Jeff Lemire teams with illustrator Phil Hester, Letterer Eric Gapstur, and colorist Ryan Cody to give us Image Comics’ lush genre-hybrid Family Tree. Available now, issue eight pushes us tantalizingly close to the impending apocalypse by reconceptualizing tree symbology.
Trees are the O. G. mythic symbol. They’ve appeared everywhere from Neolithic art to the Bible, from Tolkien to Daryl Hannah. We seem to have said and drawn it all when it comes to our leafy friends. But Jeff Lemire begs to differ. He contorts all familiar metaphors into a tear-jerking body horror adventure.
Trees often symbolize ancestry, rebirth and peace, strength, and the passage of time. In the first volume, Lemire focused on ancestry and rebirth. He sets up a family drama around a girl transforming into a tree just like her dad did the year prior.
Forest for the Trees
The atmospheric, lyrical style of the art accent the symbolic and spiritual writing. Layout choices that include a page in the shape of a hand, a panel in the shape of a rear-view mirror, and captions falling like leaves help elegantly ground the story in the dire action of the present. This contrasts and runs in tandem with the philosophical, spiritual commentary from future-Josh, the book’s protagonist.
Dark inky shadows and heavy use of white space are evocative of a dream, but this contrast, similar to film-noir chiaroscuro, is rooted (pun intended) in character. For example, when Loretta runs and yells for her son in a white inter-panel void, we feel her isolation. We’re given literal space to live in these moments with the characters.
In another scene, Josh holds his dying grandfather in a black panel with a pool of blood drawn in the shape of a tree surrounding them. Seeing these moments with Josh’s point of view in mind helps us empathize. He’s bewildered, suddenly burdened with the loss and care of his family tree, all signaled by the imagery. It’s at once cinematic and wholly comic bookish in its imitation of the trappings of dreams. That is to say that dreams tend to zero in on particular moments and images to make sense of trauma.
Effectively, we are trapped inside Josh’s mind. Similarly, Megan’s consciousness gets trapped in a tree before she transforms into one. We must mature along with these children thrust into the unknown of new moral and spiritual responsibility. The message seems to be that we, the readers, must incubate in this space before we can actualize and have the reward of an ending.
We’re coaxed along by the caption narration, reflecting on the past while revealing nothing of the plot. A teasing scene of future-Josh looking very Rambo while chopping down trees foreshadows, but only briefly. It’s about the journey, after all.
Further, it follows the symbology. Judd’s (the grandfather) death ends his spiritual redemption arc. He fought to redeem himself in the eyes of his son by protecting his granddaughter from his son’s fate at the hands of apocalypse-fearing tree haters. Here and throughout each book, the writing and art connect the spiritual to the earthly, aligning with the symbolic function of the tree.
Family Tree exists as a masterclass in collaboration. Beyond the body-horror action-adventure hybrid, the creators expertly weave unique layout, muted coloring, and character-driven storytelling to create an equally beautiful and affecting book about trauma.