Family Tree #1 features a car crash, a gunfight, and visions of a post-apocalyptic future, but the most frightening panel of the issue simply features a family of three gathered around their dinner table on a chilly spring night. This one panel and the looming darkness framing it captures the atomization and accompanying loneliness of modern life as society prepares to shatter at the end of the 90s. It’s the thematic core of this debut and a promise that there’s a lot more to Family Tree than another sci-fi pitch (in a long line of sci-fi pitches) from Image Comics. This story of a young girl who grew into a tree and the subsequent collapse of society features both an exciting plot and a much more intimate portrait of how scary it is to feel alone, even as we are surrounded by others.
Most of this issue is set in March 1997, excluding a few panels revealing the promised apocalypse, and is framed by narration from the future building tension and promising plenty of horrors to come. Yet the terror of this issue is very personal in nature, centering on a family in the small town of Lowell, Maine. There’s Loretta, a single mother of two struggling to keep her family together as her adolescent son Josh acts out at school and younger daughter Meg faces far less typical problems. They are together, but the issue emphasizes how fractured their lives have become. School and work separate them for much of the day and even when they are gathered around the dinner table it is in stark silence. This feels like a society ready to embrace cell phones and screen time, remaining apart even as they’re together.
This tonal strength is realized in Phil Hester and Eric Gapstur’s artwork. Hester’s typically bold linework has been rendered much thinner and more fragile by Gapstur’s inks, a valuable interpretation for this narrative. The characters are as clearly designed and their emotions easily reflected as past work would lead readers to believe, but they appear ever so slightly sharper in these pages, as if built from broken glass.This effect is given plenty of space to breathe in pages that rarely exceed 5 panels, providing plenty of space for faces and figures to be clearly seen. It’s consistently beautiful work that builds a sense of dread on each page.
Emphasizing the family narrative before the genre elements of horror and science fiction is a wise decision. The terrifying image of a young girl transforming into a tree is enhanced by understanding her family before the extremity of her predicament is revealed. Revelations of what the future will become provides a sufficient hook for those seeking an elevated form of reality, but it’s impossible to imagine a few twists at the end landing as well without such a clear investment in the core family unit. Like much of writer Jeff Lemire’s best work, this is a story about family, and the genre elements are at their best when heightening the drama already present within a small group of characters.
The family bonds present in Family Tree #1 are already tenuous, something emphasized by its last page reveal. These are people drifting apart as the 21st century looms before them, and that’s where all of the horror stems from, even the supernatural elements. It’s as scary to watch a single mother attempt to protect her son from himself and authority figures with little time or budget as from the literal attack that eventually occurs. This effect speaks to a clear vision and understanding of how the series’ fantastical ideas tie into a very real statement about modern life. It’s an apocalyptic portrait of loneliness that only promises to grow in future issues, one of the best premiers from Image Comics in 2019.
Published by Image Comics
On November 13, 2019
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Phil Hester and Eric Gapstur
Colors by Ryan Cody
Letters by Steve Wands
Cover by Phil Hester