Are you looking forward to a new comic book but it’s impossible for you to wait for its release before you know what we thought about it? That’s why there’s DoomRocket’s Advanced Reviews—now we assess books you can’t even buy yet. This week: ‘Family Tree’ #1, out November 13 from Image Comics.
by Brendan Hodgdon. It feels right that the spooky pre-Halloween season corresponds with the changing and falling of the leaves. The death and rebirth of trees echo the undead hallows that we celebrate this time of year. And on a less supernatural level, it’s also fitting that this time of withering before the bitter cold should also presage Thanksgiving, that legendary holiday of familial resentments and long-held grudges. What an ideal time then, right between these two holidays amongst the momentarily-dying flora, for everyone to read Family Tree. This new rural horror from Jeff Lemire, Phil Hester, Eric Gapstur and Ryan Cody resonates in so many ways and offers ideal fall chills for everyone.
The series, which features single mother Loretta as she tries to care for her kids even as one of them begins sprouting tree branches, plays beautifully to the strengths of its creative team. Lemire, he of Gideon Falls and Black Hammer, continues to have a good eye and ear for rural dread and familial angst. The Stephen King-esque setup offered here is mostly naturalistic, with the supernatural component creeping in throughout with help from some portentous but plainspoken narration. The whole thing feels real and lived-in, as the family’s struggles are handled with raw honesty. This is particularly true of Loretta, a mom trying to keep things together for her kids but too burned out to give a damn about how other adults see her.
For his part, Hester is an ideal artist for something like this. He offers an unassuming style that suits the character-driven, grounded components of the story while also being flexible enough to comfortably include the weirdness as it intrudes into this rough-but-relatable world. He also does a lot of heavy lifting to set the tone. In a first issue where the supernatural influence isn’t felt until past the halfway mark, a lot of the book’s unsettling energy comes from the stillness and shadow that Hester offers through his layouts and his inks. The town around the family is made to feel wrong, so that when the unreal happens it feels as natural an extension of the world as any of the domestic drama we’ve already witnessed.
Gapstur and Cody do great work in filling in the details along the way. Gapstur’s colors are very clever and thoughtfully-done, as he shades much of the book in greens and yellow-orange to amplify the tree motif of the story. Cody’s lettering is just as impressive. In scenes where Loretta’s rage comes to the fore, his sharply-slanted letters let her vicious verbal jabs land with full force, while in more quiet and spooky settings he lets the white letters sit against the pitch-black shadows of the scene itself in sharp, lonely contrast.
All of this narrative and visual craft is held together by carefully-considered thematic threads that resonate on both a personal and social level. At the end of the issue we are left with a cliffhanger that teases a deeper family connection with what’s happening with Loretta’s daughter, and some sort of reckoning that will have to follow. This is juxtaposed with background hints of the Bill Clinton scandal in the late 90s—a curious historical framing that feels like a wink and a nod towards the absurdity of our scandal-ridden present, which also looms over the more intimate domestic anxieties we each face day to day. In tying these elements together, the creative team seems to be grappling with the feeling that things have slowly been collapsing for years, that seeds of this destruction were planted long ago.
Family Tree is truly successful in its ability to boil down the stressors and conflicts of our age into a tangible, personal, surreal and spooky story. Lemire, Hester, Gapstur and Cody tap into a vein of emotion, with the sort of deeply relatable empathy and charming grit that charms you and unsettles you with equal ease. As the leaves continue to turn and you shift from the screams of the undead to the screams of your embittered relatives, Family Tree may be able to offer just the catharsis you’re looking for.
Image Comics / $3.99
Written by Jeff Lemire.
Art by Phil Hester.
Colors by Eric Gapstur.
Letters by Ryan Cody.
8.5 out of 10
‘Family Tree’ #1 hits stores on November 13. You can pre-order it now. (Diamond Code: SEP190021)