'Trillium' and 'The Bunker' are time-travel comics about the present
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In some ways, pop culture is a form of passive time travel. Any given work is informed by the time in which it was made, and the act of creation is also an act of preservation—our books and shows and music are all bits of dilated time, worlds perfectly preserved for us to visit at will and think of all the ways in which we have changed.
As complex a subject as time travel can be, almost all time-travel stories start with a simple choice: forward or backward? Regardless of which is chosen, or how complex the means by which that decision is made, the result is often the same: We, the readers, learn what we will become or attempt to fix what we were.
Time-travel stories, then, never really make the most poignant statements about the past or the future, but the present.
Released simultaneously in the first week of August, Trillium by Jeff Lemire and The Bunker Vol. 1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari are both graphic novels about time travel that succeed by focusing on something human and personal rather than getting caught up in the whys and wherefores of their sci-fi.
In The Bunker, five friends gather in the woods to bury a time capsule and instead discover an underground bunker. Inside are letters addressed to each of them, written in their own handwriting by people claiming to be their future selves. The letters tell them of the pending end of life as we know it, and that it will be all their fault.
With that premise, writer Joshua Hale Fialkov crafts a gripping suspense story by subtly exposing the cracks in each member of the cast’s relationship with one another, cracks that may prove tectonic in nature as they widen to become the means by which calamity befalls the world. Fialkov’s story wrestles with the same ideas inherent to many time-travel narratives—questions of fate and inevitability and agency—but remains compelling by focusing squarely on the main cast. If these are the people who break the world, then it will be broken in the same ways they are.
The work of artist Joe Infurnari goes a long way toward selling the book’s story on an emotional level. The story leaves each of the cast in a profoundly vulnerable place, and Infurnari’s sketchy, loose style is wonderfully, nakedly expressive. In the fallout of the bunker’s discovery, each character’s inability to cope leads to them acting out in some way, and the art speaks volumes when each character can’t. They feel real, succumbing to insecurities and quiet personal traumas perfectly captured in Infurnari’s moody linework.
When The Bunker first began as a digital-only series last August, the art was uncolored. The print editions, released by Oni Press, afford Infurnari the opportunity to color his art, and the result is even more atmospheric. Concerned less with realism and more with tone, Infurnari’s color washes help to play up the shifts in his art when depicting the past, present, and future, as well as complementing each scene’s emotional timbre. Scenes of grim foreboding take on sinister blues and greens, moments of stark vulnerability remain devoid of color, and reds and pinks fill the page as the action dials up.
The Bunker is an ongoing series, and Vol. 1 collects the first four issues that comprise the series’ first story arc. Issue #5, the start of arc two, has been released simultaneously with the first volume, so readers can pick up both and be entirely caught up.
Unlike The Bunker, Trillium is a self-contained graphic novel, collecting a miniseries that ran from August 2013 until April of this year. Written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire, with colorist Jose Villarrubia and letterer Carlos M. Mangual, Trillium is a love story that takes place across thousands of years, and plays with the comic book medium to illustrate that temporal distance.
Trillium begins with scientist Nika Tensmith in the year 3797 as a sentient plague known as The Caul seeks to infect the last remnants of humanity. Tensmith and her colleagues believe that the cure lies in the rare Trillium flower, which has been found on a planet inhabited by the mysterious aliens called the Atabithians.
Trillium’s first chapter is divided in two, breaking with Nika making contact with the Atabithian people and ingesting a Trillium flower before entering a temple, only to find a stunned soldier from the early 20th Century waiting on the other side. At that point, the narrative jumps to 1921, to tell the story of soldier William Pike, traumatized by World War I and desperate to find a purpose in life as he embarks on a mission with an explorer to find an ancient Incan temple.
The page layout on William’s half of the chapter directly mirrors Nika’s—the first page of his story is a mirror image of the first page of hers, and this continues for the entirety of the first chapter. William’s story ends right where Nika’s did, as he inexplicably finds her amidst the temple and flowers that connect them across time.
It’s a wonderful storytelling device, one that’s only possible in comics. Admittedly, it loses some of its effect in the collected format—the first issue was released as a flip book, and upon reading Nika’s half the reader would flip it over to read William’s, and both characters would meet precisely in the middle. Fortunately, though, it’s not the only experiment Lemire does with layout throughout Trillium’s eight chapters, and the rest of them make the jump to collected edition intact.
As Nika and William’s stories intersect and diverge across time, Lemire constructs the layouts of each chapter to reflect the connection they form even as their lives are affected by something they cannot understand. A lot of Lemire’s previous work like The Underwater Welder or Sweet Tooth makes use of the surreal or fantastic to underscore something profoundly humane, and Trillium is no different—it’s a story about lonely, broken people realizing that they don’t have to be alone anymore; fighting against time and space for the chance to truly connect.
Trillium, however, also reflects that human struggle in the unique language of the medium that it’s in. It’s both technically impressive and achingly personal, and a visual treat—the self-described ‘low-fi sci fi” world Lemire builds for Trillium is a clunky, rusty, one, with space gear that looks more like diving equipment.
Neither Trillium nor The Bunker ever get around to explaining how time travel works in their stories. While the latter is still ongoing and might do so eventually, the success of either isn’t really owed to the cleverness of their theoretical physics. Instead, they explore time in a way that’s quite similar to the way we perceive it every day: the gulf between where we are and where we could be.