On Not Showing the Action: Stillness in ‘Trees’

How to show, and read, movement is a central question for comics as an artistic and narrative medium. Most stories require artists to employ a variety of devices for signifying and inferring action and motion, both within and between panels. Readers, in turn, need to make appropriate inferences, or make the necessary sense of, what they see.

The reason for these challenges is obvious, but also fundamental: comics necessitates the use of still images to tell stories, and most stories involve dynamics of action and reaction. Punch/counterpunch. Run/chase. Jump/fly.

There certainly are comics that tell stories which involve little in the way of complicated movement, but the medium is overwhelmingly used for action-heavy genres, notably, superheroes, horror, science fiction, crime, and fantasy. Regular readers of comics become well-trained in inferring the often detailed movements inherent to action, whether intense fight scenes or high-speed chases.

The normalcy of reading movement into comics art is what makes Warren Ellis’ and Jason Howard’s new series, Trees a curiosity. One set of characters at the heart of the story, the titular “trees”, are rooted in place. They don’t move.

When Trees begins, Earth has already been “invaded” by giant alien columns, which “stand on the surface of the Earth like trees.” Whether the “trees” are themselves the aliens or are some kind of alien technology is not clear. As the issue one prologue states:

Ten years after they landed. All over the world as if there were no-one here. And they did nothing and did not speak as if there no-one were here and nothing under foot. Ten years since we learned that there is intelligent life in the universe but that they did not recognise us as intelligent or alive.

As introduced, then, mute stillness is the central character trait of the trees.

This trait means that the humans in the story, the characters we can relate to as thinking, talking, moving beings, are trapped in a reactive state, always responding to the trees, but never getting a response back. Starting the story ten years after the alien arrival means that readers don’t even get to see the one point at which the trees were in motion. We only get to see them rooted in place and un-responsive to the people scurrying around them on the ground.

And “scurrying” is an apt description to describe what the human characters are shown doing. Ellis and Howard spend the first four issues of their series developing a sense of how the trees have become part of culture. The opening sequence shows a police chase in Rio de Janeiro interrupted by one of the trees, indifferently, dumping waste onto the city. This is followed by a discussion between a New York mayoral candidate and one of his advisors about the political importance of having a “tree policy”.

In east Africa, “the world’s shortest tree” is cause for geopolitical friction in Somalia. Other major storylines involve an arctic research station located at one of the tree sites, and an artists colony in China that has organized itself around another of the trees. While the trees may not move, and do very little otherwise, their presence has come to influence much of what people do and where they go, but without any clear direction or common purpose.

What feels strange about this story-so-far is how all of this human activity is part and parcel of one extended reaction to the arrival of the trees. There is no back-and-forth between protagonist, the human species, and antagonist, the trees (or who or whatever may be behind them). Rather, people are either drawn to the trees, trying to make meaning from the alien presence, or are stuck living in their shadows.

In either case, the narrative is structured around fixed points, and movement to those points, but not so much movement between, and even then, only on the part of one set of characters. The “heroes” of this story are not so much challenged by the “villains” as ignored.

In his review of the series for PopMatters, Steven Michael Scott concludes:

While I’d love to tell you that Trees is the thinking man’s comic, and you’re missing out big time if you’re not pouring over every word of every panel, but I just can’t. What initially began as a slow burn with the promise of smartly written hard sci-fi is steadily burning out and my interest with it. There’s no rule that says a story can’t exercise the brain while simultaneously engaging our emotions, and unfortunately, this offers neither. Hopefully some of the seeds that are being planted will pay off eventually, but I won’t stick around to find out. I know it’s called Trees and all, but does the pacing of the story have to match the growth of one? (See “Not the Antidote You’re Looking For: “Trees #4“, 25 August 2014).

That deliberate pacing, and the feeling that nothing much is happening, is one consequence of the static protagonist. There is something unfamiliar and frustrating about a major character that doesn’t move, literally or figuratively.

And yet, I still find the premise alluring.

Science fiction is rife with stories of humans facing alien invasions where the aliens are more brutal, physically stronger or technologically superior. However, asymmetric these engagements, there’s still a back-and-forth between human and invader, and room for the human spirit to triumph over adversity. Ellis’ and Howard’s trees are implacable, not because they are obviously superior in some way to those they have invaded, but because they don’t care, and are unaffected by, the human presence on Earth.

While the prologue informs readers that the trees are signs of intelligent life, it is not clear what kind of intelligence. The trees, for all you know at this point, are a kind of primitive intelligence, seeking sustenance and finding it on Earth, but without any ability to be aware of the consequences of their actions for others, or maybe, even of “others” in the first place.

On the other hand, the trees may merely represent the intelligence of some other entity, making them alien tools, not alien beings. Or maybe they are, in fact, themselves, a form of life so vast in its intelligence that humans do not register as comparable. That inscrutability, however frustrating it might be both for the human characters in the story and readers, are at the heart of how Ellis and Howard are imagining the possibilities of alien life.

Trees #4 ends with what looks like military action being taken against the East African tree. Maybe this will produce a response, movement, finally, from the trees. For the set-up of this series, though, Ellis and Howard have made novel use of the stillness of the image in comics by incorporating that quality as a character trait, rather than, as is more normal, creatively bracketing or masking the inherent stillness of the medium. This “move”, if you will, does not read simply as a formal exercise, but also serves to signify the alien otherness of the trees.

The marriage of form and content in Trees pushes the boundaries of speculation on the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence. Insects, reptiles, fish and machines are common models of alienness in science fiction — scuttle, crawl, dash, swim, glide, spin, turn or grind. That’s movement you can hear and see. Trees imagines stillness as the other.