Four issues and ten years into an alien invasion, Warren Ellis and Jason Howard begin to reveal more about the fascinating nature of these invaders in "Trees" #4. Just as importantly, a little more about the natures of some of the series' main characters is revealed, and Ellis implicitly postulates the notion that this invasion isn't so bad -- at least for some people, who find themselves on a journey of self-discovery that might not have happened otherwise.
It's important to remember Ellis' central premise of the story, which is largely a study on how the world has fallen apart within a decade after these gigantic, statuesque aliens did little more than simply show up. The actions of mankind over that time, both at a macro- and micro-level, were ironically instigated by the Trees inaction, and in this issue Ellis focuses mostly on the actions of two of the series' more captivating individuals. The first is Tian, an artist from rural China who moves to the big city that's actually been built under a Tree; a city that is flourishing as the government watches over it from a distance. The other is Marsh, a researcher at a remote Norwegian scientific outpost who has discovered something very surprising relating to the Trees.
The study of these characters is almost as fascinating as that of the Trees themselves. Tian, who when first introduced in the series came across as little more than the typical country boy overwhelmed by the big city, is now evolving into a character who starts to embrace much of what he once avoided, such as social interaction, exploration and individual diversity. As he's almost literally dragged into seeing the sights by his neighbor, he discovers a group of like-minded and welcoming individuals. A continent away, Marsh is seemingly content to stay put at the desolate location he's stationed at, despite opportunities to head home. But a discovery he makes finally gives him the purpose he had been seeking, consciously or otherwise. This discovery gives readers some surprising and potentially game-changing information about the Trees, or at least something seen surrounding them. In both cases, the characters' lives take a turn for the better, at least in these moments, even as the world around them is in disarray.
Howard's less-is-more approach works wonderfully for this story. The imposing cylindrical monoliths that step on the landscape and reach into the sky are brilliantly simple, rendered as nothing more than roughly-textured immense trunks that evoke the kind of threat that they pose: passive. The reclusive and reluctant Tian looks shy and timid as portrayed by Howard, who captures Tian's feelings of isolation with some clever visual trickery in a couple of key panels. A traditional six-panel page similarly captures a moment of awakening for the character. Howard also captures the awe and sensory overload of the big city, allowing readers to envision it from Tian's point of view.
Howard also gives readers their first glimpse of what's at the top of the Trees, although that intriguing answer gives way to even more intriguing questions. At least, it's a first glimpse within the context of the story; those cryptic symbols on this and the previous issues' back covers will make sense now to readers who have noticed them.
Ellis and Howard successfully keep readers engaged, both with the characters, and the overall threat and deepening mystery of this extraterrestrial presence. "Trees" #4 is the latest excellent issue of an excellent series, but is also the one that pull tentative readers off the fence and into the story.