When I was a kid I read a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure
books, because it was the late 1980s and it was the thing to do at the time. Other generations had stickball or kick the can or hula hoops. We had sentences like "If you stand and fight the yeti ninja, turn to page 47. If you sled down the mountain on the stone idol, turn to page 32." Back then this was the state of the art in interactive storytelling, and it was socially acceptable in a way Dungeons and Dragons, which had failed its saving throw against unfortunate associations with devil worship, was not. So, naturally my level of nostalgic excitement for the latest issue of Mike Carey and Peter Gross' "The Unwritten
," which is structured as a Choose Your Own Adventure story, was high. And I was not disappointed. If you believe that, skip to paragraph 3. If you don't go to paragraph 2.
Good, you're learning. Never trust anything you read completely. Because the truth is, I didn't read a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books. It's both a blessing and a curse for me that I have an easy time getting attached to the characters in the stories I read. So the idea that I'm somehow in control of their fates, and that the bad things that happen to them are a result of choices I'm being asked to make -- that leaves me very uneasy. And when that character is me, someone I have a fairly strong attachment to, well let's just say as a child I could only stand so many grisly deaths presented to me in a second person tense because I'd turned to the wrong page. I gave up on Choose Your Own Adventure books pretty quick, so when I picked up "The Unwritten" issue I felt just as uneasy. Would the structure work, or would it lead to a disjointed mashup of brief scenes with no satisfying end? Would I be letdown by a series I've come to rely on for strong, compelling stories? The answer ended up being that while the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure piece doesn't work perfectly, there's still an excellent story here that's entirely in keeping with the standard set by one of the best comics currently hitting the shelves.
"The Unwritten" 17 focuses on Lizzie Hexam. Or, as she was once known, Jane Waxman. Readers of the series have come to know Lizzie/Jane as the girl who first brought Tom Taylor to question his connection to Tommy Taylor, the boy wizard character created by his father, author Wilson Taylor. And they've watched Lizzie continue to aid Tom while maintaining secretive, mystic contact with Wilson. After her hospitalization following the previous issue, we're given the chance to watch the events in her life that have brought her to this place at this moment. Not only that, we're given a chance to guide the way in which those events happen.
The backstory begins with Jane as a young girl living a not particularly pleasant life in an orphanage. The reader's decisions show possible explanations of her past, including the choice of whether Wilson Taylor's involvement in her life was benign or manipulative. Ultimately the impression created by multiple readings creates a cohesive story, with most of the different paths tying together and creating a similar backstory for Lizzie that still leaves a few significant questions open to multiple different explanations.
And in that way the Choose Your Own Adventure presentation, referred to here as a "Pick-a-Story Book," is somewhat gimmicky. The reader is only choosing the direction of the issue for about half of the story. Either they'll guide events to a bad ending that does not logically follow into the events of the series as we've witnessed them (although it's possible an argument to the contrary could be made on that). Or they'll end up at a point that syncs up with the established timeline of the series, and from there the rest of the issue moves ahead from the end of the last issue, with Tom and Savoy attempting to rescue Lizzie from the hospital and the reader no longer making any choices to guide the events.
The problem with that is you're still directed to turn to page such and such every page or two, which makes things a little awkward. Not to mention that the page layout of the issue requires you to hold the book like you're either turning the pages on a wall calendar or looking at a centerfold. Each page is actually numbered as two pages, one on the left side of the page and one on the right, and they're often non-consecutive pages, meaning you'll have to work hard not to glimpse the later events of the issue that may be happening to one side of what you're currently reading. Interestingly, this may be a story that reads better as a single issue, because the advertisements break up the individual, out of order story pages in a way that won't be the case when this is collected into a trade paperback.
Moving past those reservations about how the book is constructed, though, I have to say that this is yet another impressive story from a series where I've come to expect nothing less. By giving Lizzie a past that's open to multiple interpretations, Carey has given the reader a better sense of who she is and how she fits into Tom's life while still keeping her a mystery in several important ways. Not only that, the fact that the story is built as a choose your own adventure is intended as commentary on Lizzie's own fractured memories and her choice to build her own story in a way that best helps her move forward with her life. The presentation itself weaves into both Lizzie's arc as a character and the series' larger theme of the power all stories have to shape the world.
On top of that, I want to praise co-creators Mike Carey and Peter Gross (as well as Ryan Kelly, who provided finishes on this issue) for the striking visuals in the fantasy sequences here. "The Unwritten" is a series that's used the Harry Potter franchise as one of its primary jumping off points for the impact stories have on the world, but the illustrations of the world of the Tommy Taylor books in this issue in particular are more visually striking and imaginative than visual depictions of J.K. Rowling's works have been. The actual story of the series is more than good enough, but when the story-within-the-story is just as effective at drawing me in, and its scenes are so well tied in with the main narrative, it leaves me even more impressed at how many risks this book is willing to take. And even when I'm not a hundred percent satisfied with the execution, it's still a far better experience than almost anything else I'm currently reading.