Trillium is an Eisner Award-nominated comic book series written and drawn by Canadian Jeff Lemire and featuring a pair of lovers who are, quite literally, star-crossed and time-challenged.
In 3797, Nika Temsmith is a xeniologist stationed among a small enclave of humans who have fled to the farthest reaches of the galaxy to escape an insatiable sentient virus known as “the Caul.” In 1921, William Pike is a young First World War veteran who, while possibly in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, embarks on a foolhardy expedition into the deep Amazon Jungle.
They are brought together by a mysterious temple and a potent, three-petaled white flower. The flower is a trillium, which happens to be the official flower of Ontario, which happens to be Lemire’s home. Despite the long-standing beliefs of many Ontarians, picking a trillium isn’t illegal. However, picking or damaging the Trillium grandiflorum is strongly discouraged as the plant is fragile and can take years to recover.
This aura of delicacy and reverence becomes downright mystical once transmogrified into the world of Trillium, where the flower harbours deep power. In 3797, it can be used to create a long-lasting vaccine to repel the Caul and save humanity from extinction.
Furthermore, consuming a petal of the trillium triggers a jarring empathic bond between the two main characters. This proves to be a handy storytelling tool that allows Lemire to skip the awkward, expository first-date chatter between Nika and William. (Instead, he has an ingenious scene where the two struggle to make themselves understood by scrawling images in the mud of the jungle floor.)
Although bristling with the trappings of an epic sci-fi tale, Trillium is at its heart a love story and this is where all of its strengths and weaknesses are derived. The biggest weakness is pointed out by the characters themselves late in the story. Although their love for one another is capable of distorting and re-shaping the universe (and might even save all humanity), Nika and William don’t spend very much time together.
Yet during the moments they do interact, the story is often brilliant.
Nika and William are damaged characters living in dismal times. They appear to one another as mutual comforts, soothing the broken edges of their identities. William remains emotionally scalded by his wartime experiences (which, unfortunately, are restricted to vague flashbacks) while as a child Nika suffered heart-wrenching separations first from her father and then her mother.
Their rapid emotional entwining receives a science fictional spin when, mid-story, a shocking assault leads to a literal braiding of their histories. Not only is this a fun way of deepening the reader’s understanding of the characters, it becomes a fitting metaphor for how lovers re-examine and remold their lives to accommodate one another.
The science fiction elements of Trillium are more standard and suffer a little from lack of deeper explanation. The trillium fields and temples on Atabithi are tended by mysterious, blue-skinned aliens whose existence is awfully convenient to Nika and the remaining humans. They’re sometimes elusive, mild-mannered and helpful when the plot requires, shepherding the characters through the story yet behaving with no clear motive of their own. (Shouldn’t they be worried about the Caul, too?)
Visually, Lemire continues the rough, evocative style familiar to readers of his first independent comic book series Essex County and in later mainstream titles like Sweet Tooth. Occasionally, his forms and figures seem poised to unravel completely into frantic lines depending on the emotional intensity of a scene.
Lemire also makes use of some imaginative storytelling techniques during the reality-bending moments of the story and he has a knack for making 38th-century technology look as rough and grubby as anything found in the early 20th. The “rover” Nika uses to travel around Atabithi has a distinctly horse-and-buggy-like quality.
Some readers might find some of Lemire’s experiments off-putting. Whether a reader can enjoy Trillium will depend on how they react to the art, just as a reader is drawn in, or repelled by, a prose author’s sentence structure or ear for crafting dialogue.
There has always been a tension over where comic books sit in literature, or whether they should sit anywhere at all. In 2011, Lemire’s work was drawn into the debate on a national stage when his first comic series Essex County was featured on the program Canada Reads as one of the five “essential” Canadian novels of the year. It was voted off during the first round with many of the participants expressing discomfort over the inclusion of a comic book as an essential novel.
Maybe Trillium would have provided the Canada Reads panel with more meat to chew on. Lemire is bringing together some fairly broad ideas that have been features of science fiction for a while. What makes this story different is his ability to anchor those ideas to two believable characters experiencing a struggle that, despite its otherworldly trappings, most readers will relate to.