Textual Analysis and Application

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Tom Taylor is drawn into

the storyworld of Moby Dick.

The Unwritten is a complex and intelligent comic book series, which explores and attempts to take literally, the idea that every work of fiction creates a storyworld, which can be entered into and explored. The collected storyworlds of a given genre form a storysphere, from which authors draw common tropes, archetypes, conventions, and characters. The basic premise behind this series is that – as Sue Sparrow (aka Lizzie Hexam, aka Jane Waxman) says – “For-real-true is only true now. Story-true is true forever” (Carey 2009). Tom Taylor, the protagonist, is a ‘real’ man, living in the ‘real’ world. In the storysphere, Tommy Taylor is a boy wizard, living in a world of ‘magic’. The two together are meant to fulfill the prophecy that the word will be made flesh. Tom is not really Tom, but Tommy, and the ‘real’ world and the ‘fictional’ world are one. 

The creators of this series take an already complicated premise and complicate it further by blending multiple storylines and narrative modalities. The result is an interesting amalgam that while carrying the plot forward, makes a larger commentary on our literary past and its connection to the comic book. There are multiple realities and all of them are real. We can see an example of this in “A Pick-a-Story Book: The Many Lives of Lizzie Hexam” in issue seventeen (see below). In this issue we are presented a text within-a-text. The choose your own adventure style story comes with instructions on how to read it: “DON’T read the pages in numerical order” (Carey 2009), as well as its own layout and pagination. When reading in a digital format, this becomes particularly challenging for the reader. Shifting through screens while searching for the right page number is tedious and time consuming. It is much simpler to read through it page by page, piecing the different options together as we go. 

On the surface, the text tells us not to read Lizzie’s story numerically. On a deeper level, the creators are telling us to ignore their instructions and read on. Evidence for this can be seen in the aforementioned image. Page seventeen of the text, or pages 27-30 of the subtext, present the reader with two storylines: the ‘real’ world in which Tom Taylor is trying to revive Lizzie Hexam from a psychotic coma, and the ‘fictional’ world in which the boy wizard, Tommy Taylor, and his friend Peter travel to the magic-repelling Cave of Silence to save Sue Sparrow. While the instructions tell us not to read from page to page, the layout of the page(s) requires us to do exactly that. Carey and Gross provide us with a unifying background, while denying us further reading instructions. They place the dialogue panels along the bottom of the page(s) so that we are forced to read them sequentially from left to right. By setting up the page in this way, Carey and Gross provide us tacit instructions on how to access the ‘truest story’.

 

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A single page from The Unwritten illustrates the increasing complexity of the text and fixed image narrative.

They make four basic claims: 

1. There are multiple realities 
-The different stories are juxtaposed together on the same page. 

2. Those realities often overlap 
-Understanding one story allows us to better understand another. 

3. To see the ‘truth’ we must look at many realities 
-Reading the subtext numerically shows us all the outcomes. 

4. ‘Truth’ is relative 
-Regardless of the path, the outcome is the same (17:20): Lizzie ends up in a mental hospital, drugged into a stupor. This further begs the question of ‘truth’ since Lizzie Hexam is not in a psychiatric ward, but in a ‘real’ world coma.

This single-page layout shows us how complex and multi-layered graphic storytelling has become. It draws on many traditional literary elements, while adding fixed images that fundamentally alter the reading experience. Such changes are essential to understanding the American comic book because it is the experience, or phenomenology of the reading, which makes it such an appealing medium.