Apocalypse by Trees: Warren Ellis’s Trees

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Given the revival of zombies and other forms of apocalypse in modern media and culture, perhaps today’s media creators are all honing in on a general instability hiding under our technology age where the future seems bright but something rotten lurks underneath.

Warren Ellis’s Trees capitalizes on the concept and the fear of the apocalypse in the modern age with alien tree-like creatures falling from space and landing on Earth. However, unlike the zombies and any active attacking force galvanizing the end of the world, the trees rule and stand with a nearly silent presence, growing and oozing a mysterious green acidic liquid. In a way, the trees do not intentionally inflict malevolence on the humans and communities of Earth. They simply grow and live, but as they flourish, they interrupt human life, landscapes, natural resources, and societies, leaving humans to adapt in the wake.

Cover for Warren Ellis’s Trees Volume One

Given the indifference of the trees, they really cannot serve as villains in the series. Consequently, as seen in the wake of most natural disasters, the enemies and the heroes rise from humans as they try to live in a new world from the rubble of the past. And though the non-sentient trees now control the world without communicating their intentions (or really even having the facilities to do so), evil rises in varying degrees from different people futilely grasping for control, and good rises from people understanding the triviality of life given the inexplicable damage of the trees and have thus tried to adapt and life as freely and happily as possible.

The first volume of Trees compiles the starting eight issues and covers the reactions and survival strategies of people across different classes and countries across the world. In this first volume, we see how politicians, dictators, scientists, farmers, painters, lower level gangsters, police, and everyday, regular people live in the shadows of the trees. Each group of focus brings a radically different perspective to the circumstances, and given the direness of the world of the trees, each group’s intentions are truer to their characters and personas than ever.

In this first volume, a scientist studies in isolation in Norway, unrelentlessly and irresponsibly committing everything to understanding the tree’s expansion. An uncommonly wealthy man in Rio de Janeiro contemplates on his political career and his desire to change the current regime of law enforcement. In the city of Shu, a former farmer crosses barricaded gates to enter an artist and freak community centered and thriving around a tree and separated from everyone else by concrete walls and military guard. In Somalia, a dictator plans on using a tree as an object of military strategy. And, in Cefalu, small time mobsters reign over the mostly abandoned wasteland caused by the arrival and permanent residence of a tree.

Despite the presence of these uncaring and unrelenting trees in these people’s lives, the world has really not changed too much. Power struggles still exist. Kindness still exists. Brutality still exists. Greed still exists. Vices and virtues all remain the same but each has been magnified, and the territory between has become even more unclear in this world. And, this grey area is what makes Trees a fascinating read because this amplified ambiguity between good and evil parallels the same territory in our globalized, technology linked world.

Undoubtedly, the fiction of the trees linger in the background of the narrative, but they exist exactly the way they do in the world of the series as silent, domineering giants, ready to make a move that could dissolve an entire community at any moment. Consequently, a sense of transience runs throughout every branch and arc of Trees. Unlike in most fiction, a character or setting can disappear from the narrative at anytime due to the unpredictability of the trees and the administrations of the various people who attempt to run the world, making the fictional world detailed in Trees far less different than our own transient real world.

Absolutely an exercise in existentialism, as expected from most post-apocalyptic works, Trees asks plenty of hard questions about human motivations and purpose. Each character in the series approaches the question in a different way in light of the mercurial and death-inducing trees, and in turn, Ellis asks us to think about our own existence in reality where life is just as fragile and temporary. Despite the heavy topic, the combination of Ellis’s prose-like narration with fluid dialog and Jason Howard’s semi-realist artwork makes Trees emerge as more of a naturalist rather than allegorical work. Though it may border the line between insightfully powerful and heavy-handedly pretentious, Trees has the potential to capture and interpret all of the struggles, conflicts, and moments of hope seen in modern times around the world, preparing it to become one of the most comprehensive series offering commentary on the experience of living as a human being on Earth in the 21st century.

Trees Volume One is written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Jason Howard. This first volume collects issues 1-8, and issue 9 will be available in May.

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