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‘Family Tree’ #3 review: The roots of this family drama break from the earth

We get to see a lot but not nearly enough actually happens.

What Grows This Way: I don’t have much experience growing plants, but there is one moment where I dabbled with my green thumb. What actually happened was I moved a collection of my girlfriend’s succulents into the sun, where they stayed for several days too long. But rather than dying outright, some of them turned white and kept right on flourishing.

That’s a story about how sometimes things happen in ways we can never expect. And it’s also, rather solidly, about plants. So that more or less makes it the perfect analogy for Family Tree, the excellent new series from Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester. After taking root in issue #1, and then spurting interesting new branches in issue #2, the third issue helps us get to the root of this dynamic tale of family amid the end times.

Tree To Life: It’s not my interest to spoil too much of the primary storyline in issue #3. That said, we get a better understanding of how deep this “person transforming into a tree” saga really goes, and the sort of metaphysical wonders it presents to “victims.” Meg and her father Darcy have a chance to communicate as tree people, thus setting up a really intriguing connection and laying the foundation for the rest of the story. In true Lemire fashion, it’s all about enhancing the family dynamic, and wringing as much heart and drama from these connections as possible.

The decision to unveil the larger “mythos” of these tree-formations isn’t just smart from a pacing perspective, but it also makes for the most effective form or version of this story. Which is to say, it’s way more inventive than other titles may have done with all the religious or apocalyptic undertones, and that uniqueness really matters. Lemire’s great at building worlds (see Black Hammer), and this series is a great way to create such a dynamic universe for filling with ample human emotion.

Bag Of Clippings: At the same time, there wasn’t really much else going on in this issue. Grandpa Judd, who had a huge presence in issue #2, feels far less vital here, but then that may just be some calm before the storm. Even other family members, namely brother Josh and mom Loretta, feel like one-note entries in this otherwise thoughtful fictional universe. But perhaps the person(s) who have it the worst are Darcy and Meg. Both father and daughter are so central to this story, and yet they feel like they’re little more than plot devices for establishing this world and its dense canon and storyline. It occurred to me that their “downgrading” may just be part of the story, a way to strip away their humanity and really emphasize the hive-tree thing that issue #3 focuses upon.

It’s too early to tell if that’s really the case, and while that’s interesting enough of a choice, it sort of goes against Lemire’s history of creating rich, nuanced characters who shine through any story or slice of narrative tomfoolery (see Sweet Tooth‘s own actual boy with deer antlers). I want this to be as much about the people as it is the massive web of life and history this family has become a part of. Without that nougat-like goodness, everything feels like another less than horrifying horror story.

No False Gods: Perhaps part of my feelings have everything to do with the “protagonists” of the book. Judd’s dealt with these folks so far, and mostly they seem like a fairly well-connected web of cultists. Whether they want Meg for ultimately just or more nefarious reasons isn’t all that important to me. Rather, they stand as clear opposition, and their sneaky vibes and pseudo-religious overtones just aren’t doing it for me. I understand every story needs a “villain,” but then maybe that doesn’t always have to be evil cultists.

It could just be the mystery of it all, that sense of confusion that gives Meg and family a common enemy. Or even casting one another as enemies; Judd and Loretta clearly have issues to work through, and there’s even tension between Darcy and his family and Josh and Loretta. Regardless, there’s lots of chaos and contention to put in front of this family, and I don’t think one-dimensional bad guys feels like the right choice in this, one of Lemire’s most potent family dynamics (and that’s saying a lot). That might change given what happens with the cultists, but for now they’re more blandies than baddies.

It’s In The Faces: I’ve mentioned the importance of Hester’s artwork in the last couple reviews; it’s the sort of stark, minimalist affair that’s deeply responsible for a lot of the tension and fear that pulsates throughout this book. That said, I’m not 100% blown away with the efforts in issue #3. There’s clearly some really great moments, like the “homeless spy” as well as Meg’s continued transformation. But then there’s stuff like the tree world occupied by Darcy and other folks, and so far it feels a little stiffed.

Yes, it’s supposed to this shared space for other tree folks, but from a visual standpoint it’s just so underwhelming. Even some of the glances we’re given into this place make it feel more like a boarding house than the magical wonder it is. Will that change? Sure, the more we care about all these characters, the better the visuals will land. But it also doesn’t matter, and the real emphasis needs to be on the people and their reactions to ideas and events. In that regard, Hester’s art continues to mostly deliver with high marks.

Not Quite Winter: I both loved this issue and felt distinctly underwhelmed by it. The story did instantly springboard into some highly promising directions, but then it didn’t do much more beyond that. Some characters got to excel, but most of them sort of trodden forward. The narrative expanded but not enough to really knock me out of my boots.

But that’s the thing about watching something grow. It won’t always spread dense new branches overnight, but the slow and steady building of life should be more than enough proof of your commitment and hard work. Just give it time and ample sunshine.

Family Tree #3
Is it good?
We get to see a lot but not nearly enough actually happens.
A great way forward emerges in this rich narrative landscape.
The art maintains its focus on fostering people and emotions over anything else.
The book retains a steady momentum despite some minor growth delays.
The bad guys feel a little one-sided and bland.
Not every character gets their chance to grow and flourish.
7
Good
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