Welcome, reader, to a new kind of review format here at Capeless Crusader. Normally we review comics while trying to put them into a social or political context, if possible. But this is much more in-depth than any standard review. So, we’re calling this an analysis of the first trade paperback of Warren Ellis and Justin Howard’s Trees published by Image Comics. It’s a review that will ultimately end with a number rating. But it is also a thorough examination of the book itself. In the future, look for this to be the common format for larger graphic novel releases or trade paperbacks. Now, enough formalities. Let the wild rumpus start!
Sometimes it seems like there are two oppositional, critical viewpoints for comics. One side is the socio-critical viewpoint which tries to look at comics within a larger context. We apply a critical lense not just to the artistic choices in the piece, but to the larger cultural role and reflections that the piece evokes. We try to argue that comics “matter” and that they have an effect on their readers, positive or negative. The other critical lense tries to view comics as a pure art form. The quality of the line, whether written or drawn, not the social ramifications of that line, is the basis for judgement. Comics matter but only insofar as they provide entertainment, or inspiration, or horror. Politics is an invading force that gets in the way of the true understanding. As a critic I am often torn between these two impulses, but never has a comic tested both of these viewpoints as much as Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s Trees.
If you think about it, the idea of the typical alien invasion story is sort of egotistical. The tale of an advanced species, flying billions of miles, to our specific planet, out of all the other planets, and then a scrappy bunch of humans are actually able to form a resistance against these technologically superior beings is kind of ridiculous. Fact is, we would matter as much to aliens as the less intelligent creatures of our planet mean to us. Maybe even less. Maybe we would matter as much to them, as trees do to us. We acknowledge that they are alive, but few people feel like trees are worthy of any care or consideration.
To the trees in this comic we are nothing. They don’t even notice us. They land and cause destruction and then they just…grow. Asking nothing, simply taking what they need. There is something almost Lovecraftian in Ellis’s writing this time around. And I don’t mean that in the, “OMG Cthulhu/Victorian England LOL” aesthetic that Lovecraft’s writing has become associated with. I mean in the truest sense of what fascinated Lovecraft: A cold universe containing unthinkable beings so full of monstrous power that we are nothing in the face of them. An idea which hints towards the fact that we are specks in this universe and our lives are petty in the face of such mindbogglingly huge context.
Society doesn’t end after the trees land. Instead, as humans do, we adapt around these terrifying beings. People continue to make art, make war, fight for political gains, fall in love, and do all of the petty and beautiful things that humans do. All of this is done under the shadow of these giant trees and like any good post apocalyptic horror story, what is scary in Trees isn’t so much what is different, it’s what stays the same.
This backdrop is what makes Trees Volume 1 work so well. Under the impending terror of these horrific, existential creatures we can’t help but wonder about every character’s motivation. The text begs you to ask why these people behave the way they do. Which then leads you to wondering why people generally do the things they do, because most characters simply continue what they would have been doing in the first place.
And this is where Trees wanders into some questionable areas. Let me first say that I am a big fan of gender politics. It fascinates me. I love the idea of a comic using and discussing gender politics because those kinds of conversations tend to only exist in the Ivory Tower of academia, and getting to hear them in my local comic shop is well, sometimes terrible but also sometimes great, and always insightful. So when I first noticed some themes regarding the role and representation of gender in this comic, I was excited. But as things continued I started to feel like the comic was dropping its pretenses and sermonizing. This all came to a head when a character flat out gives a small sermon about gender representation which might feel heavy-handed to people who aren’t as interested in such subjects.
At first I was inclined to drop the score for this tirade on gender politics (even though I personally agree with him) because I don’t think artwork should just be a trick to get us to believe a certain way. There is a thin line between socially conscious work and propaganda and I thought this story had crossed the line. However, I’ve come to rethink that assessment and here is why: the reason this comic should be “allowed” to give a quick lecture on gender politics is because of those trees. To be more specific, it is because of the existential nature of the comic and how the trees call every motivation of every character into question.
By making the comic so obviously about the futility of life and the choices we make there is an added poignancy injected into those choices. The author uses traditional horror framework in order to say something about the nature of men, women and everything in between. It is also hard to criticize this comic for being off topic, or getting into politics when the whole mission of the comic is to talk about everything around the central issue of the trees landing on earth.
Maybe there is no “right” critical lense to evaluate a comic. Maybe it’s not a question of politics above story or story above politics. Hell, maybe there is some kind of spectrum not only for gender but critical theory. None of that really matters however, because even setting aside its politics it is still a great horror novel.
Trees Volume 1 earns 9/10