Exploring Jeff Lemire’s Family Tree

In Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester’s upcoming comic, Family Tree from Image Comics, a girl becomes a tree. This new, original horror story follows the Hayes family on a backroads road trip across the country seeking a cure for Meg. Frightening and poignant, the first issue of the new horror ongoing combines elements of body horror, magical realism, apocalypticism, and a classic family road-trip into something new and engaging. In advance of Family Tree #1, we spoke with Jeff Lemire about this comic, horror, and writing in general.

A young girl, head hanging over the top edge of the cover, has hair spilling out that looks like it turns into tree roots, growing over the text Family lTree.
Phil Hester’s cover to Family Tree #1 from Image Comics in November 2019.

So, first of all, I have to say that the entire issue had me on the edge of my seat. There’s a momentum to the story so far that makes everything feel important. From the characters, to the town of Lowell, Maine, to the emerging plot, every page has an immediacy to it, even from the vantage point of knowing that everything is being told to us by our undisclosed narrator, later on down the line.

When you’re approaching a comic like Family Tree and creating an original horror story, what comes first for you? What’s most engaging for you to develop, characters or setting, or the problem at the heart of the story itself?

It’s really hard to pinpoint where any of my stories first start, honestly it’s always very different. With Sweet Tooth, it all started with a drawing of the character and I slowly built a story around him. I think with Family Tree it actually started with the title if I am being honest. I was thinking about how I write so many stories about families and this idea of taking “family tree” literally struck me as funny, but then the more I thought of it, the more it started to snowball into something creepy and cool that I got excited about. You never know where a story can come from, you just have to daydream a lot and be open. You can’t force it. Ideas can come from the silliest things some times, but turn into something real.

Once I had the initial idea, then I build off characters and the emotional core.

Is this always your process, or do you approach writing for horror comics differently than other writing you might do?

No, I never approach writing differently no matter what genre I am working in, or even if the stuff is non-genre like a lot of my indie work. I generally think and build story from the same place and often the genre stuff is really an augmentation or metaphor for the emotional core of the story.

An interior page from Family Tree #1 showing Josh Hayes at the Lowell High School.
Family Tree #1, from Image Comics in November 2019, art by Phil Hester.

Continuing briefly in that vein: the news out of NYCC that James Wan would be joining the team for the Gideon Falls television show is quite exciting! In your role as an Executive Producer for the show, do you find that the  role and the television medium change the way you approach telling the story? With both Family Tree and the Gideon Falls comic and TV show all ongoing projects, how do you approach storytelling for the screen and for the page differently, or similarly?

I honestly do not consider the TV/movie stuff at all when working on my books, or when developing new stories. It’s a nice bonus when these things happen after the fact, but for me it all starts and ends with the comics themselves. I just want to make really good comics, anything else is totally out of my control. If you try to reverse engineer a comic to fit into a TV pitch or screenplay, you are doomed to make something hollow.

Let’s get back to the Hayes family. Horror stories about families hit close to home for a lot of people, and in the first issue of Family Tree, the complicated dynamics between Meg, her older brother Josh, and their single mother Loretta helped draw me into the story. What’s the appeal for you, as a writer, in horror stories that center families?

I feel like the emotional bonds we form with our families are so pure and strong, that they are very fertile ground to explore. Using horror as metaphor for the things that can pull at a family is really compelling to me. Maybe because I’m a parent myself, and the world we live in is so unstable and scary a lot of times. This may be a cathartic way of expressing the anxiety and fear I feel trying to keep my son feeling safe and happy.

Loretta hurries Meg into the car.
Family Tree #1, from Image Comics in November 2019, art by Phil Hester.

At the heart of Family Tree isn’t just Meg’s family, but also her transformation. Can you talk a little about what interests you in the idea of transformation in storytelling? Both within the context of horror and more generally?

Change is scary, especially change within our own bodies. I experience this myself in much less dramatic ways as I get older. I also love body horror, and love the visual potential of this. I toyed with it a bit in my Animal Man run at DC, but with Family Tree I get to dive in full on and Phil is so good at rendering this kind of stuff too.

One of the elements of horror storytelling that’s prominent in Family Tree is body horror, and the physical horror of transformation. What motivated your choice to explore body horror through the vehicle of an eight year old girl’s unwilling transformation into a tree?

As a parent there is nothing harder or scarier than seeing your child sick or suffering in any way. So, to amplify that through horror, or body horror, is really frightening. But the transformation will also lead Meg to another place internally as well. As her body transforms, her mind begins to experience a totally different sort of change, on that links her to a bigger world.

Meg scratches at a rootlike itch that's emerging on her arm, riding in the back of the car.
Family Tree #1, from Image Comics in November 2019, art by Phil Hester.

I’d like to talk a little about road trips, that’s what really caught my eye when I first heard about Family Tree, and what got me excited about this book even before getting a chance to look at the first issue. There are a lot of really great, classic road trip stories—how did you set about approaching the road trip at the heart of this story in a way that felt new?

You can’t worry too much about trying to do things that are new, if you did, you’d never be able to write anything. What will make the road trip feel fresh, hopefully, is making it very specific to this family and their emotional journey. And then you layer the whole supernatural mythology that we are building on top of that, and hope that it resonates and feels fresh.

Were there any classic road trip stories, or horror stories about families, that felt like touchstones or inspirations for you as you wrote about the Hayes family’s apocalyptic journey out of Lowell? Did any media influenced the story you set out to tell in Family Tree?

I can’t say I had to many other road trip stories in mind while working in this. Certainly Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing American Gothic was a big inspiration.

Family Tree#1 will be on sale November 13, 2019, from Image Comics.

Emma Snape

Emma Snape

Emma is an Ohio native who has worked in film production and education, and writes about comics on the side. She loves thinking about the role of visuals in narrative storytelling, both in film and comics, reading comics set in cities she's lived in, and telling people to read X-Force (1991).