Many a good yarn has started with murder. This third arc of Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s Trees series involves a dead body at the foot of a Tree. In case you’re unfamiliar, Trees are alien ships that landed on Earth over a decade ago — silent, impenetrable, almost like the extraterrestrials in Arrival.
In #2, Sergeant Klara goes around the small Russian village, Toska, playing detective. But we also get better glimpses of the Trees’ purpose and more on Klara’s history with her dead ex, Sasha.
Trees has worked because while it has a larger-than-life, hard sci-fi premise, Ellis is more interested in the humans scurrying around it. While Klara remains a unremarkable stalwart hero, her plucky attitude keeps the book moving along. In fact, all the people around her are have far more personality, which makes her the straight man, er, woman who’ll surely be bitten by her optimism.
Unfortunately, this issue suffers pretty hardcore from “reader hand holding,” where an author is so insecure that the audience will be lost, they spell everything out.
Take for instance the scene where Klara talks to Doctor Osin about the dead body, then why Nina Pankov can’t be trusted. We cut to Pankov’s henchman walking down a track with an ax, which he uses to cut down a strange looking power pole. Right as he does that, Klara says, “Thank god they put cellphone masts with windmill generators all the way down the railway line. Can you imagine what this place would be like without phones?” Not only is this a big coinky-dinky, but it aches of Ellis and Howard jabbing us in the ribs to make sure we understand what’s happening.
Another problem comes in a flashback where Klara talks to Sasha about Jean-Paul Satre’s writings on personal freedom. As he talks philosophy, we see surreal imagery of the Trees—just to make sure we get the parallels. You can practically imagine Ellis, clutching Being and Nothingness, yelling on a megaphone to us readers.
Jason Howard, no matter how rough the scripts he’s given, surges on with his scratchy, gruff linework. Appearing almost obsessive, his abundance of motion lines and cross-hatching lends itself to the miserable marsh and mountains of Russia. But he’s also fantastic at rendering scale, which he does with a surreal verve and eye for composition no matter how epic the scope. As for character work, all his figures are made of harsh, angular lines, their faces jagged and snarling.
Dee Cunniffe helped with colors, putting in the color flats, and while it’s hard to pinpoint whether she or Howard was the culprit, there are some overly obvious color choices. For the most part, they do an excellent job, spilling grays and muted greens between Howard’s cross-hatchings. But every once in a while, when a character says something aggressive, the whole panel will be painted orange, which was also a problem in #1. This of course goes back to being too obvious and not letting us infer anything.
Trees’s blend of hard sci-fi and personal drama remains at the heart of Ellis and Howard’s efforts, and for that, this remains a book worth following. So that’s why it’s a shame that the creative team doesn’t trust us to figure anything out.