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 civilized 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 scifi 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.