By Derek Royal
Crossover events in comics are common enough, and they come in different forms. A frequent manifestation is when two ongoing series (usually of the same publisher) interact in the “neutral territory” of a miniseries. Here, the crossover event takes place solely within that limited run and the ongoing series are left unmarked. Another kind of crossover occurs when an ongoing series encounters a narrative world that has no substantive comics presence (such as film or television franchise, or perhaps a celebrity), with the interaction taking place either in a separate miniseries or in a limited arc within the ongoing series. A more commercial-worthy crossover occurs when two or more narrative universes interact within each another’s ongoing series (sometimes with the addition of an extra miniseries), so that both or all of the longer series are temporarily marked by the event. What is less common is a crossover between two major ongoing series, where one marks or “visits” the other, but that series nonetheless bears no imprint of the event. This is the kind of crossover we currently have underway between Fables and The Unwritten, where the latter becomes determined by the former, yet there is no reciprocal visitation. To be more specific, Fables is now determining the action within The Unwritten, yet the Fables world we see in the latter bears no resemblance to the Fables series that is currently underway. What we have instead is an alternate history Fables that has now manifested itself within The Unwritten. And if the Fables universe we see in this one-sided crossover is not the Fables we see in the ongoing series, then what kind of crossover do we really have?
This is what I’ve been asking myself while reading the first two issues of the crossover taking place in The Unwritten #50 and #51. And I tell you, I’m a little confused. The storylines in Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s series up to this point — “War of Words,” where Tom confronts Pullman and loses Lizzie; the one-issue “The Wave”; “The Wound,” where detective Didge Patterson enters the picture; and issues #41-#49, where Didge becomes even more enmeshed in Tom’s world, Savoy becomes more accustomed to his vampirism, and Tom descends to Hades to save Lizzie — are all engaging, nicely interconnected, and do a good job of setting up the transition into this new crossover. And that transition itself is relatively smooth, with Tom being pulled into the Fables world by the residents of the 13th floor (Totenkinder, Ozma, and company) and in a way that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the current state of the Fables universe. Here Mister Dark is very much a presence, in complete control of not only Fabletown, but all of Manhattan. His big battle with the North Wind and subsequent capture in issue #106 have apparently never happened. What’s more, he’s now married to Snow White (looking very much like Morticia Addams, and sounding a little like Scarlett O’Hara), who has apparently completely forsworn Bigby for the dark side. None of this has anything to do with the latest major arc in Fables, centered around Snow White, her dilemma with Brandish, and the now “shattered” Bigby. I can understand why the Fables universe is impinging on the world of The Unwritten, and not vise versa, but why the completely disparate Fables storylines?
My questions and concerns do not reflect in any way my (qualified) enjoyment of issues #50 and #51 of The Unwritten. If I take the stated Fables context as a given — if, to paraphrase Henry James, I grant the creators their donnée — then the events unfolding in this crossover make sense and are very engaging. Here you have two narrative worlds, both having everything to do with the ways in which fiction determines reality. As the witches and warlocks incant at the beginning of issue #50, “We are of fact, and yet we are of story. If we exist as flesh here, nonetheless we exist in another place only as words. The worlds are tied into a big knot that can’t be loosened. What’s real in one is fable in the next. So now we move to summon, against the ending of days, the fable that will save us.” This exposition is brilliant. Not only does it set up the significance of the crossover event between Fables and The Unwritten, but it also underscores the metafictional premises underlying both titles. The intertexual play is given an additional twist when Tommy Taylor and his friends — the fictional embodiments of Tom, Lizzie, and Savoy — become actors in the battle against Mister Dark. It makes sense that these two series, the longest-running and most important of Vertigo’s current output, could interact as they do. What’s confusing is the choice to disrupt, or perhaps temporarily displace, the Fables universe. Perhaps the payoff (and explanation) will come at the end of this five-issue arc. From the cover art of issue #52, it seems Pullman will be brought into the fray, so more of The Unwritten will actually be a part of the crossover event (it reads now more like a Fables story). But what of Mister Dark, Snow-turned-Morticia, and a slew of Fables who have died in the opening salvos of this crossover? How will Mike Carey and Bill Willingham re-engage with the Fables series we’re currently reading? I’ll continue to read on, and with hopes of a plan that will eventually, and convincingly, materialize. But I have to say, I’m expecting some big-time Totenkinder-style magic to bring these two fragmented Fables worlds into alignment. If Willingham’s witches can conjure one fictional world into another, then they should at least be able to suture their own.