Series Review: Descender
“Descender is a thoughtful, sprawling space saga illustrated in lush, vibrant watercolor and it absolutely demands your attention.”
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dustin Nguyen
Series Type: Ongoing
In 2015 Sony triumphed over several competitors all clamoring to get the rights to a comic that hadn’t been written yet. That comic is Descender and the reason is that it’s quite an obscenely blatant masterpiece. Jeff Lemire writes and Dustin Nguyen illustrates this absolutely breathtaking series of Science Fiction brilliance. It’s got intergalactic government intrigue, robot genocide, alien bounty hunters, gladiator death pits, ancient apocalyptic prophecies and secret robot resistance groups. Descender is a thoughtful, sprawling space saga illustrated in lush, vibrant watercolor and it absolutely demands your attention.
This marvelous comic is 13 issues deep, already collected in two volumes, so here’s the quick gist of it. In the distant future the United Galactic Council consists of 9 core worlds; each incredibly advanced societies of varied species and topographies. Technology, especially advanced robotics, is prevalent throughout. One morning, without warning, gigantic robots appear in the space surrounding each core world; 9 monstrous robots, each large enough to dwarf the planets over which they loom. Simultaneously the robots erupts with an enormous blast, decimating the UGC and leaving a death toll in the hundreds of millions. The Harvesters, as the robots became known to survivors, disappeared as mysteriously as they arrived. Top robotic engineers are interrogated but no one has explanation for where the Harvestors came from or why they attacked. The result is a vicious distrust of anything robotic and a galaxy wide robot genocide known as The Robot Culls. Ten years later, the remnants of the UCG finally crack the Harvestors ‘codex,’ essentially robot DNA, and it is identical to that of the Tim series, a line of child companion bots. All of the Tims were thought to be exterminated in The Robot Culls, until Tim-21 wakes up in a derelict mining colony on a moon in the outer rim of UGC space. Scared, alone and surrounded by corpses, Tim-21 uplinks to the UGC server to see what he missed the last 10 years. It is at this time that Tim-21 learns of the Harvestors attacks and the vicious robot genocide that followed, and the UGC learns of his existence.
The UGC, the scrapers, the Gnishians (bulbous aliens, leaders of the robot culls), Tim-21’s childhood companion Andy and a robotic resistance group known as the Hardwire – everyone is after Tim-21. The content could not be more timely. In an era where technology is both essential to our daily lives and a prevalent topic of moral debates, Descender tells a story about the robot uprising and offers poignant insight into the possibility. Artificial Intelligence, the same technology that spares human lives with robots that disarm bombs could be the same technology that eventually wipes us out. This is no longer a foil-hat conspiracy theory, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have each spoken out about the potential risk of developing AI and the need for regulations and restrictions to ensure our safety. Descender plunges us into a world where our fears are realized, where we can no longer control or predict our own creations. At the same time, it questions who is to blame and how we arrived at such a predicament. It showcases the varied responses that biological life will have in the face of an unknown robotic threat. Lemire has written a cast that is altogether alien and undeniably human. They are motivated by fear, duty, pain and goodwill. They are not innocent and they are not evil. They are each and every one of us as we struggle to do what is right in a situation that we do not understand. That’s the key, that’s why this comic is so special. It is exciting and beautiful and powerful and real. You will find yourself rooting for Tim-21 as if he were your own child, you will see in The Hardwire the same extremist ideological threat that you see on the news every day. Lemire has developed a fictional, richly expansive universe that seems to exist in a funhouse mirror. It is strange and fantastic, and yet it is ourselves looking back at us. This is the apex, the penultimate achievement of any truly good Sci-Fi, and Lemire is not bashful in his masterful use of the medium.
“Isn’t it odd. We were created identical, yet you are overcome with sadness and love while I only feel things like jealousy?”
Lemire’s maddeningly effective story, genius though it is, is nearly overshadowed by Dustin Nguyen’s incredible illustrations (only nearly.) It is stylized in juxtaposition to the subject matter; the harsh metal and violent mechanics displayed in an opulent, flowy watercolor. The art is somewhat sketchy but still clear and sharp. The blended watercolor pallets give each panel a plunging emotional depth. The characters themselves are inventive, imaginative and generally fun to look at. Gnishians, Samsonites, robots of different designs, shiftspace travel, futuristic weapons and civilizations- the Science Fiction subject matter gives Nguyen plenty of room to play and the result is dazzling. From the gurgling threat of the Gnishians melting pits to the violet void of the haunted planet Phages, Nguyen politely slingshots your retinas across the galaxy and back again. Sometimes he plops you down in the middle of robot death matches. It’s all in good fun. A single glance at any one of the stunning covers tips you off to the magic lurking inside. It’s exciting, it’s complex, and it’s alluring. This ain’t your grandfather’s comic book.
If you like robots, or if you like killing robots, or if you are a human then this is the comic for you. Descender is sprawling technological epic that is just as much about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence as it is about the fears of biological life. It’s a watercolor Star Wars meets Bladerunner Sci-Fi opera and if that’s not enough to make you pick up a trade then I don’t know what is. I implore you, fellow humes, join me in welcoming our new robot overlords.