From its opening pages, moodily lit by Ryan Cody’s muted and yet quietly oppressive colours, there’s an immediate sense of the foreboding about Family Tree, the new ongoing Image series from Jeff Lemire, Phil Hester and company. Hints of something apocalyptic coming permeate this narrative but lie tantalisingly just out of reach of the reader’s wider comprehension in a first chapter that combines eerie, otherworldly thriller with the character dynamics of a more human family drama.
The story centres on acerbic supermarket worker Loretta Hayes, her children troubled and rebellious son Joshua and daughter Meg around whom events will revolve, and their mysterious grandfather. As teasers to a wider crisis begin to surface, and the family’s own dysfunctional relationships are underlined, a more pressing problem comes to the fore. Eight-year-old Meg is showing plant-like symptoms with her body beginning to slowly transform in tree-like ways. The scene is set for a road trip with a most urgent goal as the familial group embark on a journey to find a cure for their youngest member in a new and dangerously unknown world…
With sparse details to the wider events that define its premise, Family Tree #1 feels more like prologue to something potentially epic at this stage; narrative catalyst left deliberately vague while the family explorations that are at the book’s heart take centre stage. It may seem a subtle distinction but Jeff Lemire has always been a writer who crafts his stories as much as he tells them and this character-led opener is clever enough to ensure that we are fully invested in this cast in a relatively short page count while having just enough hooks to the greater mystery to retain our interest in those more outlandish elements of the plot.
Phil Hester, perfectly partnered by inker Eric Gapstur, provides visuals that ramp up the tension of this first part with an almost organic self-referentiality that creepily reflects the darker motifs of the book. Hester’s characters have a physicality that naturalistically embodies their personalities whether that be the defiant sarcasm of Loretta, the fragile innocence of Meg or the brooding powerful presence of their grandfather. In isolation, relatively little is revealed in this first issue beyond the body horror of Meg’s predicament but that’s really the point. Family Tree is a horror mystery and one whose secrets I suspect we will enjoy all the more in the months to come for the benefit of discovering them incrementally.
Jeff Lemire (W), Phil Hester & Eric Gapstur (A), Ryan Cody (C), Steve Wands (L) • Image Comics, $3.99
Review by Andy Oliver