This article was originally published at DC Comics News on April 5, 2014.
In Plato’s Symposium the character Aristophanes proposes an origin myth for mankind. He claims that man was once a round being with four hands and four feet with a two-faced head. Zeus, fearing the power of man, struck the being into two parts so that each half would be forced to look for its counter-part. Aristophanes was originally presented as a figure of comic relief in Symposium and he even introduces his tale as absurdist in nature. Despite its absurdity, it has continued to resonate with readers for more than 2,000 years. It speaks to the concept of a soul mate, a better half. It acknowledges that two people can come together and create a better whole, that there is another person capable of helping us heal and be better than we are. It is deeply romantic in nature, but it also speaks to the best in people, offering hope, comfort, and a beautiful representation of what love can be. It summarizes all of the reasons why Trillium is an instant classic that will continue to be read for many years.
Trillium was always billed as a love story, yet it was very deceptive in how it unfolded. A cursory glance reveals a science fiction tale filled with time travel, aliens, body swaps, sentient viruses, and spaceships. The two protagonists only encounter one another briefly. In Trillium #8 Nika tells William, “We barely know each other. We’ve only spent a few hours together…” There are no meet-cute’s, no crazy dates, no fight/reconciliation cycles. All of the standard tropes of romantic tales are missing from this story. Yet there is no doubt at the end of the series that this story was about their love.
Jeff Lemire accomplished this herculean task by substituting standard romantic moments with science fiction concepts. The time travel and body swapping are not included in Trillium to explore the ramifications of said technology, but to be used as metaphors for human relationships. Nika and William are disconnected in every meaningful way at the conclusion of Trillium #1. They do not share the same culture, speech, planet, or year. They slowly overcome their differences and learn about one another using the science fiction tropes of the comic. It ranges from something as small as the artificial intelligence, Essie, translating old English or as large as switching lives entirely. Every element of the book deals with the process of learning about another person.
The structure of each issue has done the same, taking full advantage of the comic form to accentuate the themes of the story. In Trillium #1, the story is told from both the front and back covers converging in the middle to reflect the initial collision between Nika and William. Trillium #2 switches perspectives every page to show the troublesome nature of first getting to know someone while simultaneously revealing the ways in which two people may be more alike than either are aware. In Trillium #5, their stories create a circle between the top and bottom halves of the comic revealing the growing interdependency of two lovers. Every issue makes a point about the evolving nature of the characters relationship.
In Trillium #8 both the sci-fi concepts and format of the comic come together to provide a substantive thesis. The first nineteen pages of Trillium #8 are formatted as a standard Western comic. All of the panels read left-to-right and top-to-bottom, and all of them are clearly oriented in the same direction. The science fiction tropes play out as the surviving characters must use their various resources to protect humanity from the dangerous Caul. That story, the science fiction adventure, ends on page 14. All of the large-scale concerns are resolved leaving Nika and William floating together in outer space with only an hour to live. This is where the true finale begins. They float closer to a black hole, the source of all their space-time troubles and body switching. It begins to warp their forms and pull them into a place where they can “experience of stretching in time and space”. It is only at this moment that Trillium once again applies a non-typical format to its pages.
As Nika and William are pulled into the black hole, their lives are pulled together. The tumbling panels on pages 18 and 19 reveal their early lives up until the traumatic moments that have haunted them. Only the following pages, 20 and 21, use any of the inverted panels that were so common in Trillium #1 – #7. They reveal Nika and William appearing in front of one another at these traumatic moments and comforting their counterpart. The panels, colors, and poses all reflect one another perfectly. If separated, the pages lose most of their impact, but together they form a perfect whole, a climax for Trillium. Nika and William are like these pages and Aristophanes’ mythical soul mates. They are two halves capable of creating a greater whole. They are the dream of romantic love fully realized.
Despite its trappings, Trillium is not a sci-fi story or a romance. It’s a myth. It is not interested in exploring the effects of new technology or the story of a singular romance. Instead it wants to explain a basic idea to the reader, to explain the concept of romantic love. Everything about it comes back to that central purpose. The genre trappings, the formatting, the coloring: all of it is used to finally make clear what love is.
It’s two people bound together in a vacuum, each of them undeniably broken, irrepressibly human. Yet together, these two people are whole. They heal one another’s wounds, provide comfort in darkness, and follow one another, no matter what that means. They are two halves of a unique whole, one that defies space and time, one that exists in a singular moment and for all eternity.
Aristophenes could not have told this tale any better.