Phil Hester Talks Image’s Family Tree

Phil Hester Talks Image’s Family Tree

Keep It In The Family

Family Tree is a new series from Image Comics by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Phil Hester. Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows just spoke to Hester about the new comic. Warning: a few visual spoilers in the preview pages for the series…

TRIPWIRE: How did you come on board this series?

PHIL HESTER: Jeff and I had been looking for something to collaborate on for a while. I think he dug what I did on SHIPWRECK, and it brought his concept for FAMILY TREE to the fore. After a few false starts due to our complicated schedules, we finally put it on the docket for 2019.

TW: You are a writer as well as an artist. What was the appeal for you to draw a series written by someone else when you have a career as a writer in your own right?

PH: I’m always eager to learn from the writers I work with, and I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the best. Even though Jeff is quite a bit younger than I am, he’s so prolific that he’s actually written way more than I have and across many more genres and themes. And I will say, I have learned a great deal from my time with Jeff, both as a writer and artist. 

I think Jeff exhibits a level of pacing most comic book writers do not have the discipline for– I know I certainly don’t. Watching him dole out the plot points in FAMILY TREE while still populating the story with living, breathing, relatable characters has been like attending a master class.

TW: How much did you collaborate with Jeff?

PH: We’re both veterans of the comic game. We know our jobs. If I want to change something I run it by him, but that’s been rare. Most of the collaboration came in designing the characters and look of the book, choosing which story to tell in the first place. Once the starting gun goes off, Jeff is out of the blocks. I’m just trying to keep the pace. We’re also lucky to have Will Dennis riding herd on both of us.

TW: Family Tree is described as a genre defying series. Is that one of the reasons it appealed to you?

PH: Certainly. I think both Jeff and I have a reputation for doing horror tinged stories that are actually family dramas. FAMILY TREE certainly falls in line with both of our past works in that regard. After reading the first issue, a colleague described it as Junji Ito’s Little Miss Sunshine, which is pretty apt. I’d add David Cronenberg to that equation, too, at least visually. 

It’s a creepy-crawly book visually, but it has a humane heart. A lot of modern horror is wedded to nihilism, and I don’t have time for that in my work, as either a writer or artist (or even reader). FAMILY TREE is harrowing, and even apocalyptic, but there is a core belief about preserving families on display here, and when that’s not possible, building new ones.

TW: How much can you tell us about the series?

PH: It takes a LOT of left turns. Just when you think you have the themes, plot or even protagonists nailed down, cataclysm strikes. When you think it’s a horror book, it veers into family drama, then it takes a hard left into pitiless violence, then another into existentialism. Buckle up! Anyone who’s read Jeff’s past work knows he’s a master of the cliffhanger, and our book is no exception.

TW: Lemire says it will be quite a long series probably with an end at some point. Is it the fact it’s an ongoing series that appealed to you as well?

PH: I’ve been doing a lot of minis lately, so the chance to explore characters’ lives over a longer stretch has some real appeal. I trust Jeff to know when to end a story, whether it be 8 issues or 80. His instincts have been pretty good.

TW: In terms of its visual approach, have you varied it at all when compared with your other work over the past few years?

PH: It’s definitely less slick, even more so that the cracked, bleak, dead line I used on SHIPWRECK. Eric Gapstur (my inker), Ryan Cody (colorist) and I made a conscious decision to make this an itchy, grimy kind of book.

The tale is largely about nature running amok and warping our civilization, on both personal and global scales, so we wanted to do away with the things of the modern world like straight lines and mathematically precise perspective. We wanted everything to have a dreamlike quality, so the backgrounds are bent and crooked, alternately smothering and desolate, the lines are broken and wobbly. Nothing clean, everything in a state of either marked decay or mad growth– no stasis.

TW: How much do you tailor each job you draw to suit the specific project?

PH: I definitely keep in mind what works for each job, even when it’s not necessarily what readers may expect of me. I mean, at the same time I was working on FAMILY TREE, I also drew a pretty horrific Martian Manhunter short for DC. Though that short story required a darker, more baroque style than normal super hero comics, it was still a super hero comic. It’s dark and spooky, but still a lot cleaner than FAMILY TREE. 

Of course, if I’m asked to draw, say, Superman tomorrow, you’d see the side of my style that tilts on its axis toward Bruce Timm. It’s one of the truly fun challenges of the job.

Family Tree starts in November from Image Comics by Jeff Lemire and Phil Hester

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