The organic life versus robotics battle is almost as old as the science fiction genre itself. Rogue A.I’s, malicious computers, global war — it’s all been done before. So why exactly should you read Descender #1, a comic series that starts with this timeworn conflict? Well for starters, artist Dustin Nguyen simply awes with his sprawling two-page scenes, and writer Jeff Lemire has already answered for us the question at the forefront of our minds: what defines life?
The first issue opens on the planet Niyrata, the technological hub of the universe. This is very much the science fiction future we’re accustomed to; bright and clean, a diverse population, flying cars. The serenity of the world is quickly broken though by a massive machine looming above the planet’s surface; introduced in dramatic fashion with one of Nguyen’s two-page spreads, he immediately captures the tension of the scene unfolding before us. In stark contrast to the ethereal glow of Niyrata’s cities, this machine is dark and ominous, with a fire burning in its eyes.
Nguyen uses this dual page artistic technique a few more times throughout the issue and each one does its part conveying a vibrant sense of emotion within the reader. The title page is abrupt and bright, like a movie’s opening (which makes sense given that the series has already been optioned by Sony); when Tim-21, a boyish android awakens to an empty mining colony, the feeling of isolation Nguyen is able to evoke is unsettling. These massive scenes captivate the eyes and propel the reader’s connection to the narrative forward in ways no words could ever achieve.
That being said, Lemire doesn’t skimp on storytelling. The most interesting character in this issue is young Tim who, when first introduced, resembled nothing more than a human boy. While I was surprised his reaction to waking up to an empty colony wasn’t more drastic, Lemire uses subtlety in word choice to present a very organic character before ever revealing he isn’t human. When Tim is exploring the empty base, he loses contact with the computer for a brief period of time. In this moment, Lemire captures everything we would be thinking in a similar situation, the fear of losing contact with the only thing that is answering you. You can almost hear the precariousness in his voice as it echoes around the desolate space. Really, some truly great panels.
Despite an interesting protagonist and a few cliffhangers toward the close of the issue, two of the most striking pieces of exposition in Descender were also two of the smallest. The first, came in the caption that read, “Current population: 1” when Tim awakes in the mining colony; and the second, after he fixes his “dog,” a robot named Bandit: “Current population: 2.” The issue covers the growing conflict with robots after the events on Niyrata, but what it also does so craftily is tell us which side of the fight we should stand on. Tim-21, though an android, is sentient. His fears and his optimism are the same traits that would define life, and it’s his humanity that makes the future of this story more compelling than just an age old plot device.
Some very interesting and mysterious developments rounded out #1, enough to make me stick around for at least another issue or two. Not to mention Lemire leaves us with descriptions of the remaining planets in the United Galactic Council, hopefully foreshadowing we’ll get to visit all of them through Nguyen’s artful pages in books to come.
For those who may have missed this sci-fi epic the first time around, Descender #1 has a 2nd printing arriving April 1. And Descender #2 hits shelves April 8. The series is written by Jeff Lemire and illustrated by Dustin Nguyen, published by Image Comics.
Disclosure notice: I received one digital copy of this issue from the publisher for review purposes only.