Written by Jeff Lemire, with art by Phil Hester, Eric Gapstur and Ryan Cody, and lettering by Steve Wands, Image Comics’ Family Tree: The Sapling does horror right. From the quiet beginnings, we are introduced to a family that stands out. A family that we want to see succeed and survive. So when Lemire tells us Apocalypse is on the horizon, we’re immediately hoping he’s lying.
From page one, Lemire is telling us that we are watching how the world ends. So Lemire, in the rest of the series, has to make us give a damn. And his characters, who leap off the page straight away, do exactly that. Whether it’s Loretta, who can give as good as she gets, or Judd, who is THE person you want next to you during the end of the world, there’s always more to them than meets the eye. Loretta seems like a typical, tired mom character for all of two seconds before we see she doesn’t take anyone’s crap. Maggie is the whining little sister for only an issue before we’re aware of a deeper transformation going on within her. Lemire is constantly making us second guess what we think we know about these characters. He keeps the plot fresh and moving at full speed towards Armageddon.
Hester, Gapstur, and Cody choose a brilliant minimalistic style for their art. It is their art that makes this world feel both familiar and mysterious at once. For one thing, we’re confident they’re giving us all of the details we need. Yet the stage they set is obscured enough by shadows and minimalism that they create a sense of mystery. The style also gives us a feeling of what characters in this world are like. Their jagged outlines feel like an extension of their personalities. Or at the very least, an exterior they have chosen to distract from what is going on beneath. The minimalist pieces and rough-hewn exteriors are carefully put together to create a beautiful whole.
The coloring used on each page tells us from panel one whether these characters are in danger or not. Much like color drains from someone’s face when they’re afraid, these artists use a paler palette for danger-filled scenes. It creates a sense of dread for every fight and each new horrifying discovery. But it also allows for the more colorful scenes to feel like a rest stop. When the characters’ faces are flushed, and their clothes are bright, we feel as though we can slow down our heart rate. We connect to these characters without fear of them being ripped away suddenly. At least not for a page or two.
Wands’ lettering is quite straightforward. He divides a character’s lines up into several word balloons very rarely. It creates a sense of urgency for the series. Characters don’t dilly-dally. They say what they need to say before anything can interrupt them. What Wands does brilliantly, is he pulls back on the lines for the character Darcy. While Darcy has the potential to be a very frightening presence in the series, his lines are in small lettering. He’s also the only one whose lines aren’t in all-caps. Darcy feels less threatening and more calming. We set our fears aside for a second. The otherworldly becomes less terrifying.
Family Tree is a horror comic that is full of dread. But not dread born of gory violence or slobbering fangs, a dread that comes from loving these characters. The creative team behind Image Comics’ series Family Tree has given a human bridge into this disturbing world they’ve created. And with this writer and these artists, it’s anyone’s guess where it goes from here. The one thing we do know, it’s going to be great. This series from Image Comics is a must-read. See some more in-depth looks at each individual issue with Cat Wyatt’s brilliant articles, starting here.