Even if I did enjoy Warren Ellis’ brief run on “Moon Knight,” there was little doubt that his style was starting to wear on me. Years after they first captivated me in “Transmetropolitan,” the rhythms of his dialogue were starting to irritate with their familiarity in that project and even more so in “Avengers: Endless Wartime.” Now the first volume of his latest creator-owned series is out. It’s his first since the not-quite-as-good-as-it-should-have-been “Freakangels” and it’s time to see once again if Ellis can deliver a compelling science fiction story. The answer so far is a tentative “yes,” even if I do wish he gets to the point in a quicker fashion next time.
Ten years ago a number of alien pillars fell to Earth and did nothing except void acidic waste periodically. Though clearly a sign that there is life outside of our planet in the cosmos, it clearly wants nothing to do with us or even regards our species as intelligent. Life has adapted to continue on in the shadow of these Trees nonetheless. In addition to the scientists studying them, we see how other communities -- a special cultural zone in China, a town in Italy, and the country of Somalia -- utilize these structures for their own ends.
The best part about “Trees” for me is that Ellis’ dialogue is much more engaging than it has been in his most recent efforts for Marvel. Snark is still present, but it has been dialed back to reasonable levels and characters converse in ways that resemble the way normal people do. Rather than read like Ellis has decided to de-fang himself, the dialogue feels like a welcome attempt at self-modulation. It’s almost as if the writer felt that everything in his words had to be amped up to ridiculous levels for “Endless Wartime” and “Moon Knight” if they were to have any hope of engaging the average reader of superhero comics. Reading this makes me realize that Ellis hasn’t lost it and I wish he’d carry over some of this restraint to his next superhero project for the Big Two.
As for the stories themselves, they’re kind of a mixed bag and their level of engagement is mostly proportional to the relevance of the title objects to them. That puts the efforts of the scientists studying the Tree in Svalbard as the most interesting thread, with the focus on one of their number who enjoys feeling like he’s a part of something important and doesn’t want to leave. While that part of his personality isn’t played up for sinister effect, his actions regarding the strange flowers that bloom near the Tree is more than a little creepy and concerning to his fellow researchers. The thing is that there is a reason for these flowers and we get a payoff of sorts at the end of the volume in the form of seeing a Tree do something beyond voiding waste. I felt that the question of whether or not it’s an act of communication or something else was irrelevant here. Even if we do get an answer, the act itself helps to underline just how unknowable and alien the actions and presence of these alien objects are.
Almost as interesting are the efforts of the President of Somalia to use a Tree as a staging ground for an attack on a province that has benefitted greatly from the presence of these objects at the expense of his country. Seeing how a Tree plays a part in a geopolitical power play is quite compelling in the way it channels its “this could actually happen” vibe. I wish this thread had been developed a bit more here, but it’s clearly not over yet.
Then you have the adventures of a Chinese country boy who comes to the Special Cultural Zone of Shu, built around a Tree, in order to hone his artistic talents. He gets quite a bit of culture shock in seeing the Hong Kong-esque freedom of this cultural experiment and falls in love with a transgendered woman. That part of the story is handled quite well by Ellis as he manages to make their relationship credible and one you hope succeeds. Even so, the Tree’s relevance to this story is tangential at best. It may have provided the impetus for the Chinese government to try this experiment, but that’s it.
That’s still more relevance than the neo-noir crime story that we get in Italy which would’ve worked just fine if you had taken the Tree out of it. This story involves the girlfriend of a gangster and how her path crosses that of a former spook who teaches her about how to get what she really wants. Thankfully, it doesn’t involve the two of them having sex but it has next to nothing to do with the Trees. Yes, there is some talk about how these things have turned the towns they’ve impacted into ghost zones where travel thrives, but it’s a hazy justification at best. This isn’t a bad story on its own terms, just one that feels tacked on to the premise of this series. I’d rather have the space this thread got handed over to developing the Somalia plotline, or fleshing out the American side of the plot from the intriguing glimpses we received here.
Jason Howard provides the art and he’s employing a much different style than the one I remember from his work on “The Astounding Wolf-Man” a few years back. Where that title was all clean lines and bold figures, his linework here is scratchy and more intricate. The result is something that fosters more intimacy with the narrative and its characters, clearly in line with what Ellis was going for here. On the downside, there’s not many images in the art that really jump out and define the series on a visual level. It’s solid craftsmanship on Howard’s part, if a little lacking in excitement.
At eight issues, things also drag a bit in the middle and I started to wish that Ellis would get to the point. He did that in the final issue which offers some major turning points for all of the threads here. Though I generally like trade paperbacks with more issues (eight are collected here), I can’t help but think that this would’ve been a more engaging read if the writer was working in his usual six-issue standard. That does seem to be the case for the next arc of this series, with the working title “Two Forests,” so I’m encouraged about what we’ll be getting there. “Trees” isn’t a full return to form for the writer in my book. It does, however, illustrate why I continue to read everything he writes after all these years.