Trees: In The Shadows Of Creeping Dread
August 20, 2015
Warren Ellis and Jason Howard are familiar to comics fans, with Ellis recently coming off an acclaimed run on Marvel's Moon Knight with Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire (the same creative team behind INJECTION), and Howard having spent time working on hit titles like ASTOUNDING WOLF-MAN and SUPER DINOSAUR. You may think you know what's coming when you crack open the book, but TREES is unlike any of their other work. The cliffhangers feel more like chapter breaks in a prose novel than the usual action- or drama-oriented cliffhangers we expect from comics. The hardest-hitting drama is derived mostly from the relationships of the characters twisting and changing over time, rather than physical danger and explosions. The fact that TREES is so successful at what it does is down to the expertly executed writing and art. Ellis and Howard are in sync here, and you can feel it while you read.
The lack of a traditional alien invasion infuses TREES with creeping dread. Ellis and Howard play with our knowledge of how these stories tend to go—a spaceship cracks open and horrors pour out, piping reveals itself to be a vicious and hungry alien, our best friend's eyes turn black and we know that they are lost to us, forever—and make it a point to upset our expectations.
Howard renders the Trees the same way he does architecture or flora, with no telling glow or other indicator that they are anything but merely present. Ellis avoids explaining exactly what the Trees are, leaving us just as ignorant as the characters in the story. The end result is that we're affected by both the story they're telling and the story they're not telling, too. If you know how these stories go, you want to see what the Trees will do, and that's what delivers the dread.
But if you follow this story, the dread is supplemented, and perhaps even supplanted, by the dread that derives from the character-driven drama on the page. We see what a Tree can do very early on, and then...nothing. In the shadows of an inscrutable and opaque invasion, life goes on. Criminals prey on the weak, governments jockey for position, and life goes on as usual. But there is no usual in life, not really. There are just a series of upheavals, and TREES more than delivers on that front. Characters discover a route to the top, grow into their own skin while shedding what's obsolete, and have to deal with the dangers of reckless brilliance.
The characters—both the dialogue and the acting on the page—are what make TREES go. Howard conveys emotions like hope, confusion, and disgust with equal aplomb, and Ellis makes sure the dialogue makes you think about what the people are saying instead of just accepting it. TREES demands attention, and if you grant it, you'll grow attached, and if you grow attached, you fell for their trap. The strongest drama here is personal, not apocalyptic, and the drama is viciously resonant. If you've ever fallen in love, started a new job, or been so impressed with yourself you can't see the forest for the trees, something in here will make you sit back and say, "Oh."
Which isn't to say TREES is purely talking heads. A military conflict winds its way through the book, someone—spoiler warning!—gets shot in the head on page one, and there is definitely no lack of exciting scenes. But TREES is an artful change of pace, a read that feels slower than you'd expect, until you realize you're absolutely hooked and the brakes don't work any more.