Warren Ellis is one of the most cerebral writers working in comics today. Never content to simply tell a good story, he always aspires to cram in a lot of heady ideas into it, much like his contemporaries Grant Morrison and Jonathan Hickman. Such ambition can sometimes lead to mixed results, but when it works—as it works here in Trees—it works terrifically.
Ten years previous to the present narrative day, gargantuan extraterrestrial vessels shaped like monolithic columns, vastly dwarfing even the largest human-built skyscrapers, landed in various spots across the globe. Then they did nothing. For ten years and continuing. Humanity’s initial shock and fear eventually subsided back into routine, but life within the perimeter of these “trees” began to deviate from the norm as an exodus of populations from tree-infested regions caused these areas to fend for themselves apart from the rest of the world, with mixed results ranging from the gang-ruled fascism of a town in Italy to the anything-goes cultural heterogeneity of Shu, China.
As I was making my way through Chapter 1 of Trees I was reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood End in which alien ships situated themselves over the major cities of the world and then did nothing for a week. But that was a week. This is ten years.
The premise alone of Trees is immensely fascinating and the canvas Ellis is working on is epic to say the least, but he knows this isn’t enough. Like a wry puzzlemaster he intermittently drops us faint traces of clues that despite appearances to the contrary, something indeed is going on inside those mammoth trees. All the while he makes us care for the characters and paints a vivid portrait of the diverse ways these micro-societies have adapted in the wake of the Trees’ landings. But underlying it all is a gradually growing sense of menace and dread.
Ellis does a superb job of keeping us intrigued while stretching out the X-Files-esque mystery of his story for as long as possible and providing hints that all is perhaps not as well as humanity has allowed itself to believe after ten uneventful years. This is done mainly by way of a scientific team stationed in a base in arctic Norway. And even as the stories of these various characters throughout the world seem irrelevant to each other, the way Ellis juggles them makes it tacitly clear that somehow or other they are all connected.
Jason Howard’s art here is a bit course and gritty but it suits the semi-dystopian world just fine. Frequent extreme wide shots help to convey the nearly ungraspable enormity of the Trees. The colorful, cartoony style would also seem counter-intuitive at first but it seems to work here just fine, often providing a subconscious way of differentiating between the different locales.
Trees takes a hackneyed subgenre, the alien invasion, and makes it feel genuinely unique and fresh. I’m glad I read this as a trade paperback because waiting for the individual issues month to month might have been a tad frustrating in the way that The X-Files would only occasionally air their “mythology” episodes which inevitably managed to thicken the overarching plot and up the ante while still keeping us in the dark. When coupled with the fact that this is a generous volume compiling all of the first eight issues, Trees Vol. 1 is pretty much a no-brainer for any fan of sci-fi and alien invasions.