“What is it about the individual memories that stay with us?”
Ghost Tree has been a powerful and reflective look at life, death, loss, and now memories. It not only talks about what they mean and how they define who we are, but also how they shape us and how we move forward. The past three issues have looked at Brandt running away from his problems into a world of ghosts. It’s a place he feels more comfortable but one where he doesn’t belong. Their lives are over, but their spirits linger, filled with regret. Brandt doesn’t want to become like them, but it’s difficult to resist the peacefulness. Why is he drawn to this place? Bobby Curnow is digging into the truth depths of the human spirit and soul. Ghost Tree has been a meaningful examination of how we process our own lives and draw upon our past. Is our past always a part of us, or can we move past it?
Immediately upon turning to page one, the contrast from the previous three issues is striking. There’s an intensity and a shock that hasn’t been present before. Bobby Curnow, Simon Gane, Ian Herring, Becka Kinzie, and Chris Mowry are putting everything they have into this final issues. It feels as though it’s personal to each and every one of them. The first issue brought us into Brandt’s world, the second into his past, and the third into his feelings. This is the issue where Brandt has a decision to make about his future. The story may seem slow and simple. There’s only a handful of characters, a small setting, and a plot built around slow pacing and introspective conversation. How could it possibly compete with all of the glamour and excitement from the action-packed comics we’re used to? The simple answer is it doesn’t have to. It differentiates itself so much from the norm that it becomes something completely separate. It’s one of the few books you can experience around you as you read it. You don’t have to step into Brandt’s world to feel what he feels. Brandt’s world is our world, and our world is Brandt’s.
It’s time for the showdown. How will Brandt keep his family and the ghosts safe and put a stop to the demon? Its presence immediately churns up memories from the past, some happy, some painful, all unforgettable, and all undeniably a part of who Brandt is. They stir up important questions such as, “Do we choose these moments, or do they choose us?” and “What is a life at its end other than a series of memories that we can’t forget?” The pages frequently transition from containing heavy, reflective text and no text at all. The panel structures seem traditional but are intentionally flawed and offset as a reflection of humanity. We aren’t these perfect, even boxes. Sometimes we’re a little skewed an imprecise. Some panels extend to the edge of the page, and others aren’t lined up properly. When have our lives ever been in perfect alignment? The layout reflects the our true selves in an honest and bold fashion.
We watch as each major character displays their moment of courage and finds peace or a purpose. For some that means literally standing face to face with something that terrifies them. For others it’s a matter of acceptance or admitting the truth. It can be messy and complicated, but for Arami, Brandt, and Jii-chan, it’s worth it to protect those they love. Violence and fear don’t work against the demon. It cannot be beaten back and destroyed, for it is a ghost as well. It’s a literal manifestation of someone’s inner demons, so overwhelming and powerful that it consumes them and takes the form of a physical monster. Violence doesn’t fix a problem like this, “it wants to be heard… or at least seen.”
But what does that look like? What does it mean to truly be seen or heard? It’s what keeps Brandt coming back to the Ghost Tree. The ghosts see and hear him in ways he didn’t receive back home, and this “demon”, this ghost in pain, needs to feel that way now. So what can we do? In reality, it varies from person to person, but Curnow provides a great starting point. Arami’s eyes shine through the intimidating mask as is a symbol of openness. She welcomes the demon into this world, and at first it’s hesitant. It looks down at Arami as if to ask, “Are you sure?” Cracks begin to form in its rough and intimidating exterior as the acceptance finally breaks through. Arami sees him, and extends her offer even further, “It’s okay,” she says,”You can come out.” The ghost is seen for what he truly is and is finally able to break free. Then Brandt asks, “Is there anything you need to say?” and the ghost is heard and can move on.
We can see when ghosts move on because they disappear, but what does that look like for us? Arami is grateful for the love and time she experienced with Brandt and will direct those feelings towards a new sense of purpose as the new guardian of the Ghost Tree. Jii-chan is able to stand up for those he loves, and use Brandt to finally say how he really feels to his wife. Baa-chan has lived never knowing what Jii-chan was up to when they were married. He was always distant, and she, in some ways, blames herself for that. Brandt is able to tell her what she needed to hear and what Jii-chan needed to say, and it helps him move on. Brandt realizes he needs to go back home and deal with what’s in front of him, and that’s exactly what he does. You can probably see what’s coming right? He goes home with a newfound introspective knowledge and uses it to get back on track. He’s finally able to face his reality and move forward appreciating the life he has. Brandt and his wife patch things up and the journey we witness is one of healing, dialogue, and moving forward. But wait. Nope. That’s not right. That’s not true. That’d be too easy and Curnow, Gane, Herring, Kinzie, and Mowry know that. It’s just peachy that everything’s all good in Brandt’s world now, but Brandt’s world isn’t the real world. This creative team takes our expectations and breaks down why they’re a little misplaced. The real world has moved on without him. Alice did not experience the same enlightenment that Brandt did, and her realization is entirely different and the opposite of Brandt’s. Their relationship cannot be fixed or worked through. Brandt ran away when it mattered and now it’s too late. It’s great that Brandt experienced a lot of personal growth, but relationship’s are a two-way street, and Brandt drove away when it mattered. In the end was this journey for nothing? Does any of it even matter? That’s for you to decide, and Brandt as he steps out onto the porch, lights a cigarette, and thinks about what’s next.
It’s very harsh, somewhat angry, and painfully true. It acknowledged that sometimes, it’s too little too late. Moments of learning and growth can’t always fix the trouble and pain that have already been caused. Life isn’t a comic book. We can’t make those around us feel how we want them too. We don’t get to layout our lives in panels and pinpoint moments in time. Our panels are our memories, the moments that stick with us. It’s shockingly real and deeply unsettling. Happy endings don’t always happen and you can feel the hope drain from your body as you read the last two pages. Is Brandt better off than he was in issue one? We’ll never know.
Ghost Tree is a hard book. It is slow, methodical, and it forces you to linger on every page and panel and think about not only what’s happening, but also how it affects you. Filled with melancholy moments of contemplation and regret, but that’s what makes it incredibly important. It’s not all bad though. Ghost Tree never loses its flawed and quirky charm. Even the sad moments sometimes cause a slight smile as tears stream down your face in a moment of realization. Mowry’s lettering is brilliant and well-placed. Sometimes the dialogue is sparse and lets you linger as you soak in the images that lay before you. Other times the dialogue is heavy and dense so that you feel every word that’s written. The Japanese words uttered by the ghost are extremely well done. Consultants are rarely credited for their work on comics, but Takuma Okada’s work, while invisible, feels invaluable. Gane’s line work is lush, beautiful, and detailed. You could step outside and see Brandt’s house. You could search the internet and find this world in Japan. Herring and Kinzie’s colors shine brighter than ever before. In the heightened moments of conflict, fiery oranges and reds burst forth from the page. As a resolution is reached and Brandt leaves to go home, the lush and vibrant greens shine bright and even the wooden house and Brandt’s sweater feel a little extra radiant. The once the realization hits when we learn that it wasn’t enough, you see the color powerfully drain from the pages. Every member of creative should be acknowledged and valued for this book.
Your heart will melt. You’ll cry, you’ll smile, and hopefully, you’ll learn. You can take Brandt’s growth and and make it your own before you make the same mistakes Brandt did. If you’re looking to think and open to change, Ghost Tree is for you. It’s slow, contemplative, but cuts deep and is far from boring. Good luck finding another book that has the same special reflective magic that this creative team has managed to bring to life. You won’t find anything else out there like it, and hopefully it will spark future similar creative endeavors.