Literature-based Fantasy Comics

In a brief essay, writer Bill Willingham notes that there’s been an increasing movement in non-superhero comics of stories that are about literature itself, talking animals, or fairy tales. His own Fables has all of these elements, so it makes sense that he would note this.

The book Willingham was introducing at the time, was the first volume of the new comic The Unwritten. It’s one of two literature-based fantasy comics launched in the past year by Vertigo Comics. The other is Greek Street, which is not as good.

In The Unwritten, a man named Tommy Taylor was the basis for a Harry Potter-like character his father wrote about when he was a child. At the start of the story, his father has long since disappeared, and Tommy makes a living signing books with his face on the cover. Gradually, events unfold that raise the question of how fictional the senior Taylor’s stories were. This is a solid and original concept. Carey exploits it to its fullest. Over the course of the first story, “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity,” Tommy begins to investigate his father’s years-ago disappearance. Along the way, he encounters monsters and madmen who have slipped through the cracks of storytelling and into reality.

By contrast, Greek Street is banal and unoriginal. It operates on the premise that people have been living out the same stories for centuries. This is true, and this is why myths and classic stories are still relevant today. But Greek Street does nothing interesting with this idea. Instead, it has a series of characters in England enact bad versions of classic Greek stories. A few strippers act as a chorus, one character sleeps with his mother, a crazy rich girl named Cassandra babbles prophetically, and it’s all boring and disjointed.

Both of these comics are written by smart, well-read Englishmen. They’re both stories about stories. But The Unwritten is a far better comic. It has unique and original characters, where Greek Street has poor analogues of prior, greater tales. In The Unwritten, writer Mike Carey has something interesting to say about the nature of stories and storytelling. Greek Street‘s Peter Milligan doesn’t even have anything interesting to say about stories that have been told already.

Even the art of Greek Street is inferior to that of The Unwritten. David Gianfelice, who illustrates Greek Street has trouble telling a comprehensive story. Much of his problem is due to Milligan’s haphazard script, which has only the most basic transitions between scenes. But Gianfelice often has trouble showing action flow across one page. In many of his panels, his characters are unrecognizable or indistinguishable. Often he forgets to draw their faces.

On the other hand, Peter Gross, who illustrates The Unwritten, works in a deceptively cartoonish style. While he often lacks detail, his storytelling is impeccable. Gross is capably able to shift between calm scenes of dialog and intense moments of violence. And in The Unwritten, Gross uses a variety of styles. There are a few sequences where Gross illustrates prose, and there his panel layouts become experimental and interesting. In the last chapter collected in the book’s first trade paperback volume, the book shifts back in time to the 1800s to tell a story about Rudyard Kipling. Gross’s art becomes more detailed and Victorian. He is both talented and eclectic.

Both The Unwritten and Greek Street are stories about stories themselves. The difference is that The Unwritten is new, interesting and well drawn. Greek Street is not.


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