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January 14, 2010

Book Notes - Mike Carey ("The Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

The Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity collects the first five issues of The Unwritten comic books, and includes the four-part Tommy Taylor series as well as a standalone Rudyard Kipling story.

The Unwritten captures the power of the written word vividly and powerfully, and is one of the most unique and creative comics I have read in years.

Tom Taylor is the son of a famous writer, and the model for a famous fantasy series. The Unwritten examines what happens when his reality and myth collide.

At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow wrote of the book:

"Unwritten manages to tell a fast-paced supernatural horror story while musing philosophically on the role of narrative in our lives and nations. It makes for engrossing and exciting reading, and I'll certainly be on the lookout for the next collection."

In his own words, here is Mike Carey's Book Notes music playlist for his graphic novel, The Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity:

The first trade collection of The Unwritten covers five issues – the opening arc, Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, and the stand-alone issue, How the Whale Became. The main storyline concerns a man (Tom Taylor) who is famous as somebody else's fictional character (the boy wizard Tommy Taylor), and the way his life is reduced to chaos when people start questioning his real identity. Our theme is stories, and the ways in which stories change the world. Ultimately Tom has to make sense of his life as bits and pieces of his fantasy alter ego's world invade his own, and as his own convictions about who he is and where he's from start to crumble – but there's a sting in the tail that we're nowhere near revealing yet.

This playlist is background listening for the whole of the first trade.

1. "Dream Operator" by Talking Heads

A golden oldie from 1986, but nothing could be more perennial than this song, which – to the ancient question "who makes the world?" – gives the resounding answer "You do!" It's an eerie, wistful, yearning little ballad, and it expresses the unfathomable sense that your whole life might all be no more than a dream. For our protagonist, Tom Taylor, that's a truly terrifying prospect.

2. "Our Life is Not a Movie, or Maybe" by Okkervil River

The antidote to "Dream Operator" – a strident protest against those who expect their life to unfold like a story. It's not like that, Will Sheff tells us in biting, beautiful lyrics: stories make some kind of sense, and life is a sprawling mess. And hanging onto the movie cliches will just mess you up worse than ever. I love Okkervil River when they're doing these bravura "let's extend a metaphor until it leans over, falls on top of our heads and buries us alive" songs. I almost went for "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene."

3. "Big Mistake" by Tim Fite

I like this song because of its irrational exuberance. It invites us to celebrate our own disasters, the ham-fisted and klutzy way we limp and stagger through life – so it's sort of appropriate for Tom at the point where Lizzie Hexam comes barging into his life and smashes it into pieces. This isn't Tom's big mistake, it's part of somebody else's agenda – but that just means the worst moment is still to come. It's there fore everybody, Fite assures us: "but I'm saving mine up for a very, very special day". So is Tom.

4. "Fear of Drowning" by British Sea Power

On a similar theme, British Sea Power sing about the disintegration of life, and the nagging feeling that what we think of as reality mostly isn't. The sea stands for a lot of things in their songs, but here it definitely seems to be the dangerous void that underlies all the mundane and day-to-day stuff that makes up our existence for most of the time.

5. "Grimly Fiendish" by The Damned

Well, come on, one of our main characters is a vampire – and he's a vampire from a story book! I don't know what led The Damned to celebrate Leo Baxendale's iconic Gothic wannabe, but he seemed to fit here – a child playing at being a monster, and then losing sight of where the game begins and ends.

6. "Monkey and Bear" by Joanna Newsom

This is a song about magical transformations, so it's relevant to the question of whether Tom is Tommy and what that means. In the song, Bear is tricked and manipulated by Monkey until she finally strips off her heavy, furry coat and becomes… something else. These are some of the most haunting lines of poetry I've ever read, and Joanna Newsom's voice raises them into something ethereal and wonderful. Manipulation is another of our central themes, with Tom being very much shaped and controlled by his absentee father, so the song works on that level, too.

7. "Green Gloves" by The National

This is just a great song about the power of art – all art. Matt Berninger imagines himself as a surgeon, opening up the heads of his friends and rummaging around in their brains. It's what stories do: it's why we love and need them. And it's what The Unwritten is all about.

8. "John Wayne Gacy Jr." by Sufjan Stevens

This is just the best song I know about serial killers, so it's good background music for the fourth chapter of our story, when the bodies are piling up very fast at the Villa Diodati. Of course, our big bad isn't a serial killer in the strict sense of the word: he's actually just doing a job. He does, though, take the time to explain to one of his victims that "It's still personal". Sufjan Stevens' song is partly about John Wayne Gacy, and partly about the masks we hold up to the world to hide our real selves. It's from the Illinoise album, which is wonderful.

9. "Brompton Oratory" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Although having said that, Nick Cave's Murder Ballads has (as you'd expect) some cool songs about killers of all sorts and conditions. "The Curse of Millhaven," for example, is an exuberant romp about a murderer who loves her work – and "Ballad of Joy" is the story of a horrific murder told by a narrator who becomes increasingly sinister and suspect with every stanza.

But if there's going to be a Nick Cave song on the playlist, it has to be this one: "Brompton Oratory," where he gropes for a comparison for his suffering at the absence of his lover, and lights on something supremely audacious and unexpected. It's a very powerful and moving song, with an underlying playfulness that you have to be in the right mood to get. So again, we're talking about the power of stories, and about the avatars of ourselves we find in stories, often where the comparison seems preposterous and invalid.

10. "Dig, Lazarus, Dig" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Damn. I had to come back for another pass here. The Unwritten is about the cult of celebrity, too – about how fame and unremitting public attention derails people's lives and puts them into a mold that's very hard to escape from. This song – the title track from the Bad Seeds' 2008 album – is a grimly humorous take on a Bible story, re-imagining Lazarus as a man who's happy with a very superficial life, until his miraculous resurrection gives him a kind of fame he can't deal with. As such, it's a precise reversal of the previous song, where Cave compares himself to Christ.

11. "Prospero's Speech" by Loreena McKennitt (lyrics by William Shakespeare)

We don't really get to meet Wilson Taylor – Tom's hugely successful novelist father – in this first volume, because he's been missing for most of Tom's adult life: but we do glimpse him in flashback, and we get a sense of him as someone who's been playing a very long game with both books and human beings as the pieces. Like Prsopero in The Tempest, his manipulations may or may not be well-intentioned, but his power, and his ruthless readiness to use it, is obvious. But Prospero eventually sets aside his magic and stands before us as a man, without the tools and weapons of his art. It's an amazing moment in the play, and Loreena McKennitt's arrangement of the words is as near to perfect as makes no difference. Will we get to see Wilson unarmed and at a disadvantage like this? Maybe later.

12. "Leviathan Bound" by Shearwater

This is a song about the magical and the inexplicable breaking into the real. It's also about hunting, so in some ways it's an odd fit, but I had it at the back of my mind as I was writing the pages where Mingus appears to Tom – the epiphany, where he finds himself staring at something that can't exist, and simultaneously staring at his own life from a terrifying and unexpected angle. The whale breaking from the waters in the song has the same power, and the same mixture of wonder and dread.

13. "Woodcat" by Tunng

This is another metamorphosis song, and I believe – without much encouragement from anyone else – that there's a really horrific pay-off. It's possible to listen to this just as a song about love and loss, with the twist that the loss comes about because of a magical spell like the one that takes Tam Lin away from his wife and family in the old ballad. But it's also possible to detect a change in the narrator's attitude at the end of the song – when he demands "Some satisfaction, some sweet satisfaction". There's always a double edge to magic, and in The Unwritten that starts with the question of whether there's any there at all.

14. "Winter" by Tori Amos

I want to have at least one song in the list that relates to the Kipling story – and the pivotal moment in that story, for me, is the death of Kipling's daughter Josephine. So this is a song about a father and a daughter, with the relationship seen very much from the daughter's point of view. Generally I can't listen to this without having to wipe imaginary bits of grit out of my eye. "When you gonna make up your mind?" the dad asks his not-so-little girl. "When you gonna love you as much as I do?" Yeah. If you've got kids of your own, you'll get it. The tragedy here isn't death – it's just growing apart. It still works, though, and I'm happy to let Ms. Amos have the last word.

Mike Carey and The Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity links:

the collaborators' website
the series' Wikipedia entry

Boing Boing review
Captain Comics review review review
Heartless Doll review
iFanboy review review
Portland Mercury review
Robot 6 review
Techland review

Blogtown, PDX interview with the author
Comic Book Bin interview with the collaborators
Comic Book Resources interview with the collaborators
Comic Book Resources interview with the collaborators
Comics Bulletin interview with the author
Doomkopf interview with the author
Hypergeek interview with the author
Newsarama interview with the collaborators
Sequential Tart interview with the collaborators

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
online "best of the decade" book lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (my yearly reading project)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly new comics & graphic novel highlights)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)

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