Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard
Trees, a new comic by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, has a great premise at is core. A decade ago, giant “Trees” (huge cylinders) landed in various spots on the Earth and then, well, stayed there. No aliens crawled out, no release of terraforming gas, no giant signals trying to communicate with the whales. They landed ten years ago and remain as mysterious now as when they arrived. But in the shadow of the trees, nothing is the same, as even without any overt action, the Trees shattered the previous social/economic/governmental systems of those areas as most who could moved out of their shadows. New enclaves and systems have grown up around the Trees, and the comic moves amongst several of them.
In the Chinese city of Shu, a young painter arrives in the “cultural zone” to try and capture the Tree through his art. In Italy, where fascism is on the rise under the Tree, and a brutal gang rules the streets, a young woman who frets under the system comes under the tutelage of an old man with surprising skills and knowledge. In Mogadishu, a president risks using a Tree to keep his country. And in Svalbard, where a research base is studying that region’s Tree, one scientist thinks that perhaps something is in fact happening, that maybe the Tree is no longer a passive part of the landscape.
I responded to the premise with a two-fold appreciation. One, I love how we’re getting what on the surface appears to be an “alien invasion” story, but then the aliens don’t seem to even notice we’re around. There’s no big battles, no assimilation, no attempts at communication; we may as well not even exist, a point made immediately in the first few pages:
They landed. All over the world, as if there were no one here and they did nothing, and did not speak as if there were no one here and nothing under foot. Ten years since we learned that there is intelligent life in the universe, but that they did not recognize us as intelligent or alive. They stand on the surface of the Earth like trees, exerting their silent pressure on the world as if there were no one here.
That’s a rarely-told version of this story. And then I also like how Ellis focuses on what humans do to ourselves in the anti-climactic aftermath of this “invasion.” This is much more an us vs. us story than an us vs. them story. That said, some of the us were more interesting than others.
The Shu storyline, focusing on the artist Tian Chenglei and Zhen, a transgender woman he meets on his arrival, has its moments, and I appreciated its diverse characters, but it felt at times like it was trying too hard on the diversity front. I was feeling the author’s hand a bit too heavily rather than experiencing the characters in a more organic, story-centered fashion. And, as I’ve said countless times in my reviews, I’m rarely a fan of the insta-love.
The Svalbard plot is the suspenseful, creepy horror invasion story one, as one of the members begins to spot strange flowers around the Tree, flowers that shouldn’t be here. His investigation of the phenomenon turns obsessive and eventually dangerous. I liked the banter amongst the characters in this segment, but the plot felt a bit predictable, and it pretty much ended where I figured it would.
The Italy and Mogadishu sections, with their focus on society, politics, and economics, were strong ones, though again, at times I wish they were a little less blunt. And they seemed to move a little too fast, though that was a relatively minor complaint.
As is often the case with graphic stories for me, I wish the language was a bit more vivid, a bit sharper. There are times when Ellis nails the dialogue, and at other times it falls flat or feels too much like speechifying or lesson giving. Trees didn’t grab me, and its sometimes heavy-handed nature and flat dialog made for a lessened reading experience, but I did enjoy the structure and the shifting settings/points-of-view, and it captured enough of my interest that I’ll check out Volume 2.