Ellis And Howard Imagine A New Kind Of Alien Invasion In ‘Trees’ #1 [Review]
Alien invasion stories have always been fertile ground for allegory. Throughout the history of the sub-genre, spaceships filled with arachnid creatures, little green men, shape-shifting Skrulls, omnipotent super-beings, and brain-eating slugs have come to represent oppressive and militaristic governments, Communism, the disenfranchised, and several more variations of the great and unknowable Other, usually influenced by politics or social issues. Yet with all the metaphoric territory the alien invasions have covered, in Image Comics' Trees, Warren Ellis and Jason Howard prove there's still plenty left unsaid.
For his own particular take on the alien invasion as allegory, Ellis challenges the horrors that mankind is willing to accept as commonalities. In Trees, the alien invasion has already occurred. Ten years before the comic takes place, large black obelisks popped up all around the world, wrecking major cities and causing world-wide havoc. And then...absolutely nothing. The world went nuts after the obelisks appeared. When they were done going nuts, the obelisks were still there, doing nothing. People learned to accept them. They call them Trees.
Ellis and Howard begin Trees by giving us a snapshot of the world. Through four different stories spanning the globe, Ellis explores how people have struggled with and adapted to Trees. In Rio de Janeiro, a police state rules the criminals in the slums around Trees with robotic attack dogs and drones. In New York, an angry and driven young mayoral candidate looks over the ruins of Manhattan, turned into a canal city by trees. In communist China, a young artist from a small village travels to Shu, a city built around Trees and walled-off from the rest of the world. And in Arctic Norway, a team of researchers studying Trees discover a perplexing new development.
Despite the destruction that Trees caused or inspired with their arrival, people have adapted. Except for rare dumps of toxic waste, Trees are seemingly benign, and people have learned to live with them and whatever passes for government around them. After all attempts to destroy the Trees failed, Manhattan-ites now paddle through the streets in gondolas, surviving despite the lack of infrastructure; Shu is designated a "Special Cultural Zone" separate from China, a haven to artists, deviants, and free-thinkers; in Rio, the criminals rig up kites with cellphones to spot the Pacification Police.
All around the world, people have learned to live with the new status quo, even though the status quo is insane. The unthinkable is commonplace, the horrifying is banal, and the allegorical is so strong, while reading Trees, I frequently thought about the current state of America, and the woman-hating, greedy, ignorant culture that doesn't care that the rich rule the country, and has already forgotten that their own government spies on them. It seems that was the point: to make you think about the injustices you accept in your own life, and in that respect I'd classify it a massive success.
With Trees, Ellis once again eschews the typical pacing and structural conventions of modern pop comics to give a measured and articulate introduction to the world he's created. It lacks some of the oomph you tend to look for in a first issue -- rising action leading up to a shocking twist -- but that's never really been Ellis' style. He's proven several times that he's capable of tight, fast-moving three-act structures, but in his very best work he slows down to explore the world within the story.
There may not be another mainstream comics writer who pays as much attention to world-building as Ellis, and in Trees he again shows off his ability to extrapolate culture and environment like no other. Occasionally, though he neglects his characters, and that's the case again in Trees. Slow-panning across the world from story to story, characters are introduced and their perspectives are made clear, but you never really get the sense that you know them. The mayoral candidate in New York and the researchers in the Arctic are interesting, but practically anonymous at this point -- I can't even remember their names. The only character that truly stands out is Chinglei, the young artist with a heart full of poetry, culture-shocked by the chaos of Shu. As of the first issue, though, the most powerful and interesting characters in Trees are the cities themselves.
Bringing those cities to life is artist Jason Howard. Although he employed a much cleaner style in Astounding Wolfman, the sketchy, crosshatched, Manga-influenced mode he developed in Scatterlands, a digital comic also written by Ellis, takes a huge leap forward in Trees. Howard manages to fill the pages with detail while keeping the action loose and his pages un-cluttered, using minimal lines to evoke visually compelling environments.
Similarly to Ellis, Howard seems more concerned with the settings than the characters, and his facial expressions lack subtlety, sometimes getting too cutesy, kooky, or villainous for a story like Trees. But his sense of figure movement and panel action is top-notch, and by god the man can draw a city. Each city in Trees is markedly different from the other: Rio is a haphazard conurbation of favelas that looks like one good push could topple it all down; Lower Manhattan is eerie and alien, with roots of the Trees crawling up from the water to claim abandoned high-rises and form tree-houses for those left in the ghost town; Shu is a cacophony of color and energy in the middle of a desert, an exuberant teenager of a city partying while China isn't looking.
Over the last few years, Image has become the go-to publisher for great creator-owned science fiction, with titles like Saga, Prophet, and The Manhattan Projects on its roster. With an intelligent, magnetic, and challenging debut, you can count Ellis and Howard among those ranks with Trees #1.