Today, Drew and Shelby are discussing Trees 1, originally released May 28th, 2014. Drew: All stories have a narrator. This point was obvious enough to me in high school english classes, as we aimed to parse first person from close third person, or subjective from omniscient, but was utterly lost when I thought about the more visual storytelling of film and comics. Who is the narrator of Casablanca? Of The Godfather? It’s easy enough for us to point to a first person narrator when there’s overbearing voiceover, but whose is the default point of view we take when watching a movie or reading a comic book without that kind of obvious diegetic narration? Some might argue that those narratives present some kind of objective accounting of the events in question, but subjectivity creeps in at every turn, with shot composition, lighting, costuming, pacing, editing, even music cues designed to illicit very specific emotional reactions (often those of the characters on the screen or page). With Trees 1, Warren Ellis and Jason Howard have shined a spotlight on those very details, starting threads that differ not only in their settings and characters, but in the perspective of their narrators, as well.
The issue opens in Rio de Janeiro, ten years after what a narrator explains was the first contact with an alien intelligence…inasmuch as an invasion that utterly ignored humanity could be called “contact”. It sets the stage for a dystopian future where humanity lives in the shadow of these “trees”, which could be best described as malevolent buildings. Or is it just that they’re just indifferent? There’s an obvious parallel to our own disregard for our environment, highlighted here as the trees begin oozing some kind of toxic sludge that destroys everything and everyone it touches. Perhaps the trees are unaware of their effect on us, perhaps they just don’t care, or maybe they are fully aware, but have something to gain from destroying their environment; in any case, it’s easy to see our own actions reflected here.
Ellis emphasizes the monstrousness of those actions by giving us a very partial narrator. The narrator doesn’t appear to be a character in this scene, having some kind of overhead view of the events, but clearly has a dog in this fight, referring to humanity as “us”, and the trees as “them”.
We then head to New York City, where we get a very different kind of exposition, this time delivered exclusively as dialogue (something the first scene lacked almost entirely). It introduces Vince, a democratic candidate for the Mayor of New York City, and Del, an advisor, as they react to the new about Rio. Of course, the scene is really about Vince’s history with the trees in New York. As he describes his experiences about their landing, the camera drifts away to showing New Yorkers at the base of the trees, where a kind of shantytown has been erected. Again, the parallels are overt, tying psychological trauma of 9/11 (or even Hurricane Katrina) to the ecological trauma of the first scene, but again, I’m more interested in the partiality of the narrator.
The “narration” here is subtler, as there’s no voice-over, and for much of the scene could pass as some kind of objective third person, but then Jason Howard hits us with a totally non-diegetic lighting cue.
This tips us off that the narration here may reflect Vince’s subjectivity, suggesting that we take the images of that shantytown with a grain of salt. I trust that they’re real, but perhaps their depiction here is informed by Vince’s feelings about them.
The next scene features the most obviously first-person narration, with letterer Fonograficks even rendering the voiceover in italics, implying that the comments are those of a personal journal entry. The scene follows Tian Chenglei, an art student in China moving to Shu, the site of another tree landing. He is warned about the conditions before entering, but enters with all of the youthful enthusiasm he can muster…which quickly curdles to uncertainty, and even fear. Howard brilliantly distills that experience to a single moment as Chenglei makes his way to his apartment.
The final scene takes us to a scientific research station in Svalbard, Norway, the site of yet another tree, where a number of black flowers have begun to spring up. This scene also features no voice-over, and is arguably the only with a third person omniscient narrator, as we’re privy to information that the characters don’t know (yet). That information is a confirmation that the flowers are related to the trees — an obvious enough conclusion, but one which hasn’t been explicitly acknowledged by the characters there.
It would be myopic to suggest that narrative perspective is the point of this issue — or even the most important detail — but I do think Ellis is using perspective very specifically to draw us into the narrative. The opening scene, featuring virtually no dialogue, is the least personal, but also features the greatest amount of pure exposition, taking on some necessary world-building in order to make the following scenes less cumbersome. Each subsequent scene still features massive amounts of exposition, but as the narrative perspective gets increasingly close to the characters, those details feel like very natural components of their stories. That final scene still emphasizes the characters, focusing on petty banter (and suggesting that Mitch must be British), but pulls out the camera just a bit, effectively making us a member of this world.
Aligning us with the victims of the trees’ indifference could be an uncomfortable task — it’s easy to see ourselves reflected in the actions of the trees — but this issue masterfully makes the personal journeys of those characters feel utterly relatable to us, tying them to elemental emotions of fear, curiosity, and power. It’s a stunning, assured first issue which just so happens to double as a study of narrative perspective in comics. That is to say, it made me very happy. Shelby, I’m curious to hear if you are as enamored of all of this perspective shifting as I was. Oh! And I barely mentioned the technology featured in this issue, which feels just a few years ahead of where we are now. Any guesses as to how far in the future this series takes place?
Shelby: I think the idea I find most compelling in this pretty amazing first issue is the idea of normalcy, and what that really means. The final page of the issue is all white, with only a round glyph and four words:
All this is normal. In the face of the insanity of the scene Ellis and Howard have set, how can normal even have any meaning? It makes me think of, of all things, the Internet. For most of us, I’m guessing, having the Internet on our phones, in our pockets at all times is completely normal. I was watching a movie with a friend the other night, and I wondered what other movies that director had made. My friend pulled out his phone and we immediately had the answer, because that’s the way things work now (for better or for worse). But I remember when my family first got dial-up when I was in high school; I remember a different “normal.”
This is the point where the shifting perspectives you mentioned, Drew, comes in. Not only do we have a drastically different definition of normal in this book, Ellis gives us different definitions of what normal means with each different perspective. Vince, the mayoral candidate, addresses the idea directly, reminiscing about the time when the trees landed and how they became everyone’s normal. Not only does he remember when “normal” meant something totally different, he says he wants to be mayor because, “the mayor gets to decide what’s normal.” The impact elected officials have on society’s idea of what is considered normal is an interesting enough concept on it’s own; I love seeing it applied to a “normal” so far removed from our own. We compare this to Chenglei, who is instead finding his own, personal definition of normal altered. This is a situation I think we can all relate to, discovering the world is much bigger than you previously thought, and your “normal” means next to nothing. It’s an experience that we constantly encounter as we grow as people, and I am again excited to see it in action in the context of these trees.
Already in issue one, Ellis has given us completely different concepts to focus on, in addition to his fascinating take on alien invasions. I’ve seen my share of “aliens take over” scenarios, and I’ve never seen one like this. Always, the aliens interact with humanity in some way: blow up the White House, try to live among us in disguise, glue Sarah Jessica Parker’s head on a chihuahua’s body. Never have I seen aliens land and completely ignore the world around them. Ellis has deemed humanity too insignificant to count, and that’s just his cold open. I can’t wait to see where he’s going to take this story from here.
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