Today, Patrick and Ryan are discussing Trees 10, originally released June 17th, 2015.
Patrick: There’s a problem with most disaster narratives: there’s seldom an obvious antagonist. For as much as “Man vs. Nature” is one of those fundamental conflicts, it’s just harder for an audience to emotionally commit to a series of atrocities committed by a force or phenomenon with no willpower of its own. Think about every zombie movie you’ve ever seen – who are the real bad guys? The zombies? Nah: people pushed to desperate measures are far more dangerous. Twister, Titanic, Alien – all of these movies feature the deadly forces of nature, but there’s no sense of antagonism until we meet rival storm chasers, or understand how big of a dick Rose’ boyfriend is, or until Bishop reveals Weyland Yutani’s coroprate greed. Trees has done something similar in previous issues – focusing on the cultures of corruption, control, and ambition around the trees, ultimately casting man as his own worst enemy. Issue 10, however, reminds us just how terrifying the trees themselves actually are.
In the wake of the incident at the Svalbard tree site, New York’s Mayor-Elect has decided that he needs a stronger grasp on the power-structure. Here, that takes the form of the Police Commissioner, who the Vince is re-instating despite the fact that the cops have become something of a bully organization, operating independently of local governance. In both the scene itself and the debriefing that follows, it’s clear that this is a wholly political maneuver, but it’s never entirely obvious to what end. The Commissioner represents control over an uncontrollable body, but it’s a totally non-transferable kind of control. Vince isn’t going to be able to command the cops any more than he would through a new appointee. What keeping the old Commission around does accomplish is that it makes the law enforcement messaging consistent, reinforcing the idea that those in charge remain in charge.
I find it interesting that writer Warren Ellis uses this scene to reiterate some possibly-forgotten truths about this world. The first and foremost being that the trees themselves represent a huge threat to New Yorkers (and, indeed, everyone). Throughout the course of the first eight issues, its easy to forget that the conceit of this series hinges on a mysterious, violent alien invasion. We can get caught up in Chenglei and Zehn’s liberating relationship, or Eligia’s quest to take down Tito, or the Russians mounting weapons on a tree, but that’s all noise around the real threat – a threat that occurs on a scale several orders of magnitude greater than those very human struggles. The first three pages let the horror of the original arrival of the trees slowly encroach on the page – first one of three panels, then two of three, then the whole page.
Unlike the rest of the storytelling in Trees, which is nuanced and subtle, the conflict represented by the tidal wave is immediately apparent. That’s a huge loss of life, and would be a natural disaster bigger than we can really comprehend. Artist Jason Howard is banking on our visceral reaction to the sight of an enormous wave heading toward Manhattan – evoking the primal fear of which the trees are worthy.
And that’s awesome. Every now and then, you need a reminder that the zombies really are a powerful force on The Walking Dead. We like human drama, but we can’t help but respond to inhuman drama. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be territory that Howard and Ellis want to inhabit for too long. A (presumably poor) person who gets caught up in the wave has their face gored by the Bowling Green Bull — an obvious symbol for Wall Street and capitalistic greed. It’s a gruesome wound, and Vince freezes his television on it so we see the poor soul in three different panels, but it’s symbolic significance ends up carrying as much weight as the literal. The have-nots are sacrificed at the altar of the haves. That’s what the new Mayor is really working against — not the impossible-to-fight-trees, but the dickbags that take advantage of the chaos they cause.
Ryan, I didn’t touch on Dr. Creasy’s story, which gets infused with the charming, if bumbling, Noah Flett. I realize that Ellis isn’t writing him as all that goofy, but Howard seems to have staked a claim on Noah’s personality.
The hat! The beard! The turtleneck! The overcoat! I love everything about this guy. And that’s a good thing too – since we lost Chenglei and Dr. Marsh, there was starting to be a void of lovable characters in this world. Well: balance restored, as far as I’m concerned. Ryan, were you as charmed by this gentleman as I was? And how did you feel about the “little things” metaphor? Howard inserts a panel of the black flowers, intimating that there is some kind of connection between those flowers and the “little things” in life. I haven’t quite worked out the math on that yet, but there’s something there.
Ryan: I like your angle, Patrick. Every generation seems to have some defining moment, event, or- more often than not- tragedy to which all its members can identify the specifics when prompted “Where were you when…?” Before millennials became the popular label slapped upon my age bracket, the going term for us was “Generation 9/11”. The first half of this issue succeeds in bringing the reality and gravity of the destructive arrival of the Trees into focus, instead of the exploration of their effects upon which this series thus far has been built. The Mayor-Elect of NYC delivers a stirring speech regarding the very human consequences of the Tree’s landing:
This monologue serves two purposes well: 1) to color in with vivid detail what happened on the ground-level and 2) to establish the deep visceral connection which the character has with the moment, which seems to be the basis for his upcoming actions. Also, I find it very interesting that this scathing denouncement of the police coincides with all of the recent media scrutiny in the US of the public servant sometime flippantly referred to as “the fuzz”.
Ellis never shies away from pointing to big political issues in Trees, Injection, Transmetropolitan, and so on. Much of this series shows the ugliness of human nature in the wake of large happenings. We get a glimpse here of the xenophobia in London:
Now that the bulk of London’s police work seems to be handled by drones, the worst is coming out in people. All of the cultural anxiety of “foreigners” that simmers in London boils over, and the resulting violence shows that even in the midst of what could be an extinction-level event, humans can still find time for pettiness. Jason Howard is as consistent as ever with his scratchy lineation which always forces your focus on the most important image in the panel.
All of that being said, this issue did not do much for me. Drew has teased me in the past about my impatience during some of the middle issues in Trees arcs, and Ellis often makes me eat crow by filling the following issues with more action than you can shake a stick at. However, I am worried that many popular fictional narratives are starting to suffer in the wake of the success of A Game of Thrones. Just because you can kill off a main character does not mean it’s completely justified in the storytelling. After the great culling of characters in #7 and #8, there aren’t many people left for Ellis to off; thus, I am also glad we are introduced to Noah Flett.
So we receive a new piece on the chess board in Ghus- oops, I meant Flett, and Creasy moves out to her new station, but are any pieces advanced in the story? If this issue and the last are setting the pattern, than it seems like we will be seeing a different political spotlight in each chapter as Dr. Creasy continues down her path to facing past traumas. Maybe this way, we can finally see some of the fallout around the Puntland Tree and how the Somali Federation fares! And what news from Shu? Where is the army of sexually-liberated artists lead by Zhen I have been promised?! I earnestly do not know how much longer I can hold out, Warren Ellis.
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Ah, motherfucker, you totally caught me just loving Ghus — the seal-pup-man from Saga — again! I didn’t realize that I love them both because they’re basically the same character. I have a type!
That character-culling was real tough, and it’s even harder to spend so much time with Mayor-Elect-Man, as we’ve only spent a few pages with him so far over the run of the series. I hadn’t considered how much that is a quality of Game of Thrones, but Ryan’s totally right to make that comparison. In Thrones, I get it as a rejection of fantasy tropes and a subversion of the idea that one special hero can (or should) rise above how horrible his world is.
I think it’s a little different in Trees. Ellis makes a point to articulate just how little the Trees themselves seem to care about mankind – I think his calloused storytelling is meant to reflect those callouses.