Descender Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (2017)
Reprints Descender #1-16
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Dustin Nguyen
Jeff Lemire is one of the most prolific comic writers of the current era, having penned some of the most memorable books of the last few years. He broke out with titles like Sweet Tooth and The Essex County trilogy and now authors superhero, science fiction, horror books, and more. I’ve been following his fantastic Black Hammer universe at Dark Horse comics for a few years and am close to wrapping up Twin Peaks-like Gideon Falls. So I decided to look at his other work at Image Comics, starting with this space opera epic clearly inspired by Astro Boy.
Ten years ago, the galaxy was thrown into chaos when giant robotic beings appeared in the skies above the major cities. Entire worlds were destroyed. Others were left for ruin. These “harvesters” caused the people’s sentiments towards machine life to turn sour, and robots were marginalized and killed. On a distant mining world, the child-like android TIM-21 wakes up to learn what has transpired since he went into sleep mode during the attacks. Unbeknownst to Tim, he has a beacon inside him that has gotten the attention of the United Galactic Council as well as scavengers who scrap lone droids for parts. Tim finds friends in Bandit, a robot pet, and the angry Driller, a mining droid. They are “rescued” by Captain Tesla, the daughter of the UGC’s president and Tim’s creator, the now ruined Dr. Quon. This group of heroes begins to uncover secrets that have been hidden from the galaxy that reveals the truth behind the harvesters and what robots genuinely are.
Jeff Lemire is a writer who draws from his personal life in much of his work. Some of it is obvious, like The Essex County trilogy, but even something like Descender taps into experiences the writer has had. Lemire has explained that Descender came out of his thoughts on being a father and having profound fears for his son when contemplating the chaotic state of the world. Through the eyes of Tim, the reader sees how we learn to process grief and feel like an Other. Lemire has said that focusing these emotional experiences through the lens of a child allows them to play more intensely than if his main protagonist was an adult. It should also be noted that Lemire eschews thought bubbles in his comics work which he has explained as creating space for the reader to interpret what is going on inside the character’s head. This lets the art play an even more significant role as it can provide clues to that subconscious space.
I typically don’t venture too far out of the “capes and tights” subgenre of comics, but when I have read books that come from places like Image, I’m never disappointed. Descender continues that trend as being one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read/seen in a very long while. It has enough familiar tropes and story beats that you immediately understand what kind of story you’re in for, yet it throws plenty of surprises and plays on those same tropes to keep you surprised. It is incredibly sprawling, as all good space operas should be, but by the end of this first volume, I understand where the series is going. Enough players have been introduced and developed that the narrative is presenting some clear paths.
One of my favorite things about Descender is how it inverts the typical war with machines trope. So often in science fiction (Terminator, The Matrix), the machines are the clear antagonists while humans are the virtuous heroes. Lemire works dutifully to humanize all the robot characters to evoke the same powerful emotions as human stories do. He also showcases the craven aspects of humanity, quick to want some Other group to blame for problems and the depth to which the species will sink to brutalize these Others. Lemire also plays on the boy robot-creator relationship that was really hammered out in things like Pinocchio and Astro Boy. Dr. Quon is not a good man, and in this first volume, we learn about many lies he’s spread that directly harmed the United Galaxy. He’s not a clear-cut villain, but Quon is not a person anyone in the story should completely trust. He’s a well-written, complex character who lost sight of the end goal to serve his own ambitious purposes. Quon attempts to make things right to a degree while still keeping specific facts close to his vest.
NBCUniversal announced they had purchased the right to develop Descender as a television series, which is a more intelligent move than making movies. The book reminded me of the popular trend since Lost to tell a long serial form story and make each episode a spotlight on a different character once the main narrative was established. This means the momentum of the story does slow a bit a couple issues in but for a good reason. We get flashbacks to Dr. Quon’s development of advanced robotics, Captain Tesla’s ongoing conflict with her father, and even vignettes devoted to Bandit and Driller. And just like Lost, these one-offs serve to add emotional depth to what these characters do in the larger narrative. It’s masterfully done storytelling by people who know how to weave both an exciting tale and a human one.