Facing the alien: Warren Ellis & Jason Howard’s Trees

Posted: July 3, 2014 in reading
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I love the comics of Warren Ellis, have done ever since I first picked up a volume of Transmetropolitan. He is like some angry god, hurling thunderbolts of wisdom and profanity down on his fear-stained yet adoring worshippers. His deeply researched, fascinatingly plotted comics are full of dialogue that, while often unrealistic, is always sharp and amusing.

So of course his new series Trees was near the top of my list once I got Comixology.

So it’s a story about trees?

Trees, written by Warren Ellis with art by Jason Howard, is very much an Ellis story. Set some unspecified but relatively small distance into the future, it begins ten years after the arrival of the Trees, vast alien monoliths that have planted themselves in the Earth’s surface, apparently ignoring the humans who scamper around their bases.


This is a collage of a world-building story, showing moments in the lives of characters around the globe, living in the literal and figurative shadows of the Trees. Italian criminals, Latin American slum dwellers, a New York politician, the technocratic president of Somalia. And probably most importantly (certainly most prominently) the inhabitants of an Arctic research station who may be on the verge of a new discovery about the Trees.

This is a high concept science fiction story, but one that is very much focussed on understandable human lives.

Keeping it alien

One area where a lot of science fiction falls down is in failing to make the alien truly alien – showing us people, worlds and ways of thinking that are genuinely strange and un-knowable to us. It’s hardly surprising – as humans we tend to write human.

But this is something that Ellis is particularly good at. His wild imagination and fascination with the strange and unsettling comes across in his depictions of the other, from the story world seen in an issue of Planetary to the swarming hive form of Ultimate Galactus. Trees is a great example of this. The alien presence just sits there, its motives, meaning and behaviour unknown to readers and characters alike, having an impact on the world unlike anything else.

This is the alien as a truly unsettling presence, not just a bunch of guys with green skin.

Action and reaction

This allows Ellis to once again explore one of his favourite themes – how humans react to encounters with the alien. Will we try to use it for war and profit, as in Oceans? For fashion, as in Transmetropolitan? Will we try to hide it away to make ourselves powerful, as in Planetary?

Here we see a whole range of reactions – emotional and intellectual, personal and political, ignorant and informed, instinctive and carefully strategised. The story revolves around the Trees, but so far it isn’t actually about them. It’s about how people react to their presence, how they cope with it or even use it, how they come to understand it.

If story is about action followed by reaction, then that causal chain is what allows Ellis to make this story both alien and sympathetic. The instigating action is something dark and mysterious. The reactions are human and familiar. It makes for a fascinating combination.

Read it, but maybe not yet

A brief note on the art: It’s good, but I read with a writer’s eye, not an artist’s, and have no more to say.

Sorry Jason Howard. I know comics are a collaborative art, but any time I see Ellis’s name it’s the writing I’ll be focused on.

This is another intriguing Warren Ellis book, and one I’ll carry on reading as it comes out. But due to the nature of the story it’s moving in a slow, disjointed fashion that might read better in a collected edition.

I recommend reading it, but if you’re impatient then not yet.

So, three unrelated points for discussion. Have you read Trees, and what did you think? If you’ve read Warren Ellis’s other work what did you think? And what other examples can you think of where science fiction depicts the truly alien?

  1. I’m not a super-fan, but I am certainly an appreciator of the Ellis. I have all the Transmetropolitans and have read a few Planetarys; I have the first volume of The Authority hanging out here beside me; and I’m so angry about the new Constantine as compared to the old Hellblazer version. His stuff is really… I don’t know how to say it. Not ‘thoughtful’ though it’s obviously had a lot of thought put into it. Metacritical, maybe? Self-inspecting, often from a story-perspective as well as a character-perspective.

    I have not yet read Trees, but it sounds like another one of his that I’ll enjoy.

    As for an example — not a book but a movie. Monsters ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1470827/ ) comes to mind immediately in comparison to your words on Trees.

    • Metacritical is definitely a big part of it, and part of why he appeals so much to me. His work tends to reflect on the art of storytelling as well as his subject matter, to try to do new things every time.

      I was already intrigued by Monsters, now even more so.

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