Review: Time and Space Collide in Jeff Lemire’s ‘Trillium’

A sci-fi romance which draws two different worlds together and then muddles the reality of both, Trillium was published by Vertigo Comics and is written and drawn by Jeff Lemire. Colours are by Jose Villarrubia, with lettering from Carlos M. Mangual.

 

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A big part of the draw of Trillium was the format, which saw the book produced as a flipbook – read one side and get half the story, then flip the book over and read the other. As a result, much of the book is preoccupied with dualities and balances. This is reflective even in the deployment of the supporting cast, with Lemire choosing to have one developed supporting player in each of the two stories, who swap over at opportune moments. With this being a large part of the premise as an ongoing, floppy-format series, naturally something is lost when the story is compiled into one whole.

For a start, the flipbook idea is impossible to implement for the first issue, meaning Lemire instead has one story followed by another, in defined fashion. Readers now have to start the book from Nika’s perspective rather than William’s, meaning she takes a precedence over the rest of the story. She is, in fairness, the more interesting of the two characters, so this is no great loss to the storyline. Her side of the book is set in a far future, on a small planet where the last members of humanity are trying to find a cure for a great sickness which is wiping out their surviving members. It’s sci-fi attempting to remove the ‘fi’ from the equation, and offer a storyline which has a smaller focus which Lemire can keep control over. It may be set in the future and have spaceships, but – much like Battlestar Galactica, for example – it tries to paint things in as realistic and gritty a light as possible.

On the other hand, William’s story is almost immediately a thing of greater whimsy, as a war-traumatised soldier decides that his big next mission will be to head into the jungle and quest for lost treasures, lands, and architecture. This initial premise for the character goes a little more fantastical right from the beginning, meaning his storyline feels more secondary to the tense political nature of Nika’s problems. At the heart of it, however, lies a strong character, one which feels very similar in nature to the lead of ‘The Underwater Welder’.

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That book weighs on this one a little, in that the two male leads of each are strikingly similar to one another. This may not be by design, but Lemire’s approach to body language and human emotion leaves them notably connected. As artist, Lemire has an ability to capture not, perhaps, an obvious emotion which a character feels – rather, he is masterful at capturing repression of self and expression. He’s an expert at indicating when a character wants to burst into colourful emotion, but holds back either through a fear of what may happen; a repression at their core; or inability to express what the emotion should be.

The Underwater Welder was a book about self and loneliness, and the struggle to find a grasp on what either of them might be. William’s story here is much the same – kicked off by the horrors of War, he struggles to make something of himself, and chooses isolation as the way forward, in a sense. When he meets Nika, that starts to change, which is where the book moves away from merely repeating the same themes of Lemire’s previous work.

Given a greater world to build in, there are places here where Lemire can go for a far wider scale than he’s ever done before as an artist. He can build in crowd scenes and even broad strokes of futuristic society, complete with spaceships and laser pistols. It’s remarkable really, how well he manages to handle this wider-world, especially as the series goes on. As an artist he maintains a sketchy, twitchy presence, which fits brilliantly into both the shell-shocked world of William and the on-edge worry of Nika’s life. But moving aside from the people, he manages to accumulate whole worlds in sketch; despite never having a complete view of either society from either story, there is still the full impression that something substantial is there.

This helps the book through some of the slower moments of the collection – most apparently an issue which DOES maintain the flipbook premise of the serialised issues. Arriving halfway through the book, this issue splits every page in half. The top half of each page is easy to read, but the lower half is upside down, so the reader is guided to first read the top half of every page before turning  the book upside-down and going back the other way for the second half of the story.

A neat trick enough, but the issue is the weakest of the series by far, establishing a twist on reality which only exists for the duration of that issue, and doesn’t offer much in the way of unexpected definition for either of the two characters. Rather, it serves instead to point out a duality which bores the reader, where the top story and bottom story are essentially interchangable and arrive at the same conclusion.

As before, Nika is by far the more compelling of the two leads, and the story serves her well in that regard. The empathetic bond between her and William is likewise well-developed, despite the characters inability to speak to one another for huge swathes of time. Lemire is asking himself to pull off compelling body-language which indicates the attraction and interest between the two characters, long before the narrative allows him to outright state and play with it in the story. Again – this is something Lemire excels at, and his linework offers the reader everything they need to know even before the scripting confirms everything they suspected.

 

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Villarrubia is one of the finest colourists in comics today, and his greatest ability is the ability to completely fit the tone of a project. Here, working with Lemire, he alters his style to fit the sketchwork of the artist. His colours are patchy, run over one another, and are often surprisingly diluted. In the most striking scene of the entire comic, a young Nika and her mother walk out across the surface of a planet, kept to the ground only by a thin cord holding them away from space.

Villarrubia conveys the sense of grandness to outer space with heavyset colours and washed blues and purples – but this is the only time he really uses such striking colours. Through the rest of the book, which isn’t a flashback sequence, he dilutes the colours and creates a watercolour effect which makes the space stations and ancient temples and everything else feel real, and of a place. This is a sci-fi fantasy world which is lived-in and battered and human, thanks in large part to the colouring.

Trillium is an experiment for Lemire, and it certainly shows. He’s playing with a genre he’s not been too involved with, even if aspects – isolation, romances – are ideas he’s turned to often in his previous work. There are parts of the experiment which offer huge rewards and are massively satisfying for the reader, just as there are sections which labour an idea and offer frustrations with the format. If you’ve not read any of his previous work, this is perhaps the book you should try first, as it’s more immediately inviting to readers than the deliberately blinded central viewpoint of Sweet Tooth. If you have read his previous work – well, this will at times feel like more of the same.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it?

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