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‘Family Tree’ #1 review: A horror story striking very close to home

In a career of telling these stories, Jeff Lemire arrives at something truly terrifying.

Family Ties: As I touched on during our recent interview, Jeff Lemire writes about family like few others. Whether it’s Animal Man, Descender, or Sweet Tooth, he shines a light on this specific group to highlight what drives them and how this dynamic explains so much of life. But now Lemire, alongside artist Phil Hester, is tackling this unique dynamic like never before with a brand-new series, Family Tree.

The Biggest Scare: In the story, a young girl, Meg, suddenly starts growing a tree on her body, and she and her family (mom Loretta and brother Josh) are thrust into into what could be the apocalypse amid their desperate search for answers.

As for as plots, it’s not too out of character for Lemire, whose past work has touched on body horror (Animal Man) and even child murder (Descender). But Family Tree is much more of a horror story, something like a wonderful ’80s flick that’s actually funny and touching and yet still deeply disturbing. There’s one  quote from the interview that’s worth pulling out:

“I feel like the emotional bonds we form with our families are so pure and strong, [and] 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.”

It’s compelling to see Lemire transform all this horror and oddball sci-fi into an emotional expression we can all understand. It’s not just about scaring people, or eliciting some horror-centric bloodlust, but to strike them in this emotional nerve center that we all share deeply visceral connections with. Making Meg and family suffer through this ordeal isn’t just terrifying in its relatibility, but that it’s also about playing with this dynamic that’s meant to be so pure and essential. To mess with, pervert, or destroy the family dynamic is to strike at something deeply human, and thus far Lemire’s efforts in issue #1 set the stage for something hugely effective.

Mama Bear: In any great horror franchise, you need a solid lead, someone to care about when heads start to roll. In this book, it’s not sweet little Meg, but the mother, Loretta. I commented to Lemire that, as the son of a one-time single mother, I connected deeply with the passion and stubbornness Loretta needed to protect her little pack. There’s a pure sadness to her, working an unfulfilling job, dealing with her nasty teenage son. But she remains resilient, acting in a way as to keep her head above water. That’s some deeply important qualities for a lead in any horror-related title, and she needs to take the oncoming onslaught of terrors firmly on the chin and keep moving. It’s not that Loretta is a stand-in for anyone’s single mom (though she certainly can be); it’s that she’s just so deeply relatable in facing the varied and slightly horrific circumstances she’s been thrust into. You feel the weight and the desperation and the frustration on her shoulders, and it’s easy to empathize with her. And because of that, the story just unfolds all that more effectively.

A World of Horrors: It’s not just Loretta that’s effective in placing readers into the story — Hester’s art is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. Hester does a great job of cementing the story in the ’90s, this hazy sort of time that feels deeply nostalgic and yet just familiar enough to modern readers. But there’s also a timeless quality to this work, completely unmarried to any moment in time, and that’s both somehow romantic and endearing and yet unsettling for readers looking for more solid ground. Hester also does a great job of emphasizing certain details, including people’s faces, to convey story and mood, while pulling back in some instances to mess with our senses and a subject’s “humanity.” In a book where a young girl’s growing an actual tree on her body, you’d think that would be the most horrific thing. But, no, Hester ensures the entire world is somehow unnerving, as if some level of horror is creeping into frame and mutating the story and the characters.

Myth Making: Aside from the tree stuff, a huge chunk of the series touches on the Apocalypse. Lemire said it’s more like the “birth” of a new world as opposed to an ending, but that doesn’t stop it from instilling a sense of dread within the larger story. And it’s likely, based on issue #1 and Lemire’s own comments, that Christianity/the Bible help shape that larger narrative. Sure, that’s a great way to create a more “mythical” quality, as Lemire intended, but there’s no denying the controversy attached (good, bad, or otherwise), and that might somehow impact the story. Family Tree is a story of a just that (and it’s also a road story), and I worry what too much mythos might do to the overall dynamic. This series will only flourish if we can stay right in the faces of Meg, Loretta, and Josh (plus a surprise family member I simply won’t spoil) — to watch them experience this endless horror and see what it does to themselves and their unique bond. If we pull away, or fill in too much of the cracks with wacky religious overtures, it’s going to damage a lot of the heart of the book and the journey we as readers must embark alongside the protagonists. With any luck, we’ll be close enough to this family unit that we won’t have time to consider much of anything else.

Love & Family: I’d pretty much read anything Lemire contributed to (even if that were an orthodontist manual). But I’m especially optimistic for the rest of Family Tree, if only because this debut issue sets the stage for a gripping family drama amid an intriguing backdrop. What happens from here on out is anyone’s guess, but like showing up at your own family reunion, you just can’t wait to watch the carnage unfold.

Family Tree #1
Is it good?
In a career of telling these stories, Jeff Lemire arrives at something truly terrifying.
A slow-building horror story with ample emotional depth.
A great lead that's relatable without being two-dimensional.
Lemire continues to tell the story of families in new and interesting ways.
Will the biblical mythos overpower a simple, effective family story?
7
Good
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