Today, Drew and Ryan are discussing Trees 12, originally released August 19th, 2015.
noun: hero; plural noun: heroes
- a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
- the chief male character in a book, play, or movie, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize.
Drew: I think I’ve always thought of those two definitions as functionally identical — we acknowledge heroes in real life for the same qualities we admire them in fiction — but a closer look reveals a rather profound difference in how much agency is required to satisfy these two definitions. That is, the first definition is about deeds performed by the would-be hero, whereas the second definition is more about the heroes place in the narrative; no agency is actually required. It’s no surprise to me that the morally grey characters of Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s Trees don’t satisfy the “noble qualities” clause of the first definition, but I was a bit more surprised to discover how passive they all have been. The biggest turning points in this series find the characters completely passive, from Professor Bongiorno’s acceptance of his own murder to Marsh’s decision to not sound the alarm about the Svalbard poppies. Issue 12 still features plenty of characters boxed in by their circumstances, but also gives Creasy the opportunity to actually do something.
Actually, Creasy has been one of most passive of late, going through the motions of life and accepting a job with the home office. She’s shocked to learn that even her story has been silenced, with the home office opting to sweep the poppies under the rug for fear of causing panic, leaving her without the power to even share information. Of course, that reveal also jogs her memory about something Greenaway had said about the poppies, driving her back to his dig site to confront him about what he knows. Turns out, the Orkney tree is also producing poppies.
Her little bit of detective work is the first piece of real agency we’ve seen in this series since Chenglei decided to give it a go with Zhen back in issue 4. That is, it’s the first action that is entirely motivated by her own interest: neither the home office nor Greenaway are forcing her to solve this little mystery, suggesting that her solution to the poppies may not align exactly with what either of them would want.
As a contrast by-way-of the way things usually are in this series, Vince’s hand is utterly forced in this issue by circumstances bigger than himself. His actions here may still align with his goals, but accelerating the timeline has certainly robbed him of his agency — suddenly, he’s not maneuvering for himself, but in the interests of the criminals who helped get him elected. That may be a boilerplate political narrative, but it’s rare to see those political aspirations so tied up in retribution. Vince’s plan isn’t simply to overhaul the police force, but to replace (and possibly enact revenge upon) every officer holding the line when the trees landed.
Del even calls Vince “close to a one-plank-platform candidate,” and it’s hard to deny just what a single-mindedly harebrained scheme it really is — especially in light of the real-world response of the NYPD when Mayor Bill De Blasio simply suggested that he might worry about the safety of his mixed-race son when dealing with police. It’s hard to imagine Vince commanding the remaining police force after a stunt like firing (or harming) a majority of them, which may be why it was so important to get the commissioner on his side — that was also how De Blasio managed to get the police back under control.
It’s no coincidence that both stories are tied up in how people relate to their governments. Trees has always been about the “silent pressure” the trees exert on the world around them, and the most obvious has always been governmental action — whether it’s attacking a neighboring country or bombing an undesirable settlement. The reveal that the trees seem to have been aiming for 5,000 year-old civilizations suggests that they may not have anticipated the kinds of all-encompassing, violent governments they arrived to, further emphasizing the importance of governmental forces in this issue. Both Creasy and Vince seem to be acting in ways counter to what we might expect of benevolent governmental workers, which may mark them as special in the eyes of the trees.
Or maybe the trees really don’t care. It’s hard to speculate in a series that continues to be so cagey about the very basics of its premise. Ryan, I know that cageyness was starting to wear on you, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this issue. Was Creasy’s sudden realization enough to hook you, or is this whole thing still feeling a little passive?
Ryan: Oh, Creasy’s realization thrills me to my core. What upsets me is that it took us three issues replete with establishing shots of the Scottish countryside and panels of Dr. Creasy traveling to get there. Dr. Greenaway and Creasy are finally getting along now that she has assuaged his concerns that her responsibilities will in any way impinge upon his job of doting upon the Neolithic stone circle. So they finally find poppies at the Tree and discover that the government has been covering the phenomenon so…they talk about it more! I hope these two team up and start doing something active. I like Dr. Greenaway; he is sassy, and I look forward to his and Noah’s death within the next two issues.
Because something needs to happen soon. Trees has flat-lined. I understand trying to experiment with the pace of a story, but it is hard to call issues 9-12 an arc due to how little has happened. And I think Ellis knows that his pacing is off. How else would you explain the curious dump of direct (imagine me spitting that word with disgust) exposition seen in the opening scene of the issue as the Mayor Elect suffers a small panic attack with his Chief of Staff.
This is the third issue in which those two are featured prominently jaw-jacking about how important it is to the Mayor Elect that the corruption of the police force does not continue with impunity. Now he decides to tell us what is going on, explicitly — just in case we missed it — instead of showing us. Ellis’ ability to world-build with and through action defines his success in creating narratives. In Transmetropolitan, Spider Jerusalem did not need to say “I do not like government officials” because he was too busy flipping them the bird while shooting them with a diarrhea-inducing gun! In the first arc of Trees, Ellis, with wonderful master-strokes, told us everything we need to know about how the Chinese government felt about Shu and its LGBT community when missiles fell from the ever-ubiquitous drones. So why all of the recent talking heads?
Promises, man. “Something huge will happen soon.” That is what we get. Ellis beautifully conveyed the ripples which tore through the world in the first arc of this series from an intricate global perspective, but this series has stalled. By removing three interesting plot threads (Shu, Puntland, Italy) from the scope and slow-playing Creasy’s journey, this comic turned from a top-down view of the world to a perspective of minutia. In other words, we had vision of the forest, but now we are relegated to watching the bark — or lichens on the bark, even, to last issue’s point.
I take some small measure of solace in Drew’s idea that the objective of late has been to establish the heightening tension between our characters and their governments, if only because that means more page-time for Ridley Calderwood, who I find to be the most interesting of the new characters. That being said, is the building of this tension worth letting the narrative journey of our main character Creasy lay stagnant for such a long period of time? Is she any closer to her want, or is her need tied any more directly conflicting to an opposing person or force? Have we learned anything else about her aside from how much she loves the Parliament Funkadelic or is often cold? Hopefully, Drew is correct, and the next phase of the story hinges entirely upon what the Trees were expecting vs. where human civilization — corrupt institutions and all — are in the present. Otherwise, it just feels like Ellis, Howard, and I were going on some really fun and promising dates, but maybe they met someone new, and are now letting me off really slowly in the hopes of saving themselves from breaking my heart. But actions speak louder than words, Ellis/Howard, and if nothing happens soon, I may just delete your numbers.
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