Palimpsests and Intertexts: The Unwritten

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We enter The Unwritten (2009–) through a secondary text: the first page of the comic is a scene from a fictional novel. Text overlays image as though the page behind the words has faded away, leaving only the scene envisaged in the (implied) reader’s mind. When we reach the diegetic world—the real world as depicted in the comic—we are confronted with a palimpsest of fiction as fictional worlds overlay fictional worlds, and characters overwrite both their fictional predecessors and extra-diegetic counterparts.

Series protagonist Tom Taylor is named for the main character in his father’s popular fantasy novels; for his part, the boy wizard Tommy Taylor is identified within the series as an analogue for Harry Potter. Even at the production level, Tommy is a palimpsest—artist Peter Gross had previously inked the bespectacled wizard Timothy Hunter in issues #1–3 of The Books of Magic, and pencilled issues #4–75. In drawing Tommy, Gross is thus redrawing his archetype:  

 

Above left: Gross, P. (p). 2005 sketch of Timothy Hunter from The Books of Magic (DC 1990–1, Vertigo 1994–2000). Above right: Carey, M. (w), Gross, P. (p). Tommy Taylor, The Unwritten #1 (Vertigo 2009, 2, detail).

Above left: Gross, P. (p). 2005 sketch of Timothy Hunter from The Books of Magic (DC 1990–1, Vertigo 1994–2000). Above right: Carey, M. (w), Gross, P. (p). Tommy Taylor, The Unwritten #1 (Vertigo 2009, 2, detail).

Compounding this sense of being several layers removed from reality, we watch Tom navigate London solely by reference to popular books. Walking through London’s Bloomsbury district, he offhandedly gestures towards both the Senate House Library, where Orwell set 1984’s Room 101, and Coram’s Fields, the location of the foundling hospital from Dickens’s No Thoroughfare. Tom’s is a mediated reality: if he believes that his world exists, it is only because he can recognise it through the fictional world of a story. Any single location in the diegetic world is only a signifier for one or more anchoring fictional referents.

Brian Boyd (2009) writes of narrative that it “requires our unique capacity for meta-representations: not only to make and understand representations, but also to understand them as representations” (129). Fiction, for writer Mike Carey and Boyd both, is cognitive play with information-rich patterns of representation, in order to teach what Carey calls “life skills.” These patterns manifest as stories, and pattern recognition manifests as allusion. Thus, Tom’s capacity for geographical meta-representation allows him to feign familiarity with the diegetic world, even in the absence of an index or map. A note “from the desk of [Tom’s father] Wilson Taylor” reads “We’re all living in Plato’s cave, and we’ve papered the walls with fictions” (The Unwritten #5).

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