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Branching out: Jeff Lemire talks relationships and religion in new series ‘Family Tree’

The new title from Image Comics follows a young girl transforming into a tree.

Family often rests at the heart of Jeff Lemire’s work. Whether it’s the amazing Sweet Tooth, the endearing Descender, or his excellent run on Animal Man, Lemire shows us the values of these core bonds in new and intriguing ways. And his latest book is no different: Family Tree follows the Hayes family (mom Loretta, son Josh, and daughter Meg) as they deal with a rather uncommon development — Meg suddenly starts turning into a tree. Oh, and did we mention it may also be the apocalypse?

We got the chance to speak with Lemire recently via email, where we asked about the book’s origins, the artwork of Phil Hester, the series’ religious overtones, and why family is such an interesting subject matter, among other topics. While it’s still early, issue #1 has the makings of a truly thrilling and heartfelt story, a great new member in the family of Lemire’s dynamic bibliography.

Family Tree #1 hit stores on November 13 via Image Comics.

AiPT: Jeff, you first announced Family Tree back in March 2017. What was the issue for the delay, and do you think that ultimately helped or somehow influenced the story?

Jeff Lemire: The delays were caused by personal stuff in both my and Phil’s lives, but ultimately we got back on track and are really enjoying working on the book regularly again. I don’t think it really changed the story or execution in any way. I had a very strong sense of what I wanted to do with the book, and that has not changed in any drastic way.

AiPT: There’s mention of [your] Animal Man run in press for the series, and how Family Tree uses the same horror devices in exploring family. What is about both elements, horror and familial bonds, that’s so interesting? Why “combine” them in such a way?

JL: I feel like the emotional bonds we form with our families are so pure and strong, that they are very fertile ground to explore. Using horror as metaphor for the things that can pull at a family is really compelling to me. Maybe because I’m a parent myself, and the world we live in is so unstable and scary a lot of times. This may be a cathartic way of expressing the anxiety and fear I feel trying to keep my son feeling safe and happy.

AiPT: Why do you think the end of the world is such an appealing setting across mediums? What does this book’s specific “apocalypse” have to say that might differ from some other popular scenarios?

JL: I don’t want to spoil too much, but our “apocalypse” is not really the end of the world, just the beginning of a new one. Or maybe a return to nature. Having said that, the apocalypse teased in our first issue may or may not actually come to pass in the series. I don’t want to spoil the story before it starts.

AiPT: Another connection between this book and Animal Man is the “specialness” of young girls, or their larger placement in a story. Is that some kind of commentary about, say, heroes in comics or the need for more female-fronted books?

JL: I really just created this family and fell in love with the character of Meg. Meg was always Meg, it’s just how it came to me. This was certainly influenced by how much I loved writing Maxine Baker in Animal Man, but I don’t think I was trying to make any sort of comment like you suggest here. I suppose it was influenced by making a stronger parallel between Loretta, the mother of the family and her daughter, who is going through this transformation.

AiPT: As someone who was raised primarily by a single mom, I loved the balance of Loretta’s stubbornness and strength with some level of uncertainty and regret. Did you pull from anything in real life for this family dynamic that feels really organic and earnest?

JL: I can’t say I drew from any personal experiences here, but I am glad that Loretta feels authentic and strong to you, she certainly does to me as well. I honestly don’t know where she came from. This has been a weird book in that a lot of the characters just sort of came to me fully formed and distinct. It came very quickly, and the first few scripts really flowed out.

AiPT: I think any book that deals with the end of the world and the fracturing of society in 2019 has to inevitably deal with our current political and societal divide. Do you think this book is, in any way, a reflection of feelings and undercurrents in the here and now?

JL: Not specifically. I don’t think current politics really play a role here at all. The book is actually set in the ’90s, so there is no direct reference to the present political situation. But, an overall sense of unease and uncertainty in the world today certainly feeds into the sort of horror I’m playing with here.

AiPT: What struck me about Phil’s art isn’t that its just intense and quite visceral, but there’s a timeless quality to it all (even as the book’s set in 1997). Is that quality important to telling a story like this, or to drive home some kind of relatability?

JL: What I love about Phil’s art isn’t just the use of black or the stylistic quality, but rather how much emotion he is able to give the characters in addition to this. This is a very emotionally drive story and that was the most important thing for me.

AiPT: In writing the story as a whole, how hard is it to maintain that core family dynamic among all the otherworldly madness? Do both parts — the emotion and the overt horror and fiction — instead inform one another?

JL: The characters and their emotional state and progress inform everything else. So I build the genre or horror stuff off of that, never the other way around. As long as you work that way, you are never in danger of losing the characters or the heart of the book.

AiPT: I love how the first issue (and I’m assuming the series in general?) uses the Bible as a “reference,” with lots of emphasis on the End Times. Why use or re-appropriate some of that, or reference it in any way in this niche tale of the apocalypse.

JL: The Bible and Christianity are really embedded in the fabric of America, in both good and negative ways. And this is an American road story, so it felt right here, It also helps to set the stage and give a more mythical quality to the events here, to give it scope and the sense that the family is caught up in something bigger than themselves that they don’t quite understand.

AiPT: What can we expect from Family Tree down the line? Could a book about the apocalypse and human trees actually be for the whole family?

JL: The book will dive deeper into both the personal history of this family and the history of this strange phenomenon that is happening to them and we will see how these things are linked and play out across history and into the future.

 

 

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