Review: Descender Vol. 1 – 3

By Johnny Hall and Paul Lai

Descender Vol 1-3

In the spirit of the “Two PhDs Talking about Comics,” the Comics Alternative Blog is trying a new format: reviews that are dialogues between two comics critics, assessing a work from their different points of view. Our review this week is Descender Vol 1-3 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen and lettered by Steve Wands from Image Comics. The third volume, “Singularities,” was recently released on December 20, 2016; the first volume, “Tin Stars,” and the second, “Machine Moon,” in 2015 and 2016.

Descender v3 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (Image Comics)

Paul: Excited to talk Descender with you, Johnny. Although Image’s place in the comics market has tapered a bit since a year or two ago, when their sales were white hot and they were dominant on critics’ lists, I have a theory about Image’s success. It came to me as we saw the end of Prophet and Chew.  Many of those hits they reeled off have now reached mature points in their stories, twenty to forty issues in. As those titles become hardcovers and deluxe editions, in the way Vertigo’s successes with Swamp Thing and Sandman and the like had great reprint success and became the subjects of critical study, we’re going to see a lot of deeper, thoughtful attention on the extended runs of your Sagas and Wicked + Divines, your Rick Remender genre melodramas and your Kelly Sue Deconnick non-compliant masterpieces. (I’m trying to put a thumb on the scale of the import of our discussion of volume 3 of Descender.) Do you agree that this series is shaping out to be a fairly significant, if perhaps somewhat typical, representative of the Image “class of the 2010s?”

Johnny:  Always great to talk comics with you, Paul!  Not being a numbers guy, I’m often pretty ambivalent about sales figures, but if I had to guess at why monthly sales aren’t “white hot” these days, it’s Image’s embracing of “binge” culture, and their willingness to provide comic consumers with trades quickly and cheaply (cheap in terms of price-point, not quality, of course).

More to your question though, certainly I believe Descender to be significant, not only in terms of success outside the realm of comics, as the title was immediately optioned by Sony after the first issue, but significant in that it is career work from artist Dustin Nguyen.  It should also be said that Descender continues Image’s trend of hosting some of the best writer/artist combinations of any company in these 2010’s. Even in an ever-widening market where companies try and steal their mojo, Image is still a home for exciting genre comics, and Lemire & Nguyen’s space opus is a perfect example of this.

Paul: Let’s start discussing said space opus, Descender, in a spoiler-free way for those first three volumes: the premise, some distinctives, and some themes, before we delve into a deeper spoilery discussion later. (Because I really want to talk about that last panel of volume 3!)

Jeff Lemire, the Canadian writer of indie hits like Essex County and Underwater Welder, has become prolific and quite “mainstream” of late (if you can stomach that label). Descender seems to hover in that widening space between independent and corporate comics that Lemire continues to find a nice pocket in. It’s special to me, though, that he’s partnered with Nguyen on this story, a harmony that elevates this work quite a lot. Nguyen’s wistfully dream-like watercolor can drift from somber nihilism to effervescent innocence so easily that I don’t know if any other artist Lemire’s partnered with quite gives us such a good distillation of his sentimental flavor. Can you think of an artist Lemire seems as well paired with as Nguyen, besides maybe Lemire himself?

Johnny:  As I mentioned earlier, I think that this is banner work from Dustin Nguyen. I think his choice to watercolor the series is inspired and shows his true range

Cover of Descender #15, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (Image Comics)

as an artist.  The wispy, almost ethereal linework is a joy to behold, and his body language and facial expression work (especially on the children) do well to complement Lemire’s storytelling ability to convey multiple emotions in single scenes.  I’m glad these two talented artists decided to join forces, and they seem to be in perfect sync.  Also, I’d just like to mention that Nguyen’s character design and even fashion sense is paralleled by few.  His characters are all have a memorable, and sometimes familiar, look without being derivative.  Main protagonist Tim-21’s jacket is reminiscent of (Astro Boy analogue form Urusawa’s Pluto) Atom’s hoodie, and “Junker” Andy wears a trenchcoat that looks distinctly Blade Runner-esque (junkers are basically bounty hunters who deal in robot bounties, not unlike the blade runner himself, Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard).  Descender seems to be throwing a lot of interesting touchstones into its melting pot for a look that is both fresh and recognizable.

Paul: As for the story, the sci-fi pieces are familiar, but freshly recombined, tinged with a romanticism that’s not foreign to sci-fi but also matches the tenors of the writer and artist. Tim-21 is a boy robot programmed for loyalty and protective friendship (and no, not a Power Forward for the San Antonio Spurs), who awakens ten years after disaster has struck the humans around him and the entire nine-planet confederation of the United Galactic Council. Standard sci-fi characters, entities, and conflicts familiar to fans of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica fill out the universe, but at the crux is Tim-21 in search of his longed-for family and that universe of foes competing to find, seize, probe, and utilize Tim-21. As sci-fi universes go, Descender’s seems to cohere really well, introduced without much tiresome exposition or arcane detail, paced into the action really well with background sprinkled in to leaven the unfolding drama. Are there elements of the storyline you think worth calling out to prospective readers?

Johnny:  I think this is space opera in the best sense of the term.  While the world (or galaxy, as it were) presented is complex, Lemire doesn’t bog the reader down with political concerns.  In many ways, it is a nice mirror to Saga, focusing more on interpersonal relationships, and covering themes of family and belonging, rather than the space war looming on the horizon of the series.  A particular scene in volume two (Machine Moon) sticks out to me:  our hero, boy robot Tim-21 stares down at the inside cover of a book he shared with his adopted brother Andy.  “This Book Belongs to:  ANDY and Tim-21” it reads, with the signature in the wobbly print of a child.  Tim-21’s finger seems to lovingly caress the Andy signature, and one can’t help but think of Woody from Toy Story, staring at his boot, and the Andy signature he holds as his own.  Descender is very much this same story of reconnecting with lost family, with perhaps much larger stakes at hand.

Paul: Yeah, that’s a great example of the kind of sentiment Lemire plays up, some of which might feel saccharine in other media but for some reason, still feels sufficiently understated in the comics form to work, and to tug on my heart strings. As much as we have the elements of intergalactic conflict (or “star wars,” if you will) and intrigue, no matter how outlandish the world, Lemire’s stories usually pretty quickly brandish the relational and emotional moorings that hold them together.

What’s interesting and perhaps unique about those elements, in this case, is how they are employed to ask questions about how close robots must be to humans before we grant them humanity and all that entails. In that way, it does remind me of the aforementioned Pluto by Urasawa, along with a multitude of other sci-fi works. Thus far, do you think Descender brings new questions or a new approach to these questions? I have to admit, these questions of post-humanism and technological futurism aren’t my usual forte. (I haven’t even started watching Westworld. Shh, don’t tell anyone.)

Johnny:  Let me piggyback on your first point and say that I appreciate the moments of sentiment for not being maudlin.  Lemire and Nguyen seem to strike a nifty balance between the expository heavy-lifting required for a reader’s’ immersion into their gigantic sci-fi world and the delicacy necessary to not overdoing crucial emotional moments.

To your second, I think it’s interesting to note that because of the devastation of the last ten years in the Descender-verse, most characters seem little concerned with how “human” robots are or appear.  Even our hero, Tim-21, who shows a remarkable amount of human wants and desires, is mostly seen as a pawn in a larger game.  In fact, in a neat trick, Lemire and Nguyen leave the decision to see Tim-21 as more than just a machine to the readers, as the rest of the supporting cast has already made up their minds.  I think this will be developed as time goes on, but for now Tim-21 seems to be at the mercy of his various “protectors.”

From Descender 11. Art by Dustin Nguyen. Written by Jeff Lemire. (Image)

Paul: Let’s give our general recommendation before we cross the spoiler rubicon and delve into the details of the story.  If Lemire and/or Nguyen’s merits aren’t reason enough to pick up the book, I would throw in that Descender is such a well-executed rendition of the kind of storytelling that many Image creators do well that I’d pick it as a prime representative of the bunch. But if a reader is exhausted with or uninterested in that particular brand of sci-fi… well, drop the rest of them and still choose Descender instead. Lemire and Nguyen are so well-positioned to exploit the dramatic polarities of the genre that I’d humbly submit they’re doing it as well as anyone. Johnny, who would you recommend the book to, and do you have any general critiques?

Johnny: Descender is one of those books with such a recognizable hook (It’s Pinocchio…in Space!!), and also shies away from ultraviolence, that I think it would be a perfect introductory book for a YA audience, but also a worthwhile recommendation to those folks who love a great deal of world-building in their sci-fi and fantasy.  Anybody looking for a visual style that doesn’t look like much else in mainstream comics might also be attracted to Nguyen’s superb and distinct visuals.  It certainly belongs in the top tier of books coming out from Image right now.  If I had any critiques,  I would say that sometimes the backgrounds are either sparse or nonexistent, and while this often leads us to draw our eye to the body language and facial expressions of the characters, it can also lead to a rather cold feeling of detachment.  Better said, it sometimes feels as if these are actors on an empty stage, and not living in a vibrant and busy sci-fi universe.  It should be noted that Nguyen often has very lush and attractive set-piece panels that accompany scene transitions and ward this feeling of detachment off, but I still feel that the panels that are rendered more fully work better than the ones that are not.

Paul: That’s keen of you to observe, because I’m left feeling similarly at times about the sense of airiness that those sparse backgrounds leave you with, although I wonder if that’s not also intentional.

Johnny:  I should also imagine that cutting those corners probably helps the book maintain a pretty regular release schedule.

Paul:  But in general, it’s fair to say we share a high regard for Descender and would recommend it. Let’s dig deeper.

Johnny:  Agreed.  Dig away!

Paul:  As we officially enter spoiler territory for Descender volumes 1-3, can I start by asking whether the storytelling turn of the third arc feels satisfying to you? Specifically, Lemire and Nguyen seem to be taking advantage of a unique kind of rhythm of Image-style serialized storytelling, not too dissimilar from what a lot of current TV shows do: a driving, fast-paced storyline in the opening couple of arcs, and once reader/viewership prove they’ve bought in, start to employ the trick of filling in backstories to add dramatic punch and solidify empathy for the ongoing story, which now has a longer projected run to unfold its plot. In volume 3, various parties around or in pursuit of Tim-21 get an issue in the sun, so to speak, giving us a richer picture of who they are, in addition to further fleshing out the world (i.e. the midpoint in the robot-human tension represented by the Betweeners) and personifying more ideas. Is this working for you, or did the 3rd arc start to strain your attention?

Johnny:  Yeah, I think it’s a really smart way to (again) push the bulky narrative along, present the many (and diverse) characters, and more naturally give us backstory when the breathing moments of the story allows it.  The scenes in issue 2 when Tim-21 is booting himself back up and we get snippets of his backstory as he reloads his memory remain some of my favorite sequences in the series, being impressionistic rather than expository.  Issue 16 (the last issue in the most recent volume) is another great chapter in the series, giving our rather dim worker-bot Driller center stage for an emotionally complex issue that deepens the connections of a few of our main characters.  As you mentioned, that last panel of volume 3 is quite the doozy, as we are now torn between our empathy for Driller, and the sudden import of what his catchphrase (“Driller a killer!  Driller a real killer!”) actually means, and for the rift it will one day surely create within the group.  Lemire knows how to craft a story, and it is when he focuses on the moments that define a person (be they human, robot, alien, etc…) that he shows his talent.  Have you any other favorite moments from the series thus far, Paul?

Paul: The third arc’s middle chapter, or issue 14, centers on Bandit the robot dog, a twist I’ve come to enjoy from Fraction and Aja’s “pizza dog” Hawkeye #11 and Duncan the Wonder Dog (hat tip to Seth Hahne for introducing that book to me). Given how few emotive features Nguyen had to work with, and how few words to buttress the sympathy that issue evoked, it was a brilliant example of how Descender’s creators knew how to heighten drama with an echoing alienation. Rather than feeling gimmicky, following the dog in this storyline seemed well-timed to press on the themes of personhood that seem integral to the story.

I’ll put this out there: Tim-21’s personhood is at stake in this story, and the story presents the idea that he’s a person once he’s been loved by another as one, with certain emotive capacities cultivated. That poses a kind of existential question once Tim-22’s presence and history enter the story. Tim-22’s story, a counterpoint to Tim-21’s, seems to ask whether the inverse is true: if you are treated humanely and you’re found to be human, what if you are treated inhumanely and judged to behave in inhuman ways?

Johnny:  Right now I find Tim-22 to be the more interesting character, as he seems to have broken the bond of his programming.  He is shown to have wants and desires that aren’t just pre-programmed (as far as I know he was never programmed to love his adoptive father, Hardwire), and his jealousy of Tim-21 and his duplicitous nature are a good deal more evolved than Tim-21’s singular desire to reunite with his family.  In this way, Tim-21 is much like A.I. Artificial Intelligence’s David, the boy robot programmed to love, who spends the entirety of the film (and perhaps millennia in the film’s timeline) searching for that love again.  From this viewpoint, Tim-21 is a more pitiable character, destined to spend forever stuck in this programming loop.

Paul: That’s an interesting take on those characters. As I think about all the various types populating the story, it strikes me that the creators have woven a tapestry of characters we’ve seen before, but not always this artfully and tightly revealed. Series like Saga, Scalped, and Preacher have shown me more surprising and unusual character turns. But Descender has yet to drag for one moment, not unlike Lemire’s Sweet Tooth managed so well.

Johnny:  Thanks again for agreeing to discuss Descender with me, Paul!  As a longtime fan of both Nguyen (WildC.A.T.s 3.0 is an underrated gem of a book) and Lemire, Descender combines two great tastes that taste great together.  While there is no shortage of space sci-fi to be found in comics – heck, even under the Image umbrella there are a few titles in that genre – I think watching two creators push themselves and make interesting art is always worth a look.  Descender is not a flashy title, doubtful it will ever sit atop sales charts, but what if offers is a very classic science fiction yarn thumping with emotion and a solid, engaging mystery at its core.


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