Jason Howard is a prolific illustrator whose work has been featured in a number of hugely popular titles such as Superior Spider-Man and Invincible. He’s currently the series artist on Trees, collaborating with writer Warren Ellis to tell a uniquely human science fiction story.
When a group of monolithic alien towers, colloquially referred to as Trees, touch down around the world, people prepare for war. To their surprise, nothing ever emerges from these Trees, and humanity is forced to reconcile with the idea that their existence is not even worth the aliens’ time. Through this premise, Ellis and Howard tell the affecting stories of people who are forced to alter their lives in the face of their own smallness.
In the run up to issue 10 of Trees, which releases on June 17th, I took a moment to speak to Howard about his working process and favorite moments throughout the series thus far.
Alex Lu: So currently, we’re up to issue 9 of Trees. How long do you see the series running for?
Jason Howard: We thought the series would go somewhere between 13 and 23 issues. It’s one of the stories that has a lot of threads, so we’ll keep it going for a while. Personally, I’d like to get at least three trades out, since all my prior series had at least three trades. Things are going well, so I’d like to keep things rolling.
Lu: I remember an end date being set, is that no longer the case?
Howard: I don’t recall…maybe Warren said something, but we never had a firm end date and the story was always a little wander-y, so we might go down some of those stray threads if Warren has ideas for them.
Lu: How did you come to work with Warren on Trees?
Howard: We did a webcomic together called Scatterlands, and while I was working on Super Dinosaur it was a fun side project to do. Later on, Warren was getting pretty busy with TV stuff and I was nearing the end of my Super Dinosaur run and I was looking for something else to fill my time so I contacted Warren and this is where we ended up.
Lu: What’s your collaborative process with Warren like? Does he like to direct you with firm scripts or give you a wider berth to explore and wander on your own?
Howard: He writes a full script. At the beginning of Trees, we talked a lot about the nature of the series and the different ways we were going to touch on the themes of the title. From there, it’s been a pretty normal collaborative process. I get a script from him and then I start drawing it and do the script justice.
Lu: The art of Trees is quite soft despite the series’ grim tone. How did you nail the art style and how do you design the color palettes for the series?
Howard: I’m always trying different things with the colors. I like mood coloring where you get a sense of place and time. Depending on what’s happening in the scene, I want the colors to play with that or play against it.
With the linework and inking, I’m going for something scratchy, broken, and dirty. It expresses the tone of the world and that the earth isn’t quite right anymore.
What’s been your favorite thing to draw in the series?
Howard: I love drawing snow…or not drawing it depending on the situation. The snow scenes are definitely some of my favorites. There are some pages in issue 11, which aren’t out yet, that are some of the most fun I’ve had on the series so far. One of the storylines in the second arc takes place in New York City and we touched on a couple of characters in volume one that we’ll be spending some more time with there. That post-tree New York City is really fun, and I love drawing environment and world stuff in general.
It’s been fun because Ellis is placing the story in actual locations or places extrapolated from actual locations, so I get to spend time looking for cool references. There’s a part of the first arc that takes place in a town in Italy, so I got to look at all the pictures on the internet, people’s vacations photos in Italy, stuff like that. It gives you a real sense of place in the story.
Lu: What kind of references did you use for the scenes set in China?
Howard: I pulled a lot of different stuff because Warren envisioned that city as a sort of artistic community. There’s an oppressive government in our China, but they let this flower bloom. I looked at a lot of photos of Chinese cities and photos of different kinds of art communities. I mashed them together and this is what we ended up with.
That stuff was kind of hard because sometimes the schedule of monthly comics means you just have to get pages done. Meanwhile, the designer in me would have loved to have spent a month just really sinking into the various elements of the city, but, well, I just have to draw those pages.
Sometimes I feel like I’m really successful, but other times I want another shot at it because I think I’ve come up with some better ideas. Ultimately, that setting was complex for me so that’s one of the things that I’d like another crack at just to have the opportunity to push my ideas a little bit farther.
Lu: Personally, I feel like those scenes were some of the most fully realized in the series. The way that ChengLei’s scenes were framed really encapsulates some of the overarching themes of the book. As an artist, he more than most realizes how small the human race is in the face of these trees, so he decides to live life the way he wants to and experience everything he can.
Howard: I liked the scene in the art studio they found…that was really fun. I found lots of old warehouses for reference and tried to artsy them up. I thought that that storyline was one of the ones in the first arc that really hit home for me. I got some of the scripts from Warren and told him, “Oh, you’re really breaking my heart.”
Lu: Are you clued in to the greater scope of the story? Do you have full knowledge of what the trees are and what they do?
I know what our intial talks were. I don’t know where Warren has gone with it creatively since then. Trees is ultimately more about the characters surrounding the trees than the trees themselves. What would a normal person like us do after a big world event like the landing of the trees.
You know, something might be happening overseas or in Washington D.C. and we might be aware of it and how it affects us, but we don’t really know all the details. We’re worried about what’s happening today with this girl we like or this job situation. I think Warren is trying to focus on the stories of the individual characters as they’re affected by the trees. We’re getting hints of the greater scope along the way that hopefully start to paint a big picture in someone’s mind.
Ultimately though, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a big action team that goes and attacks the trees to kill the aliens.
Lu: I hope not! That’d go against the whole tone of the series so far.
Howard: Maybe that’ll be the last volume. It’ll just be a huge shift in tone and become a dumb 80s action movie to wrap it all up.
Lu: Well, that’s actually what The Wake did, though!
Howard: That book was crazy! It was super entertaining, but it started off as horror and suddenly became a totally different post-apocalyptic story. It felt like he was intentionally using genre tropes from horror and sci-fi to tell different parts of the story, so it was really cool, but reading it was pretty jarring!
Lu: Did you like the shift, though?
Howard: Yeah, I liked it in the story. I don’t know if I’d like everything like that, but I think [Snyder] pulled it off pretty well and it was gutsy move to suddenly say “Alright, this part is done, but the story’s not done. We’re going to jump forward in time so we see the beginning of the big event and its end.”
Lu: Would you like to try something like that in a series?
Howard: I don’t know. As a creative person, I want to try out everything I see. I’ll read an auto-bio comic and want to do that, but then I’ll see an action movie and want to make something really dumb with big guns and cool visuals. Trees is a thoughtful book that has a slow-burning plot and a lot of environments, and that’s been a lot of fun, but on the other hand I also had fun doing Super Dinosaur. That series was something for my kids. Big cartoon in-your-face dinosaurs and robots. It’s as opposite in tone as you can get from Trees.
It’s all great, and ultimately, I just hope to get a chance to stretch all those creative impulses.
Alex is the Managing Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at Papercutz. He is your go-to fella for creator interviews, conversations about comic book structure, and general DC Comics nerding. Currently geeking out over movies, too.