This Is The Way: There’s this moment in comics — let’s call it The Grand Pivot. And in this instance, all the magic and sci-fi weirdness, the endless hype and dense exaggeration, fall away to reveal the true heart of the story. It’s different for every title, but in the case of Family Tree, the new series from Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester, it arrives brilliantly and beautifully with issue #2. Forgive me for being sappy, but this should leaf you in tears.
Yay Grandpa!: In case you hadn’t already gathered from the title, Family Tree is about a young girl, Meg, who is turning into a tree, and how her family, mom Loretta and brother Jason, are trying to, like, totally prevent that. From the moment the series was first introduced, all the press materials promised an apocalyptic tale brimming with Christian mythology. It may be, as Lemire later remarked, more about new beginnings over cataclysm, but this same energy colors so much of the book.
Yet as we see in issue #2, all the religious overtures are just delicious marshmallow fluff atop what looks to be a simpler tale right in Lemire’s wheelhouse: the children’s grizzled grandfather, Judd, makes his proper debut, and he’ll likely butt heads with Loretta as they try and save Meg from her oak-y fate. This “simplification” doesn’t take away from the story’s premise or promise, but does give readers something to focus on in the larger narrative, a kind of safety blanket as the world grows and the myths of this universe take root. We have our beating heart, and it’s a truly delightful and imperfect one at that.
Like A Tree Branch To The Face: I don’t want to spoil too much of the why and how Judd is thus able to swing in and fend Meg and Co. from these nefarious cultists, but it does have everything to do with the fate of the father, Darcy, who as far as we know has been dead for sometime. Perhaps you might put all of that together in due time, but issue #2 does a damn effective job in grounding Meg’s condition and helping us see the larger history at play. But more than that, we get to better understand the core of Judd as a person, and the commitment he has to his son (and/or his legacy) and how that now affects his grandkids. It’s a really beautiful presentation of a father and son’s bond, a wellspring of emotions that makes you forget about people turning into trees and see this as a wonderful metaphor for devotion and commitment.
Judd really feels like he’s alive despite this being only his first “real” appearance, and his ornery vibes are going to clash beautifully with mama bear Loretta while giving readers some greater insight into the chaos of this fictional world. The best characters do so much for emotion and narrative, and Judd is such a massive part of this world. Yet he never dominates the story, and he keeps the focus on the uncertainty and fear essential to this family’s journey.
My Old Man The Hero: Long-time fans of Lemire will be familiar with his use of older mentor, younger mentee from books like Sweet Tooth, Black Hammer, and (to a certain extent) his excellent run on Animal Man. I got to wondering why Lemire’s so invested in this “version” of parent/fatherhood, and why I can’t speak to his personal experiences, it’s a unique version of an archetype nearly as old as the written word.
Be it Judd in this series, Jeppard in Sweet Tooth, or even Black Hammer‘s Abraham Slam, these men only have so much to offer. They can’t nurture your emotional wellbeing, or even provide enough useful wisdom. They can, however, blast bad guys to bits, and that devotion (no matter how binary or linear) is enough. Their imperfect ways are rooted in something more sincere, a love that can’t be expressed verbally but hums with a passion and dedication that knows almost no bounds. It’s a form of parenting for an imperfect world, the only sort of love that might make any sense. Yet within that lackluster form, there’s something universal and effective. In the case of Family Tree, it’s a love that fights nature itself, and this “hero” (Judd) deserves a spotlight for offering love the only way he knows how: from the barrel of a shotgun.
Tree to Life: So far in the series, Hester’s had to draw a lot of old dudes fighting and human tree monsters. As such, it can be hard to express any real emotion in these form factors, but Hester does a great job regardless. The fights, especially, reflect huge elements of Judd’s personality, this rage and sense of terror that hint at something truly elemental. As I said earlier, it’s the only way he knows how to love, and he shows it with an intensity that makes you feel just how much he wants to serve and protect his family.
Judd’s a deeply disturbed man, who takes some clear joy in killing. Yet it’s easy to forgive him not only because of why he does it but also how he’s drawn this circle around himself and his violence and the rest of the world. Somehow, that distinction feels OK, and he has enough awareness to cast himself a proper monster.
And speaking of monsters, Hester’s human-tree hybrids (done to varying degrees) are rich with emotion despite being made of wood. Part of that has to be Hester’s use of key details and overall shadows and shading. But it might also be that, at least in this series, every person, regardless of tree-like status, feels a little ghoulish to some degree. People who blur the line between pretty and scary, vulnerable and fiendish. The final page, especially, which involves a huge reveal about Darcy, exemplifies this strange blurring of aesthetics and ideas. The world is a dark and scary place — at least this book totally looks the part.
Story Flowers: Family Tree has become a huge favorite in just two issues, which is amazing because it took me Greg Rucka’s entire run on Wolverine to be quite as certain. It’s the emotional weight, the unsettling imagery (that’s also deeply touching), the exploration of family and fatherhood, and the way this tree-based mystery flourishes inch by painful and exciting inch. It doesn’t so much grow on you as it bursts fully in bloom from your chest cavity.