There are a lot of comics out there, but some just stand out head and shoulders above the pack. With “Don’t Miss This,” we want to spotlight those series we think need to be on your pull list. This week, we explore the expansive, spacious and robot hating worlds of “Descender.”
Who’s This By?
“Descender” comes to us from the pen of the infinitely prolific Jeff Lemire (“Black Hammer,” “The Underwater Welder”) as well as the watercolored artwork of Dustin Nguyen (“Batman: Streets of Gotham,” “Little Gotham”) and the varied, unique lettering of Steve Wands (“Attack on Titan,” “Royal City”).
What’s This All About?
The simple answer is: what happens to our focus characters ten years after a large portion of a human-led space empire, the UGC, is obliterated by mysterious, gigantic robots known as Harvesters and the subsequent anti-robot riots, culls and policies that practically wipes out robot kind in the empire and beyond.
This, however, is merely the inciting incident. The meat of the story comes starts with the reactivation of an old child companion robot called Tim-21 and the questions surrounding the Harvesters – where did they come from, what did they want, why did they kill so many people, where did they go, why is Tim somehow tied to them – as well as each of our characters’ personal journeys. At the outset, we follow Tim-21, the aforementioned child robot, Dr. Quon, disgraced “father of modern robotics” and Telsa, imperial ship captain in charge of getting Quon to Tim-21. As the series grows in complexity, as with any long-running series worth its salt does, we are introduced to new characters, bringing with them a bunch of answers and a whole lot more questions.
The big one being, if Tim-21 survived, who else did too? And what are they planning?
So, Why’s This So Great?
“Descender,” while being a fairly high concept story, what with space empire politics, robot/human dynamics and a large, overhanging mystery about the origins and motives behind the Harvesters, is, at its core a humanistic story, for lack of a better term. The best parts of this aren’t the large space battles, although those are beautifully rendered by Dustin Nguyen, nor is it the slow reveal of the secret history of the robots as well as their current plans and machinations, which was what propelled the most recent “Rise of the Robots” arc. No, the best parts of this series are the problems each character has and how they deal with them. Also, the art and universe building but I’ll get to that in a second.
While Quon, Telsa and Tim-21 make up the core group, every new POV character has a story that, when explored, enriches the larger universe while also diving deeper in the motivations and problems of each character. Quon is a deeply flawed man who just keeps making the wrong descisions and Telsa’s motivations are much more wrapped up in anxiety and feelings of inferiority than we are at first led to believe. By doing this, Lemire and Nguyen let these characters be characters instead of the trope of the brave space hero or the mad scientist. One arc, “Singularities,” even takes a “break” from the larger narrative in order to explore each of the supporting cast’s backstories, having each issue be devoted to a different character, as evidenced by their covers.
Plus, this isn’t a story that focuses on the usual robot v. human questions i.e. what makes us human? There are characters that debate this, sure, but it isn’t the central question. Instead, it asks us to consider the robots as human already, which goes a long way to changing our interactions with the characters and their opinions.
All this doesn’t negate the larger universe and story building that Lemire and Nguyen have done but instead works in tandem with it, both aspects enhancing the other. “Descender” has set a course for itself, with pieces slowly falling into place that set up an exploration of the universe they built, which has always felt fully formed but not fully revealed, filled with planets that are unique from each other, and aliens that look distinct, act distinctly and have internal motivations and politics that we are privy to but never bored by an excess of. And thus, we return to Nguyen’s art.Continued below
He is responsible for designing each of these places, people, and environments so it’s no easy feat to create an internal consistency between the aliens, their planets and the impressions that they give to the audience. Take the Gnishians, a race of large, pink, war-filled, aliens with multiple eyes and huge mouths. Their home planet is an industrial looking place, filled with scrap metal, furnaces and a dark, dingy atmosphere.
Then compare that to the Hardwire, whose spaces are bright and spacious, with very little color on their sparse, white and silver walls. However, as you dive deeper into the inner chambers, more colors appear, usually connected to some machine. In addition to these design elements, Nguyen’s sense of movement and the emotive capacities of his characters are fantastic, especially considering the simplicity of his linework.
Characters are outlined in pencil with minimal pencil lines to define facial features or bodily and, as far as I can tell, there is no inking step. Instead, he steps right up to the water coloring and uses that to define, shadow, and add depth to everything, from the backgrounds to the reflections on character’s arms. By doing this, the worlds feel far away, as if we’re viewing this story through a long-range broadcast that is somewhat fuzzy but still compelling. There is an ethereal quality to the art, due to the watercoloring, especially when he gets to paint underwater scenes or the final page to issue 11, which is a gorgeous cliffhanger splash page framed in a smoky, orange void.
Steve Wands’s lettering contributes to building this world as well, providing the various species and groups with distinct fonts that feel like extensions of their voices instead of just the pictographic manifestations of their speech. This is what a great letterer does and I wish I was better equipped to appreciate it.
“Descender” is still going strong and, with issue #27, it has chosen to break from the present we’ve been following for a while and jumps back to a time well before the events of the series to answer some burning questions and provide us with, what else, a whole heck of a lot more. It works as a great jumping on point, as none of the recurring characters appears, although, as with most series with a single narrative, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you’ve read the previous 26 issues.
Oh, and if you want some hints about the future, check out our interview with Jeff and Dustin.
How Can You Read It?
Issue #27, the start of a brand-new arc, comes out today so head on down to your local comic shop to see if you can snag a copy of that as well as any back issues you might be missing or head on over to comixology.com if you’d prefer digital. If you’re a trade collector, don’t like digital, can’t find the back issues or any combination of the three, then check out the first five trades, which collect all the issues out so far. However, if you want a real slick book, then pick up the first deluxe hardcover, which collects issues #1-16, available, hopefully, wherever books are sold.