Tensions rise and boundaries are crossed in Trees #4, written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Jason Howard. Despite juggling nearly half a dozen characters, this issue does a great job of introducing and progressing character conflicts: we learn Chenglei is reluctant to leave his apartment because he feels like an outsider, Zhen is a transgendered woman looking to start a new life of freedom in the city of Shu, Marsh refuses to leave his post at the Norwegian station because nothing else matters to him but uncovering the mystery of the Trees, and Sarah fears Marsh’s obsession may have negative consequences for the rest of the team.
Now if this review is your first exposure to Trees at all, you may be a little confused. Don’t worry, this disposition is shared by those who actually do regularly read the series. The premise fairly-straightforward: ten years ago, gigantic obelisk-shaped objects called Trees landed across our planet and we see the rippling effects on human society that these mysterious pillars have wrought through the eyes of at least a dozen characters in different countries and cultures. But it’s the execution of the thing that makes this series so hard to follow.
Seemingly important characters drop out of sight for one or two issues at a time and new characters are introduced every month. Some storylines only tangentially relate to the Trees themselves. And it seems like Warren Ellis outright refuses to end issues on an explosive climax or a cliffhanger, instead letting them trail off with a vague since of impending dread, so if you’re used to the Brian K. Vaughn school of story-telling where every installment ends on a game-changing splash page, you may be disappointed.
But for those with a little more patience and a tolerance for a story where every plot-point and character trait isn’t spoon-fed to you from the get-go, I would actually give this book a hearty recommend. Now I don’t mean to say that stories with clear narrative paths and easily-definable characters are bad, but one of Trees’ major strengths is that it drops the reader into a massive, intriguing world and respects them enough to allow them put the pieces together themselves. There’s very little plot to speak of other than “Here be Trees” and that means the characters have to do all the heavy-lifting, but luckily these characters range from mildly interesting to very compelling. My personal favorites are Marsh and his crew, and his dialogue with Sarah is a definite highlight of the issue.
Jason Howard continues to do solid work, drawing every panel an intimacy and attention to detail. His wider panels are often packed cityscapes, folks bustling from place to place, and occasionally a Tree to remind us of their subtly sinister presence, while his tighter, character-focused shots are very dynamic. Howard definitely has a way with faces, as is demonstrated this issue in a great six-panel sequence of Chenglei cycling through a medley of emotions after learning of Shen’s gender identity.
I did have a slight problem with some of his women, however. There are two women in particular, Zhen and Eligia, that look almost identical at a glance. Skin tones, hair colors, body types, and even facial structures match a little too closely for comfort, which is strange because they’re from China and Brazil respectively. The only appreciable difference between them is that Eligia’s hair slightly curls at the bottom while Zhen’s is straight, but when you introduce either one of these characters into a scene with a close-up of just their face, it can really disorient you.
Trees continues to baffle with every issue, but this is one of those times where, like East of West, I’m perfectly fine settling down and letting a good storyteller take us for a ride in a crazy world with interesting characters. This issue’s final page ends with the words “This means something” surrounded by an inscrutable, circular symbol on an otherwise stark white page, as if Ellis is gently tapping us on the shoulder and whispering into our ears “I’m not just jerking you around, mate. There will be a point to all this, I swear.” We believe you, Mr. Ellis, no need to get insecure. Just keep these characters engaging and this world alive and you can take us wherever you want.