Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Momentum is a funny thing, particularly when it comes to reading monthly comic books. Recently I was surprised to realize that Unwritten is not “the new comic book which I’m not I’m going to buy regularly”, but is actually the book I’ve been buying faithfully for 3 years. It is monthly, (or maybe sometimes it’s bi-monthly, I’m vague about the specifics), and the upshot is that I’ve completely inadvertently made a somewhat major commitment to this comic book. Yes, it delivers, at least in terms of anticipation – on the weeks that I walk out of the comic shop with it crammed into my handbag, I’m always genuinely excited to get home and read it and until now, I’d never looked beyond that flush of instant gratification. Thinking of it as a “new” comic book, I hadn’t considered what it meant to me, but recently the real world intruded and I found myself facing an oddly uncomfortable reality – after 3 years and a major financial investment, I don’t really know what it is about and apparently I don’t mind enough to be bothered.
The other day I encountered a person named Tom Taylor, a friend of a friend, someone in the UK where “Tom Taylor” is a pretty common name I suppose, but this was the first time I’d seen one in the real world and I was reminded of the lead character of Unwritten. Of course I wanted to tell him who he was, but when I tried to summarize the book, I absolutely couldn’t. “It is a book about novels… No, about writing… Wait no, it is definitely about reading… Hang on… Mostly it is about belief… And imagination, or maybe fiction and distortion… Magic, there is definitely a lot of magic and a whale, which represents… Um… You know let me get back to this.”
Instead I tried to describe the main character and his powers, but again I stumbled. “He’s called Tom Taylor and he’s magic… No he isn’t, he can do magic, sometimes. He can do magic because he’s not real. Oh, he is real. Wait, he’s real and also fictitious and because people read about him, he can do magic, sometimes. Okay, wait a minute, I’ve got it; Tom is real but also fictional and he’s friends with a journalist who was turned into a vampire by a fictional vampire which definitely wasn’t real, but sometimes it was and it killed some people… Okay that doesn’t sound right… His partner in crime is a girl who is definitely fictional, I think. I’m not sure. Wait…”
You get the idea, I’m not the best at summarizing long stories at the best of times (which is one of the reasons you’ll rarely find a synopsis in my reviews) and in this instance I was coming up hard against the fact that I clearly didn’t really understand the story. In the end I gave up and simply showed him the wikipedia page for the book, which is when I realized that this book which I couldn’t describe isn’t something new that had just got started, but is long running and I’m pretty deep into it. How is it possible that I could read 20 or so pages of comic book every month for three years without being really clear about what is going on? And how can I have not known this, or been bothered by it? Is this an X-Files scenario, where the fun is all in the questions and solid answers will spoil it? Or is it that I’m not reading it closely enough? Should I perhaps get all the issues out and read it all at once in order to see the big picture? Surely if I need to read it all at once and set aside a weekend to read them all consecutively, then why didn’t I just wait for the trade paperbacks?
If I were smart, I would be waiting for the cheaper compilations in trade paperback. Then there is the insanity of buying paper comic books which take up space and degrade, but I’m probably not going that route unless something cataclysmic happens to paper in the world; I’m paper-faithful and that’s that. Even if when I get free digital previews of books, I still buy them because I like the comic BOOK aspect of it. There is something great about walking into the store and looking on the shelves for my books each week. When I was a kid it was so difficult to find specialty comic book shops, and when I did I couldn’t afford much. Now that I’m an adult I love indulging in this way. Taking this view of Unwritten has really forced me to evaluate what I’m getting out of my weekly habit, and acknowledge that it is a habit, not just in the sense of doing something regularly because I’m used to it, but also a bit of a mild addiction. That might be a stretch, it isn’t exactly addictive, but then again if I didn’t have at least one comic book to pick up each week, I’d miss it. Even when I don’t have time to read my monthly comic books each week, I look forward to picking them up, looking at what else is new on the shelves, and seeing what other people are buying.
Sometimes I intentionally don’t read my comic books at once, I’ll stash a couple to read in the evening as a sort of reward for when I’ve finished my work. Being self-employed and a bit of a natural procrastinator, I’ve learned to use whatever I can as an incentive to get down to work, and it does the trick. Knowing that at the end of the day I’m going to be able to stretch out in bed and catch up on Unwritten (or whatever is out that week) is a good motivator. The sad part of realizing that I don’t know what’s going on in Unwritten is that now I’m not really sure what I’ve been looking forward to. If it wasn’t about watching the mystery unravel or understanding the main plot, then I should be more invested in the characters (they’re nice enough, but I feel lukewarm about my connection to them) or perhaps it is the craftsmanship of the writing and art.
When it comes down to it, the craft is the really quantifiable aspect of why I enjoy Unwritten so much. No matter what is going on, or which characters are focused on, I enjoy the way Mike Carey, Peter Gross, and the other artists working on the book are weaving this universe. The focus of the story is on stories, so there is a sort of “love letter to the medium” angle that comes through pretty succinctly in every issue. When I started looking at why I read a particular title, I didn’t expect to end up here, but now it is clear that this thread of appreciation runs through a lot of my favorite author’s works. The magic of outrageous fictional creation is quite lovely, it is the same thing which initially drew me to Alan Moore and J.H. Williams Promethea, and is also why I’m currently hooked on the Thursday Next series of prose novels by Jasper Fforde. When an author who enjoys his or her work uses the tenets of fantasy, or science fiction to explore the nature of fiction, anything can happen and we’re lucky to take that journey with them.
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