When we first reviewed “Family Tree” late last year, we lauded it highly. The story had all the marks of top shelf Lemire: its ability to say a lot with a little, its focus on a rural family in distress, and its singular, total cohesion. As the story continued, things only got better. In the second issue, Lemire unloaded the fantasy/horror element we’d been teased — and we drank it up like water in a planter’s pot.
Now we’re on “Family Tree” #6, and let me tell you, we’re still drinking what Lemire’s pouring from that delicate, aesthetically pleasing yet practical watering can we all imagine he owns. And why do we imbibe so eagerly? Maybe it’s the fact that a story about trying to cure an insidious disease feels so grimy coincidental to our current world. Maybe it’s the clinic in storytelling Lemire is so easily laying down, issue after issue. Maybe it’s the fact that each page has the cool artistic mastery of a well rendered bas-relief. Most likely, it’s all of these things. The main takeaway? “Family Tree” #6 is undeniably suave, and reading it is what looking at a really good piece of art and saying, “oh hell yeah, I get it” feels like. This is high praise, but we think it’s warranted.
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by Phil Hester and Eric Gapstur
Colored by Ryan Cody
Lettered by Steve Wands
Reviewed by Kobi Bordoley
The story of Darcy’s infection with the horrific sylvan disease is finally revealed as, in the present, Grandpa Judd struggles in the grasp of the deadly Arborists!
Let’s start at the beginning. The first few pages of “Family Tree” #6 are a flashback sequence. Judd meets pre-tree transition Darcy at a dive bar. Each looks a little gruff, carrying the hunch of a drifter. There’s tension here, but it’s subtle, surreptitious even. The two share quips that dig deeper given the subtext, like in any good familial spat. The dialogue here is top tier, but what makes this opening sequence worth mentioning goes beyond that. It’s the execution. For example, let’s think about how opening flashbacks often work in comics. Often, the author gives the reader a taste of the past, dropping a hint to the plot or a moment of irony between characters that’s appreciated by the audience given the fast-forward to the current timeline that comes when the scene ends. The audience chortles, nods along, and then boom. Clean break to the present. It’s a great set piece, and it’s part of why we love comics.
The opening flashback in “Family Tree” #6 hits differently. Instead of a clean break, we get a tragic fade into the present, a confused dream that’s simultaneously bewildering for both Judd and the reader. But then the panels progress, and the reader, like Judd, realizes what’s happening. Then the panels progress even further, and we’re in the clutches of the dreaded Arborist Cult that’s been grinding an ax against the trunk of Judd and his family for the past few issues. The movement is seamless, and the real mastery is Lemire and the rest of the creative team’s ability to have the reader’s feelings so closely mirror that of the protagonist. It’s rare when this happens so effectively, and it’s worth noting.
The rest of the “Family Tree” #6 is rather procedural. Judd, captured and dejected, faces off against our villain. What happens next is a classic good guy vs. bad guy philosophy talk, but Lemire’s great characterization makes the conversation feel heavy and profound. Both parties make good points, and it’s so much more interesting than the usual fare. “Family Tree” #6 presents us with an immovable object vs. an unstoppable force in Judd and the Arborist Cult. Watching them face off makes for good reading, and a good story. We don’t even get other characters this issue, but it doesn’t matter. This stuff is just that strong.
Finally, and like always with “Family Tree” installments, it’s worth highlighting the art and aesthetic construction of the issue. “Family Tree” #6 delights in the same way past issues have. Specifically, panels open and close in unique ways, making good use of the negative space generated by black and white blocking. This, paired with good character silhouettes and crafty design, make for beautiful layouts. For example, the final page of “Family Tree” #6 has three distinct segments but has no actual gutters, and no actual panels. Instead, the page gets segmented by a well placed roof railing and the suspension cables of a ubiquitous New York City bridge. The magic here is how legible this page is, despite the fact that skylines dissolve into nightlights that blend back into skylines that double as our main villain’s iconic green coat. Sure, this description makes no sense, but that’s fine. Read the damn comic and see for yourself! Everything fits together. Nothing is out of place. The chaos is directed, and it’s beautiful.
To conclude, “Family Tree” #6 pushes the story forward with unequivocal strength. This thing is a force of nature in every sense of the phrase. And while the world may be crumbling around us, we’re confident that this tree will not be moved.
Final Verdict: 9.6. “Family Tree” #6 is unrelentingly good. Why isn’t this on your pull list yet?