Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Descender 10, originally released February 10th, 2016.
Drew: While I can appreciate its visual wizardry, I’ve always been baffled at the morality of The Matrix. Never mind the half-baked philosophy of “there is no spoon” or the stoner profundity of wondering whether reality really is an illusion, it’s the vilification of the robots that really confuses me. Objectively, the humans are the bad guys, the fickle creators who try to destroy the sentient life they’ve created. The robots, on the other hand, keep the humans alive and comfortable, albeit in an oddly complex simulation. For all of the explicit Christ imagery surrounding Neo, he represents the robots’ Antichrist, a being sent by the creator(s) to end life as they know it. Can we blame the robots for wanting to avoid that?
Descender‘s inversion of the morality of The Matrix hooked me from the start. Instead of relying on our knee-jerk identification with the human characters, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen have intentionally played against our expectations. Tim-21’s humanity is the core of this series (even as they highlight how odd it is), while the humans are often depicted as racist, unscrupulous, or hapless beings driven by fear and distrust. This challenges our notions of humanity and morality in ways that The Matrix never bothers to. Of course, Lemire and Nguyen’s desire to thwart our expectations finds them reversing The Matrix yet again, as Tim-21 is revealed to be the robots’ own version of The One.
Of course, this calls the morality of the robots into question, as well. Telsa and Psius quibble about this at the opening of the issue, as Psius insists that whatever tactics the robots have used have been in the name of survival, but the real question is how any of this jibes with Tim-21’s own underdeveloped sense of morality. Last issue, we saw him learn fear, which comes up again as he objects to the violence of Tim-22’s video game. But it’s not just fear — Tim-21 explains that he’s just not used to games, so might prefer something he’s more familiar with, like reading or drawing. Lemire once again takes the opportunity to nod heavily at the digital vs. print debate, but the real interest for me is the way it reflects the importance of the familiar.
Both boys are excited at Trinket Tocket, though both also make a point of expressing their prior experience with it. Indeed, because Tim-22 has never seen a book on paper before, he finds this version illusory — a shadow of the experience he remembers. Tim-21, on the other hand, has fond memories of the print version, so prefers this one and, of course, the memories tied to it.
It’s that constant reference to (and reverence for) the past that makes the issue’s closing reveal so fascinating. There are a number of ways Tim-21 could be involved in the return of the Harvesters, but I’m intrigued at the question of whether or not he would willingly bring about the destruction of mankind. He clearly has a fondness for humans (and none of the disdain for them Psius can barely contain), so wanting to kill them seems unlikely, but his fixation on past experiences could lead him down some dark corridors. His trust in Telsa could be thwarted if he learns that she never intended to look for Andy, but more importantly, the very core of his identity could be undermined if Andy ends up wanting to kill him.
Obviously, Andy’s motivations are decidedly unclear, but his steady accumulation of teammates has quickly made his adventures a vital part of this story. This issue finds him meeting up with his ex-wife, the apparent leader of a “cyborg cult.” I’m intrigued to see how this group fits into the political landscape Lemire has already developed, but I’m also relishing the opportunity to pick up details of Andy’s life since leaving the mining colony. Stopping to get married (and divorced) certainly complicates the “orphaned child becomes ruthless bounty hunter” narrative I’d imagined for him before.
Actually, the off-handed way Lemire delivers exposition might just be my favorite part about this series. Andy’s brief conversation with “Queen Between” implies a complicated relationship, but I’m just as intrigued at the details of “solar worms” or the telepathic abilities of the inhabitants of Silenos. Lemire’s work on mythology-dense series like Sweet Tooth and Animal Man always gave me confidence in the master plotting of this series, but it’s these fun little details that make even the least mythology-driven issues a blast.
Spencer, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this issue. I had fallen behind on it, but I’m glad I made a point of catching up with it here. I’m curious if you identify with Tim-21 and -22’s familiarity-as-fondness (which is basically a business model in the comics world), or if you’re hoping Tim-21 learns to be a little more adventurous. He’d certainly need to be to get on board with a twist like this one ended with!
Spencer: If Tim-21 becoming more adventurous means him bringing about the apocalypse (or whatever), then I’m fine with him staying meek and mild-mannered for as long as he can. I don’t know what it is about that adorable little robot, but he really brings what scant paternal instinct I have roaring outta me. Drew, have you heard the expression “beautiful cinnamon roll?” It originates from this Onion article, but has quickly become a term used to describe characters who are far too pure and good to deserve all the awful things that happen to them, and need to be protected at all costs. That’s certainly how I feel about Tim-21.
So yeah, I suppose it’s clear that I don’t believe that Tim-21, as he is now, would willingly be involved in bringing the Harvesters back or hurting anyone, but sadly, I do see several paths that could one day lead him to that point. The first harkens back to an idea we discussed last month — the idea that Tim-21’s personality and emotions are influenced by, and adapt to, the people around him. Admittedly, that’s a quality humans share as well, but most people also have some form of conscience or core personality that will only let them be influenced so much. Does Tim-21 have something similar? Is his purity a part of his “personality,” or simply something he adopted from young Andy and his mother? If he hangs around the Hardwire long enough, could he become an entirely different robot, one jaded enough to work with the Harvesters?
Another possibility stems from Tim-21’s desperate need for a family.
Tim-21’s only motivation is to be reunited with his “brother” Andy, and in the meantime, he readily transforms Quon and Tesla into parental figures whether they want to be or not. It’s likely that this is a part of his function as a companion bot — he needs to be a companion to somebody, for another person to give him direction. This even seems to apply to Tim-22, who has taken on Psius and the rest of the Hardwire as his family, even if he’s less emotionally attached as 21. So again, this seems like an aspect of Tim-21’s programming that, if manipulated in the right way, could lead him to make decisions that would seem unthinkable now.
Or perhaps the Harvesters are simply attracted to the codex deep in Tim-21’s programming, or can use it to take control of him somehow? Anything’s possible with these guys.
Before our discussion strays too far from Tim-21’s emotions, I do want to address the other question Drew posed about familiarity-as-fondness. I hate to get into the paper vs. digital debate, as I use both formats and can see the strengths and weaknesses of each, both I do agree that there’s a certain unexplainable fondness for the paper copies I grew up on. There’s also a certain sentimentality you can attach to physical objects that doesn’t really apply to digital copies; Tim-21 certainly seems to understand that.
“Trinket Tocket” matters so much to Tim-21 because Andy’s mother used to read it to them, but this particular copy also acts as a talisman, a physical reminder of his relationship with Andy. Andy and Tim-21 have held this book, etched their names in it, claimed it as their own in a way you simply can’t with a digital copy. That significance is no doubt more important to Tim-21 than the story itself, and I can certainly relate to that.
I suppose what I have to wonder is if that ability to make memories, to become emotionally attached to people and things, is simply an element of Tim-21’s personality, or if it’s a sign that he’s as much human as robot. There’s still so much we don’t know about the Tim models, isn’t there?
I mentioned last month that 21’s human-like tendencies make him different from both robots and non-robots, and until Tim-22 came around, there were no other characters who understood that, but in Descender 10 Lemire and Nguyen remedy that by introducing the Between. We know so little about these guys, but they’re already a fascinating addition to the world of Descender. Are they humans who chose to make themselves part-robot, or was the status forced on them? Or perhaps some began as robots and tried to make themselves human instead? No matter their origins, their unique similarities to Tim-21 can’t be coincidental. I can’t wait to see how Lemire and Nguyen choose to explore these guys.
The Between aren’t the only smart bit of world-building in this issue, though. Though just a small moment, I adored this panel:
We would say “speak up,” of course, but since the citizens of Silenos can’t speak, and instead communicate telepathically, they’re told to think up. Sure, it’s mainly a cute joke on Lemire’s behalf, yet this moment not only works to expand upon the Silenoses’ abilities, but to show how comfortable and familiar their neighbor species are with them. It’s subtle, yet extremely effective world-building.
As always, Nguyen’s art does wonders to expound upon the details of this universe as well. This month finds Nguyen focusing on using colors to establish location — the Hardwire’s base on the Machine Moon is so white it’s antiseptic, with barely any backgrounds to speak of. It’s fitting for machines, and shows how much the Hardwire has accomplished in the past decade. This also makes for a stark contrast to the Between’s home on Sampson, which Nguyen colors in grimy dark hues and deep reds. It’s dangerous and dirty, but that’s probably the only kind of place the Between could live at without facing too much harassment. Sampson also leads to one of my favorite panels of the issue.
Nguyen’s use of black here is just extraordinary. I love the way the black buildings in the background just fade into the gray sky, indicating their distance and decay, and the scraps in the foreground have a real sense of texture that’s just a joy to behold.
Between a complex lead character I desperately want to see succeed and a compelling, diverse universe that seems like it expands more and more in each issue, it’s no wonder I love Descender so much. Lemire and Nguyen are doing killer work on this book, and unlike with those pesky Matrix sequels, I’m confident that streak will hold up for the foreseeable future.
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?
My comic store got shorted their Descender order this week. Boo.