It’s great to have Warren Ellis doing science fiction again. Trees has an intriguing, unique premise: what if alien intelligence made contact with humanity, then acted as if we didn’t exist. The story opens with huge black obelisks descending from the sky all over the planet. Their landing sites are apparently random, and they have no regard for the human population. They simply come down, decimating whole city blocks. Then nothing: no attempt to communicate, or to do anything other than dump toxic waste occasionally.
Ten years later humanity has learned to accept the presence of the Trees (as they came to be called). The areas around them have become semi-abandoned, lawless places. Nothing good happens there. The story focuses on life in five such places. In China, a young artist arrives in a special cultural zone under a Tree; in Italy, a young woman learns survival skills in an area run by a fascist gang; and in Svalbard, a research team discovers that the Trees may not be completely dormant after all. The other two locations are only touched upon briefly in this story arc: New York City, where a mayoral candidate is coping with a transformed city (Manhattan flooded when the Trees landed); and Somalia, where the President decides to use his Tree for military advantage.
It’s unusual for a comic to have this kind of geographic and cultural variety, so that alone would be notable. But Ellis and Howard populate this world with complex, memorable characters. Tian Chenglei, the young artist who is the new arrival in the city of Shu, a special cultural zone in China, vividly lives the adventure of self-discovery, in a wildly experimental setting. Eligia’s Italian city Cefalu looks more conventionally Old World, but it too has been slowly transformed by the presence of the Trees. The story skillfully shifts between the cast of characters. In collected form it reads seamlessly. In fact it was so involving–and read so fast–that I read the whole eight-issue collection in one sitting.
Howard’s drawing style is realistic, but with a bit of cartoon exaggeration in his facial expressions. His backgrounds are often minimal, but there is always enough detail to set the scene. There are some very effective purely visual sequences here: I especially liked the panels depicting Tian’s reaction to his lover’s trans-gender status, and the wordless pages showing the African missile attack. Great start to the series.
I read the first arc of this series over a year ago, in electronic form. This collects the first two arcs (Issues #1-9) in a beautiful oversized hardcover. So I decided to start from the beginning and reread the first arc. Wonderful bit of world-building here. Rucka imagines a dystopian world which has suffered an economic collapse. Everything is now run by rich families rather than governments (although governments still exist). The only people who really count are family members, followed by the serfs in their service. Everyone else–the vast majority–are called “Waste,” with all the disregard for their lives and welfare that term implies.
The first arc, “Family,” introduces us to the Carlyle family, and their Lazarus Forever (“Eve”) Carlyle. The Lazarus is a nearly unkillable biological construct that serves as the family bodyguard and protector. During the first arc we meet another Lazarus–Joacquim Morray of the Morray family–and see first-hand just how hard they are to kill. The story also reveals the intricacies of family politics, as two of the Carlyles engage in an unsuccessful treacherous plot.
The second arc, “Lift,” focuses on a Waste family as they attempt to be elevated to serf status. A Lift is a periodic testing process in which members of the Waste population can apply for serf status, which involves a physical examination and a series of tests. Things are further complicated by a group of Waste terrorists who nearly succeed in setting off a bomb at the Lift. And the Carlyle family subversion continues to be a subplot, which should certainly bear fruit as the series progresses.
The collection concludes with a great deal of background information about this world. Each of the sixteen Families is profiled: we’ve only seen four so far, only two of them in any detail. There is a detailed timeline of the worldwide economic collapse and the rise of the Families. This is actually a good place for it. Rucka and Lark throw the reader into the new world with enough background to understand the story. All this background would not have been nearly as involving if I wasn’t invested in the characters. That is one of the strengths of the series. It projects a believable future from current events, depressing though it is. But the interesting, well-developed characters keep the story focus personal.
The original run of Stray Bullets ended in 2005. When David Lapham decided to bring it back in 2014 he chose to publish the new issues as a series of titled miniseries–but the collections are numbered consecutively from the beginning. That’s how this new eight-issue miniseries came to be collected as Volume Six. The good news is, Lapham has not lost a step. These stories have all the twisted glory the originals had. This is a unique voice in noir fiction, a dark look into frequently desperate, violent lives. Black and white art has never been more appropriate.
Over time the series developed a group of recurring characters, a few of which reappear here. Seeing Virginia Applejack, Spanish Scott, and Amy Racecar again has a nice resonance for returning fans. But it really is true that this series is completely new-reader friendly. You don’t have to know any of the character’s histories to follow the action.
The first issue is set in 1978 and features Spanish Scott being his usual charming, ruthless self. But it also introduces new character Eli as a boy, and shows how meeting Scott affects his life. The focus of most of the rest of the series is on Eli’s budding relationship with Virginia in 1986. Virginia meets Eli after her time in Baltimore: the gangsters she met there come to dominate the rest of the story.
There is one interlude in the story arc. Issue Five features the return of Amy Racecar. As usual her story has an unreal, hallucinogenic quality. She’s like a real-world superhero, performing superhuman feats. In this story she decides to leave violence behind, but passes her skills along to her lover. And Spanish Scott appears in the role of bounty hunter Jack Rum.
Eli and Virginia fall in love, but the relationship is anything but smooth. Getting in the middle of a gang war would be complicated for any couple. They break up, get back together, break up again…and then survive an attack by professional hit men, but the final status of their relationship is unclear at the end. Knowing Stray Bullets, I’m sure we’ll see them again.