Some comic creators are great at capturing mundane annoyances of benign pleasantries for people in the service industry. In The Family Tree #1, writer Jeff Lamire and artist Phil Hester dive into the malaise of cashier duty, something so many of us have had to deal with in our professional life at one point or another. With Lamire’s naturalist approach to story-telling, Family Tree could work as a slice-of-life tale about a lone grocery store clerk name Loretta and her daily plight, but this comic has far more grand ideas it’s trying to explore.
Loretta Hayes is a hard-working single mother with far too much on her plate. She is a stand-in for some many working adults trying to make ends meet. Her struggle is terrifyingly real on the page, which makes the turn of events of the real world even more devastating. Lamire and Hester are playing with family dynamics, sexism, and the dynamic between parent and teacher roles in child-rearing all set to the backdrop of what can only be referred to as "agricultural horror."
From Warren Ellis and Jason Howard's Trees to Rob Guillory's Farmhand, the number of comics with the theme of plant-based menaces are becoming manifold enough to warrant some sort of sub-genre. Works like Simon Clark's novel, The Night of the Triffids as well as Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette's Saga of the Swamp Thing also fit nicely into the leafy niche of agricultural horror. You can add Family Tree to that list as well. But if there is a weird little corner of horror carved out for such a fascinating notion as plant life (alien or otherwise) merging with or invading humanity in potentially cataclysmic situations, Family Tree certainly belongs there, at least based on what the first issue has to offer. It changes the notion of "going green."
The biggest strength of Family Tree #1 isn't the horrific global nightmare it hints at (we won't get into spoilers, but let's just say things look pretty grim for Loretta and her kin), it's the restrained emotional dialogue. The characters in this first issue are all kettles on the verge of percolation. The words which go unspoken are so much more devastating than those that are. There is a rage bubbling at the surface, especially in the character of Loretta. Lamire has always excelled at writing realistic downtrodden heroes and treats them with respect and deep pathos, even if they aren't what some folks would consider a model citizen.
How's the artwork you may ask? Phil Hester is doing solid work here. He's always been a bit hit or miss with this particular reviewer, but here is definitely hitting. The only issue is that Hester's work might be too bold and dynamic for the subject matter. When he employs darker panels or character in silhouette, the art and story jive together wonderfully. But for most of its page count, Family Tree #1 feels like it should have been drawn by Lemire, himself. His dour art style and sketchy minimalism would have certainly elevated the subject matter and made it even more unnerving. This, of course, is a quibble, one that is arguing against a foregone conclusion, so take it with a grain of salt.
Ultimately Family Tree #1 is an impressive debut of a comic operating in a horror genre that is surprisingly alive and well in the medium. The hook of the story is simple and familiar but never feels rote. The characters are well-written and their relationship dynamics are quickly defined through casual dialogue and natural development. The art and panel pacing also work well even if there's some presumption that another artist might have been better suited for the material (to be fair, you can say that for a lot of really great comics). If you're a fan of either Lemire and/or Hester or the ideal of agricultural horror, this book is one not to miss.