Welcome to another edition of Post-Game. As the title suggests, we’re aping a little NFL-inspired post-game coverage for the realm of comics, allowing a slew of creators to come in and examine their work after the fact. Through this rare instance of hindsight, we can all gain a better appreciation for our favorite stories and series and better grasp the truly nuanced creative process. And unlike with football, we promise no (excessively) wacky graphics or needlessly bulky suits.
Title: Family Tree
Creative Team: Written by Jeff Lemire and art by Phil Hester
Story Arc: Vol. 1 (issues #1-4)
Original Release Date: November 2019 to February 2019
Synopsis: As a young girl starts turning into a tree, her family must rally together in the hopes of saving her (and themselves).
AIPT’s Thoughts: From Chris Coplan’s review of issue #4, “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.”
How do you feel now that this story’s been told? Is there a sense of relief, or are there any uneasy feelings? Was its creation/development a “good” experience overall?
We’re only part of the way through the story, but it’s been a great experience to date. Fantastic story, great collaborators, editorial freedom. What’s not to like? I will say there’s a sense of excitement for the creative team in that the book’s readers have a sense of where they think the story is headed based on this first trade that’s not necessarily true. There are some heady twists and turns to come.
Are you the type of artist/writer to go back and think about what worked or didn’t with a story or the overall volume? Is that process helpful at all?
I endure this process after every pencil mark and brushstroke. I wish I could divest myself of this kind of second-guessing because it’s not really fair to myself as a creator. That way paralysis lies.
How do you think the overall storyline or larger aesthetic/visual identity played out now that you’re looking at it as a wholly completed project? Has that shifted at all?
I’m pretty happy with it. I set out to tell this kind of intimate horror story with a claustrophobic, itchy rendering style, sort of like the sensation of wearing an uncomfortable, clingy sweater, or maybe a crawling growth invading a home. I think that style worked perfectly for the creeping horror encroaching on the family in the first arc, but was pleasantly surprised to find is still worked as that horror subsequently spilled out into the larger world. Rather than requiring a shift of styles to indicate a broader catastrophe, that rendering style also “spilled out” into the wider scope of the book the way the underlying horror elements of the story burst into the world outside of Meg’s family.
What kind of feedback have you received? Has any of that helped shape some of your thoughts on the larger series/story?
It’s been pretty great so far. I think Jeff has a built in audience that’s a little more adventurous than the typical Big Two buyer, and they’ve been willing to go along for the wild ride we have mapped out.
What, if anything, surprised you about how the story or visual narrative plays out in hindsight? Is there some reaction or emotion now associated with the series that you might not have felt during the actual creative process?
Artists have a tendency to break stories down into their technical components. It’s just part of what we do. We have to stand back, dissect the scene, prioritize what needs to be conveyed, then be very unsentimental about how to effectively present it. That can sometimes lead to an estrangement from the emotional impact of a given scene, or the book as a whole.
I think it speaks to Jeff’s strengths as a writer, and my growth as an artist over the course of the series, that we’ve always been able to preserve the emotional core of each scene. In some books you might find the dialogue or the art individually fishing the relevant theme out of a panel from scene to scene, almost like taking turns bearing that burden. But in Family Tree I think we’ve been pretty good at managing that job in unison. The action feels desperate, like the family’s existence is at stake. The loss seems irreversible, like family tragedies often do. We hung on to the emotion behind our guitar solos even as we honed our playing, if you see what I mean.
So I feel like our aesthetic approach was a success in that we were able to step back, analyze, and make technical decisions about presentation while still being mindful of the emotional impact it was going to have on the reader. I think we kept one foot on the stage and one foot in the audience.
Did you have any goals going into the project? Did you “complete” those in some way?
Yeah. I wanted to be less cold with my rendering style. I’ve always been in that Toth school of economy of line and doing more with less, but that can often bleed a subject of its intensity. I wanted to approach this story with a more organic, less flat style. To let random mark-making and more improvised compositions take a larger role in my storytelling than usual. I think it fit the feeling of creeping dread in the book, and hope it lives in the reader’s memory that way.
Is there anything you might do differently in writing/illustrating/coloring/etc.? Some things you wish had played out differently?
Well, any time you work with characters over multiple story arcs they start to grow and change in your mind, and they don’t always feel like the same character you designed in a sketch book the year before. I sort of feel like I only really learn to draw a character like Swamp Thing or Green Arrow, or in this case Meg’s family, as I near the end of the project. Maybe that’s just an artifact of “knowing” them better in my mind, knowing how much more insightful my depiction could be if it weren’t limited by those first impressions created during the pitch phase. It’s the one element of comic book creation that works backwards. We really don’t know what we’re drawing until we’ve already been drawing it for a while.
Inversely, what do you think are the highlights of the story? What are the points in which you excelled as you’re looking at the whole project from a distance?
I made a conscious effort to actually hold my pencil with less authority, to grip it at the far end of the barrel rather than near the point. That ceded some control of the pencil point and let the line kind of meander here and there, forcing me to adjust and improvise to keep the drawing cogent. It was both a relief and a challenge to “let go” like that, but the end result was satisfying to me as a viewer, which is pretty rare for me. I have a lot of fun drawing, but not necessarily viewing my own work. That changed with Family Tree. I can actually look at it!
Do you have any final thoughts or observations on the story/series?
It’s been a real joy and I hope the readers can tell. Thanks for coming along!
Volume 1 of Family Tree hits shelves May 27. Pre-order your copy now.