Trees, Vol. 1: In Shadow
Warren Ellis, writer; Jason Howard, artist
It's great to have Warren Ellis doing science fiction again. Trees has an intriguing, unique premise: what if alien intelligence made contact with humanity, then acted as if we didn't exist. The story opens with huge black obelisks descending from the sky all over the planet. Their landing sites are apparently random, and they have no regard for the human population. They simply come down, decimating whole city blocks. Then nothing: no attempt to communicate, or to do anything other than dump toxic waste occasionally.
Ten years later humanity has learned to accept the presence of the Trees (as they came to be called). The areas around them have become semi-abandoned, lawless places. Nothing good happens there. The story focuses on life in five such places. In China, a young artist arrives in a special cultural zone under a Tree; in Italy, a young woman learns survival skills in an area run by a fascist gang; and in Svalbard, a research team discovers that the Trees may not be completely dormant after all. The other two locations are only touched upon briefly in this story arc: New York City, where a mayoral candidate is coping with a transformed city (Manhattan flooded when the Trees landed); and Somalia, where the President decides to use his Tree for military advantage.
It's unusual for a comic to have this kind of geographic and cultural variety, so that alone would be notable. But Ellis and Howard populate this world with complex, memorable characters. Tian Chenglei, the young artist who is the new arrival in the city of Shu, a special cultural zone in China, vividly lives the adventure of self-discovery, in a wildly experimental setting. Eligia's Italian city Cefalu looks more conventionally Old World, but it too has been slowly transformed by the presence of the Trees. The story skillfully shifts between the cast of characters. In collected form it reads seamlessly. In fact it was so involving--and read so fast--that I read the whole eight-issue collection in one sitting.
Howard's drawing style is realistic, but with a bit of cartoon exaggeration in his facial expressions. His backgrounds are often minimal, but there is always enough detail to set the scene. There are some very effective purely visual sequences here: I especially liked the panels depicting Tian's reaction to his lover's trans-gender status, and the wordless pages showing the African missile attack. Great start to the series.