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Lately I have had a foretaste of what it means to be a parent. If you want to know what it feels like to parent a child, you should get a dog. If you’re curious about the experience of living with an adolescent, who uses your home as a place to occasionally doss and eat the entirety of your food – get a cat.

We have been housesitting in a very beautiful part of the world, just along the New South Wales coast for the last week. As mentioned previously, said house-sit involves caring for two cats, one of whom has been ill for the past few days, so we were asked to keep her indoors.

Now cats who are used to roaming free outside don’t like being kept indoors and they have no problem letting you know how annoyed they are with you. The plaintive cries and yowling of the cat sitting by the front door in my mind became anthropomorphized as ‘let meeee ouuuuuttt!’ Not only does the cat insist on complaining about this unfair (“soooo unfair!!!) detention within the house, it makes concerted attempts at escape; hisses at me when in a bad mood (read always); and decides it is important to wake me up at 4am to discuss the toilet arrangements.

So yeah, I’m feeling just as frazzled as a concerned parent. My nerves are frayed and I am one more cat incident away from a panic attack.

The Unwritten is initially a comic about the creative process involved in writing a book. It is also about fathers and sons, the inescapable shadow that a more successful father leaves behind. Tom Taylor’s father not only wrote an incredibly successful fantasy series of books about a boy wizard – he named the main character after his son. Tom Taylor has never managed to make a career for himself outside of his father’s creations. What’s more some fanatical fans of the novels have a near religious obsession with the character ‘Tommy Taylor’, and to them he is more real than the boy who inspired him.

Tom makes a small income from making appearances at fan conventions dedicated to his father’s books, where he continually is asked about the mysterious disappearance of Wilson Taylor, or the rumours that he vanished without having settled his estate. Tom has had no access to the revenue generated by the Tommy Taylor media empire.

At one another of these interminable conventions, things take a turn for the worst. Firstly a lunatic who styles himself after Tommy Taylor’s arch nemesis, the vampire Count Ambrosio appears. Then a reporter announces that a Eastern European couple have claimed that Tom is actually their son and that Wilson adopted him as a child. This revelation leads to the cultish Tommy Taylor fans turning on their ‘false messiah’, and Tom is forced to go into hiding.

Then Tom discovers that this turn of events are connected to Wilson’s disappearance. Hints that his father was involved in a quasi-masonic conspiracy begin to emerge, one that stretches down through the years and has dictated the careers of many writers. The question of Tom’s own parentage continues to raise his head. Maybe he isn’t the son of Wilson Taylor, or the Eastern European couple – what if the fans are right and he is actually Tommy Taylor. If a fictional character can become real, what else has crossed over into this world from the world of books.

When I bought this book from the excellent Kings Comics in Sydney, the teller’s eyes lit up. He assured me that while the initial issues, what with all the comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (as well as some overt digs at the obsessive fandom attached to the boy wizard) might seem predictable – and in many senses this is yet another typical Vertigo comic, which specializes in post-modern, literary graphic novels – by the last issue in the collection it makes a quantum leap in quality. Without giving anything away, let me just say the digression into the lives of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens is wonderfully constructed.

I also found the book reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll’s Land of Laughs, a favourite of mine from way back. The estranged relationship between Tom and his father underpins the central theme of what writers owe to their creations once they are let loose into the world.

Carey and Gross have fashioned an instant classic. A must-read.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

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