Graphic Novel Review: Trillium by Jeff Lemire
Trillium is the latest comic book series to be written and drawn by eight-time Eisner Award nominated Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire. Originally published as an eight-issue series, the complete story has now been collected as a paperback graphic novel. Advertised as “The Last Love Story Ever Told” this comic is a science fiction romance that spans almost two thousand years.
A New York Times Bestselling author, Jeff Lemire has written countless comic books and graphic novels but has never really tackled a sci-fi story before. This fact alone would make Trillium stand out as a special project for the author, the fact that he did the artwork as well as the writing can only multiply that feeling. Lemire started out creating his comic book stories himself, handling both the writing and art duties. After getting mainstream gigs as a writer on projects for DC Comics he continued to draw comics by launching his own independent series, the post-apocalyptic odyssey Sweet Tooth, which was published by Vertigo between 2009 and 2013. Trillium is the first story that he has drawn since the end of Sweet Tooth, and as a result became widely anticipated by his fans.
The story has a premise that likely sounds strange when outlining it in a review, but upon reading it all fits together and manages to work quite well. Trillium tells the tale of Nika Tensmith, a scientist in the year 3797, as she struggles to find a cure to a deadly sentient virus known as the Caul. It is also the story of William Pike, a WWI veteran in 1921, as he journeys to an Incan temple on a quest to give his life some meaning. Nika and William meet and start to fall in love, while external forces that could destroy both of their worlds are set into motion. Will they be able to save everything that they love?
Trillium’s plot is intriguing, and sustains a healthy dose of mystery throughout. It does a good job of building this big science fiction future and contrasting it with the more historical story set in the 1920s. The world-building is done quite effortlessly; expository dialogue feels quite naturalistic and succeeds at showing us characterisation at the same time. It is to Lemire’s credit that he makes the main characters stand out as much as they do; with extra kudos given for ensuring we care about the supporting characters. Despite this, the story seemed to take some strange turns, not all of which aided its progression. Indeed, two of the eight issues of the series seem almost wasted or a misstep in the storytelling. Thankfully the story ends as strong as it began, succeeding in feeling both unexpected and fitting. It does enough justice to the characters and their worlds that it can almost make you forget the sometimes underwhelming journey it took to get there.
Another element to Trillium is the occasional flashbacks of character’s lives. These aim to deepen characters and shed light on their motivations but tend to come across as cliché and repetitive of similar character motivations from Lemire’s earlier works. This aspect works against the freshness of seeing Lemire do a sci-fi story as many elements evoke his other comics and by the time you put the story down you’re left with the feeling that you’ve seen the emotional core before, only this time around it has new surface elements.
Trillium is a mixed bag visually, from stunning splash pages and emotive facial expressions, to odd colour choices and panels that lack detail. The most apt summary that I can give it is that it’s inconsistent. For every page that fills you with wonder there will be one that leaves you cold. With this story Lemire has altered his style somewhat, choosing to use ink washes has altered the texture of the art and given it a different feeling to his earlier work. One aspect of his art that has remained the same is the brilliant choices of page layouts which are inventive yet clean and easy to read. In fact, part of the story is printed upside-down and you have to turn the book to read it properly. There are sequences where “right-way” and “upside-down” panels inhabit the same page, making for a unique reading experience. This is a cool gimmick that makes thematic sense and underscores the differences and distance between our two protagonists and their worlds throughout the story. Despite neat tricks like these it actually feels like the story does not play to the art’s strengths, and perhaps the whole thing could have been told more effectively had their been an artistic collaborator. Lemire was only partially successful in his experiments, but in spite of these shortcomings the art still manages to aid the narrative effectively.
The colouring by José Villarrubia brings a new set of issues with it. It brilliantly plays up the contrasts between the different worlds as the future is full of orange and brown hues while 1921 is coloured in blues and greys. By giving each time a colour palette, the comic is grounded a little more and made easier to read, as your brain can figure out the location and time zone instantaneously. The colouring causes problems however, as sometimes it can leave faces looking flat and uninspired, no matter how emotionally poignant the expression is underneath it all.
Overall, Trillium proves to be an uneven tale with a strong start and satisfying finish that is wrapped around an interesting premise. Some colouring and story choices hurt the book but the strong main characters will keep you invested and hooked to the end.
Trillium is available now.