Unwritten, Vol. 3: Dead Man's Knock
written by Mike Carey
illustrated by Peter Gross
A New York Times bestseller ranking No. 1 on the paperback graphic book list, volume three of the ongoing Vertigo series The Unwritten has garnered two additional 2011 Eisner Award nominations for Best Cover Artist (Yuko Shimizu) and Best Lettering (Todd Klein). Collecting issues #13–18 of Mike Carey and Peter Gross' book, Dead Man's Knock may not be as cohesive an edition as either volume one or two in regards to story development and progression, but it remains an entertaining addition to the series as well as a necessary bridge between the two strong debut trades and the continuing, monthly title.
Dead Man's Knock covers a lot of thematic territory from the manipulation and control of stories to the awareness and utilization of Tom Taylor's gifts at literary geography. At times, however, some readers may find this encompassing approach slightly unfocused or underdeveloped in certain aspects coming off the book-end tales of "Jud Süss" and "Eliza Mae Hertford's Willowbank Tales" in Inside Man. Opening on the sinister machinations of the Cabal to rouse the secluded and reclusive Wilson Taylor from the security of his hidden locale, the efforts and the methodologies of the organization appear in fits and starts throughout the book but tend to hover mostly in the background until the final chapter. Unfortunately, while this allows Dead Man's Knock to come full circle, it somewhat reduces the impact of the engagement between Pullman and Callendar. Sequences such as the hunt and discovery of Lizzie Hexam via the Dickens' penned Our Mutual Friend or the moments with Sibyl at the end give glimpses into the powers and abilities of the Cabal; however, for some audiences, these may be too shallow or surface-only explorations rather than the emotional and narrative investment expected at this stage. As such, while Carey increases the mystery and intrigue surrounding his villains, any connection or comprehension of their motivations beyond merely being cast as an opposing force to Taylor remains ambiguous.
Dead Man's Knock is also a volume of major revelations about Hexam and Savoy, as well as Tom Taylor's prowess to connect physical landmarks with literary references in unraveling the puzzle of Wilson Taylor's whereabouts. Yet, with the exception of Hexam, the other character tales read as somewhat rushed vignettes that tease greater intrigue than they actually deliver. Although much more is revealed about Savoy's intentions in shadowing Tom, the eventual encounter between Savoy and the resurrected Count Ambrosio and subsequent fight with Tom is anticlimactic given the tragedies that befell Chadron in the last volume. Even the arrival of a major character on the scene is hurried. While Carey does not succumb to reader desires to flesh out the relationship between Tom and this new figure, the hastily composed nature of the sequence limits the emotional impact of what eventually transpires.
By far the strongest episode in Dead Man's Knock is "The Many Lives of Lizzie Hexam." Told in a choose-your-own-adventure format, this story is to volume three what "How the Whale Became" and "Eliza Mae" were to volumes one and two—the hallmark, quirky contribution that distinguishes the series from its competitors and illustrates Carey and Gross' creative abilities. Selecting a landscape layout for the pages, Gross deserves the lion share of credit and audience acclaim for the success of the "Pick-a-Story" design because of how he constructs the panels and individual pages. All too often, readers unintentionally discover and comprehend plot elements that were originally created as cliffhangers or significant plot revelations either by flipping through a graphic novel or merely allowing their eyes to wander across the pages without digesting the narrative. Here, Gross' use of space and gutters allows the story to flow sequentially but is not weakened by the reader-selective input that determines story progression. While there are no abrupt or shocking moments where picking a certain outcome inevitably leads to Hexam's mutilation or demise as some readers have found in the choose-your-own-adventure style in short fiction novellas, rereading the neglected panels afterward only increases audience connection with the narrative and provides the character development lacking in some of the other portraits in the volume.
As with volumes one and two, the art is strong and the story is well-conceived in Dead Man's Knock. Although the actual execution may leave some audiences wanting more, Carey and Gross have provided enough visual and narrative capital in all three editions to maintain reader interest and highlight the diversity and talent for which the Vertigo imprint is recognized.