Comics You Should Own – ‘Trillium’

Who digs science-fiction romance? Doesn’t everyone?

Trillium by Jeff Lemire (writer/artist/colorist), José Villarrubia (colorist), and Carlos M. Mangual (letterer).

Published by DC/Vertigo, 8 issues (#1-8), cover dated October 2013 – June 2014.

A few minor SPOILERS below, and for the first time, you can click on the images to embiggen them! That’s pretty groovy!

Jeff Lemire has been a force in comics for about a decade, ever since Essex Country first appeared (it wasn’t his first comic, but it was pretty close). Essex County is a masterpiece, a shocking comic for someone so young, and Lemire has continued with the high quality of much of his solo work since. He writes superhero comics, true, but none of them approach the majesty he brings to his gritty, “slice-of-life” comics that he writes and draws, where his true passion lies. He’s had some misfires, true, but when Lemire sits down with a passion project, you can bet it will at least be interesting. Trillium, his time-twisting science-fiction romance from a few years back, is one such project, and it rises above many of his other work. I consider it his second-best work behind Essex County (although his current comic, Royal City, might surpass it, as its first arc was phenomenal), but just because it’s second-best doesn’t mean it’s not fantastic.

One thing Lemire famously did in Trillium was take advantage fully of the comics format and the single-issue format. I’d love to see the collected edition of this book, because if it sticks to what Lemire did in the single issues, it has to be fun to read. The first issue begins (or does it?) with William hacking his way through the Amazon jungle in 1921. He’s with his brother, a boy who’s translating, and another Englishman. He has flashbacks to World War I, which is no fun. His expedition comes across a village where they find two dead white men, earlier explorers who tried to go through the natives’ territory. They also find something odd – a dead pale man wearing what appears to be a space suit. So far, so weird, but a normal “strange tales” kind of thing. The villagers attack, kill the translator and the other Englishman, and grab William’s brother, Clay. William runs into the jungle and comes across a ziggurat, and from around the corner steps … a woman wearing the same kind of space suit as the corpse in the village. Again, so far, so weird. But at that moment, Lemire wants you to turn the book upside-down and begin from the other end, where we meet Nika. She lives in 3797 – a bit into the future – and is also investigating a ziggurat, but on another planet. Humanity is losing a war against a virus they call the Caul, and aliens on this planet are the caretakers of the only hope for a cure – a flower called trillium. Nika has been trying to communicate with them so that the military doesn’t come in and slaughter them all just to get the flower, and she’s on a timetable as the Caul has almost reached the planet. The alien elder gives her a petal of the flower to eat, and that apparently transports her through time, because when she enters the temple/ziggurat, she comes out in 1921. And that’s where the first issue ends, in the middle, with Nika and William seeing each other for the first time.

This is, to some, a clever way to tell the story and to some, an annoying way. Lemire doesn’t make arbitrary choices, however, so it’s clear that his subversion of the format is carefully plotted and not just whimsical. Whether you like it or not is up to you, but he does it in a very specific way. Issue #2 reads like a “regular” comic because it features both William and Nika together, figuring out what happened to them. At the end of issue #2, Nika goes “back to the future,” and issue #3 has her story right-side-up, but you need to turn the book upside-down to read William’s story, which is interspersed throughout the issue, just like a “regular” comic with different scenes … except these scenes are upside-down. They’re both important stories, but Nika’s drives the narrative a bit more, which is why hers is the “right way.” Issue #4 has them together again, with William’s brother Clayton in the future, so Lemire doesn’t pull any shenanigans with how to read it, as this halfway point of the story features a big shake-up. Issue #5 splits them up again, and Nika’s story plays out on the top of the page, and when you get to the end, you flip it over and read William’s story back to the front of the issue. Lemire goes back to the conceit he used in issue #3 in issue #6, as Nika’s story begins the issue and is right-side-up, while William’s story is upside-down. This becomes a problem in the final few pages of the issue, when Lemire alternates right-side-up and upside-down panels as Nika and William come closer to each other. The first few pages of issue #7 have William’s story right-side-up and Nika’s upside-down, until Nika goes back into the ziggurat and gets reoriented, after which both stories are situated right-side-up. Issue #8, which wraps things up, reads “correctly” throughout.

From issue #5
From issue #6

There’s a reason Lemire does this, and it’s not just to make the reader angry. Trillium is a time-travel story, as we can tell from the fact that its two main characters live almost 1900 years apart. They are disoriented for large parts of the book, and Lemire wants to make sure we are, too. In the first issue, he doesn’t want one story to take precedence over the other, so even though Nika is trying to save humanity itself, her story and William’s are both structured so they begin “at the beginning” and the two characters meet in the middle of the book. Issue #5 claims to be a lab report, so it is presented that way. Turning the book upside-down at times gives us the disorientation that Nika and William must be feeling, and as a black hole is central to the plot of the book, he wants us be spinning a bit, and the construction of the book makes that more than just a feeling from the narrative, but an actual physical feeling. It’s a bit showy, true, but it works very well in the context of the comic.

Lemire is writing a tightly-plotted story, but it’s also a romance, so he has to make sure the main characters are well developed. Issue #1 does this well for William, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after his experiences in World War I and goes into the jungle partly because he fears death so much that he’s willing to risk his life to find the key to immortality. Early on, he’s accompanied by his wife Sylvia, a stereotypical upper-class British woman who thinks the native artifacts on display in the London museum are ghastly and that William would be a fool to pursue his dream into the Amazon. In the first issue, at least, Nika’s plot is more important, so Lemire sticks to what she’s doing rather than who she is, but we do get glimpses of her personality as well – she desperately wants to communicate with the aliens before the military kills them all, and her commanding officer, Pohl, isn’t giving her much time. We learn a bit more about Nika in the course of the book – she was separated from her father when she was young, as her family was leaving a planet that the Caul had infected and he couldn’t make it onto the last shuttle, while her mother died in a freak accident a year later. She has nothing in her life, which is why cracking the code of the trillium flower is so important. William, of course, also has nothing in his life – Sylvia is not a good match for him – and so the two of them finding each other, even across centuries, gives them a reason to go on. They bond over their conjoined quests, and Lemire does a good job making sure they stay connected even as he splits them up a lot. They’re trapped in the ziggurat when Pohl destroys it, and it throws Nika into an alternate reality of the 1920s (one where Sylvia is her sister and there was a war, but it wasn’t World War I) and William into the future, where he and Clayton are the ones trying to escape the Caul. They remain linked, though, which makes them question their sanity but also makes them hold onto it, because they know what they’re experiencing isn’t real. In the context of the story, it works well because it ties in with the plot to save humanity, but it also makes the romance more interesting. Lemire doesn’t spend a lot of time with big romantic pronouncements or even Nika and William spending a lot of time together. They fall in love almost by accident. However, it works because of their connection across the centuries, one that might seem coincidental but, as the book moves along, becomes more and more like fate. They’re both searching for purpose in their lives, and they get it only when they come across each other. William finds in Nika a person who can redeem him, while Nika finds in William a person who can give her a sense of belonging. She needs to go into the past so she can understand the aliens’ religion, which saves them in the end, and he needs to go into the future so he can find a purpose. The intensity of their relationship is something they comment on in issue #8, in a terrific sequence:

Lemire gives them eternal life, in a way, and gives them comfort from their pain in the past, so that they can both move forward. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it fits in with the time travel theme while also making the general personal, as the attempt to save humanity becomes a backdrop to the attempt to save Nika’s and William’s souls. Lemire does a wonderful job bringing things full circle, even as he leaves the ending to their story a bit ambiguous. We can fill in our own blanks, which is always a good trick in writing.

The book isn’t just about Nika and William’s romance, of course. The end of humanity itself hangs pretty heavy over the heads of the characters, and Lemire gives us a compelling story about that, too. He uses time travel cleverly to constantly twist the story back on itself, so that while the End Times keep approaching, he’s able to extend time to tell the story he wants to before it arrives. The trillium flower even becomes something of a MacGuffin as the comic continues – in the first half, it’s extremely important, and the efforts of the people in the future are focused on collecting enough of it to save humanity. At the end of issue #4, when Pohl destroys the temple, time itself is split and William ends up in the future, and the trillium seems to take a back seat to simply escaping the Caul. The flower, it’s clear, has other properties, as it helps them understand each other in issue #2 when they ingest it, and it’s also a big part of the aliens’ religion, which Nika comes to understand, but the last humans don’t seem to care too much about it anymore. Lemire, however, uses the flower to bring up religion, which leads to a larger point of cultural understanding and imperialism. As a good leftist writer, Lemire doesn’t think too highly of imperialism, as Commander Pohl is the closest the book has to a villain (and even that’s fairly nuanced) – she destroys the aliens’ temple and later murders an alien just because she was in the way. But Lemire also doesn’t do much to make the aliens – they’re called Atabithians – and the natives of the Amazon – who speak the same language as the Atabithians, of course – actual characters. There’s not enough time for it, and perhaps Lemire didn’t want to presume that he knew how exploited populations would act. So the aliens and the natives are just plot devices, speaking in bland, cryptic platitudes (their language is fairly easy to decipher even before issue #7, at the back of which Lemire provides a translation guide) – although they do switch from calling Nika the “all-daughter” to the “all-mother” during the course of the book, which is clever – but Lemire does something interesting with the human population – he turns them into both the imperialists and the exploited. They’re imperialists most certainly in 1921, when William and his team hack their way through the jungle to find the ziggurat without caring what it means to the natives. In 3797, even as humanity is dying, Pohl can’t help but exploit the Atabithians, overruling Nika when Nika wants to negotiate for the trillium and instead simply taking it, even though it’s sacred to the aliens. So Lemire has the “imperialist” part down pat. By introducing the Caul, a virus that literally takes over the bodies of humans, he introduces its counterpoint, the exploited. The humans are being exploited and destroyed, and instead of their genocide coming from blankets infected by smallpox, the virus is skipping the delivery system and attacking humanity directly. Lemire constantly reminds us how few are left – the number of humans is down in the thousands, and by the end of the book, even into the hundreds. Lemire does a good job getting at the terror the humans feel, the very real fear that they will not survive, and he does it without trying to get into the head of a culture he knows nothing about (not the Atabithians’, obviously, but the natives of the Amazon). The humans might still be imperialists, but Lemire makes the point that they’re being this way because they’re so desperate, and a culture under siege like the humans are will react in many different ways, some of them violent. It’s a clever way to examine the problem of imperialism from different angles without being too obvious about it.

The idea of religion also plays into the way Nika and William try to save humanity. This is where Lemire’s time traveling plot becomes more twisty, as he changes the status quo quite often in such a short comic, but always in the service of the plot and how religion moves the plot forward. Nika and William aren’t particularly religious, but the Atabithians and the Amazonian natives are, and they drive the story. They are aware of everything that’s happening, as their dialogue makes clear – the Atabithian priestess in issue #1 tells Nika that she is the “great destroyer” who will, it’s implied, bring about “the unraveling of worlds,” and of course, Nika goes into the temple and journeys back in time to 1921. They are perturbed by William’s presence, saying he has not been “consecrated,” a very loaded word, of course, and therefore he should not be in the temple or moving through time. They eventually accept William’s role in the plot, but the idea of him not being consecrated – he has not been made holy because he didn’t ingest the trillium – is upsetting to the Atabithians and the Amazonians. Nika’s presence outside of time “unravels” things – she ends up in 1921, where the world has shifted slightly and the Atabithians are already known on Earth, while William ends up in 3797 with his brother, trying to flee from the Caul. But Lemire also has another “unraveling” in mind – the Atabithians speak of the “mouth of God,” and once Nika figures that out, she is able to make the choice that will change everything. This leads to a wonderfully enigmatic ending, as we could be looking at the rebirth of humanity on a new planet, the remnants having finally escaped the Caul (which is the probable interpretation) or a humanity from the distant past, getting a second chance at existence, with the wisdom of the Atabithians to guide them (which isn’t likely, but still possible). Either way, Nika’s and William’s time traveling helped prepare them for what they needed to do, and it led to humanity’s salvation.

There’s a lot to unpack in Trillium, of course, but there’s no denying it’s a beautiful comic. As always, I have to acknowledge that Lemire’s art is an acquired taste, because he doesn’t have a sleek style that fits what we think of as “conventional” mainstream comics art. His art isn’t superhero-ready, in other words, and it’s often chunky and blocky. I’ll be the first to admit that Lemire doesn’t do action all that well, as his style doesn’t lend itself to fluidity very well. However, he’s excellent at characters, at body language, and at creating an environment and a mood. He’s not the first to make a science-fiction setting a bit creaky and beat-up, as some of the very best sci-fi work goes with that aesthetic, but Lemire’s angular art makes his “futuristic” work even a bit more clunky than in a fluid medium, as the static nature of comics helps him in this case – he draws buildings that look like they once were beautiful but have a general seediness to them, and his spaceships look ramshackle and rickety. His aliens are humanoid, but with bird-like heads, and his scratchy style is suited for the “feathers” on the tops of their heads, and they look real because they’re not sleek and perfect. He draws brutal World War I scenes that bring home the horror that William has endured, and he has some fun with the steampunky kind of world that Nika finds herself in after issue #4, with smoke-belching zeppelins filling the skies and soldiers wearing ornate and slightly ridiculous uniforms. In the final issue, when things get even weirder than they already are, Lemire gives us a few marvelous pages of William and Nika adjusting to their new reality, and it’s excellent. You know what you’re getting with Lemire’s pencils, and that’s about everything I can say about it.

The strength of the art really rests on the coloring. Lemire and Villarrubia are brilliant on the book, even though I’m not quite sure who does what on the book (I’ve never met either creator, although I am Facebook friends with Villarrubia, but I don’t really want to ask him, because I’m sure he’s busy). The colors on the book are marvelous, as they look painted throughout, as both colorists use gradients of color changes to show shadows and moods and even imperfections in metal and other materials. I’m aware that this is digitally painted (okay, I’m not 100% sure, but I’m 99% sure!), but Lemire and Villarrubia are so good at their jobs that it looks like digital coloring should look – it gives far more nuance to the colors than old-school styling could, and it never overwhelms the pencil art, as too much digital coloring has done in the past (colorists are getting a lot better with digital coloring, so that’s not as big a concern as it once was). We get beautiful images like the backdrop to Nika’s first excursion out to see the aliens, where we see watery browns in the sky from the dust-covered planet gradually merging into the blue sky of the heavens, with the black hole sucking in the blues in the upper left. When Williams relives his war experiences, the colors are muted just enough to make it clear it’s a flashback but also to bring home the horror of the war, as the blood stands out the brightest among the drab khakis and greens of the uniforms. When Nika and William switch places in issue #5, with Nika living the steampunk 1920s and William going to the future, the colors in Nika’s world are a bit softer than we’ve seen, subtly implying that this is a new amalgam of realities and is just a bit askew. In the final issue, there’s a fully painted double-page spread (I’m going to assume Lemire did that) that’s utterly haunting and beautiful and wraps up the love story in the most perfect way possible. You might not love Lemire’s pencil work, but there’s no denying that Trillium is a gorgeous book, mainly because of the amazing colors.

Trillium has been collected into a softcover (which you can find below at the link!), and DC is selling a fancy hardcover that comes out in November. It’s a very cool science fiction story that also happens to be a powerful romance, so it’s two great things in one! Jeff Lemire is a fantastic creator, and Trillium isn’t quite his masterpiece, but it’s definitely a superb comic. It will look quite nice on your shelf!

8 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Great review!
    Yep, I dig science-fiction romance, and you’ve got me *really* interested in this one. This and Black Hammer have really sparked my interest in giving Lemire’s work another chance. (I was actually put off a bit by Essex County – while I did like it, I really didn’t find it the masterpiece pretty much everyone else seems to think it is.)

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: This is, obviously, a bit more genre than Essex County, so it’s a bit more “fun” in that strange things happen even as he’s doing good character work. I guess I like Essex County more than you do, but I do agree that it’s not very fun. Even though this comic is about the end of humanity, we still get lasers and zeppelins and weird pyramids, so it’s a bit of a shift. And yeah, Black Hammer is quite good.

  2. jccalhoun

    I found the story telling to be quite creative but ultimately found the story itself to be lacking. I just never got why they were both suddenly in love with one another and found that all the twisting and turning ultimately made it hard to figure out what exactly was going on.
    I give it an A for effort but a C+ for execution.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I can see why the love story wouldn’t work for you – I always look a bit askance at romances that bloom so quickly, but Lemire does address it briefly, and I simply look at it as part of the whole “time-twisting” thing, that they’re fated to be together. The story made a lot more sense to me when I read it all at once. In a monthly format, it was hard to keep track of, but when it’s all together, it came together really nicely for me.

  3. Simon

    – “Essex County is a masterpiece”

    Aye, or at least very good stories and art.

    – “Lemire has continued with the high quality of much of his solo work since”

    Nay, though calling him “uniformly terrible” may sound harsh.

    – “the attempt to save humanity becomes a backdrop to the attempt to save Nika’s and William’s souls […] So the aliens and the natives are just plot devices, speaking in bland, cryptic platitudes”

    Then why waste book space on formulaic diversions (save-mankind, time-travel, magical injun, alt universes, race-against-time, plus cheap melodrama and gimmicks) when he’s no Van Vogt? (Even less a Frank Herbert.) Being better at characters, shouldn’t he focus on fully developing one story? (Not unlike GROUNDHOG DAY, A DISTANT NEIGHBORHOOD, SECONDS, or even THE BUNKER.)

    Regardless, you prompted a library lookup. They don’t have TRILLIUM, but DESCENDER may get a second chance.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Simon: I like most of what Lemire’s done, but with a caveat: It’s usually the stuff he writes and draws himself. I didn’t love Sweet Tooth, but otherwise, if he’s writing and drawing it, it’s probably pretty good. I don’t mind his writing, but it’s not as good as when he’s also drawing, with a few exceptions – this latest brief run on Moon Knight, which is terrific, and Black Hammer, which is pretty good. But yeah, “uniformly terrible” is pretty harsh.

      I like the presence of the weird stuff in Trillium because it does make the narrative work better, and it makes the romance more convincing – I don’t love the idea of “fated lovers,” but it feels better in this story, where the weirdness keeps driving them apart yet they keep finding themselves. What the aliens and natives say isn’t terribly important, but their actions are, so I have a feeling Lemire just wanted to continue with the disorientation of the way the comic is told by using a different “language” so that William (and to a lesser extent, Nika) would be confused, as would the reader. But that’s just me.

      I actually dropped Descender after the first arc. It was okay, but nothing special! 🙂

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