Trillium No. 6
by Jeff Lemire

Traditionally, mainstream comics are made by assembly line. This guy writes the story and that guy draws the pencil art. Another inks it in, while two more add color and text. It’s a practical consideration for companies managing a lot of monthly books, but it’s also what makes comics a singularly collaborative medium. These roles aren’t as rigidly defined as they sound: Some writers give loose directions while others plot out every panel; some pencillers define each wrinkle while others leave detail to inkers and colorists. So each gestalt of creators has a style all its own, at best producing surprising or dazzling results beyond the capacity of any one person.

But there’s also unique value to be found in the visions of lone writer/artists, who find more leeway to patrol the borders of their work in the indie and creator-owned worlds. While comics by committee can be spectacular, those made by driven individuals have a special clarity of perspective, and as with other forms with deeply ingrained conventions, comics excel at magnifying personal style through the lens of familiar structures, like sonnets or sonatas. After looking at one autonomous comics maestro, Matt Kindt, in the column of Feb. 6, I’m recommending another today: Jeff Lemire, whose limited series Trillium vividly demonstrates the sparks that can fly when writing and art are coiled together by a single mind.

As creator of acclaimed series Sweet Tooth, Lemire is no stranger to the monomaniacal approach, and he writes, draws and (with help from José Villarrubia) colors Trillium, which is on issue six of eight from D.C.’s creator-owned imprint, Vertigo. Though Lemire has said that Brian K. Vaughan’s surprise hit Saga was an inspiration, his work here actually has more resemblance to Kindt’s in Mind MGMT. Like Kindt, Lemire deploys a rude, nervous line and fills it in with ruddy, watery patches of color. Like Kindt, he takes a familiar genre—science fiction instead of the spy thriller—and twists it into a mind-bending metafictional shape. And like Kindt, he does so using ingenious, meticulously plotted storytelling methods that wouldn’t be possible in any medium but comics.

There are two storylines in Trillium No. 6. In 1921, an institutionalized woman named Nika has troubling memories of another life in the stars, and of a man she met in a jungle. That’s where she flees after a dramatic escape, drawn to the strange temple that seems to be a doorway between distant eras. In 3797, a man named William, who can somehow remember the trenches of WWI, sets out to look for her, bearing down on the same temple in his time. But here’s the twist: The future storyline is printed upside down, so that you have to flip the book over every few pages. The pace accelerates as the timelines converge, and by the climactic meeting, you’re turning the book over panel by panel like a mad captain spinning a wheel, piloting the careening story. Not only does this create a mounting sense of panicky speed, it visually reinforces the metaphysical game at play. The comic book form is rife with unique opportunities for manipulating time and space, and Lemire takes full advantage of them, with the method of the telling visually reinforcing the tale.

Trillium began in issue No. 1 with Nika as a botanist in 3797, searching for the titular flower, which is the only vaccine against a sentient plague that has driven humanity to the far corners of space. William is an explorer in 1921 who is leading an expedition in the Peruvian jungle to search for an Incan temple. When their searches converge on the same site, time gets topsy-turvy, and the nature of the Trillium flower, which seems to have psychedelic properties, has yet to be revealed as the series enters its home stretch. While this story is intriguing, it wouldn’t have half its impact without Lemire’s novel storytelling gambit. The first issue was a classic flipbook, with Nika’s story on one side and William’s on the other, printed upside-down with its own cover. Having taught us how to read Trillium, Lemire cranks up virtuosic variations in subsequent issues. In No. 5, for instance, Nika’s story runs forward across the top panels while William’s runs in reverse along the bottom, twisting the narrative into a Möbius strip. This allows for visual ironies and echoes that underscore the pair’s mirrored fates, with some panels forming subtle compositional refections of different times. Lemire also knows when to lay off—the second and fourth issues have no flips because the protagonists are in the same time-stream—which keeps the format meaningful rather than being a gimmick.

Trillium may work best for experienced comics readers, as the nearly physiological effects of the turning panels won’t be fully felt by anyone who hasn’t deeply internalized the left-to-right flow of comics. But it’s still a hell of a story that sounds some very deep themes. It palpates the sense we all sometimes feel of having lived other lives; how certain places call out to us in mysterious ways, as though we had known them before. It’s also essentially a love story, making literal the notion that there are people we would chase across worlds. Most vividly, Trillium illuminates how linear, collective time is just a story we tell ourselves, when in fact, each individual inhabits his or her own stream—a stream complicated by the vast simultaneity of memory—so that time really moves in harmonies and discordances and slithering crisscrosses. The visual way Lemire orchestrates these temporal strands leads to an immense chime of satisfaction whenever they meet at a congruent seam, in the same way that lovers fleetingly do before they’re inevitably torn apart again.