Today, Shelby and Patrick are discussing Trillium 1, originally released August 7th, 2013.
Shelby: I would read anything Jeff Lemire wrote for good reason. He made me love a C-list hero I had never heard of before, and rescued not one but TWO books, taking them from bad to two of my favorite titles. Underwater Welder made me cry on the train on my way to work, it’s so beautiful. It’s no surprise, then, that I have been eagerly awaiting Trillium since it was first announced last October. I couldn’t possibly imagine how a botanist from 1800 years in the future and a World War I vet in the 20’s could possibly encompass “the last love story ever told,” but since Lemire was at the helm I didn’t bother sweating the details; I just assumed it would work and be incredible. One issue in, and I am already pretty sure I was right to believe.
There are two very distinct stories in this issue. The first is the story of Nika, a scientist in the year 3797. There are 4,000 humans left in the entire universe, and they are being driven to the edge of the galaxy by the Caul, a sentient virus. Nika is trying to befriend the Abithians, an alien race with a monopoly on trillium flowers, which are required to synthesize an effective vaccine and save the human race. She eats a petal of the flower, and sort of hallucinates, stumbling into their pyramid and out a door at the top. The second is the story of William, a WWI vet with some serious PTSD. It’s 1921, and he’s obsessed with the story of an Incan temple in the Amazon that promised “dominance over death.” He leads a team into the rain forest, where they are predictably ambushed by angry natives. As he runs away, he finds a pyramid, and stumbles around the corner. At this point, the stories come together as Nika and William see each other.
Oh Mr. Lemire, only you can give me the Moon/Raiders of the Lost Arc crossover I never knew I wanted. And he’s done it so succinctly, too. In a mere 32 pages, Lemire has fleshed out two very distinct characters in two very different settings, and I completely get both of them. William, trying to overcome the horrors of war by ruling over death; Nika, the aggressive scientist who’s maybe a little too curious for her own good. Even though these two couldn’t have more different stories, there’s an underlying theme of mortality and human fragility. World War I changed the way wars were fought. Poisonous gases, trench warfare, machine guns, tanks, mortars: men came back from the war disfigured and broken in ways the world had never seen before. Lemire highlights it for us beautifully and horrifyingly in William’s flashback to the trenches.
In Nika’s time, human beings are being hunted to extinction. Man is no longer the dominant species, and if they don’t figure out a way to regain their superior (or at least equal) status, they will be destroyed. So, despite the fact that the only thing they appear to have in common is their bizarro situation, they are both facing some very real, very serious ideas about their place on Earth and their impermanence.
Not only is Lemire’s talented writing skill on display, so also is his unique art style. I first fell in love with his loose pencils in Underwater Welder; it was almost sketch-like with no color, the images seemingly on the verge of unravelling like the main character’s life. Here, Lemire and Jose Villarrubia are credited with inks. The soft, watercolor texture adds just a little more permanance to Lemire’s art, but more importantly it create some beautiful backgrounds.
I can’t get enough of that velvety, haphazard texture of the sky with the splattering of stars across it.
This is probably the first time I have truly hesitated to spoil something from a book; I decoded the Atabithian’s speech to Nika before she ate the trillium petal. I don’t want to reveal it because it takes a lot of the mystery out of the story. At the same time, it introduces some very intriguing ideas about the nature of time and our perception of how it flows. For now, I think I’ll keep it to myself and just see how the story unfolds. Patrick, I don’t even need to ask, I already know you loved this issue. How did the flip-book style affect your reading of it?
Patrick: I read that phrase somewhere else describing this issue: “flip-book.” Isn’t a flip book just a tiny book that you flip through that creates the illusion of animation? I guess you flip the book around at one point… does that designate it a “flip book?” Perhaps “flippable book” is more accurate.
I’m holding my judgement a little bit longer before declaring that I love it. Shelby’s right to say that the two stories couldn’t be more different from each other – but they both strike sorta awkward balances between exposition and action. There’s a ton of just straight-up sci-fi explainery in Nika’s story and William’s chapter is littered with flashbacks, gleefully skipping between three different events in his life. The former drags a little and the later had me flipping back to figure out where exactly this fancy gala fell into his timeline (after the war, before the expedition). This is a minor complaint, and totally a symptom of first-issue-itis, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the stories here aren’t totally perfect.
HOWEVER, there’s more than enough exceedingly clever stuff going on in this issue to make me recommend it to any perceptive reader. Shelby, did you notice that the layouts of the two stories are identical? The first page for each chapter is made up of 12 rectangular panels in a 3×4 grid; the page after the title is a full-page panel with a lot of text; pages 10 and 11 are a two-page splash with three smaller panels in the upper-left corner. So even though these stories don’t do much to connect with each other in meaningful thematic or plot-related ways, they feel very similar. It’s something I wouldn’t have noticed were it not for the final pages of both stories appearing side-by-side in the print version (sadly, the digital presents Nika’s story first and William’s story second, and their final pages appear 16 pages apart from each other).
(If you read the thing digitally, that’s the kind of visual cue you missed. I’m normally a pretty strong advocate of digital comics, but it looks to me like Lemire has created an emotional experience specifically tailored for physical copies. The effect of getting to this spread in the paper version is stunning: you get to see both perspectives at once, and because they’re presented with very little dialogue, you can basically understand them both at the same time.)
Even within these insanely paralleled layouts, Lemire finds clever ways to portray the action, usually tying the psychological state of the character into that action. There are a ton of wide, panoramic panels of barren Atabithi landscapes with Nika’s tiny frame right in the middle. It’s an effective shortcut to express her loneliness, and even her desperation in reaching out to the the natives one last time. My favorite example of this sort of cleverness, however, occurs in William’s story. He’s being pursued by the natives, and his wartime flashbacks are popping up with alarming frequency. Lemire depicts this by making it look as though a hand from his memory is reaching through time to grab at him in the present.
Shelby, thanks for holding on to that translation. Maybe you want to post it in the comments for those that want to look? I – for one – almost always regret decoding those kinds of things. Whenever the Alien Language 1 jokes appear in Futurama, I used to make a point to work them out, and Drew and I did the same with the Machine Language that appears in Avengers – but I always feel like those things are more fun when they’re explored on the re-read. It certainly looks easy enough to decode (a simple letter-substitution, right?), so maybe I’ll go back 7 months from now and have a little fun with paper and pencil.
One last dumb observation and then I’ll let us start a love-fest in the comments. I love how Dr. Delinis connects both of these stories, while appearing as an active agent in neither. Nika watches a video of his final moments before disappearing, and William discovers him strung up to a pole and catatonic. I really only caught this on my second read, and only after I asked myself why the markings on his face looked so much like Nika’s, and the flipped make to make sure they’re the same dude. They are!
My petty complaints with exposition aside – this is an incredible issue. I can’t wait to see what Lemire does with the rest of the series. I can’t quite picture how “the last love story” could continue in this split-chapter format, but then, I didn’t see this issue coming either. What a neat treat.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?