THIS REVIEW OF ‘WHITE TREES’ CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Brendan Hodgdon. The toxicity of men and the addictive nature of war have long been topics of interest in storytelling, as writers and artists have long struggled to understand our more destructive and debilitating “instincts.” But in our current cultural moment we seem to be more collectively aware than ever of just how misguided our long-held perceptions of masculinity are, and how essential it is that we break free of such destructive cycles of violence, both physical and emotional. This conflict is what lies at the core of The White Trees, the two-part graphic novella from Chip Zdarsky, Kris Anka, Matt Wilson and Aditya Bidikar.
The plot of the tale is simple enough: a band of veteran warriors set out to rescue their children when they are kidnapped by an old foe from a long-ago war. The trio of heroes—Krylos the Bold, Dahvlan the Swift, Scotiar of Blacksand—are ridden with bitterness and regret about their collective past, which they attempt to put aside for the good of their quest. Describing the trio as “heroes” barely seems appropriate, as they are rendered in such broken and desperate terms throughout the story. And Chip Zdarsky, he of many goofy comics and Twitter threads, has no trouble capturing the emotional exhaustion that comes from a life filled with antagonism and self-loathing.
While Scotiar and Dahvlan’s relationship provides some great emotional and narrative beats (their comfortable-old-shoe partnership, and Scotiar’s casual friendliness with Dahvlan’s ex-wife), it is Krylos’ emotional journey that provides the backbone of the tale. In Krylos, we see a terrific study in the aftermath and damage of toxic masculinity, of what it means to give your life to violence and have it undermine everything else you do and experience. Through flashbacks, we see that Krylos was distant from his son and their peaceful farm life, and in the present he can’t even enjoy pleasures of the flesh anymore because of how detached from life he’s become. He is the embodiment of the usual “badass swears off violence until he’s goaded back into action” trope, but when Kris Anka’s art finally lets loose Krylos’ full violent potential it actually feels sad and hollow.
But The White Trees also offers a glimmer of hope, in the way it contrasts Krylos and Dahvlan’s children against them. Krylos seems depressed or regretful that his son has found a level of sensitivity and earnestness beyond violence that Krylos himself never had. And Dahvlan is perhaps bitter that his daughter felt the need to hide her love, maybe in the way that he once had to? Together, their kids have the potential to break free of the damage their fathers carry with them, and their fathers seem both frustrated that their children are still dealing with the fallout of their lives, and maybe envious that the kids still can be what they never were (or still struggle to be). Still, the children offer the possibility that one can escape these destructive cycles, and that the burdens their fathers carry were not completely worthless to their future.
All of this tortured masculinity and emotional distance is drawn so damn beautifully by Anka, Wilson and Bidikar. Anka of course continues to be the Thirst-Trap King of Comics, and this book offers plenty of striking bodies in motion as one would expect. But The White Trees also showcases how much Anka can layer in around all the sexiness, even when the sex is the explicit focus of the scene. The orgy sequence in this book is a wonderful example of having your (beef)cake and eating it too, as Anka’s titillation slowly reveals a much more dangerous and unsettling presence. And when the story erupts into full action sequences, Anka brings a great deal of dynamic energy to the scene, without ever undermining the tragedy such violence represents in the story.
Wilson’s colors are a perfect companion to Anka’s art, filling every panel with gorgeous pastels that make the world of Blacksand feel alive and distinct, and less like the more muddy and grey sword-and-sorcery worlds that The White Trees might otherwise resemble. At certain points in the story, the panels become filled with color, as if the heroes’ emotions are drowning out the world around them, and Wilson’s work here is essential to those moments. Bidikar’s lettering, meanwhile, is almost playful in how fluid it can be. The manner in which the words expand and contract within speech bubbles feels naturalistic and amplifies the rhythm of the dialogue. It’s incredibly engaging.
The White Trees is beautiful in so many ways; the narrative craft and visual aesthetics on display here are nothing less than gorgeous. And while the toxicity and pain that live at the heart of the series may not be pretty, the way they are approached is beautiful in its own way, too. Zdarsky, Anka, Wilson and Bidikar embrace the bruised and battered hearts of men everywhere, to grapple with the weights that hold us down and how we might be free of them. The White Trees offers honesty and catharsis that men in 2019 could use, and I hope many of them are able to find it.
Image Comics / $4.99 each
Written by Chip Zdarsky.
Art by Kris Anka.
Colors by Matt Wilson.
Letters by Aditya Bidikar.
9 out of 10
Check out this 3-page preview of ‘The White Trees’ #2, courtesy of Image Comics!