Descender Has Some Of The Best World-Building In Comics Right Now

One of the best feelings in nerd culture fandom is the thrill of watching a grand tapestry of imagination unfurl before you. Descender is killing it in this department, pulling readers into a universe where the stakes feel deliciously high from all angles.

When I last checked in with Descender — written by Jeff Lemire with art by Dustin Nguyen and Steve Wands — I left issue #4 with expectations that the series would roll out smaller, more personal storylines around a robot boy's journey to find his lost brother. I caught up with the sci-fi title over the weekend and was thoroughly impressed with how the book's scope is increasing without losing the tension that impressed me in the first few issues.

Descender takes place in a fictional universe that's been rocked by devastating attacks by the Harvesters, planet-dwarfing robots who ravaged the eight major civilised worlds of the United Galactic Council. The series' main character is Tim-21, a companion droid who wakes from a sleep state 10 years after the Harvesters showed up. In the decade following the devastation, societies all over the cosmos are destroying machine life, fearful of a possible link between garden-variety automatons and the gigantic robots that wrecked entire cities. When the UGC discovers a connection between the code that enables the functionality both the Tim series and Harvesters, a no-nonsense soldier and a has-been scientist go off to collect the sole functioning model. Tim-21 only agrees to come with them if they help him find his human "brother" Andy.

If you've been reading, watching or playing a lot of sci-fi for a while, much of Descender will feel familiar. It's got an organics-vs-machine life core conflict with a gigantic looming threat, a central interplanetary alliance fraught with infighting, rival factions that are driven by harsh dogmas and fringe subcultures made up of scavenger bounty-hunters, and a cyborg cult replacing body parts with metal appendages.

However, what make Descender a great read is the level of emotional investment tethering various characters to the subplots and familiar tropes. The messiah role thrust onto Tim-21 — by an A.I. insurgency fighting so that robots everywhere don't get scrapped into oblivion — is the polar opposite of what he wants, which is to reunite with his organic sibling. Meanwhile, Andy's grown up into a heartless bounty hunter who takes on dangerous scraphunting jobs because he hates robots. (His mother died in the Harvester attacks.) Ball-busting commander Telsa isn't just gruff because she's embodying an archetype; she's masking the anxiety that comes with being the daughter of the UGC's human chancellor. Interlocking thematic concerns criss-cross throughout the entire series, pairing up characters with different hatreds and agendas. Watching excavation droid Driller and UGC grunt Tullis bond with each other as they fight their way through gladiator-style deathmatches makes them feel more human. Nguyen's loosely impressionistic rendering and Wand's washed-out colorwork make the proceedings feel warm and human, which has the added effect of ratcheting up the drama. No wonder the series has been optioned by Sony; it's a beautiful galaxy that could unravel at any moment.

Serial entertainments can be cruel things. You're often left not knowing whether narratives are being improvised as they go along, since external forces like ratings and commercial viability can impact longevity. Things can work out when done seat-of-the-pants style. But there's a different kind of pleasure to be had when you get immersed in a fictional construct with secrets, revelations, and connections that feels meticulously planned out. I have no insight into what kind of blueprint Lemire is using for Descender but it feels like a giant jigsaw puzzle that's already been built. He's just pulling the camera out a little bit more with each new issue to let us see how things connect. I sure hope it sticks the landing, whenever it may come.


Comments

    I recently culled my reading list pretty hard (from around 20 series a month down to about six) and found that outside of Birthright and some Marvel/DC core titles that I just dont enjoy comics that much any more.

    Any one know of anything else worth taking a look at for someone that is pretty picky about the artwork and story comes second.

      Check out some manga man.

        I recently picked up Berserk, Gantz, Blue Exorcist, Break Blade, My Hero Academia, Gangsta and Magi.

        My job has a lot of time for light reading, but it has to be stuff I can drop instantly without losing my place and becoming frustrated.

        Last edited 04/07/16 4:09 pm

          Hey, Blame! is my favourite manga I've read. Its mostly following a lone character, adventure as you go kind've deal, barely any dialogue. Does have a world with backstory if you pay attention, and unveils some real meaning towards the end, but its easy to get into for the ride if you want. I couldn't put it down. Maybe check it out see if its you're thing

          If you enjoy the classic manga look, you'll have trouble finding a more polished artist than Ken Akamatsu. I'd recommend Negima! Magister Negi Magi, which is perhaps the most "serious" of his works. Another artist I'd recommend in that vein would be Masakazu Katsura. All of his works are gorgeous to look at, but I'd say the one with the best story is Video Girl AI. Note that both of those artists lay the fanservice a tad thick, in case that would be a consideration.

          On a more realistic type of great manga art, I'd recommend checking Naoki Urusawa and Katsuhiro Otomo. Be careful, though, their stories are often really long and very convoluted, so you kind of have to be into that stuff. I'd recommend Monster by the former and Akira by the latter.

          Saving the most jaw-dropping (in my opinion) manga artist for last, try Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura. It's eye candy of the finest quality.

          Lastly, if you would consider webcomic suggestions, Lackadaisy Cats by Tracy Butler (http://lackadaisy.foxprints.com/) has what I consider the highest level of artistry in comics across all media.

      I highly recommend Saga, Paper Girls and S3x criminals. I read descender and love it, the artwork and story is great. The best comic series atm is definitely Saga however

        I looked at Saga for a while, haven't heard of Paper Girls and the art for Descender doesn't do anything for me sorry.

        Will have to consider two of those three though. Thanks.

      The Metabarons.

      Alejandro Jodorowsky, responsible for that one crazy Dune movie.

      Crazy, beautiful, violent, funny. Metabarons is amazing and you should read it. Same with any other Jodorowsky comment. The Incal is good, but I liked Technopriests and Metabarons more.

      I'd recommend Low, Tokyo Ghost and Monstress if you want good looking books. They're all relatively well-written as well to boot (well Tokyo Ghost starts out pretty hamfisted with its message, but mellows out eventually and goes interesting places).

      I'd say there's a lot more great art around than great stories in comics, and art can be very subjective too...
      Problem is with marvel and DC that for the first arc of a title you'll get awesome art from someone like Steve mcniven, and then they'll sod off and do something else. Their skills are such that they can pick and choose projects.
      So reading books from publishers like image and vertigo etc. is great because of the long runs the team do together which promote a great sense of continuity.
      I mean I dunno if you'd like the art within these comics but I find the stories fantastic ( as well as the art )
      Black science
      Low
      Deadly Class ( ha all by Rick Remender )
      Paper Girls
      Velvet
      Tokyo Ghost
      You were probably already reading Batman by Snyder and Capullo ( their run has now finished unfortunately) but if not pick up the trades, pure eye candy.

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