The Fertilizer: If you’ve read my reviews of Family Tree thus far, you may be exhausted with all the plant jokes/puns. But aside from the fact that I had a lonely childhood and never had my sense of humor adjusted in social settings, there’s an apt reason for all the root and budding gags. This story is every much like an actual plant: it settled with the debut issue, started to take root and germinate in the middle issues, and reveals its flowery facade with issue #5. Only, this ain’t no dainty rosebush or mighty oak, y’all.
A Budding Narrative: Leading up to issue #5, Meg was just about nearing the end of her transformation into a tree. Her family — mother Loretta and brother Josh — raced to get her out of NYC as grandpa Judd countered the fiendish machinations of the nasty Arborist cult. Issue #5, then, brings us to the end of the first full arc, and if you’re a savvy enough reader, you can guess what happens to Meg. But don’t fret — it’s a truly beautiful moment, one where Meg gets to evolve to her next phase (I won’t ruin any specifics) while also providing her mother with the knowledge that everything is OK and hers is not a fate of fear or regret.
It’s a deeply compelling metaphor for life’s inevitable changes, and the role in which family plays as we try and march through the endless muck with a modicum of hope. It’s an especially touching scene as, in the beginning of the issue, we see the state of the family before Darcy’s departure, and the chaos and anger that almost swallowed them whole. As scary as the events of the book have been thus far, Meg helps push aside some of that negativity in favor of showing her family there’s love and beauty to cling to. It’s the sort of issue that should properly break your heart, but still leaves the reader feeling thankful for the journey. And that’s what this book is — a big journey into the heart of life and why things are OK even when they’re terrible.
New Growth: This issue is certainly an ending, but it’s also a beginning of sort. Again, I don’t want to spoil too much, but as we move into issue #6, we can expect a jump in the timeline and (likely) a world very much in the midst of the End Times. With those shifts comes a new protagonist, a much older and more bearded Josh. I’ve mentioned several times before that it feels like Josh hasn’t always had a significant amount of screen time so far, and that’s really been a detriment. Rather than jumping right in, though, writer Jeff Lemire is smart in setting the stage for a Josh-centric story. As part of highlighting the family’s in-fighting, he demonstrates the unique dynamic of Meg and Josh, and how the older brother is a keen emotional support system. Given what happens to both siblings, it places Josh on the path toward apocalyptic hero, and while he’s still something of an unknown quantity, we understand the love and devotion he carries on. It’s that nougat that will help us care for him as this character gets a chance to shine and better expand the next part of this story. Also, get ready for chainsaw action!
Sweeping Up The Clippings: I’m still not keen on spoiling too much, but what I can say is that something very important dawned on me. If this whole story has been a lead up to Josh’s story, Lemire likely could have just as easily told this “chapter” in maybe 1-2 issues. It would have been hugely efficient from a narrative perspective, and thus would have let us get to the meat and potatoes of it ASAP. But I’m happy it worked out this way. Even if these 5 issues have all been laying a foundation, it’s been a hugely satisfying one, a story of love and growth, the painful truth surrounding life’s endless changes, and the devotion at the heart of every family.
Drawing it out has let Lemire really build this world how he sees fit, and let us focus on the family elements and just how much the world has changed (and what things may remain intact). Sometimes efficiency cuts out a lot of emotional meandering, and this is a story where ample space to explore these ties is going to make the next arc/chapters feel all the more impactful. By giving this early part all the room it needed, Lemire allows readers to actually develop real bonds before things changed drastically. And that’s an important experience to carry into #6 and beyond, and just further proof of how consuming and engaging this story has been.
If there’s one downside to the approach, it’s that we don’t get closure regarding Judd. It’s clear that he likely never made it out of NYC, but it would have been nice to see for sure, as he’s a solid part of this early arc and drives a lot of the emotion and tension throughout. Same goes with father Darcy: He’s more likely (even minutely) to show up in the next arc, but even then, that’s open-ended enough to prove a little bothersome.
Visual Rosebush: Artist Phil Hester deserves just as much credit for the underlying emotions of this book as Lemire’s writing. His stark, minimalist style has proven as scary as it is endearing, and his mastery of sentiments has been a huge part of how this book has pulled at people’s heart strings with lethal efficiency. In this issue in particular, he shines in some really subtle but profound ways. Where so much of the actual story focuses on Meg’s final transformation, Hester manages to create imagery that’s equally human and monstrous, and in that gap exists the space for some deeply connective moments. It’s both inescapably beautiful and yet deeply jarring to see this process unfurl, and that dynamic makes for a really powerful experience.
Hester’s work plays with your ideas and emotions in hugely effective ways (thanks in part to some expert use of colors and shading/shadows), and none of this moment would be as powerful if he didn’t bridge the gap so perfectly between sentiments. He understands the slim barrier between beautiful and ugly, and forces readers to meander that tightrope.
Hope For A New Season: To once again beat the plant shtick into the ground, this story has bloomed. Whether it grows big and strong, or wilts under the resulting pressure, still remains to be seen. But in this very moment, Family Tree is flourishing, and you’d be wise to come and sit for a few moments in its dark and lovely shade.