Today, Patrick and Greg are discussing Trees 2, originally released June 25th, 2014.
Tallahassee: My mama always told me someday I’d be good at something. Who’d a guessed that something’d be zombie-killing?
Columbus: Probably nobody.
Patrick: Disaster narratives are always going to be rooted in the hardships of survival. When the aliens invade or the world starts to crumble on its foundations, that’s how we insert ourselves into the story: “how would I survive?” Zombie stories have permeated the zeitgeist so thoroughly that that question has slowly evolved into “how would I thrive?” That’s why Zombieland is so successful – instead of dwelling on the nitty gritty day-to-day of not-dying, the movie speedily gets around to the business of defining and achieving success in this world. Tallahassee isn’t a crass opportunist, he’s a man that understands his skills in the zombie apocalypse, and he’ll use those skills to better his quality of life. Trees, despite its unique premise, is also able to quickly move on to the business of understanding and taking advantage of the disaster.
Just like in the previous issue, Trees 2 bounces around the world, exploring the Tree invasion from several discrete perspectives. Unlike that first issue, a central cast starts to emerge in the form of the research team in the Tree Monitoring Station in Northwest Spitsbergen. They’re the only characters that carry over from the previous issue, and we visit them at the opening and close of this issue. Since it seems like we might be spending a little bit of time with these guys, let’s take a second to get to know them, shall we? At the heart of this group is the rather controversial character of Marsh.
Marsh has found his place in a post-tree-invasion world. He’s totally at home studying these things, and might be a little too comfortable living in Arctic isolation. The thing is, he’s also on to something: he’s discovered a mysterious black flower growing on Napoleon — one of the remote controlled data collecting robots. The flower, he hypothesizes, is somehow related to the trees themselves. That kind of big, mythological revelation has to take a backseat to dynamics between the team members. Not everyone is so happy to be cooped up here, freezing their butts off and under constant threat of polar bear attack.
Starting top-left and going clockwise, we’ve got: Sarah Allinson, an enabler of Marsh’s behavior; Adamski, either an asshole, or just sick of putting up with Marsh’s shit; Dr. Creasy, the newbie who is quickly regretting coming here; and Nileen Siva, a scientist turned de facto security. It’s a nice set of perspectives, and they each cast Marsh in a little bit of a different light. If the first issue was an exercise in different people’s experiences of the trees, then perhaps this issue is leveraging that same technique to illuminate Marsh. Even the covers of these two issues suggest this shift in focus, first the first prominently featuring a tree with city crushed below it, and the second featuring Marsh’s face with only whips of the mysterious black flowers.
From what little we get about him, Marsh seems like a fascinating character. It’s hard to say what it is that he’s dependently addicted to: the work? the chance to save the world? the isolation? When he briefs Dr. Creasy about their environment at the edge of the world, he’s totally blasé about even the weirder things they have to put up with. That leads to my favorite exchange in the issue.
Now, “guards who were polar bears” is ridiculous, but it’s only slightly less weird than the truth: there are polar bears against which our scientists need to be guarded, and all those guards have bailed. Marsh doesn’t miss a beat when he clarifies the incrementally less odd reality of the situation. Whatever obstacles are in Marsh’ way appear too trivial to bother with – sure, there are polar bears out there attacking people, but whatever: just get Siva to shoot them. (Also, he’s not always drinking coffee, just a weird coincidence that I picked those two images of him to post.)
In fact, it’s downright strange how at-peace Marsh seems to be with his life. The research outpost is located on located on Spitsbergen, one of the islands of the Norwegian archipelago called Svalbard. All of Trees is written with a geographical savvy that you don’t see in many comics, even those that attempt to depict the global effects of world-wide events. Spitsbergen is a decidedly more obscure location that something like New York or Rio, and I just like the opportunity to learn a little bit about a new place. Turns out that both the ubiquity of research stations and the persistent concern over polar bear attacks are ripped right from reality. Also, it’s an intuitive detail, but they’re in the middle of polar summer, so when Creasy asks how Marsh can tell it’s morning it’s another cleverly established detail. The sun’s always up, but Marsh doesn’t dwell on how unpleasant that is or what perpetual sunlight does to a person, he just rattles off his reasoning for believing that it’s morning. Very clean, very matter of fact.
Greg, I didn’t touch on the other characters at all, but they are also all jockeying for position in a post-invasion world. One is an act of criminal opportunism and the other a potential act of war. Did these stories grab you? Or do they feel more like dressing for the principal story? Also, were you as surprised as I was that the Spitsbergen scientists ended up getting the spotlight here? I have no idea what to expect from the next issue – more of the researchers or maybe a new batch of characters entirely?
Greg: There’s only one character who grabbed my attention as thoroughly and intriguingly as Marsh, and that’s the older gentleman that pulled a knife on the woman who rushed her. What do these characters have in common, besides the fact that the older gentlemen looks intriguingly like a Marsh from the future? They both seem to know exactly what they’re doing, while everyone around them is merely guessing. The confusion and lack of foresight that stems from a disaster, both real-life and fictional, can often fry humanity’s circuits, making them incapable of decisions or stability. Much like Tallahassee, Marsh and the older guy project a calm sense of sound mind and action, which is naturally quite compelling to the reader. In real life, if something like this were to happen, I’d hang around the guy who seemed to have it together, too.
I’m reminded of low budget horror (and arguably disaster) flicks Feast and Cube, both of which feature an ensemble cast dealing with a physically and existentially harrowing task, and both of which feature one key figure emerge as a possible hero, oozing confidence and know-how. They’re then, of course, then immediately killed resulting in an audience effect both jarring and blackly hilarious. It’s almost like the storytellers gave themselves a dare to see if they could make it work regardless: If you don’t follow this type of person, who else is there? As of yet, writer Warren Ellis doesn’t seem to have this type of character twist in mind, though as you rightly mention, the next issue may find a new central focus.
I had trouble finding my footing in this issue, Patrick, because of its severe chilliness (pun mostly intended). While Jason Howard’s artwork is compellingly beautiful in its minimalism, wispiness, and ethereal qualities, it intensifies Ellis’ (and Marsh’s) matter-of-factness in a way that almost feels clinical and inert. The closest film analogue I can think of is David Cronenberg; the fact that there is a huge critical following for him that I can’t get onboard with may be an analogue to this, too. I share your enthusiasm for the issue’s attention to detail and geographic specificity, Patrick, but when that seems to be solely what characters talk about (such as the pseudo-political scene in the “pink room” that feels like nothing but exposition and tree jargon), it doesn’t feel human. You bring up two chief questions asked by disaster narratives, but I would like to offer a third: “Will I be okay?” Human beings are concerned with more than just staying alive; they’re concerned with feelings, emotions, making sure they’re doing alright. Post-apocalyptic scenarios may dull these open moments of expression for the sake of survival, but these moments of expression must be felt regardless. My favorite scene, by far, was the end meal when the scientists finally started lashing out at each other, as it was motivated by strong, grounded, and easily identifiable emotions. It felt like we were being given something, whereas the rest of the issue, like Marsh, felt competent and confident, yes, but also stubborn and withholding.
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I didn’t even think for a second to make a connection between Marsh and the mystery dude in Cefalu (let alone to the narrative withholding an emotional through-line). I guess there’s nothing suggesting that we aren’t witnessing events from different time periods… or maybe Marsh himself is a projection of the trees? I’m making crazy guesses here, but I’m not all that concerned with how the plot of this thing plays out. I’m much more interested in how Ellis and Howard convey their story, with their various tricks of perspective creating a nicely rounded environment that I continue to have an insatiable curiosity for.