Nils’ Interesting Concepts Don’t Help Its Slovenly Storytelling

A naked, feminine figure with blonde hair squats at the base of a tree. They stare down at their reflection into a surface of water below, as a beam of glowing orbs fly from the foreground to their direction.

The Elementals, spirits of life, have seemingly abandoned the world. Nature has overgrown and enveloped the majority of the planet, resources have grown scarce, and humanity has regressed into divided factions. A young boy named Nils and his father, a scientist named Ruben, journey to the north when their grounds grow infertile, only to find themselves caught in the crossfire of the Cyan Kingdom’s whims. The two soon discover a conspiracy suggesting the high-tech kingdom may have been manipulating the Elementals for their gain, while other factions suffer. And that is about as much as I can confidently tell you about this book’s plot.

Nils: The Tree of Life

Antoin Carrion (artist & colorist), Jérôme Hamon (writer)
January 29, 2019
Magnetic Press

Cover of Nils: The Tree of Life, Jerome Hamon, Antoin Carrion, January 28, 2019, Magnetic Press

Nils: The Tree of Life marks the return of Magnetic Press as a full-service publisher after previously existing as a subsidiary of Lion Forge Comics. The title is also part of the company’s ongoing initiative to publish more international comics to the English-language market.

The book’s strongest selling point is its beautiful art and diverse character design. Nils takes us through a desolate version of Earth, completely subdued in blue. While the color blue typically symbolizes water and life, artist and colorist Antoin Carrion uses the color to show infertility, ruin, and even death. Blue becomes the book’s most important visual motif, even as color palette shifts across scenes, submerging us in a harsh, cold world. Everything looks alien enough to emphasize the fantastical, but familiar enough to strike us with the fear of a possible future on our own Earth. Science fiction and fantasy collide through the intertwining, clashing visual elements that stand in for the industrial-powered Cyan Kingdom, nature’s barren conditions, and the magical wrath of the gods. Carrion also pays clear attention to character emotion, with strong body language in critical moments. Nils’ beautifully rendered visuals are where the book truly shines, while the story is near incomprehensible.

A dismal, panoramic view of a grassland with dead trees. Tiny, glowing figures stand across the scene. Text narrating over the scene reads: "Before, this forest home to thousands of Elementals. Now there are only a few hundred, and as soon as an Elemental is liberated from its mattter, it immediately reincarnates, without any time to reincarnate itself in its own world... It is as if the Elemental reserves have been exhausted."The crux of Nils’ plot catalyses when Nils and Ruben cross paths with a metallic creature that has been preying and hunting Elementals. A woman named Alba attacks the creature, and the group discerns the automaton can be traced back to the Cyan Kingdom. Alba takes Nils and his father to her tribe, who have been warring with the Kingdom due to their exploitative practices. A high council in the Cyan Kingdom discuss these growing threats to their grand plan. The Kingdom has been utilizing the Elementals as a source of power for their technological advancement, and as a potential means of immortality. Meanwhile, three goddesses watch the events unfold, lamenting that humanity has abandoned their faith in them. As things worsen, they aggressively intervene, and a dream is planted into Nils’ head about the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the tree of life. He is motivated to find the tree to save the world. And for some reason, more characters are still being introduced to us at this point. And then, it keeps going and going.

Characters continuously get introduced every few pages, and I can hardly pin most of these faces to an actual name. Characters also die left and right, but I couldn’t care less about them because very little time is spent on developing them. So many concepts are introduced, like religion and the rules of magic, but they are simply glossed upon to move on to the next thing. It’s troublesome trying to explain what happens because I would not even know if I am correct on the details.Large, tentacle-like appendages break through and flail about a large surface of ice. Text over the scene reads, "And then? What do you think might happen if the connection between the nine worlds disappeared? The end of everything? I fear it would be..."Nils introduces numerous characters of color to be set aside (or die), only to suddenly depend on our white-coded, titular character as the ultimate savior in the end. Their treatment is awkward and pretty belittling. Nils himself is just as underdeveloped as anyone else but is for no good reason destined and touched by the gods to seek Yggdrasil. This motivation is planted in him more than halfway through the book. Alba, a black woman, is heavily proactive in the story’s progress from her first appearance yet is reduced to victimhood towards the culmination of the book. Meanwhile, the titular Nils is often in the background supported by other characters. For much of the latter half book, he is literally thrown into a suspended, comatose state. Despite all of this, his inactivity is somehow integral to Alba and the rest of humanity’s salvation. Many of Nil’s actions have been powered through the course of divine intervention and not out of his own desires. Nils wants to claim there are characters with grey morals, but who they actually are as people never really gets to the forefront and only serve roles forced upon them based on who is “good” and who is “bad.” Through a lack of cohesive characters, the story falls apart.

There can never be too many allegories about climate change and environmentalism. I can definitely see the sources of inspiration Nils takes from, specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Both works convey a heavy environmentalist message, depicting a similar post-apocalyptic world where humanity has regressed into divided kingdoms, technology that intersects with fantasy, and a huge cast of characters filled with grey morals. The main difference is that Nausicaä was much better executed.

Nils would have benefited from the pacing of a much longer series, as opposed to a self-contained, singular graphic novel. This would have given it so much more time and room to develop its universe and large cast of characters. It is clear Nils suffers from compressing genuinely interesting concepts into such a limited amount of pages.A woman sits in front of fireplace with a sword set on the ground by her side. A large, amorphous, metallic structure towers behind her. Nils: The Tree of Life is outright a storytelling mess. With stunning visuals and interesting psuedo-science fiction elements mixed with dark fantasy, one would think those elements would be ripe for something solid. Instead, in final execution, it just totally falls apart. I would not recommend Nils with all of these flaws I have discussed. But with strong visuals that are at least suggestive of powerful ideas, it is compelling to at least look at.

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things.