Exerting a Silent Pressure on the World…
Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard might be my new favourite comic-book. ‘In Shadow’, the first trade edition of the Image series, was published last month. I’ve read it a few times by now, on each occasion finding something new to think about it. It’s an absorbing, gorgeous, and deliberately paced book ostensibly about an alien invasion but which, in actuality, is more interested in issues of social inequality, environmental degradation, government control, and gender.
Please note: there are SPOILERS from here on out…
The book is set ten years after the arrival of alien ‘Trees’, miles high tubular structures which have planted themselves all across the world and… have just been standing there ever since. Is it an invasion if the aliens don’t recognise the existence of human beings? Because apart from the occasional ‘dumping’ of toxic waste, the Trees don’t do much except ‘exert their silent pressure on the world’. It’s a satisfying creative choice on the part of Ellis and Howard, one which ensures that a variety of intriguing human stories take the lead here, in the process touching on recognisable Ellis concerns such as urban decay, climate change, and economics.
From a research station on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen to a ‘Special Cultural Zone’ around a Chinese Tree, ‘In Shadow’ charts the local and large-scale effects of these entities. Ellis has often stated his belief that ‘science fiction remains the best tool for a certain kind of social fiction’ and Trees is a case in point. The presence of Trees affects the weather and the landscape, changing wind patterns and the flow of rivers, however more than that they affect the flows of people and capital. In Italy, the people who can leave the environs of a Tree opening a gap for right wing bluster and criminality. In east Africa, the presence of a Tree gives some states easier access to natural resources while depriving others. In lower Manhattan, a global financial hub is transformed into a flooded ghetto.
Among Ellis’s varied protagonists is Eligia, the reluctant girlfriend of an Italian thug who fancies himself a fascist leader. In the ‘Special Cultural Zone’ erected around a Chinese Tree, we are introduced to Chenglei, an artist seeking to experiment with his sexuality as much as with his drawings. Meanwhile, in Somalia, President Caleb Rahim hatches a plan to use a tree – the world’s smallest and therefore ‘the only strategic Tree’ – as a platform for a military assault on neighbouring Puntland. In the Artic, an obsessed Tree scientist named Marsh discovers eerie black poppies which might be more machine than plant. Yes, there’s a lot going on in Trees but somehow it never feels crowded.
Part of that is due to the heft of ‘In Shadow’, which collects the first eight issues of the series and so gives each storyline ample room to breathe. I’m thus very glad I waited for the trade edition because reading Trees in one sustained burst surely goes a long way towards overcoming occasional criticisms about the series moving too slowly which the initial monthly publication received. If anything, ‘In Shadow’ reads more like the first volume of a graphic novel series than it does as a collection of individual issues, something definitely shaped by Ellis’s approach to writing here. As he stated in an interview last year: ‘it’s a relatively complicated thing, that has several storylines running in parallel, and I need to keep it all straight because I’m writing each storyline in a separate document before combining portions of them for each single issue. Every time I sit down to write some TREES, I’m essentially deciding whether I’m writing in TREES/Cefalu, TREES/Arctic, TREES/Shu, etc.’ The result is that, without reference to the original floppies, it is pleasingly difficult to tell where one issue ends and one begins.
On the visual front, Jason Howard’s coarse line work adds the requisite amount of grit and edge to a society slowly falling apart. It is quite different from his earlier cartoony style, and it contributes as much to the tremendous world-building of Trees as does Ellis’s writing. From the slums of Rio de Janeiro to the back alleys of the walled-off Chinese city, Howard’s near-future world is credible and immersive. He balances small details with stunning splash pages of factories turned art schools, robots wandering Arctic snowfields overwhelmed by the size of the alien objects, and, again in the case of the Spitzbergen plot, a Tree itself finally coming to life.
In discussing the book, the temptation to pun about roots, branches, seeds, and so on is strong, however that would be to fall victim to exactly the kind of nonchalance which Ellis and Howard’s story warns against. Long slender trunks aside, these invaders don’t actually look that much like trees at all, especially not when – about two thirds of the way through this volume – we finally glimpse their tops (there is also the implication that they are slowly sinking deeper and deeper into the Earth as time passes). People have given them the name ‘Trees’ in an effort to try to make them seem normal and, to that extent, Trees seems to say that maybe we ought to more closely interrogate the things we rightly or wrongly take for granted.
This is most apparent in the book’s depiction of women and, for that matter, of its transsexual characters. It’s an element of Trees which is underplayed in this volume but one which definitely seems crucial to the story going forward. For with the exception of a ‘surreally rich’ New York mayoral candidate looking out over the ruins of Manhattan from a skyscraper window – his own tree, if you will – all the typical male protagonists one might expect to find in a comic book like this – the plays-by-his-own-rules scientist, the tortured artist, the grizzled ex-secret service agent – are dead by the end of ‘In Shadow’ (that’s ambiguous in the case of the scientist, but let’s take him as dead for argument’s sake). Their demise clears the way for women, as well transgendered protagonists and characters of colour, to take the lead as Ellis and Howard continue to move the story onwards. It is yet another reminder that this is a world in which things have changed, one in which previously accepted social (or, if you will, narrative) conventions no longer hold currency.
In that way Trees proves to be as attuned to the changes in real life society as it to those in its fictional equivalent. Despite the relatively epic occurrence which set its stage, the stories which knit together into the tapestry of ‘In Shadow’ are thoughtful and considered. They are more about the manner in which people and politics can be transformed by the presence of the inexplicable than they are about physical conflict. There is of course is a share of that, but it is firmly rooted in character and in individual responses to the implications of the silent invaders. The result is fascinating and distinctive work on the part of both Ells and Howard. I can’t wait to read Volume Two…
Other posts you may enjoy:
- ‘Heroically celebrating the best the Human spirit has to offer’: my Irish Examiner review of Grant Morrison’s Supergods.
- ‘Travels in Saucer Country’: my review of Paul Cornell’s Vertigo series.