: That's a hard one. We're very happy about how it's gone and how it's been received. Peter and I are happy to be working together again. This is the first time we've been able to collaborate since Lucifer. Lucifer is one of best things I've ever done and a lot of it was because is because of the collaboration with Peter and the way he gave a unique visual identity with the book. I'm really happy to be working on the book and with how it's selling. I have no complaints.
PG: I agree with everything Mike had to say. The other side of working in comics is that there are usually a million regrets and instances of where you could see how you could have made things better. When you're working in a long story like The Unwritten and you don't always know where you're going with the story as you're developing it, usually you'd love to go back to the beginning and tweak openings and whatnot. Sometimes we realize that a character is more important than we thought and you'd wish you could go back and fix how he was introduced. Even from a technical standpoint, you always find things you can do better, especially since deadlines are so tight. You learn to let go of that and focus on the great things, like the collaboration and the phenomenal story we're telling.
MC: I definitely found with Lucifer that there were certain characters that should have been introduced earlier and that you wished you could go back and change that. So far in The Unwritten, I don't have any of those regrets.
PG: So far, the only character that I wished that we could have treated a little different is Frau Venner, the housekeeper at Wilson's estate. I think if we realized that she was going to be in the story more...
MC: Maybe we shouldn't have killed her as quickly as we did?
PG: Yeah, we killed her off the first time she appeared. Oh well... [laughs]
OH: How do the two of you collaborate? Do you stick with more traditional roles or writer and illustrator or is it more of a collaborative process?
MC: It's incredibly collaborative process, more so than any other book I've worked on. We really are co-creators on this from the macro scale of what's going to happen for the next year to the individual arc and issues and themes. We go back and forth all the time.
It's an incredible degree of communication between the three of us, Peter and I and our editor. We've come to rely on phone conversations that go on for an hour. Peter is every bit as involved in setting up the arcs and stories.
PG: You know it's funny, I was searching last night for an email from Mike and typed Mike's name in the search field. The list came up with 3400 emails from you dating back to Lucifer. Out of curiosity, I checked to see how many emails I had sent you. I sent out about 4700, but that included copying the editor on stuff. Clearly, I'm talking a lot.
MC: So there's a thousand emails that you sent me that I haven't replied to you yet?! [laughs]
PG: There must be. The thought that we've sent out thousands of emails is daunting.
The other thing I was thinking is that we discuss the story in great depth beforehand. Then Mike takes everything we talk about and writes the script and he completely owns that part of the process. And then when I get the script and do the layouts, I have to completely own that too.
When I get the script from Mike, there are tons of things that we didn't talk about. And when I do the layouts, I add things that he didn't think of. It's this constant process of each of us investing in the story. At the end, we can polish it off together for a finished product. It's a real blend of both of our storytelling abilities.
OH: Let's talk about the three characters in the story, Tom, Lizzie and Savoy. What roles do they play in the story and how do they fit in the story?
MC: Well, Tom's obviously the protagonist of the story. To some extent, we painted him as a bit of a celebrity. We live in an age where people are obsessed with celebrities. A bit of the story is about the process in which private lives become public and people become pubic property and how that's a blessing and a curse. Tom embodies all that.
Lizzie and Savoy are the supporting cast. There's kind of a recognizable triad of the hero, the hero's love interest and the hero's best friend that you see in a modern mythological context in fantasy stories. We play into those archetypes. At the same time, we plan on subverting those archetypes and you can see that beginning in our story. But Lizzie and Savoy are Tom's helpers and team, but there's a lot more to the characters than that. Lizzie in particular has a relationship with Tom's father Wilson that goes back to her childhood. We saw some of that in Issue 17. Savoy has a relationship with Tom's mother, which we'll talk about a bit later on. So there are other agendas that we'll address later in the series.
PG: I never noticed the symmetry with both Lizzie and Savoy having a relationship with one of Tom's parents. Or alleged parents anyways.
I think that Lizzie and Savoy, for us, have the most room to grow and surprise. We know what Tom's arc of growth is. But Lizzie and Savoy are the ones who are responding as the story goes along. And they've changed a lot as well. The "Choose Your Own Adventure" story with Lizzie that comes in the third trade came along very spontaneously. It's really interesting that those two characters tell their own stories a bit more than the other characters in the book.
OH: Let's talk about the villains for a bit. Who are they and what are their roles in the Unwritten?
PG: Right now, we have three main villains: The Cabal, Pullman and Mrs. Rausch, the puppet master. For me, the Cabal is what let's us comment the most of the way the world is right now. It's a metaphor for the ways things are used and abused and how information is distorted. I always go back to the neocons and their WMDs as my basis for the Cabal. They were a group who made up a story, misled us and profited off of it. That's basically what the Cabal is but with the depths and the history that they've done this over and over and over again throughout time.
MC: Pullman represents that sense of longevity and how the Cabal has been pulling this off for such a long period of time. We saw in Issue #5 that Pullman was already working for the Cabal in the Victorian era, which would make him at least a century and a half old. There's more to that that will be revealed further down the line.
Rausch is our new, more recently introduced villain. We don't much about her other than that she has some sinister form of mind control power that expresses itself through her puppets. Ultimately, there's a sense where looking at different aspects of the same thing. There are ways in which Pullman and Roush and the Cabal are joined. And that'll unfold very slowly.
OH: One of my favorite parts has been the immersion of your characters in the literary world. Not only do you throw in little bits of literary knowledge in your story, several of the issues actually take place in stories, such as Moby Dick. How do you decide which stories are involved in The Unwritten and how much research is involved?
PG: Some of it we knew from the start. We knew we would go into Moby Dick. We knew that would be a pivotal book. The Jud Suss stuff, Mike came up with completely out of the blue. We knew we needed a story that would get twisted and misused and Mike found Jud Suss. I had never even heard of it before.
A lot of this is when we're researching one story we'll find a reference to another story that throws us off into that. We could take literally any book and read about it and find some connection to The Unwritten. Sometimes, it's just a matter of finding the thing that resonates the most with us.
MC: There are definitely stories that are tent poles that we'll keep revisiting. It's obvious that Frankenstein's monster will be a recurring character and there are reasons for that which we'll be exploring later. Moby Dick is a story we'll probably return to at some point. Other stories depend on what we need in the plot. We'll make the hot decision between this story or that story depending on what we need for that arc.
One of the most exciting things working on the book is the research. With Sandman, Neil Gaiman created a mythology that included all other mythologies. We're creating a story that includes all other stories.
PG: Some people think that The Unwritten isn't approachable because it's a literary snobfast. But most of the books we talk about tend to be included as powerful books that have lasted and a lot of people have read. Everyone has heard of Moby Dick. Those stories a lot of people have some sort of connection to. The other stories in The Unwritten are books that have been bent and misused. Those books are a little more vague but then you learn about them in the context that we're talking about. In general, though, although it feels like book for literature geeks, it's pretty approachable.
We're not pitching to an audience that necessarily has all this knowledge of these texts. That's not really the point. You just need to have a sense of how these stories tie into our story and we cover the bases pretty well on that.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Mike and Peter discuss the third trade paperback, the creation of the critically-acclaimed "Choose Your Own Adventure Story" and where the story is heading.
Written or Contributed by: Christian Hoffer and GLX