Today, Spencer and Ryan D. are discussing Descender 9, originally released January 13th, 2016.
Spencer: Despite all the differences between the numerous species of aliens that exist within the world of Descender, they’re united by one fact: they’re not robots. The war between robots and non-robots has been the conflict at the core of Descender since its genesis, but there’s one character who doesn’t clearly fall on either side of that conflict: Tim-21. As far back as the first issue we’ve noticed how Tim-21 was designed to appear as human as possible, but in Descender 9 Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen finally dig into how Tim-21’s alliances with both sides of the conflict make him feel.
Tim-21 is undeniably a robot, but it makes sense that he relates more to humans. In this issue we learn that Tim’s emotion settings can’t be changed — instead, they adapt as he learns from those around him, and 21’s spent his entire life surrounded by humans, primarily interacting with a young human child and his family. It’s no wonder he’s so sweet, emotional and naïve. Tim even had a companion pet in the form of Bandit — is there anything more quintessentially human than a boy and his dog? So despite the fact that Tim’s been pursued across the galaxy, his life constantly on the line because he’s a robot, Tim-21 still has an affinity for humans. If you asked him if he was human he would tell you “no,” that he’s a companion bot, but I get the feeling that deep down inside, he forgets that sometimes.
The arrival of Tim-22, then, finally presents 21 with somebody he can relate to, somebody who has had similar experiences as he.
Like Tim-21, Tim-22 is also a companion bot who once spent most of his time surrounded by humans, but differs in the fact that he’s spent the decade since the Harvesters’ attack hiding out with the robot resistance. So while he’s learned from humans and keyed-in to their emotions, he’s done the same with the Hardwire, and seems to have adapted their perspective on the universe as well. 21 views his emotions and empathy as a human-esque trait, something that makes him more like them, while 22 thinks of it as a part of his function and his programming, celebrating how he only has emotions because he’s a robot who’s been programmed that way.
So the two Tims clearly fall into a kind of limbo between “robot” and “not-robot” that no other characters even come close to, but even then, both lean more towards one side of the conflict than the other. Tim-22 is fully committed to the Hardwire’s cause, while 21’s placed his trust in his non-robot companions. I have to wonder, though, how long 21’s trust in humans will last. Lemire already seems to be setting 21 up to learn things the hard way; 21 ends the scene I posted above proclaiming his trust in Telsa, but she certainly doesn’t seem worthy of it.
Outside of Quon and maybe Andy, none of the humans Tim-21 cares so much about seem to return the favor. Contrary to what he might think, 21 hasn’t won Telsa over; she only cares about fulfilling her mission, and any ol’ Tim will do in that regard. He’s just a machine to her, and that seems to go double for most other non-robots in the UGC, especially the Gnishians, with their rampant anti-robot rhetoric. Part of what I love so much about Tim-21 is his empathy and enthusiasm and his loyalty to his friends, but I’m starting to doubt whether those qualities can hold out — or even if they should — in a universe this bleak.
That bleakness is presented perhaps better than ever throughout Descender 9 as well. Lemire and Nguyen really highlight the pointless, endless cycle of hatred that is war: the UGC — with Gnish leading the way — lashes out against the robots in fear after the Harvester attack, and the robots band together and form a resistance to strike back. But the Hardwire becomes especially known for their vicious nature — as Quon points out — and their attack against S’nok just impels Gnish to double down on their culls. Violence just begets more violence — like I said, it’s bleak stuff.
Throughout all that smart characterization and world-building — and believe me, there’s plenty more that I just don’t have space to write about that I’d love to see you address, Ryan — Nguyen still brings down the house with some truly atmospheric, intelligent, gorgeous art and colors. There’s a lot of details I loved this time around — such as Tim-21 hiding behind Telsa during Quon’s procedure — but the moment that truly made my jaw drop was Driller’s one-attack victory in the Gnishian coliseum.
It’s a show-stopping moment and Nguyen sells every epic ounce of it, but what impresses me the most is how clearly the attack leads the reader’s eye across the page. As they reach the end of the first panel their eye immediately lands at the beginning of Driller’s swing, and as they follow the arc of his attack, it leads them in a circle right to the next panel, where Driller’s drill even breaks through the border as if creating a bridge between the two moments. It’s astoundingly smart storytelling, and that’s something Nguyen provides each and every issue of Descender.
Ryan, what are your thoughts on this one? And what do you think of the revelation about Andy’s past? He’s certainly developing in a different direction than what I originally expected.
Ryan D: Gosh, Spence, I really love this series. I read through each issue of Descender once for the plot, and again for the art alone. You absolutely hit the nail on the head when talking about the 1-2 punch that is Nguyen selling this storytelling, writ patiently and lovingly by Lemire. Visually, this title never lets me down. The page composition alone makes me call over a friend to show them how great a page looks, even completely out of context. Coupled with Nguyen’s bold choices with color, the audience receives the gift of pages like this one:
The artist leaves the reader a trail of breadcrumbs with the color red, mainly through Telsa’s hair, and then Tim-21’s red shoes, and book-ends again with Telsa’s hair and severe look. The mix of tight, framed shots mixed with high and low angles makes even this scene of talking heads a delight to watch — of course, the characterization is on-point as well.
Whereas last issue demonstrated Nguyen’s use of an undulating pallet of blues like a house made by Gaudí, this one dwells in a range of reds which run from ruby to baked parchment of earth. We see that in the following scene between the Tim’s which Spencer mentioned. And while I agree that the universe presented is indeed a bleak one, Lemire still offers counterpoints:
These afternoon reds suffuse the conversation between the two, which is so preposterously earnest and filled with joy. How interesting is it that the burst of warmth in this dark world comes from two robots — simulacrums of little boys — their hopeful naiveté a reminder of what hardened characters like Andy have lost.
Speaking of Andy, I found his moment when being reunited with his old dog-bot Bandit to be wonderful and interesting. Good writers try to put characters at crossroads, as their decision between two important options offers more interesting exposition than if it were written directly. Andy’s first instinct in seeing Bandit was excitement which he then quickly suppressed; however, despite his bluster over offering Bandit as scrap, Andy still finds a way to explain to Blugger that they must keep Bandit around. This ambiguity of what Andy’s actual relationship with robots helps drive the series, and I applaud the team for teasing it out over time as we learn more.
Lastly, my favorite bit of world building in this issue comes in the form of the coronation of the Gnishan king, S’Lok. The Gnishans here find an official pulpit to etch out their plans for their war against robots — both the terrorist sort and the non-combative. I also enjoy toying around with the idea of how a draconian monarchy like this can fit into what seemed at first to be an austere, pristine advanced universe of progress.
This series, in my opinion, has it all. I think the art and narration fit seamlessly together, I care about nearly all of the characters — both human and non-human — and every issue reveals a new part of a sweeping universe. What’s not to love? Really, if you can think of anything, leave a comment. I am almost embarrassed by my fanboyism. Read Descender. Please?
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?