Sunday, 18 January 2015

Trees, Volume 1 Review (Warren Ellis, Jason Howard)

Ten years ago alien life made contact with humanity - by putting what look like giant waste pipes all around the planet and every so often pumping toxic waste out of them! But that was it. They didn’t bother making “first contact” or talking to us because it seems like we don’t interest them. As it says in the opening monologue, “we learned that there is intelligent life in the universe but that they did not recognise us as intelligent or alive”. Instead, Earth is to be their alien landfill - what else would you expect from misanthropic Warren Ellis? I love it! 

The story begins ten years after the trees (the giant alien waste pipes) appeared and the world has changed. Environments have altered: Manhattan has flooded, democratic governments have toppled to be replaced by fascistic ones. Though war still prevails, particularly amongst the African nations and China is still happily ignoring basic human rights. Also, the Chinese set up a “special cultural zone” around their tree, allowing artists and whoever wanted to live there, experiment with an alternate form of life. 

On the surface you might think this would be a humans vs aliens storyline and expect some kind of concerted and focused fightback against the invasion - but it’s not. Instead humanity has learned to live with the trees and the book is instead about day to day life and human individuals surviving in this new world with the trees as background, but still “exerting a silent pressure” on us - an inspired take on the alien invasion template. 

I read this book as single issues which, while good, wasn’t that impressive month by month because it felt like Warren Ellis had written this long story, intended to be read as a singlular narrative, and then chopped it up into eight issue-sized pieces. Re-reading all of the issues together in one go definitely reinforces that feeling and actually makes for a different, much better reading experience. 

The characters’ storylines feel much more involving and interesting too. There’s Eligia, a young woman, in Cefalu, Italy who is the sex slave of a local mob leader. She wants to break free of her dependence on him and become self-sufficient, asking a mysterious old man for help. In the Chinese city of Shu, a young artist called Tian Chenglei arrives to draw the trees and falls in love. In Mogadishu, Somalia, the head of state decides to use their tree - the world’s smallest - to wage war on a nearby neighbour over a territorial dispute. And in Blindhail Station, Spitzbergen, Norway, a team of international scientists make a startling discovery about the trees. 

It’s a credit to Ellis that he sets up an alien invasion storyline then totally ignores the aliens and makes the humans and what they do amongst themselves be even more fascinating than any action-heavy approach could achieve. Our characters’ storylines also emphasises the idea that the aliens don’t view us as intelligent or civilised when there’s so much violence and bloodshed in the book - humans killing other humans for power, money, sex, etc. Why would they see us otherwise? We must seem like idiotic barbarians to a more advanced culture! 

It also shows our reactions to the trees with us humans attempting to show that we still have control over some things like each other even though we have no control over the trees or any ability to get rid of them. Their toxic waste decimates Rio de Janeiro in the opening scene and there’s no retaliation! Ellis further develops this futuristic world by making the point that cities with trees face decreasing populations and economies leading to the characters’ problems in the story. It’s a really clever, inspired take. 

As great as the characters’ stories are in this first book, Ellis does acknowledge the aliens’ purpose towards the end by bringing about their first “communication” of sorts to us. I especially like how Ellis isn’t rushing things and telling the story he wants at his own speed. It’s an exciting finale to the first act of this series and makes me anticipate the next volume all the more. 

Jason Howard’s covers to the series have been terrific - some of the best comics covers I’ve seen in the last year! They’re very stylish, eye-catching with a wonderful use of colour giving each issue a unique look. The interiors are also wonderful with very dynamic action scenes, beautifully captured landscapes with the trees as silent monoliths in the background, and the characters are drawn very expressively. Howard’s range is impressive too, confidently drawing city scenes like Cefalu and Shu as masterfully as the more barren regions of Spitzbergen and Mogadishu. Great colours, great art - I hope Jason Howard gets a lot more work and recognition after people read this book. 

Trees Volume 1 is an outstanding comic. It’s Ellis’ most interesting book since Supergod and definitely one of his best and most original stories ever. With an able collaborator in Jason Howard, Warren Ellis has created a fantastic work here that’s highly recommend to fans of quality comics.

Trees Volume 1

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