Trees 9

Alternating Currents: Trees 9, Ryan and Drew

Today, Ryan and Drew are discussing Trees 9, originally released May 20th, 2015.

…Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Ryan: The curtains rise in Trees 9 on three silent pages chronicling the Luciferian Fall of poor, poor Marsh. My favorite character in this series rests, undone by the very thing which drove him to the brink of madness:

Flowers mark his grave

The nefarious flowers bloom in his desiccated corpse as if in an elegy: Here Lie Marsh, Whose Name Was Writ Only in Alien Poppies. Thank you, Jason Howard, for the send-off which Dr. Marsh needed.

With all of the deaths and changes in status quo in Trees 8, I welcome the closure which comes with confirmation of his passing. Less is known about the other ramifications from last issue. What news of the escalated military tensions on the Puntland Tree? How fares Zhen after the drone strikes on Shu and the guerrilla resistance movement of sexually liberated artists which I promised and still feel in my heart will certainly happen? And what of Elegia’s wheels-within-wheels turning over in Cefalu, featuring her meteoric rise to quasi-mafioso power? While the audience receives zero answers to these burning questions, we do have one character returning from the frozen waters.

Dr. Joanne Creasy survived the helicopter crash (as Drew and I predicted) following the Svalbard Tree’s devastating EMP, but still bears the emotional and physical scars. While it is very difficult to convey a character’s limp in a medium like comics without explicitly mentioning it, Creasy attends physical therapy in what seems to be a long recovery process, particularly for her legs, because “[she] was in the water a long time.” A small note: I did some reading around on treatment for “severe systemic hypothermia” and it seems like a miracle that Dr. Creasy survived a cold injury that features medical directives such as “Always follow the dictum that patients with severe hypothermia are never dead until they are warm and dead.” Yikes. On top of all this, the nightmares afflicting her could indicate some residual psychological trauma, potentially something as serious as PTSD.

With these things in mind, Creasy’s apprehension about returning to a Tree site at the behest of the government makes perfect sense, even if the idea is proposed by someone as smooth as Ridley Calderwood. In Calderwood’s debut, whose official title is Permanent Under Secretary of State to the Home Secretary, I wonder if we really get a sense of his personality — or, at least, the face he puts on when he is talking to the uninitiated. Either way, he sports a very intriguing face: charming, self-aware, dapper, and slightly terrifying, all in equal parts. Alongside the literal Fall of Marsh, Calderwood could represent the foolish pride which leads to the Downfall of those hoping to study or control a force as unpredictable and powerful as these Trees

As you may have gleaned from the absence of so many plot threads, Trees 9 is just as much about what Warren Ellis and Jason Howard show us as it is about what we do not see. One image that speaks volumes is that of the drone at Westminster Abbey:

Maybe it's just a robo-tourist?

I confess to not paying the ubiquitous presence of drones enough attention until they destroyed the bloom of the young artist Chen last issue, but now it is impossible to miss the large footprint they leave in the world of Trees. Drones face much controversy in our modern day, and many argue that we have yet to see the heyday of them widely-used in military, commercial, or philanthropic areas. While this may be Ellis taking the next logical step in this technology’s advancement in this slightly futuristic world, it could also be a commentary on how governments respond to a threat as opaque as the Trees, and whether or not this trust in the mechanical could be yet another part of our Downfall.

From your other reviews, dearest Drew, I know you have a good grasp on developments from writers which either expand a universe or actually shrink its dimensions. How did this issue do on that scale? And I need some help parsing through the political sides of all of this. Do you trust Calderwood and his mission?

Drew: Kinda. I certainly think the story he gives Creasy makes sense — an EMP blast to a populated area would be dangerous and expensive — but he offers just enough praise to Marsh to give him a Paul-Raiser-in-Aliens vibe. Could he be hoping to exploit Creasy’s experience for something he isn’t sharing? It’s hard to tell. Ellis gives him just enough creepy-but-only-kidding dialogue (and Howard allows Calderwood to deliver them with such casual charm) that he’s remarkably difficult to read. Is there a grain of truth in his jokes?

The rest of the series doesn’t leave me with much optimism, but this issue in particular strikes me as an indictment of power. The Trees have long represented deep, immutable power structures, gently exerting pressure over the lives around them, but so quietly as to seem almost passive. That they still loom over every scene belies how powerful they truly are, but Ellis and Howard are clever enough to weave other, equally entrenched power structures throughout the issue. The Home Office is definitely one of those, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this issue also prominently features Westminster Abbey, one of the most famous churches in the world, and one inextricably linked with the British Crown.

Indeed, Westminster’s power is so impenetrable, even the police can’t muster the curiosity to care who blew up a car just outside of it.

Hard to say

Did I mention this series doesn’t leave me with much optimism?

But of course, the real interest of this series comes when those power structures start to conflict, be it Science vs. the Trees (in Svalbard), Politics vs. Pragmatism (Cefalu), Love vs. Government (Shu), or Government vs. the Trees (Puntland). We can understand how the Home Office’s interests may lay at cross purposes with that of the Trees, but this issue doesn’t yet present a conflict. Instead, that conflict seems to come at the end of the issue, where Mayor-Elect Vince (who we haven’t seen since issue 1) reviews video of the Tree invasion with a Four-Star General. It’s not totally clear what he’s bringing to the General’s attention, but you can bet it ain’t a cute kitten video.

Actually, that its a military officer viewing those videos brings us a heck of a lot closer to taking force to the trees. We’ve seen all kinds of violent actions taken in this series, but they’ve all been people against people (as in Shu and Puntland) or Trees against people (as in Svalbard). This could represent the first real people against Trees action we’re privy to. Or maybe the video represents an entirely different kind of weakness — who knows?

The point is, this issue is all about power, and especially how impersonal entities exert it almost passively. Creasy’s father does it gently, with cute personal touches, the Home Office does it better by only presenting one inscrutable face for their operation, and the Trees do it the best without ever saying a word. That may be the reason drones are so foreboding in the first place — there’s no negotiation, only cold, dispassionate action — but ultimately, this issue speaks to the dangers of increasingly impersonal power structures. It’s a rich vein to mine, and Ellis and Howard continue to find new angles to approach it.

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?

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