Family Tree #1 Ryan Cody (Colorist), Eric Gapstur (Inker), Phil Hester (Artist), Jeff Lemire (Writer), Steve Wands (Letterer). Image Comics November 13, 2019 Family Tree #1 is unsettling, in the best possible way. It roots itself beneath your skin and lingers, leaving you thinking. It’s apocalyptic in scope, but it’s also the story of a
Family Tree #1
Ryan Cody (Colorist), Eric Gapstur (Inker), Phil Hester (Artist), Jeff Lemire (Writer), Steve Wands (Letterer).
November 13, 2019
Family Tree #1 is unsettling, in the best possible way. It roots itself beneath your skin and lingers, leaving you thinking. It’s apocalyptic in scope, but it’s also the story of a family confronting the unknown, in the form of a young girl’s horrifying transformation. The story is engaging on multiple levels, and introduces the characters so effectively that their surprise and confusion translates directly to the reader. By the end of the issue, it’s easy to feel almost as if you’re tucked into the backseat of the Hayes family’s car, along for the ride with them.
There is something profoundly terrifying about the unknown, and something even scarier about becoming something you don’t recognize. There’s a persistent cultural fear permeating horror that’s not just of change, but specifically of forced or unwanted change. The sort of unanticipated transformation that sneaks up on you without your asking, and leaves you startled, metamorphosed into something new, like Gregor Samsa waking as an insect, or Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester’s Meg Hayes slowly becoming a tree.
The idea of transformation is a central one. It’s hard to see a frightened child becoming a tree, and think of anything else. Transformation can be a beautiful thing, but Meg’s transfiguration isn’t one that empowers her. Instead, it’s something that is being done to her, rather than a change she has chosen. The loss of agency inherent in waking up and discovering your body isn’t yours the way it was before is compounded by the fact that Meg is becoming a tree, a plant without sentience, agency, or voice.
There is a clear parallel with childhood illness in Meg’s mysterious condition, and to the terror that accompanies watching a child or younger sibling grow sick and feeling powerless in the face of it. Meg’s mother, Loretta, and older brother, Josh, don’t understand what’s happening anymore than Meg does, and all three of them feel confused and afraid in the face of this transformation. These familiar, relatable fears make the characters’ problems immediate to readers, and Meg’s fantastical and horrific transformation into a tree is an effective abstraction of a visceral fear any reader who is a parent or older sibling can recognize.
But if transformation is the story motivator, the heart of this book is all family. Earlier this fall, I spoke with Lemire about the writing of Family Tree, and he identified family as a source for really strong story-telling:
“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.”
The relationships between Loretta and her two children and between Josh and Meg are complex, they don’t all happily coexist in a perfect sitcom ideal of the nuclear family, but the familiar love is clear. They are a tightly defined family unit; whether the threat is coming from high school administrators or more sinister forces, it’s the Hayes family against the world. It’s refreshing to see a family that doesn’t always get along but are still protective of each other. This is a family dynamic that feels organic, like the Hayes family could live down the road in any town, and the story is all the more engaging because of it.
Phil Hester’s art is a perfectly suited companion to Lemire’s script. His work is heavy with shadows, and Erik Gapstur’s inks are clean and distinct. Hester immediately gives locations a sense of character, and within the first few panels, there is an immediate sense of the environment in the little town of Lowell. Ryan Cody’s colors this issue are incredibly effective. Earthy tones, cool purples, and shades of grey predominate the landscape of this issue, but pops of brighter color catch the eye and demand immediate attention. A frightening man stands out on panel in his acid green jacket and an explosion is so brightly orange the world around looks grayscale in comparison. The colors underline just how out of place events like these are in a town like Lowell, and give the book a grounded, realistic feel.
As a first issue, Family Tree #1 is excellent. It excels in every way a first issue should, and is one of the most exciting horror books in recent memory, which is high praise in a publishing moment full of truly excellent horror comics. Family Tree #1 is worth picking up for many reasons, and the creative team behind this book has created an exceptionally strong debut for a story that feels ambitious, personal, and hard to put down.