I have a lot of faith in Warren Ellis. Granted, Transmetropolitan remains my favorite of his works and that’s getting to be a while ago now, but his other stuff has been uniformly solid and compelling in its own way, and even if his most-praised series, Planetary and The Authority, aren’t, at least in my view, the absolute masterpieces most people seem to think they are, the fact is they were better than 99% of the stuff they shared shelf space with at the time, which means they’d be better than —- ohhhhh, let’s say 99.999% of their contemporaries if they came out today. Suffice to say, when he debuts a new project, I definitely pay attention.
Right now “the other bearded fellow from England,” as he’s sometimes called, seems to be a very busy guy indeed — after laying relatively low for a couple of years, he’s got two new monthly series that seem to show him having adopted a new, more minimalist narrative approach: Marvel’s Moon Knight with artist extraordinaire Declan Shalvey, and the one under our metaphorical microscope here today, Trees, a creator-owned project for Image Comics done in collaboration with illustrator/co-creator Jason Howard that just hit the stands last Wednesday.
In a nutshell, Trees appears to be intent on carving out a rather unique niche for itself : a “decidedly different” alien invasion book that actually is decidedly different. The setup is a reasonably simple one, but loaded with possibility : ten years ago, giant pillars descended from the sky, rooted themselves into the ground all over the Earth, and then just stayed there. Apparently all we know about them — and don’t ask me where this info came from — is that they were searching for intelligent life, somehow “decided” that we were neither intelligent nor living, and then hung around. No one knows what they’re doing. There’s no way of moving them. They’re silent. And everybody’s doing their best, in the wake of the initial wave of devastation their landing caused, to just get on about their business in the shadow of these new apparently-permanent fixtures.
Roughly half of this first issue is taken up with an extended flashback sequence set in Rio, but in the present day the focus seems to be more on New York (and specifically some rich Wall Street asshole who’s running for mayor there) and a polar (I think) research station of some sort that has discovered that the titular “trees” are doing — I dunno, something. There’s very little going on here by way of characterization so far, and while a lot of first issues go overboard in the “pure setup” department, this one probably takes the cake, because that’s literally all that’s happening here. If this were a graphic novel — which I’m sure it eventually will be — this would better presented as some sort of extended introduction than a proper first chapter. One gets the distinct sense that the story itself, whatever it may be, hasn’t even really begun yet.
I liked Howard’s art, to be sure — it seems to be miles away from standard super-hero work and employs some nice cross-hatching and a loose, free style. In many ways it reminds me of newspaper editorial cartooning minus the exaggerated physical features. It’s somewhat “sketchy,” no doubt about it, but that fits the tone of Ellis’ script, at least to this point, quite nicely. There are some big, bold action sequences for the artist to really sink his teeth into, and he delivers the goods with aplomb. All in all, the imagery here is very well-suited to the task of slow-burn “world-building” punctuated with instances of brash sci-fi ultraviolence and adventure. You can feel the tension in the air just by looking at folks and know that when it — whatever “it” is — finally hits, Howard’s going to land a big-time hammer-blow, visually speaking.
Beyond that, though, it’s really impossible to say what we as readers are in store for — the premise seems more suited to a half-hour Twilight Zone episode than it does a monthly comic series. The “cliffhanger” ending is impossible to understand. And sense of mystery alone isn’t going to carry things for too long if Ellis doesn’t give us some actual characters to give a shit about. I really do want to like Trees — and my inner nerd is telling me that I should — but there’s simply not enough evidence to go on here for me to be able to even begin to guess whether or not I actually will.