'Trees' for free

[Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Robot 6 contributors discuss “The best in comics from the last seven days” — from news and announcements to a great comic that came out to something cool creators or fans have done.]

A new Warren Ellis comic book, particularly a new creator-owned Warren Ellis comic book, is a big deal. Trees has the added bonus of absolutely fantastic art by Jason Howard. Image Comics celebrated the release by making the digital version of the first issue free pretty much everywhere.

The visual concept is an interesting one: giant tree-like alien structures burrow their way into Earth. And then…nothing happens. No aliens come out, no invasion, no peaceful emissary, nothing. Life just carries on. I could see that being a tough sell to some editor or publisher. "Nothing happens” is pretty much a dead end, story wise. But as with any great science fiction story, the point of the story is examining how we react, how life changes. So “nothing happens” actually isn’t true at all. Even the trees take some action. Some kind of molten sap leaks out and causes death and destruction in Rio de Janeiro. Mysterious black flowers grow in the cold northwestern Norway. But most significantly, their mere presence changes society.

The issue mostly takes us on a tour of different locations around the globe, introducing us to a scattered cast of characters that will no doubt play a significant role as things continue to unravel. The first issue, though, is about setting up roots. What is this world that is very much like the future of our own? Who are the people and how do they live in it? Each location seems to have responded a little differently to the silent invaders, but even so, life has continued. Some even live in and around the base of the trees. That seems absolutely crazy to me, but then there are people that live in houses precariously perched on cliffs in areas of the world prone to earthquakes and fires. Given that 10 years have passed with nearly no change to the trees, that probably is exactly what would happen.

Jason Howard’s art is perfect for this series. There is a beautifully foreboding approach to the design and layout of the trees and the environments around them. Notably, we never see the tops of the trees. They simply just fade out of view in the sky, which compounds the creepy mystery around them. The scale is immense and Howard skillfully shuffles from big expansive views and then zooms in close for a look at the winding roots interacting with ramshackle housing. But stories are nothing without characters, and Howard’s cast each move with their own history, their own full life. Young Tian Chenglei is perhaps most compelling of all as the naive country boy moving in to the big, slimy city of Shu that’s been enclosed for observation on how its affected by the trees.

The free giveaway of the digital issue lasts until Tuesday, and then the second issue is released both in print and digitally on Wednesday. That’s a smart loss leader strategy that hopefully gets the attention and sales this series deserves.

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