Growth Surge: You may have visited AIPT for comics reviews, but you’re also getting another installment of “Gardening with Chris C.” Any hobbyist will tell you that growing plants is about the journey and not the destination (a new ficus, likely). Which is to say, you’ve got to have the patience to watch the thing develop, because that process is what will both dazzle and re-affirm the glory of life.
That’s certainly been the case for Family Tree, the excellent new series from Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester. After slightly underwhelming developments in issue #3, issue #4 blasts this budding story with super growth formula, resulting in a deeply emotional and poignant chapter.
The Conspiracy Emerges: Leading up to issue #4, grandpa Judd, grandson Josh, and mother Loretta have traveled to New York City to seek help as Meg further transmogrifies into a tree. At the very surface, we learned more about the cultists chasing the family, the Arborists, who are trying to prevent a perceived apocalypse were Meg to finish her transformation. It’s an interesting choice, but also a rather Lemire-ian twist in character creation, playing with basic ideas of morality, motivations, and justice. To an extent, all this world-building is important, as it helps structure the story and provide real moments/events that flesh out these characters and really ground all the hugely revelatory moments. But as with issues #1 and #2, some of the best bits involve the most quiet and sincere moments between two or more characters.
Heart 2 Heart: As was the case with issue #2, Judd is once again the star of the show. And it’s easy to see why: he’s another of Lemire’s characters that you both love (for his decisiveness, his honesty, etc.) while still perceiving as an ever-real bastard (for his bluntness, his emotional immaturity, etc.). In this issue in particular, Judd has two great moments with other male characters.
The first such moment comes as he teaches Josh about how to use a gun. It’s not an extra poignant moment, but it does reflect who Judd is as a character, and how all he has to offer is violence and a responsibility for that fury. I’d said before that his gun-wielding is the only way he can show love, and he further establishes this in a moment that’s both gutting and oddly uplifting. And because of it, we get fresh insights into Josh, and how he feels amid the chaos, which is our first moment to care about him and see his path toward greater maturity. Josh may or may not be a good kid, and this feels like a watershed moment in his development, done with thought and grace.
Yet even that moment pales in comparison to the ending, which involves a deeply powerful moment between Judd and the kids’ “father,” Darcy. It was revealed in issue #2 that Darcy also underwent the change, and to preserve some part of himself, he had Judd make a branch into a prosthetic hand. The pair have infrequent convos, but the one that ends #4 will rip your soul to shreds. It’s this perfect encapsulation of their dynamic, and plays on ideas of abandonment and second chances, with Darcy demanding his father step up for his lifetime of failures. And, again, Judd complies the only way he can, ample bloodlust. To some extent, it helps cast Judd in more of a sympathetic light, and his need for approval via violence. It also facilitates a proper cliffhanger that never feels cheap in drawing out these huge emotions and visceral reactions. I’d spoil more, but it’s this whole thing that deserves to be experienced to fully delve into the heart of this book.
Bummer Town: If there’s one moment or scene that falls flat, it’s the conversation between Judd and Loretta. I remarked in my review of issue #1 that Loretta was a huge character, and her motivations and limitations as a single mom would inform a lot of the drama of this series. That’s mostly been true, but her discussion with Judd in #4 doesn’t quite land the way it should have. It happens to deal with Loretta learning of Darcy’s fate, and that could have been such a massive moment brimming with romance, awkwardness, betrayal, relief, and a smorgasbord of emotion. Instead, it was interrupted by the Arborists, and why we could pick back up on this thread in issue #5 or beyond, it feels mostly ruined now. Loretta needs to be a bigger part of this story, as she helps define so much of the structure and larger narrative. Without her big moments, or simply moments that are later diminished, we’re losing out on a lot of impact and character development. I need more from her, or this becomes dominated by Judd, and his unique issues and scope just aren’t enough of this story. Let Loretta flourish in this book, and she can enhance so much of the sharp family interplay taking place.
Blood & Guts: There’s been heaps of violence thus far in this series, but there’s extra blood and gore in this issue. Luckily, that’s another great opportunity for Hester to further dazzle with his art. In #4 especially, he has a way of portraying violence and bloodshed that feels both wildly alien and all too human, and in that space it’s easy to feel the true and visceral impact. There’s a moment where one of the Arborists is dispatched by the doctor, and it’s an act that merits genuine pause and reflection. To some extent, there’s always some glorification happening, but Hester’s work still makes you consider what it all means and what your reaction says about you personally. Yet it’s never done in a way to be overly preachy, and there’s a lot of silly, slightly pulp-y energy to his lines. Together, that makes for something that feels serious without losing that “fun” and slight wink of self-awareness. Hester doesn’t just tell so much of the story — he drives home ideas, attitudes, emotions, and basic energies.
Leaf You To Pieces: I’m no botanist, but I’d classify Family Tree as a cactus. There’s so many arms (i.e., the branching narratives and thematic goals). It’s pretty to look at, and that value changes depending upon the given angle/perspective. And you’ve got to respect this big boy, ’cause it’ll surely surprise anyone with a needle or two of narrative twists and genuine emotion. Plus, the closer we get to the finale, the more this big ol’ saguaro will flower something truly mesmerizing.