Drew: What do we need to talk about when discussing a work of art? Obviously, the answer will vary quite a bit depending on the art in question, but in the abstract, virtually every discussion needs to touch on the art itself, the artist(s) that created it, and the audience that observes it. We tend to focus on the relationship between the art and the audience here, believing that meaning arises when art is consumed, and that interpretation is the most important end-product of art. It’s an approach that keeps us from getting too mired in concerns over what the artist meant or what they might believe, but it might also prevent us from fully appreciating the art itself. The Unwritten Apocalypse 4, raises some interesting questions about the relationship between art and the artist that creates it, presenting it in the much more alluring (and knowingly meta) form of a story ripe for interpretation.
Tom Taylor’s relationship to his own father has always been an interesting meta-commentary on how artists relate to their work, but writer Mike Carey takes that idea several steps further here, questioning who is ultimately more important in the creative process. Part of that comes across in Tom’s agency, but a bigger piece comes as Tom confronts Madam Rausch. She reveals that she has been infected (or is it aided?) by one of the Leviathan fry, and no longer has concern for her storytellers (or the audience, it would seem) — she is immortal because she is a story. That concept finds an interesting reflection in her servants, who she carved out of wood. She asks Tom to help make them real men and women (possibly via sex), which Tom obliges (with his blood, thankfully avoiding applying that unfortunate double-entendre to our mental image of Pinocchio).
Along the way, though, Carey makes about as many allusions as possible, reminding us that stories do have power beyond their telling. Take, for example, the sequence of Tommy, Peter, and Sue wending their way through the tunnels in Tom’s dream.
The allusions to the story of Theseus in the Labyrinth are explicit, but following a string through a series of tunnels reverberates throughout literature (much like every line of dialogue reverberates on the page), not the least of which being The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Even the name-dropping of Ariadne from the myth of Theseus recalls Inception‘s own on-the-nose allusion to the myth (albeit muddying the waters a bit on who exactly the labyrinth belongs to). The allusions continue to pile up — I’m sure Patrick can pick out more, but my favorite is definitely when Sue warns that Professor Thulkinghorn tends to get frumious (presumably because he’s a Bandersnatch) — creating a meta-story that aims to contain the whole of remembered narratives, from Jabberwocky to Jurassic Park.
But what do we do with something that evokes the whole of narratives? The notion that art survives the artist may be as old as art itself, but what of art that survives the audience? It’s not entirely clear that Rausch has considered that eventuality, but maybe she doesn’t have to. She exists on the border between fiction and reality, and it seems that the Leviathan larvae turn fiction into reality, so she may be able to make and remake herself into perpetuity — she can’t cease to exist because she’s a story that knows she’s a story. That’s an interesting assertion for a story as self-aware as this one, but it may also posit that our own identities, as stories we perpetually tell ourselves and bring into existence every day, might also be immortal. That’s a concept that may have actually blown my brain inside out, so I’m just going to have to move on.
All of this meta-narrative riffing requires artist Peter Gross to span a massive range of styles and tones — if in a bit more subdued way than he did with issue 1. Gross still seems to be drawing much of his inspiration from storybook illustrations, picking up an assist from Ryan Kelley on a few spreads to deliver subtle variations in inking that pick up on everything from pottery tableaus to plate etchings. Again, it’s not as bombastic as in the first issue, but is very much of the same spirit.
Oh man, Patrick, what did you think of this issue. This thing gets into some ideas that we straight up never address around here, meaning I’m actually clueless about what shape this discussion might take. That would be exciting, if nothing else, though I think this series is also well-crafted enough for us to enjoy it on our familiar terms, too. Which approach are you most excited by?
Patrick: I think what I’m most excited by is Mike Carey’ repeated assertions that there’s nothing that separates fiction from reality. The big action in this issue is a dream sequence. In the reality of The Unwritten, Tom falls asleep and finds himself on an adventure with his childhood friends — that’s an easily recognizable dream trope. Even that labyrinthian page above feels dream-like in its presentation of time and cause and effect, the same pieces of conversation echoing out in all directions. But this dream, this fiction, is no less real than the world Tom is trying to save from annihilation, and Madame Rausch is quick to chastise him for making the distinction at all. She says that if dreams weren’t real “how would the likes of us ever come to exist?”
That unearths tricky concept: a story exists even before we know we’re experiencing it, and before it’s even written. I don’t know how much I can buy into the second part of that statement. Creating characters and worlds and stories can often feel more like discovery than invention, but there’s some part of me — and let’s just call a spade a spade, it’s my ego — that doesn’t want to give up credit for actualizing those ideas over to the idea itself. But I’ve seen it happen too many times in long form improv to deny it: nuanced characters, complicated scenes, amazing circumstances, all pouring out of a simultaneous group-mind. I can even rationalize my way around where all of that comes from too — performers are well tuned to each other and can read subtle cues, conscious and unconscious that their teammates are giving off. That, combined with the stimulus in the room, stimulus from the day, the week, the month, get filtered through the experiences of performers and the audience until the performers decide to highlight something. But by the time the performer — who is acting as a writer in this instant — makes a decision, 98% of the alchemy has already happened, and a story is only left to be discovered, not invented.
There seems to be a growing theme of fictional characters trying assert their agency over the real world, to varying degrees of success. Take the example of poor Pauly Bruckner, formerly a foul-mouthed rabbit that wanted nothing more than to escape the confines of his ludicrously saccharine world. Now he sits alone, staring into a mirror hoping to find a way back to that world. I had to do a little bit of research just to get that much out of the scene, but I can’t help but think that Carey is starting to plant seeds here. Additionally, Richie is visited by Miri’s ghost, she mentions that Wilson Taylor’s biggest flaw is not understanding that he cannot save the world simply by arranging all the characters correctly on the game board. The characters have lives and agency all their own.
Man, in an issue that mostly just generates awesome questions to ponder, I’m left with one question I don’t even feel like I have any ability to speak to. When Tom arrives as Rausch’s castle, they’re carrying of one of the wooden dolls that has evidently died. Tom asks what happened and is met with the driest possible response.
“Sometimes we die. Does that not happen to your kind?”
For the life of me, I simply do not know what to do with that. Great line, and perhaps a necessary reminder that for all of our highfalutin ideas about the immortality of stories, nothing lasts forever. There’s so much talk of independent creation in this issue, and two sex scenes (one adorably depicted with fireworks), so I wonder if there’s something to be said about the relationship between sex and death. It’s interesting that Tom’s two choices for imbuing Rausch’s dolls with living essence is either bleeding for them or fucking them. Death or life — they’re both equally powerful symbols.
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