Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review: Trillium

A New Hope
Why Trillium? Besides being the official symbol of Ontario (where the series's creator Jeff Lemire lives), a trillium's three-petal flower follows perfect symmetry and primarily grows in the wild which means to see (or to experience) a trillium, one must hunt, explore -- a wild plant found in wild places.

Despite what he may say, a cartoonist and writer as conscientious, passionate and aware as Lemire does not choose a word like 'trillium' as the title for his creator-owned work for kicks or because nothing else was available. Trust me, I grok how a reading of Trillium through the lens of the flower (from which the title takes its name and which figures in the plot) sounds dull, stuffy and superficial; however, so much of Trillium #1 unfolds (twice) as a search for understanding and hinges on moments of discovery and the search for meaning … of any and all kinds.

The two lost souls swimming in Lemire's fishbowl are William Pike and Dr. Nika Temsmith. Pike is in a psychic no-man's land. He suffers from shell shock (PTSD) as a result of his experiences in World War I. Now he's taken on a myopic quest to find ''the fabled Lost Temple of the Incas [which contains] not only wealth and treasure but ultimate dominance over death itself!'' On the flip side, Temsmith is one of ''only four thousand humans left'' in the universe due a sentient virus, The Caul. If she can't convince the natives of the planet Atabithi to allow her access to a species of trillium which ''contains a unique chemical property that The Caul seems unable to breakdown'' than it's 'game over, man' (and woman). A hat tip goes to Lemire for his homage to longtime science-fiction author, editor and fan, Frederick Pohl, who's surname Lemire lends to Nika's superior officer. 

In my review of Collider #1 I wrote: ''editors Sara Miller and Mark Doyle should have pushed the series creators (Oliver and Rodriquez) to defy timeworn narrative conventions.'' Doyle and Miller must have read my review and passed it along to Lemire because Trillium #1 is a palindromic flip-book, touché Vertigo editorial. The layout of each page of William's story mirrors Nika's story. Perhaps there's something in the air in Canada because another son of the 'True North Strong and Free' fellow comic book artist and writer Andy Belanger pulled off a similar trick earlier this year with Kill Shakespeare: The Tide of Blood #2.

The title and credits page which comes four pages into each chapter -- and which unnecessarily repeats over the final panel in each story --  indicates Nika's story takes place in 3797 and represents 'chapter 1' while William's story set in 1921 is 'chapter 1.2.' There is also instruction to: 'Turn book over.' Really. Numbering each chapter neuters (some of) the thrill of the story Lemire tries to tell. Give credit to the creators (Lemire, colorist José Villarrubia and letterer Carlos M. Mangual), but this isn't some faux linear 'choose-your-own-adventure' tale. Reading (and rereading) either story informs and embellishes its mirror (mate?) regardless of which story the reader chooses to read first, or second. If Vertigo wants to 'Defy,' I would suggest they also 'Trust.'
Trillium #1's presentation is a clever way to tell this story (or stories), more important, it succeeds. Lemire does not take a 'less is more' approach; instead he shows how working within a prescribed fourteen page narrative structure allows for creativity and experimentation. Page layouts of twelve panel grids and inset panels on double-page spreads are a couple of techniques Lemire employs, but his greatest strength as a creator is his ability to imbue emotion in his characters and set the stakes from the first page. With words and without, Lemire gets the reader to understand (and take on) William and Nika's anxiety, anger and frustration over circumstances neither of them can control and so each must search, must go on because neither will accept the alternative. As William says to his fellow explorers, ''that's why we're bloody here …'' Trillium traffics in hope.
Lemire's cartooning and watercolors are his signature -- only Jeff Lemire draws and paints like Jeff Lemire. The emotion he is able to create on William and Nika's faces is intense, weary and serious. The same deep fatigue carries over in their frames as well, rawboned bodies, worn thin, but still alive, survivors with a persistence born (almost) out of spite. Lemire's watercolors give Trillium an ethereal aspect especially in the scenes set on the alien Atabithi, but also on the battlefields of WW I. For all the harshness of these environments, Lemire makes them look like worlds worth living for, worlds worth the trouble to try and understand.

Trillium posits great purpose. As William and Nika navigate across time and space and as the influence of the alien Atabithians and the Incan Temple expands, the search for meaning (for resolution) is sure to take on a greater gravity. Pike's party may have become pin cushions, black holes may be visible from the surface of Atabithi and humanity may have one foot in the grave, but not today, not yet and that makes all the difference.

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