Descender 8

descender 8

Today, Ryan D. and Spencer are discussing Descender 8, originally released December 16th, 2015.

Ryan D: While comics began to thrive on the genres of fantasy and horror for numerous reasons such as accessibility, affordability, and an allowance for the niche and pulp, I would hazard that there are so many big, bold new universes being constructed in comics right now because the medium itself lends itself to the creation of new worlds. Comics take the visual aspect of realized fantastical realms of television or film and couple that with the liberty of imagination bestowed by novels. In eight issues, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen have built a far-reaching and seamless science fiction universe in a state of flux, carefully showing only what the reader needs to see, allowing for plenty of wiggle room and personal imaginative exploration.

While this busy universe revolves around the fate of the adorable Tim-21, Descender 8 follows Andy Tavers on his quest to find the aforesaid companion-bot. While Andy has displayed an inordinate amount of urgency in his need to locate his childhood playmate, the audience is still unaware of what his exact motivation is, especially seeing how he currently makes a living — and a good one at that — by bounty-hunting robots. Lucky for us, also on the hunt is the surly but lovable Gnishan, Blugger Vance, who serves a two-fold job in the context of the comic.

First and foremost, Blugger makes for an important vehicle for character exposition as Lemire begins to peel back the layers on Andy, and a reason to send the human of the pair back into some of the many beautiful, parchment-colored flashback sequences to his childhood on the Dirishu mining colony. While these retrospective scenes for Andy have been informative, I suspect that they will become illuminating within the next issue or two. Secondly, the brash and playful Blugger serves as a great character foil for the scarred and brooding Andy, with the contrast coming across as a buddy-cop partnership in space. The small moment of a smile that reaches Andy’s face as he finally succumbs to Vance’s banter and agrees to call his ship the “Space Dagger” offers the audience a small glimmer of hope that there still remains some humanity under Andy’s masked, lone-wolf exterior.  

The art, per usual, pairs beautifully with the storytelling. Take this page, for example, when we see Andy and Blugger in the Space Dagger making a last-ditch effort to avoid the pursuit of hostile enemy ships:

Descender8-2

We see here the ethereal water colors setting the backdrop that’s used to paint whatever Nguyen decides to not keep an austere, sci-fi ghost white. Nguyen masterfully plays with what to color and what to show, as the free-fall of the ship is personalized by the seeming plummet of the characters inside as well. The illustrator pares down what starts at the beginning of the issue as a fully-drawn cockpit to just the two pilots with a control column/joystick, then down to the the people alone with the background. As the framework of the ship is visually stripped away, the peril of the characters rises dramatically, turning what could be “just another spacecraft in distress” into a harrowing situation involving breathing creatures.  

My one gripe about this issue is the usage of the spirit-like inhabitants of Phages. I have been excited to meet these aliens since the mention in the planet compendium included at the end of the early issues of Descender as a means of fleshing out the galaxy:

Descender8-3
Sounds pretty rad, right? Well, the first encounter with these empyreal apparitions gave Andy a very deep, traumatic flashback of his mother abandoning him, but seeing as he had been having many of these kinds of blasts from the past throughout the issue, the importance of this one being shared with the alien is, at the moment, lost on me. Luckily, the encounter gave us this two-page spread

Descender8-1

Again, Nguyen treats readers to a master class on visual storytelling in the comic medium without using the framework of panels and gutters. Take a second to look through that page and marvel at how clear of a path your eyes travel, all while enjoying how the browns, tans, and mustard-golds of the past off-set the evening sky blue of Andy’s consciousness. Dang.

Descender ambitiously does a lot of things. Yes, it is a sweeping sci-fi epic about a galaxy in peril. Yes, it plays with the question being asked ever since artificial intelligence entered the edges of fiction. While those matter greatly, the creative team seems very aware that the key to this story lays within the relationship between Tim-21 and his “brother”, Andy; if the audience does not buy this connection — or at least want to ask questions about it — then we’d have no reason to care about all of the meticulous world-building. Spencer! Back in Descender 1, you and Patrick called the comic “graceful” and “thoughtful”, respectively. Have the more recent issues disappointed, or do you think the creative team has lived up to the promises they made back in March? Also, I find that the form of this book matches the narrative in a way that few titles pull off — agree/disagree?

Spencer: Agreed on all counts, Ryan. One of Jeff Lemire’s greatest strengths as a writer is knowing how to write for each new artist he works with, creating stories that are suited towards their particular skills and then staying out of the way as they do their thing. Nguyen excels at creating these breathtaking environments, so Lemire crafts scripts that have lots of room to breathe, plenty of time to sit back and soak in Nguyen’s backgrounds. It’s notable that, despite the series’ vast world, most issues of Descender have a rather narrow scope, focusing on just one or two plots — this issue, for example, doesn’t even feature Tim-21 outside of flashbacks, sticking solely to Andy’s perspective. While the actual amount of incident in any given issue of Descender may not be the highest, it never feels dull — the leisurely pace only further allows the reader to immerse themselves in the rich worlds Nguyen and Lemire create. I mean, there’s an entire splash page in this issue devoted solely to a shot of the Phages’ gaseous city in the distance — Andy never visits it, and the moment doesn’t further the plot at hand, yet it’s such a striking image that it ends up becoming one of the issue’s most memorable moments.

That kind of imagery really is a powerful thing. For example, in just a scant few panels the Phages make an indelible impression, transcending any concerns about their purpose through sheer “cool factor” alone.

watercolor ghosts

Seriously, this one panel is more powerful than any summary page could ever be. The Phages are a testament to Nguyen’s skill as an illustrator — I mean, it looks like they’re done directly as watercolor paint on the page, no pencils or inks necessary! Each Phage bleeds through into the next, their bodies sporting more defined torsos but then trailing away into random streaks of paint below the waist. Few creators outside of Fiona Staples can create such unique, vivid alien designs on such a consistent basis (I love Blugger’s design too) — Nguyen is a phenomenal talent.

Descender 8‘s powerful imagery benefits the plot as well. Many of Lemire’s books this year have divided their attention between multiple time periods, and Descender is no exception. On more than one occasion lines of dialogue and blocking are replicated side-by-side in both eras (such as the dual shots of Andy’s ships escaping that close the issue) — this works better in Descender than it does in some of Lemire’s other titles because here the comparisons don’t seem to be trying to make any grand statement. They simply exist to show how much Andy’s changed in the past decade.

For example, I don’t know if this comes across in the digital versions, but in my physical copy, often times you’ll find a close-up of young Andy in a flashback and a close-up of modern-day Andy side by side on adjacent pages, making his transformation (both physical and emotional) more obvious than ever (There’s also a neat bit of imagery that only works in the physical version in that final image Ryan posted — the center of the book cuts right between Andy and his mother, splitting them apart just moments before the narrative itself does).

It’s smart illustrative characterization to go along with Lemire’s likewise strong work characterizing Andy through the issue’s text. Lemire and Nguyen make it easy to see how the Andy in the flashbacks becomes the Andy in the present day, and a lot of it starts with the fact that Andy seems to have been just slightly “off” to begin with.

like what I like

We never see exactly why Andy hates the other children on the colony — whether they’re “mean” like Andy claims, or if Andy’s just being petulant — but his reasons for wanting Tim-21 to be his friend sheds a lot of light on the situation. He wants a friend who does what he wants and likes what he likes, and while that could just be typical childhood selfishness, it could also be the sign of some deeper issues. Either way, it means that there’s only two people Andy cares about in the entire galaxy: Tim and his mother. It’s no wonder he becomes so hard and jaded after losing them. He’s either incapable or unwilling to love anyone else.

It still remains to be seen whether Andy has actual beef with robots, or if he’s just hunting them because it’s a good job; likewise, we still don’t know whether Andy wants to destroy Tim-21 or save him, but exploring Andy and his relationship with Tim in such detail not only makes it easier to speculate, but also has me quite invested in discovering the answers. Descender 8 sets up a few smaller mysteries as well.

blank stare

What’s going on with Tim-21 in this last panel? Tim’s blank stare is given significant space on the page, and is used as a page-turn cliffhanger, but never resolved, and that’s got me intrigued. Is Andy’s memory of this moment somehow incomplete? Or maybe this is some sort of reaction to the upcoming Harvester attack (we have no idea when this scene takes place, after all)? This could be a mystery that ends up developing the characters, or one that’s more focused on expanding Descender‘s universe, but either way, it’s playing right into the series’ greatest strengths: its graceful, thoughtful exploration of Tim-21 and the universe he inhabits. Yeah, those descriptions are just as appropriate now as they were back in March, and considering the stellar work Lemire and Nguyen have done on this title, I’m sure they’ll continue to be for a long time coming.

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?

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