A lot of pop culture critics have a tendency to laud a new work as the next Star Wars because it shares some aspect with George Lucas’ epic tale. While some might say the same about artist Dustin Nguyen and writer Jeff Lemire’s new Image Comics series Descender, I think that would be doing Descender a disservice. The comic book, world-spanning space opera, while sharing DNA with Star Wars, is its own unique animal that crosses over many genres and creative time periods while giving readers something fresh, something they haven’t seen before.
I had the opportunity to speak with Dustin Nguyen about the feel of Descender, working with Jeff Lemire, and his process of world-building.
FreakSugar: For readers who haven’t had a chance to pick up the book, how would you describe Descender?
Dustin Nguyen: I would say that it’s a space opera that spans across a whole universe. So far, we’ve only shown a few pictures and a little robot boy named Tim. But our cast is pretty expansive; we have aliens, humans, everything. It’s just a huge universe that we’ve created for ourselves. And we’ve built something that both Jeff and I would like to work on.
I remember that when some of the movie studios were looking at the book, they described it as an [movie studio] Amblin space robot. [laughs] And I hadn’t made the connection, but when you look at it, it does look like a robot with a very 80s, very Amblin [a production company founded by Steven Spielberg] vibe to it.
FS: By the way, I just read that Sony had picked up Descender. Congratulations! How excited are you about that?
DN: Thanks! It’s one of those things where you’re so excited about it, but then you have to get back to work. We’re really excited about it, and once it’s happened, we’re like, “This is cool! Okay, back to work.” And then I just turn it off and start cranking out pages and make sure the work’s getting done. There are a certain amount of pages we want to have done. I’ve been working hard, but it’s a lot of fun.
FS: Was the project something that Jeff came to you about or was it something that you came up with together?
DN: We talked about do something before. We had met at conventions. We’ve never worked together, but we both worked at DC Comics and Vertigo. Actually, the project came about very organically. Jeff emailed me. It was weird because I was wrapping up Li’l Gotham and a bunch of other stuff. I was finishing up my exclusive with DC and was like, “Y’know, I want to do something for me, with the style that I have and the schedule that I want and get to choose who I work with. Not that I never got the choice, but with other projects you’re always presented with an idea, and if you like you take it, and if not you don’t. Then they’ll present you with another idea. With Descender, I wanted to do something we could start from the ground up.
Amazingly, Jeff emailed me and thought, “This is sweet!” So we talked about what we wanted to do back and forth and this idea came up immediately. He had this idea to do a space book about a little boy. And I was like, “Dude, I want to draw a space book with robots.” I really have a special attachment to space and robot sci-fi and I really wanted to do it. And to do a project like that, we really needed to schedule because I wanted to do the art myself. So, after some back and forth, we came up with this. In between the time we started talking about it and the time we started the book, we met at a few conventions and hammered out a bunch of ideas. It was one of those things that came about so organically that it makes it a pleasure to work on. It never feels like I’m working for Jeff or he’s working for me, but we’re working together, which is great. It makes you want to do your best.
FS: This kind of collaborative process must be a big treat.
DN: It’s an extra treat. Over the years, I’ve been spoiled. At DC, I’ve always gotten to work with really great writers. It’s one of those things where I don’t even know what to complain about. [laughs] Let’s just say this is what I’ve always wanted to do and it’s worked out great, so it’s an extra treat.
FS: I’ve always loved your art. And now you’ve mentioned that you think Descender has a very 1980s sci-fi feel to the book, I can totally see that design aesthetic. How did you approach designing the characters and the world?
DN: The way Jeff writes it, he grew up on certain influences and we share those influences and we saw we connected. And I have my influences in art, also. If I were designing a video game, I would look at the latest technology and incorporate it because you’re drawing the future. But the thing about the future is, I have no idea what it’s going to be like. So, I just wanted to draw what I wanted to draw, regardless of whether someone thinks it looks very futuristic. I just wanted to draw it the way I wanted to draw. And some of it looks the idea of the future from the 80s and 90s. I’m fine with it if it makes it fun for me to draw.
And the actual execution of it, because I’m painting it, it’s not always going to be shiny and bright. It’s going to look weathered down. A lot of the old comics I read, like the Heavy Metal magazine when it first came out, they were very dirty. Heavy Metal was very worn. Even the shiny, bright future was drawn out very weird. There was something about the smell of the paper you could always feel and it had a griminess to it. And that’s what I wanted Descender to have. But we also have some very futuristic areas that are sterile and clean. However, the vibe of the book does not have a bright future. I don’t know if that makes sense.
FS: Oh, that makes complete sense. When you were talking about Heavy Metal influence, it made me think about how the book, whether the scene was dirty or sleek, everything felt very lived-in.
DN: I’m a big fan of actual textures. I think that’s one thing I can always get if I control all the art myself. I can create a certain feel or texture to make it feel lived-in.
FS: Another thing I appreciated about the story, as far as the pacing goes, you have the show many different time periods and locales. In that way, you never get used to any one place at any given time.
DN: The way the script runs, Jeff keeps it moving. It’s weird. It’s one of those things where there’s a lot of breathing space between each panel, but it’s never stale. It keeps moving. And even though we don’t stay in any location for a long time, in the next issues we revisit a lot of it to clarify it and tell the story. How things got there, who got there, why they got there. Jeff’s an amazing storyteller in that way. He can tell a great story in 20 pages, but at the same time come back and expand on that. I enjoy the way he paces it. You get to cram in a lot, but at the same time there’s a lot of breathing space.
FS: And with all of these various storylines and locales in the book, I’m sure it keeps things fresh for you as an artist working on the book.
DN: Yeah, it definitely keeps it fresh, but when I’m drawing it, I think, “Man, I was just comfortable here.” [laughs]
FS: How did you approach designing the world of NAME for the two different time periods we see in the book? How far do you know how to push the boundaries?
DN: The way I did it was through jumping around. I designed the way it looks like at the end and then I would design what it looks like in the beginning later. It was kinda strange. I knew where I wanted it to end. It’s like a story: You figure out the ending first. So, I drew it where the planet would end up. You know where’s it going to end, now you’ve gotta get there.
FS: That makes sense.
DN: It’s easier that way. If I jumped back on a DC book, you never know how it’s going to end so you just draw it and figure it out later. But with Descender, Jeff has it really laid out and he knows exactly where it’s going and I think he already knows the ending. [laughs]
FS: Without giving too much away, what can we expect coming up?
DN: Tim is definitely going to have some help along the way. It’s always going to be focused on Tim, though. It’s a huge universe and we’ll explore all these worlds, but, at the end of it, it’s always going to be based around this little boy. He’s the heart of the story. You’re going to see an amazing cast. It’s exciting, man.