August 27, 2014

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Trillium

Written and drawn by Jeff Lemire
Colored by Jose Villarrubia
PUblished by Vertigo

Jeff Lemire's Trillium is an odd book. When released as eight single issues, Lemire's played with the shape and form of a 20 page comic to tell the distinct stories of two time-and-space lost lovers. She's from the far future and he's from the early 20th century and they meet somewhere in the middle. The first issue was a flipbook, with both characters' stories meeting in the middle just as they met in the story. Another issue features the pages broken in half, with the top half telling Nika's story and the bottom half telling William's. Built around the trappings of a science fiction story, Lemire writes and draws a love story. After past stories of mortality and loss (The Essex County cycle,) fathers and sons (The Underwater Welder,) and even lost and abandoned children (Sweet Tooth,) Lemire now shows his romantic side in a love story that spans more than galaxies and centuries. It spans pages and panels that have infinite space between them.

The trillium flower is what joins these two lovers across the ages. They both find huge beds of the flowers by ancient temples, she in a far future temple guarded by aliens on a distant planet and he in 1920 by a temple near the Amazon. All of this is set against the background of war happening in each time period. These are all elements that Lemire introduces to Nika and William’s lives that feel like they should be more important than they ever end up being. They color and shape the characters’ worlds but they never develop into anything other than a ticking clock that the characters are racing against. As Nika tries to save the last of humanity in the future from the anonymous Caul, Lemire never builds this this into anything more than a faceless enemy that may as well be the plague or something else.


The true story here is about these lovers and the struggles that they have to go through in order to find each other. The larger historical or political backdrops of these struggles hardly matter at all. Wrapped up in this paper thin science fiction story, Lemire tries to write this story of two lovers and the way that they world fights to keep them apart. The components of their lives and their struggles gives us some idea of where these characters are coming from but even that feels inconsequential to the way that Lemire tells this story.


 More than their separate worlds keeping them apart, it’s the story itself that is the key antagonist pushing Nika and William apart at every opportunity. It is Lemire that is far more dangerous and destructive to their love than any alien invasion or posttraumatic stress disorder is. Lemire as artist is the force that’s keeping them apart as he manipulates whole chapters of this book as narrative labyrinths solely designed to keep the two lovers apart. It’s not fate; it’s not destiny; it’s plot and narrative that drives all of the tension in Trillium as Lemire pulls out storytelling trick after storytelling trick just to keep propelling the characters toward some final conflict.

With his thin-lined, sad-sack art and his and Jose Villarrubia’s tender watercolors, Lemire’s storytelling becomes the trickster in this story, giving Nika and William moments of quiet discovery together before turning whole worlds upside down and planting each in the other’s life. That’s the force of the storytelling here. It’s not the enemies in the various wars that upend Nika and William’s lives. It’s the mysterious macguffin, this trillium flower. It’s never touched on or examined to find out what exactly the flower is. The temples, the aliens who guard it, the effects of eating it are just dressing in Lemire’s books. They are the tools of the writer to tell a story that needs a conflict. Any fictional conflict that Lemire sets up in this book cannot be as fascinating and intriguing as the way that Lemire creates conflict through how he tells the story.

The ultimate struggle in Jeff Lemire’s Trillium isn’t with outer space aliens or Amazonian natives. There is not any drama in the love story of Nika and William. The obstacles that Lemire confronts them with on their journeys are not anything meaningful or truly challenging for the characters or for the readers. All of these are props that Lemire moves around as he plays with the shape and form of his story. The way he builds the pages, keeping the characters apart even as their stories collide, merge and separate is far more nerve wracking than anything in the story. That’s what keeps you turning the pages of this book, waiting to see how Lemire uses his pages and his chapters to create a story of two lovers, kept apart by forces outside of themselves. Usually those forces are parental or societal. In Trillium, those forces are author and structure.