Today, Spencer and Patrick are discussing Descender 1, originally released March 4th, 2015.
Spencer: Descender is a title that piqued my interest the moment it was announced. With creators like Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen at the helm it’s easy to see why, but what actually caught my attention was its premise; Descender follows a child robot named Tim-21 as he attempts to survive in a world out to annihilate all artificial life. Just the synopsis alone tugs at my heartstrings, but it’s Nguyen’s adorable design for Tim-21 that seals the emotional deal; I bonded with this kid the moment I laid eyes on him. This holds true for the rest of the issue, as well; Lemire’s introduced some fun concepts and all the trappings of a compelling sci-fi universe, but it’s Nguyen’s unique, stunning art that makes this universe a place worth visiting.
Seriously though, Tim-21 couldn’t be more adorable. Just take a look at the little guy!
He’s tiny and chubby, wearing his every emotion — from childlike enthusiasm to dread and terror — plainly on his face without a hint of embarrassment. Indeed, every aspect of Tim-21’s appearance seems designed to invoke maximum affection and sympathy, and perhaps even a paternal/maternal reaction, from the reader.
So who is Tim-21? He’s a “Child Companion Bot” who lives on a small mining colony within the territory of the United Galactic Council, which was once a mighty and prosperous government ruling over nine planets before the day massive robotic “Harvesters” appeared in the skies above each planet, decimating much of the solar system’s population, destabilizing politics, and sparking rampant anti-A.I. sentiment that eventually lead to a widespread robotic genocide. Tim-21 reactivates ten years after this event to discover that the rest of the colonists all died from a gas leak, forcing Tim-21 to handle a world that hates and fears him all by himself.
The first few pages after Tim-21 awakens make it clear how alone he is, and how scary and disorienting that must feel.
Lemire wisely leaves this page copy-free, allowing us to soak in the eerie silence of Tim-21’s solo sojourn. Nguyen frames Tim-21 as a tiny figure in massive, dimly-lit, dirt- (and possibly blood?) soaked hallways strewn with the dead bodies of his fellow colonists. It’s a beautifully effective way to build tension and get the audience feeling Tim-21’s anxiety.
Nguyen’s art is just as effective when it comes to showing how the world has changed during Tim-21’s decade-long nap without having to resort to an exposition dump.
The exact same establishing shot of Niyrata is used for both scenes on the planet, despite the ten year difference, and reusing the shot makes it clear how much has changed in those ten years. In the past Niyrata was so clean and bright that, on the next page, much of the crowd is obscured in blinding glare. Doctor Quon’s apartment (more on him in a moment) is just as pristine, an expansive space full of expensive robotic assistants. Ten years later, though, Niyrata is run-down and sparsely populated, its flawless white hue now buried under a thick layer of dirt and grime — could this be an aftereffect of the UGC’s weakened authority, or perhaps from the loss of the robots who likely kept Niyrata so clean in the past? Quon’s new apartment is tiny and just as dirty, and he’s gone from a rich scientist to a gambling addict. While we get some captions and dialogue expanding on this, the art does an impressive amount of narrative heavy-lifting here.
Doctor Jin Quon, meanwhile, is the man who created most of the robots the UGC used before the Harvesters’ attacks. In many ways Quon is the viewpoint character any time Tim-21 isn’t present, as we witness the Harvesters’ attack and learn of Captain Telsa’s revelation through Quon’s point of view. What Telsa has discovered, by the way, is that all robots have codes similar to DNA — and the Harvesters’ closest living “relative” is Tim-21!
What makes this little twist so effective is that, throughout the rest of the issue, Lemire and Nguyen work so hard to paint Tim-21 as an adorable, innocent little kid. I still think this is true, but whether he knows it or not, there might be something insidious lurking inside him. Again, it’s not a plot point Lemire spends a lot of time pointing out in the dialogue, but Nguyen ably brings the idea to life visually.
Tim-21 could pass for a human. He looks like a kid, and is implied to even sound like one — while the rest of the robots in this issue speak in specialized fonts with colored balloons, Tim-21 speaks with the same font as the human characters, with only his squared speech balloons setting his dialogue apart from the humans. Despite all that, though, he’s still a robot, and although Tim-21 is happy to be reunited with Bandit, his transformation here is still unsettling. Tim-21’s got something hidden inside of him that’s quite likely harmless, but as long as there’s even a chance that it isn’t, as long as it scares people, he’ll be feared, hated, and hunted.
I’m actually starting to see some parallels between the Harvester attack and the subsequent genocide of robots to the 9/11 tragedy and the persecution of Muslims afterwards, and while there’s likely some juicy stuff to dig into there, I’m almost out of space, so Patrick, I’ll let you tackle that idea if you so wish. I’m also interested in the universe Lemire is working so hard to establish, both in the story itself and in the back-matter, which seems to promise a plethora of exotic locales for Tim-21 to visit in the future. Despite all that, though, what I enjoy the most about Descender is still our protagonist, Tim-21, and the thoughtful, gorgeous art of Dustin Nguyen that brings him to life. In just this one short issue Lemire and Nguyen seem to have clicked as a creative team, and I can’t wait to see how their partnership evolves. How about you, Patrick?
Patrick: I was also struck by the expansiveness of the universe Lemire is crafting here. There was a dangerous moment very early in this issue when I almost put my Kindle down and walked away from this series when a character we haven’t been introduced to yet says the following:
“–I don’t care what the Gnishians say, that colony belongs to Sampson! Its resources are ours to exploit as we see fit! We have the UGC’s backing here, Doctor Tellun!”
There’s virtually no context for this: it’s the first line of spoken dialog in the piece and the only proper noun we’ve been introduced to at this point is the UGC. Add to this, in this specific panel, Nguyen isn’t even coloring these characters yet, everything is still a wash of utopian science fiction whiteness. Right from the jump, I felt overwhelmed with proper nouns and universe-specifics. It’s not a particularly ingratiating introduction to this world, especially because we cut away from this character’s perspective after that one page.
But that’s not the kind of world Lemire and Nguyen plan on keeping us in for the rest of the series — not really. That’s a sterile world, one filled with alien names and crazy political sci-fi specifics, but no heart. The mother in that scene isn’t even paying attention to her baby, going so far as to yell at the nanny-bot to quiet the crying baby. When this world is leveled by gigantic death robots a few pages later, it’s almost a relief. What follows is frequently devoid of confusing place or organization names (and Spencer points out, it’s also frequently devoid of copy at all), so the emotional elements can come to the fore.
Ultimately, all of the humanizing of the Tim-21 sections end up retroactively injecting heart into the Tim-less portions. Lemire and Nguyen are laying the seeds for a strong connection between the Tim-21 and Dr. Jin Quon. There’s the most obvious: that last surviving robot is of Dr. Quon’s design, but there’s so much more. Consider how we’re introduced to each one of them — both are waking from disorienting sleeps. Also, let’s talk about how that first confusing scene I described leads in to Jin waking up, as though from a dream. The camera zooms in from above, as people in the streets react to the presence of whatever it is that has the perspective we’re seeing the action through. We can infer that the Harvester we see a few pages later is what they were seeing, but what’s less clear is what the first panel on the next page means.
This is from Quon’s perspective, as he sees the first thing in front of him upon waking. Now, is that because we have been behind Quon’s eyes all along? Was he somehow dreaming in the perspective of the Harvester? Is it possible that the Harvest doesn’t just share DNA with Tim-21, but with Dr. Quon as well? These questions are subliminally planted here so the reader can start to feel a natural curiosity about the characters, which leads to an active curiosity about the world. So by the time I got to the end of the issue, which listed all the planets with all their goofy proper nouns intact, I was more than ready to accept and explore the sci-fi specifics. I can’t imagine a more graceful first issue, especially when it sets out to introduce so much.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?