Barking Up the Right Tree

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The poet Joyce Kilmer may have been right when he said that only God could make a tree. But only Warren Ellis could createTrees, the title characters of his new comic from Image.

In recent years, Ellis has written some of the best original science fiction stories to appear in comic book form. (BTW, when I use the word “original” here, I’m referring primarily to stories not based on properties licensed from other media.) I think I’ve talked about Transmetropolitan in this space, but Ellis has also written Ministry of Space; Ocean; Freakangels and Anna Mercury, among many other titles.

The cover for an upcoming issue of Trees
The cover for an upcoming issue of Trees

In Trees, Ellis joins for with artist Jason Howard to tackle a classic sf theme: first contact. Sometime in the near future, aliens land at various locations on Earth. (One of the nice touches here is that we’re seeing locales—like Rio de Janeiro—that we don’t normally see in sf stories.) The extraterrestrials appear to be gigantic pillars, or trees, but they’re so alien that it’s impossible to tell whether these are starships or the creatures themselves.

Ten years pass, and the Trees, as they’re now known, do not respond to any attempt to communicate. In fact, they don’t seem to even acknowledge that they’re sharing the planet with another species . They’re only interaction with the outside world is to occasionally…well, let’s be polite here and call it discharge waste.

For some, the Trees have faded into the background of their day-to-day lives. Others want to exploit the Trees for their own goals. In issue two, we learn that the president of Somalia wants to use the nearest Tree as high ground in order to attack his country’s enemies. But there are some who understand the significance of this event. Scientists studying a tree near the Arctic Circle may have discovered the Trees first attempt to interact with the environment. Also, in my favorite sequence in these first two issues, we visit a city that has grown up around a Tree in mainland China. The city is filled with people who are trying to reinvent themselves and hoping that the Trees will reinvent the world. This plotline features an aspiring artist, Tian Chenglei, and when he says, “Today, I landed on a different planet,” he’s right in more ways than one.

Ellis and Howard have worked together on at least one other project, a web comic called Scatterlands, which you can sample here. Howard’s art seems sketchy at points, but he does well with creating distinctive faces, and capturing the scale of the Trees, two important elements of this series. The scenes of the Trees looming over the cities are reminiscent of the gigantic starships in V and Independence Day. And this series may be another attempt to work through the world-changing events of 9/11 (Ellis and Howard could have borrowed a title from the old Firesign Theatre album and called this comic Everything You know Is Wrong.)

Two issues of Trees are out so far. Ellis has told interviewers that this first story arc will last six or eight issues but he and Howard want to do other stories set in this world. I hope they get the chance.

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