“It Was A Chance To Draw Something Organic And Grungy”: Talking With Phil Hester About Horror Series ‘Family Tree’ Vol.1

by Olly MacNamee

Family Tree Volume 1 by Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester sees the first four issues of this thrilling body-horror, family-centric drama and comes out from Image Comics June 2nd. Co-creator and artist, Phil Hester, found time in his busy schedule for us to catch up with him and ask him more about this fascinating book, the central characters and where it may be heading.
Olly MacNamee: Your new body horror/family drama Family Tree with Jeff Lemire certainly starts off with a very foreboding mood, doesn’t it, proclaiming the world had already ended? But, I can’t help but go back to the question surrounding small town Lowell’s fate and whether or not it’s, “totally returned like so many other places,” as our mysterious narrator wonders. Is all as it would seem?
Phillip Hester: Let’s just say there are a lot of ways the world can end, and a lot of ways it can be reborn as something we’re not capable of recognizing.
OM: Phil, what drew you to this project? It certainly puts me in mind of your work on Swamp Thing, which I know Jeff is a fan of too.
PH: Mostly the chance to collaborate with Jeff. We have a big overlap in proclivities as both artist and writer, so a team up seemed very natural. Plus it was a chance to draw something organic and grungy, no straight lines or clean spaces. It was that chance to match style with theme that comes along less than you’d think in an artist’s career.

OM: There are some wonderful Will Eisner-like compositional moments, such as the opening page of issue #4, or when the degenerate is literally leaning onto the page panels on page 66 of the collection. How much of this is left to your own skills as an artist, Phil, and how much is directed by Jeff as an accomplished artist too?
PH: Jeff’s scripts are pretty economical. I think he’s had enough experience as an artist to know just how much information to include to move the story along, and also when to hold back lest that information become a drag on the artist’s imagination. To be honest, I’m always looking for opportunities to play with the page-form a little, no matter the assignment. I’m just lucky this project lends itself to a higher level of experimentation than a typical work-for-hire gig would.
OM: One of the central storylines in this family saga is the seemingly tragic family heritage shared on one side of the, ahem, family tree. But, I couldn’t help noticing that it only seems to be affecting Meg, the youngest sibling and not her older brother. Is this something that we’ll be exploring later on down the line?
PH: Big time. In fact, the next few arcs of the series contend with this directly.

OM: Phil, we’ve mentioned the collaborative process going one way, but  you’re no slouch in the writing department either. Is there room for your own input into the script. How organic, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the storytelling process on this series? Or, is the plot like a petrified tree, and set in stone?
PH: Jeff knows what he wants in the story, and I respect that. It’s a complementary relationship to what I mentioned a few answers ago about Jeff respecting my storytelling as an artist. I have to be willing to give that same respect to him as a writer and not step on his toes in any way. Again, I think it comes from both of us doing the other’s job so often that we know where the boundaries are and how to respect them. Jeff knows what he’s doing! He doesn’t need my help.
OM: In this first collection, of issues #1 – 4, there are certainly more questions raised than answers, particularly surrounding the grandfather, Judd. On one hand, we’re meant to believe he’s a deadbeat dad, but on the other, well, he’s a kick-ass protector of the family. Can we assume there will be more to come on his backstory in future issues?
PH: Yes. You see pretty clearly how he went from distant patriarch to blood-soaked protector in some heartbreaking clarity. You’ll also see that same arc reflected in another character.

OM: There are a lot of people gunning for Judd and his family. And have been for some time. Is there anything you can tell us about these ‘arborists’? If their raison d’être is to prevent the coming apocalypse, the first issue would suggest they’re in the right. But, that’s definitely not the sense any reader would get, right?
PH: I guess that’s something we’re playing with a bit. We’re presenting them as a typical cult– as wild-eyed zealots– but what if they’re right? Just because they’re creepy-looking and ruthless doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Just because we’re drawn to love Meg and her family doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be destroyed, right? In a larger sense the book is asking whether or not the end of the world is a bad thing.
OM: Finally, while this has been sold as a body-horror, there seem to be something more fantastical to this family and the ultimate fates of this family members who ‘suffer’ from the transformations illustrated in this story. I can’t help but shake the feeling this could be heading towards a more optimistic endpoint. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Do you know where this story ends?
PH: I do know where it ends. It wouldn’t be a Lemire/Hester jam unless there was at least a glimmer of hope at the end. I guess you could say there’s a happy ending. I don’t know. Do you think Childhood’s End had a happy ending?
Family Tree Vol. 1 is out June 2nd. If you are planning on buying a copy, can we recommend you go ask your local comic book store to get you a copy in?

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