A book within a book is not an original story. On the other hand, many books in a comic connected by the collective consciousness in a universe similar to ours is a completely other thing. The uniqueness of The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross lies within its use of different but widely known characters as well as their stories and the books in which they appear. To construct a realistic universe, the Unwritten’s plot describes the adventures of Tom Taylor, the son of famous writer Wilson Taylor, creator of a book series (very similar to Harry Potter) about a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor living in a word full of magic and mythic creatures. Having lived all his life being compared to the character of his father’s books, Tom doesn’t know who he really is. His own identity is completely entwined with the character of the books. As the story develops, Wilson Taylor’s intention is revealed: he has orchestrated his son’s life to coincide with Tommy Taylor’s. In other words, Tom Taylor’s existence has never been his own, he was created to embody his father’s character, thus creating a tool (or weapon) against a powerful organization whose powers come from manipulating the collective consciousness.
The character of Wilson Taylor has the readers asking if the man is a monster or a genius, which leads to more pertinent question of what can be called a monster: the creation that is part human, part story, or its creator? The authors’ clever use of Frankenstein’s Creature illustrates many questionings and hints at the different possible meanings.
What is a monster? The society described in Shelley’s novel finds its monster in Frankenstein’s Creature, not the doctor himself. In other words, it found the monster in the results, not the cause. In Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, the Creature attempts to integrate into social patterns but even after a heroic gesture (that of rescuing a girl from drowning) he is still cruelly rejected. The rejection of the Creature, whose terrifying appearance could be forgotten in lieu of his benevolent nature, cannot be forgiven for he symbolizes a problem which society refuses to see: it is humane nature to push back the frontiers of science and possibility that created the Creature. As such, the Creature represents the ugliest part of his creator: Frankenstein’s thirst for knowledge which could be stopped by neither social restriction, nor morals. Furthermore, by casting the Creature as a monster, Frankenstein and the society created one.
Likewise, Tom is never accepted as an individual. Therefore, he is denied an identity of his own. He is set apart by his resemblance to the famous character created by his father. The first issue of The Unwritten begins with Tom signing copies of his father’s books at a convention. He is a grown man incapable of holding a steady job or having a normal life. Tom is made monstrous by his abnormality, which cannot be denied wherever he goes.
For their creations, both Frankenstein and Wilson Taylor can be seen as geniuses or cruel men depending on whether they are judged on their actions, their motives, or their achievements. Doctor Frankenstein can be seen as a mad scientist whose god complex led to deny what he perceived as a failure, ultimately resulting in his death; he can also be seen as a genius whose work went far beyond the margins of common knowledge. Likewise, Wilson can be seen a cruel man who forced his son to live a life not belonging to him, leading to an inevitable confrontation with a super powerful underground society (Conclave); or he can also be seen as the genius who first thought of a solution to free everyone from the Conclave’s influence by sacrificing his only son (in an messianic instance). In the graphic novel Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, Wilson writes in his journal that he clearly perceived himself like doctor Frankenstein: «It doesn’t matter if the entire world thinks I’m a monster, or a mad scientist, or what the Hell else.»
What makes the Unwritten’s narration so rich lies in its ambivalence in judging the actions of Wilson Taylor as good or bad. To do so, frame narrative and intertextuality are used to show different facts and information, allowing the readers to make their own judgments on the actions taken and the characters’ motivations. Of course, in literature, the best example of frame narrative is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Due to the characters’ varying perspectives in the novel, the readers are in a position that urge them to make their own judgment based on sometimes unreliable and contradictory information. For example, to Robert Walton (Frankenstein’s friend), the doctor is a wonderful person. On the contrary, when the doctor narrates his own story, he describes himself as selfish, flawed, and cruel. In contrast, to Frankenstein, his creation is evil, but the readers can find humility, sensibility, intelligence, and kindness when the Creature narrates his part of the story.
The authors of The Unwritten often use frame narrative and intertextuality to connect together the many stories used in the same narrative space. Frame narrative gives the readers multiple levels of meaning and thus interpretations, allowing them to reach beyond the text into the world (the fictional world of the characters, but also the world we live in). Most of all, frame narrative shows the readers different perspectives. The main narrative follows the story of Tom and his companions. In addition, the readers have access to full pages of media coverage (television, blogs, online forums, newspapers) allowing them to understand the information circulating about the characters which have a huge impact on them. Subsequently, it enables the readers to judge the characters’ decisions for themselves without bias from the characters.
This way, the story accentuates the importance of information, thus the collective consciousness. Frame narrative also helps to show, at some point, a more humane side of Wilson Taylor. Before the graphic novel Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, the readers perceived Wilson through the result of his plan: an alienated son who had to face powerful enemies with little knowledge of the stakes at risk and his place in his father’s plans. Through the ignominy of his plan, which included Tom’s separation from his mother, lies told all his life, and different manipulations to ready him (such as immersing Tom in a tank to assimilate the content of books), Wilson can definitely be called a monster. A monster with a cause, but still a monster. On one hand, Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice shows pieces of Wilson’s diary acknowledging his deep love for Tom, but also his guilt and his concerns for the future of his son. On the other hand, the diary presents Tom as a project to be perfected and an object to be used. In short, the use of frame narrative allows many narrative fragments to coexist in the same text, leaving the readers to seek deeper meanings and creating more complex relationship between the characters.
In the comic, Frankenstein’s Creature is not only used to highlight similarities between himself and Tom, and between doctor Frankenstein and Wilson Taylor, he is actually a recurring character. The Creature in The Unwritten seems to be the one at the end of Shelley’s novel: where, after the death of the doctor, the Creature realizes that his only link to humanity does not exist anymore. Carey and Gross use the Creature’s loneliness and his search for meaning as a way to make the Creature a positive figure in Tom’s life. The Creature sees Tom as he sees himself: alone and different, rejected both from society and their fathers. He becomes Tom’s guide through, and out, the universes of books and texts. A power they both share because of their incredible importance to the collective consciousness which is cleverly called the Leviathan. In the original tale, the Creature had his vengeance; in The Unwritten, he seeks meaning for his creation and existence. The story focuses on the human side of this monster and his kindness to make him a mentor to Tom. As the story goes, the Creature becomes an ally and stays with Tom and his friends, sharing his knowledge when he can. The Creature even saved Tom by sacrificing himself.
In the Unwritten, the Creature’s role is one of salvation, wanting absolution for his past crimes. He is genuinely trying to redeem himself and be a part of something better. The Creature couldn’t be a part of humanity, but he can be a part of those who can walk through stories. He has become a selfless mentor who sacrifices himself for his pupil. In doing so, the Creature has found what he was searching for: a place in the world and a meaning for his life.
The similarities between Frankenstein’s Creature and Tom Taylor only make the Creature’s role in the story more significant and emphasizes the question of monstrosity throughout the text. Shelly’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is now a literary symbol of identity crisis. It is no coincidence that Tom must go to the manor he grew up in Switzerland (the same manor, la Villa Diodati, in which Shelley wrote her book) to discover who (or what) he is. It seems humanity will redeem itself through its failures and own monstrosity: the same individuals everyone cast as monsters (for their uniqueness) will, at the end, free them all. They bear the responsibility of the mistakes and godlike ambitions of their fathers. As the story goes, both the Creature and Tom find themselves, their own identity, by going through stories and learning from them. And isn’t that what literature is all about? Finding yourself, piece by piece, into someone else’s words? Knowing yourself better by being someone else during a few pages? Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is all about a creation taking a life of its own and becoming something more, while The Unwritten is all about the power of stories. Together, they form a tale about powerful stories which take a life and a meaning of their own and become so much more.