An illness inside a family can be traumatic, for the one suffering it as well as the entire family. But after all the pain, suffering, questions, and doubts, it could go from bad to worse if the illness isn't just a mystery... but is too weird to be true.
In the upcoming Image Comics title Family Tree, writer Jeff Lemire and artist Phil Hester follow a family whose youngest is suffering from a mysterious ailment which is transforming her into a tree.
A literal tree.
Lemire and Hester are no stranger to family driven narratives, and dove deep with Newsarama into the series' characters, their family dynamic, and the team’s creative process ahead of the book's November 13 debut.
Newsarama: Jeff, so many of your stories have to do with family. What attracts you to this theme?
Jeff Lemire: I love the emotional stakes that come with stories about families. I love how heightened things get when things threaten to tear a family apart, and the bonds that make people fight to keep it together. I love all the dynamics of parenthood and family and siblings. It’s just really, really rich territory. And every family has their own history, their own story all their own. It’s great to do dramatic slice of life stories with families, but also to take genre elements like I do with Family Tree and use those as metaphors to stir up all this emotional material.
Nrama: The story focuses on a mother trying to keep her family safe. Can you dig a bit deeper on what we can expect from her character?
Lemire: I love the idea of a single mom struggling and fighting against all odds to keep her children safe. To me that felt like a really strong starting point for a character and to explore all of the themes I mention above. Loretta, the woman in question here, is a really fun character, because she does not give a shit what anyone thinks about her. All she cares about is her children and she will do anything to protect them. That attitude had been very fun to write, especially in the crazy circumstances that unfold in Family Tree.
Nrama: Why does she bring the whole family along for this attempt to save her daughter?
Lemire: She has no choice. Things happen very, very quickly in our first issue and she is just caught up in the momentum of that. It’s just her and her two kids, and she certainly won't leave one of them behind. The real wildcard here is their grandfather, Judd. But I can't say too much about how he gets involved yet, as there is a lot of mystery surrounding his character.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about the family dynamics of the series.
Lemire: I’ve already described Loretta. But another key element is the absence of her husband and the kid’s father. Big mystery there, that we will explore as we get into things. Meg, the little girl, is very sweet and very sensitive. Josh, her big brother is a bit of an asshole in the way that teenagers can be. But he does love his sister and his mom. All in all, they are a blast to write and to put in these high stakes’ situations. Oh, and Loretta hates Judd, her ex-husband’s father, who is along for the ride.
Nrama: Phil, let's bring you in here. As a writer yourself, what attracted you to come in and draw Family Tree?
Phil Hester: Mostly the quality of Jeff's story. The fact that it was a family-centered horror story didn't hurt. A lot of my own stories are small town horror fables, so getting the chance to bring to life such a talented writer's take on the same subject matter feels both very comfortable and very thrilling. Plus, I got to work with two long-time friends and collaborators in inker Eric Gapstur and colorist Ryan Cody.
Nrama: How did you and Jeff connect for the project?
Hester: We've been mutual admirers for a while and looking for the right gig to collaborate on. I think Jeff really enjoyed what Eric Gapstur and I did on Warren Ellis' Shipwreck at Aftershock, and that may have kicked his urgency into high gear. Luckily, Jeff's at a stage in his career where he can get most any book greenlit. Family Tree just happened to be one of the ideas of his that actually it my skill set. Away we went!
Nrama: How many issues do you want this series to be?
Lemire: Honestly, I am not sure yet. I know the end point, but we sort of have to wait and see how readers respond. Ideally, it can be a series that runs for a couple of years and tells a big sprawling story.
Nrama: Can you tease a bit about the mystery you’re crafting?
Lemire: No! I can’t spoil anything. Okay, maybe one thing; Meg is not the first person to have turned into a tree. And there are people who know about this and will do anything from allowing it to happen again.
Nrama: Since you both aren’t strangers to working for the Big Two, would you want to work on a mainstream comic together? Which title in particular?
Lemire: I’d much rather do creator-owned work with Phil than do a run on a Marvel or DC character. It's much more rewarding in the long run. Having said that, just for the fun of it, I would love to do a Punisher story or a Green Arrow story with Phil.
Hester: Oh, how close we've come. I don't want to break any hearts here, but we've had discussions about a couple of books that got pretty far along in the process before collapsing for one reason or another. Would have been pretty, pretty, pretty cool. Maybe someday!
Nrama: What’s your collaboration process been like?
Hester: We're both old hands at this comics thing. Jeff knows what's important to put in a script. I know what's important to accentuate with the art. If you're a fan of either one of us - or even better, both - you'll be getting the best of both of us.
Nrama: How did you come up with the look for the book?
Hester: As I said earlier, Jeff is a fan of the edgier, darker style I used on Shipwreck. I tried to take it a step farther as far as being a bit more expressionistic with lighting and backgrounds, even some character design. I took a cue from Jeff, who has a very immediate and almost confessional kind of mark-making style. Like, every artist has a relationship with the drawings they make. They are an expression of some inner aspect of ourselves. Jeff keeps the intimacy (an immediacy) of the drawing alive even in his most finished pieces.
That's something I thought I should explore more with Family Tree. I'm always fearful of bogging my drawings down by "fixing" them. I wanted to free myself of the straight edge and the reference photos and simply express myself as I did in some of the comics from earlier in my career like Boneshaker and Freaks' Amour. I'm not completely convinced I accomplished that, but it sure feels fun. I hope readers have as much fun taking it in.
Nrama: One of the protagonists of the comic has roots coming out of her head. How did you approach this visually?
Hester: Well, that's more a visual allegory than a literal depiction of her look. The book involves some creepy plants and trees, along with a little girl who seems to be becoming one herself. Combining her tangled mop of hair with the spooky white roots of some subterranean plant seemed like a winning image.
Nrama: What can we expect from the horror element from a visual and storytelling perspective?
Lemire: Lots of creepy branches and tree people! Phil is doing some very cool layouts that harken back to the classic Bisette/Totelben Swamp Things that we both love.
Hester: It's a very itchy book. There's a body horror element to it, so I tried to strip away all the (admittedly limited) slickness in my work to create a very organic experience. The shadows, while still abundant and thick, as in all my work, are no longer as flat and graphic. The shadows crawl across the panel. The lines waver and crack, intimating a world that itself is wobbling toward some unknowable catastrophe. Plus, I get to draw some cool monsters and creepy cultists.
Nrama: Do you have a favorite character design?
Hester: Definitely Judd. I have a thing for grizzled, old, hulking masses of broken down masculinity, and Judd fits the bill here. He's a violent tank who is also a loving, tender Grandpa. Drawing him has been a joy.
Nrama: Why do you think Image was the best place to publish this story?
Lemire: Freedom. Freedom to create and be myself. It really comes down to that. Both publishers are very supportive of my projects, and there is a comfort level now as well, after five years of working with each.
Hester: Freedom! Once Image says "yes," it's on you to go and make your voice heard. It's a beautiful process. They provide one of the biggest stages in comics for creators to step out on and let their inner voice ring out. Family Tree is Lemire and Hester unfiltered.
Nrama: What are you most excited for readers to see with this series?
Lemire: Phil’s art! It is exceptional. The whole creative team is really doing great work. Inker Eric Gapstur, colorist Ryan Cody and letterer Steve Wands are making this a really beautiful book. I’m proud to be a part of it.
Hester: How successful we are in finding the balance between heartfelt family drama and chilling, almost apocalyptic horror. It's a tightrope for both of us. I know Jeff nailed it. You'll be choked up by the end of issue two. The jury is out on whether or not I kept pace. I hope so!