Trees Volume 1 by Warren Ellis

One thing I can depend upon with a Warren Ellis title – it won’t be flat. With Trees, we have a different take on the alien invasion trope that really has nothing to do with the aliens at all.  Rather, this is a piece about people – fascinating, heartbreaking, and intriguing in both their uniqueness and pathos. Those expecting to see aliens vs humans will be disappointed – this is far more than a simple invasion story. And one whose reading experience is greatly improved as a collection than as individual comic issues.

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Synopsis: Giant towers have appeared across the Earth – their locations seeming random as they can be in the middle of a city or out in the frozen North. Nicknamed trees, their presence has disrupted the planet. In Svalbard, a group of scientists studying a tree make a terrifying discovery. At the base of a tree in the middle of Rio, the city is instantly destroyed when a toxic sludge is released. In Somalia, a brutal war is about to be raged using a tree as a base. In China, a cultural city arises – an experiment by the Chinese government to see how the tree affects people. In Italy, a town with an occult history (read: Aleister Crowly) and giant tree feeds a fascist rebellion and a cruel warlord.

The trees are, ironically, a MacGuffin for this entire volume. They are oblivious to the tiny lives happening around them; a witness but not a participant in life on Earth. That is the conceit of this story: the alien entities are there but humans don’t matter to the Trees as the Trees matter to the humans.

At heart, this is the story of people. From the artistic young man from rural China hoping to sketch the tree in the cultural city – and instead beginning a romance with a transgendered woman. To the beautiful young Italian woman serving as moll to a young man who seized power in the wake of the appearance of a tree – and the mysterious old man who teachers her how to overcome her situation. To the unhappy science crew in the arctic hating the environment and trying to make sense of the trees – until one of them stumbles upon a terrifying discovery. There is even a Somali ruler who uses economics and numbers to justify full scale war.

Each of the stories has a different theme and all are loosely tied together through the idea of the trees’ ‘pressure’ – an undefined feeling or sense from them. Because the characters were so unique and distinct, they really took center stage and the whole need to discover the true purpose of the trees faded. Of course, this being a Warren Ellis title, misanthropy will be rampant (and many characters may not survive to volume 2).

Volume 1 has an arc for each of the stories – a conclusion that puts a punctuation mark (in some cases a question mark and in others a definitive exclamation point) at the end of each tale. Very little (really, nothing extra) is discovered about the Trees by the end of the book and I think those expecting pandering will be left scratching their head. But those hoping for something richer and nuanced will be eagerly waiting for the next volume.

The art is excellent – nuanced, intriguing, and yet distinct. The story is easy to follow and characters easy to discern. The Chinese look Chinese, for once. In actuality, the art does a much better job of establishing culture than the writing; I didn’t feel that Ellis did a good job of really understanding how to present all the different cultures across the planet. They all seemed to be an American/British hybrid, their dialogues ringing hollow.

In all, I am looking to see where the story goes in volume 2. It was a pleasure to read a graphic novel with depth and pathos. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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