Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Howard
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: May 28, 2014
Trees, the new Image series from Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, has received less advance publicity than one might expect for this particular publisher/creator combination. People are justified in comparing today’s Image with 90’s Vertigo, and Warren Ellis did amazing things for the latter imprint at the turn of the century. The buzz surrounding his first contribution to the “Image Renaissance” has been unusually low key. Perhaps that’s because the story itself is a more low-key distillation of some of Ellis’s favorite themes – intersections of technology, authority, and society with a healthy splash of sci-fi. It’s much quieter, both visually and tonally, than much of his other work. There is, of course, something to be said for speaking quietly in a crowded room – people are forced to get close and listen carefully. This is likely going to be a book for people who pay attention.
The story is simple – aliens landed and completely ignored us. They resemble giant columns, we can’t communicate with them, and gradually they just become a part of the environment. We ignore them, until they decide to act. The initial message is very depressing: humans are tiny and their tiny lives don’t matter. Human struggles and society toddles along as they always have. Economic inequality and abuses of power continue. Politics, art, science; they’re all still there, all driven by the innate human need to have an impact, to create, to learn. And all of it means absolutely jack to these alien creatures, who exist on a plane so far removed from us that they hardly acknowledge we’re there at all. They are indifferent, and capable of completely upending our lives. It’s not apparent if humanity has managed to learn anything from living in the shadow of the trees; even the knowledge that we aren’t alone in the universe doesn’t seem to have had the globally unifying affect that futurists like Gene Roddenberry hoped it would. We keep on living, and the trees don’t care.
There is more promise, however, in the stories of the characters we meet. A mayoral candidate concerned with police brutality still believes he can affect positive change from elected office. A young art student from a tiny village moves to a big city to study the trees, and has his little mind expanded before he ever even sees one. Scientists in Norway continue to brave harsh conditions in the name of learning something, anything about the alien visitors. We don’t spend too much time with these people, not enough to really get to know them, but their continued insistence on trying to form a meaningful existence around the trees (or maybe in spite of them) is certainly a nice counterbalance to the indifference of the giant alien monoliths.
Jason Howard is very detail driven, and warrants several reads to really pick out some nice touches. The symbols on the trees and the flowers, the graffiti on the walls, it all contributes to a very organic universe. It’s a relatively subdued book, visually, but then I read a lot of superhero comics so muted color palettes are somewhat foreign to me. His color choices are very clever. The distinct hues for each section of the story serve as nice transitions between scenes; opening with green, yellow and blue lets the reader feel that this is Earth, our Earth, even with the impossibly tall towers all over the place. Particularly enjoyable is Chenglei’s journey from a grey, drab countryside to the psychedelic brightness of Shu. It’s very much a Dorothy-in-Oz kind of transition, full of strange, weird, loud, bold things so unlike the world outside of the city walls.
This almost felt like a zero issue, more than an issue 1, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The direction is still unclear. Ellis has commented that the first arc of the story will be 8 issues, meaning this is going to be a more decompressed type of narrative. If you were expecting the shock and awe of Vertigo Ellis, you will be underwhelmed. This is probably the kind of book that will take a couple issues to really get its hooks in. However, Ellis doesn’t write bad stories, and it’s clear that he and Howard have a unique story to tell with Trees, if readers are patient and watch carefully.
The Verdict: 7.5/10