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Legacy continues to expand in Phil Hester’s artwork for ‘Family Tree’

The 30-year comics veteran keeps finding ways to reinvent himself and his artwork. His latest published work can be seen in “Family Tree” from Image Comics. Issue No. 8 went on sale today.

Cover for the eighth issue of "Family Tree." Courtesy of Image Comics

Just the eighth issue of “Family Tree” from Image Comics hit store shelves today and already the series reads, looks, and feels like a transformational comic and that’s not just because the book displays characters transforming into trees. For Phil Hester, the series penciller, it’s been a special project to work on while evolving his style to meet his refined sensibilities.

“It’s been a very satisfying, rewarding gig and I’m having a lot of fun on it,” Hester said of drawing the comic.

About an 8-year-old girl named Meg who transforms into a tree, and how her family around her copes, which includes a very salty and well-armed Grandpa Judd, “Family Tree” is a creator-owned ongoing series which blends genres as a 1990s action-adventure comic that mixes in elements of horror. Josh, Meg’s older brother, is both the narrator of the story and kind of a stealth protagonist for the book, Hester said.

Written by Jeff Lemire, with Eric Gapstur on inks and Ryan Cody as colorist, the comic features a bevy of talent that brings elegance and rich storytelling to every issue. The first issue came out in November 2019 and it’s been one of the few comics to not face serious delays, postponements, or hit other snags due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I always feel like every issue’s offering me a new thing to get excited about,” Hester said. “Pretty much any action scene involving Judd is very satisfying for me. I just love drawing this old, bullet-ridden tank of a man plowing into people.”

Older comics readers may think of Hester as the artist of “Swamp Thing,” partnered with a then-up-and-coming Mark Millar. Or perhaps they reflect of his body of work thinking of him as Kevin Smith’s penciller for “Green Arrow,” and as the co-creator of Mia Dearden, a.k.a. Speedy, the first mainstream comic book superhero to be HIV-positive. Working alongside regular collaborator Ande Parks as his inker, Hester carved out a career in comics for himself in the 1990s and 2000s.

But for readers who came along farther into the 2000s, they likely identify with Hester’s work a bit differently. To them, he’s the writer behind the creator-owned series “Firebreather,” which was adapted into a Cartoon Network movie in 2010, and he’s the guy who wrote a lengthy run of “The Darkness” at Top Cow Productions, while partnered with artists such as Michael Broussard and Sheldon Mitchell. He’s also the scribe who took over “Wonder Woman” for a time, replacing

J. Michael Straczynski, at DC Comics.

“I like being able to jump back and forth,” Hester said of being a comics writer and an artist. “Lately, most of my work-for-hire has been writing stuff. I always like to have both dance cards full. I always like to be drawing something and writing something.”

Hester said Lemire had been looking for a project the two could collaborate on for a while and the opportunity came along when Hester had been drawing “Shipwreck,” an AfterShock comic written by Warren Ellis. Gapstur, who inked “Shipwreck,” has been Hester’s de facto inking partner for a while now that Parks has moved on from art duties and transitioned to a career in writing comics.

“It’s kind of hard to separate my career from Phil’s,” Gapstur told me. “In the beginning, it was just more of a mentorship. Comics is something you don’t really learn, other than by doing or talking to someone who has done it.”

Hester and Gapstur, who are both from Iowa, have known each other for more than a decade now, according to Gapstur.

A writer and artist of his own comics, Gapstur said that Hester once told him he thought Gapstur had good line quality to his work and before long they partnered to produce a “Green Hornet” cover. Their collaboration grew from there.

“Just having Phil as a pal, the very beginning was just great for my confidence, for expanding my knowledge, and then starting to work with him,” Gapstur said.

Hester said that his stylistic changes haven’t stemmed from his switch from Parks to Gapstur, but that it’s been a natural progression as he’s matured as a creator.

“Eric’s been game for any sort of stylistic changes I’ve gone through,” Hester said. “He’s inked me at my cleanest, at my most superhero-friendly style, and then also at my grimiest and grittiest for ‘Family Tree.’ He’s been up for all those challenges.”

"Family Tree" page 22 of issue 7 original artwork by Phil Hester and Eric Gapstur.

From the personal collection of Paul and Sophia Patane

Whether writing or drawing, Hester structures his workday to fit his needs. He said he does his best writing when he can be alone with his thoughts for extended periods but that he can draw under pretty much any circumstances.

The pandemic hasn’t affected Hester’s workflow much, with the exception of there now being more time at home with family which can sometimes limit quiet time he could use for additional writing. Now that Major League Baseball is back, watching games has helped entertain him through recent weeks of the pandemic. Hester roots for the Boston Red Sox in the American League and the Chicago Cubs in the National League, he said, figuring it’s fine to cheer for a team in each league.

Hester's approach to pencilling "Family Tree" pages includes him having a less constrictive grip on his pencil to help modify his style. He said that the comic is “about chaos and uncontrolled growth, and kind of this claustrophobic, itchy plant world that’s kind of invading our world, and I think the style sort of lends itself to that theme.”

The shift and evolution in his art style began in the pages of “Shipwreck” and has progressed from there.

“I did make a conscious decision, first on ‘Shipwreck’ and then on ‘Family Tree,’ to cut loose a little bit more — especially on ‘Family Tree.’ I decided to ditch all my straight edges and kind of take a more spontaneous approach to my drawing style,” Hester said.

For the human-to tree-transformations in “Family Tree,” Hester has taken inspiration from “The Wizard of Oz” film from 1939, stating the fighting apple trees are scary to children. He wanted to make sure the conversion from human to tree looks painful in the book, that the transformation needs to come at a cost.

Gapstur spoke of the style transition as well.

“I don’t think something nice and clean fits into a body horror type story,” Gapstur said, detailing the more shaky, uncertain artwork rendered for the comic.

Hester has enjoyed Lemire’s scripts and how they’ve appealed to his sensibilities. Since Hester and Lemire are both writer-artists, Hester thinks that’s helped aid the collaboration.

“We both know what we’re doing and we both know what each other’s job is like,” Hester said of his partnering with Lemire. “When I get a script from him it’s not overly descriptive, it’s more about emotional beats than it is about describing camera angles or actions. It’s more about what the characters are going through and then leaving a little bit more of the actual staging up to me.”

Hester said his favorite part of the pencilling process is making thumbnails, saying it’s always the most exciting part of the job and that it’s such an important part of breaking scripts down.

“You just sketch out the way that the page is going to look,” he said. “You don’t worry about rendering. You don’t worry about making everything look perfect. They’re barely above stick figures, but it’s when you start to hammer out the pace, the composition, whatever neat little innovations you can put into the page, the acting, the page design.”

He also mentioned that when he writes a comic he’s happy to provide thumbnails as suggestions to the artists he works with, too.

There’s a subtle approach to the storytelling in "Family Tree" which helps enrich emerging themes and pivotal character moments. Except for some action sequences featuring Grandpa Judd, it’s not a comic that goes over the top. There’s a lot of restraint, even in the panel sequences that are rooted in horror.

“I think the larger theme in the book is how families cope with trauma,” Hester said. “How trauma can either break them or bring them closer together, and also sometimes both. Sometimes it can break them, and destroy them, and then reassemble them and they’re stronger.”

Below is a three-page preview from the eighth issue of "Family Tree," courtesy of Image Comics.



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