Last month I posed the question: why should you read Descender #1? The story, so clearly rooted in science fiction traditions, seemed like it could easily become just another A.I. narrative — a quest for humanity from the perspective of a synthetic robot. Although the beautiful art of Dustin Nguyen was above and beyond a selling point for the first issue, I was holding onto hope that writer Jeff Lemire would elevate this plot beyond cliche. With the release of Descender #2 this month, I ask a different question: if you haven’t started this series yet, why not?
*Spoilers for Issues 1 & 2 follow, read at your own discretion*
Issue #2 of the limited series begins where the first ended. Tim-21, the young android, has come face to face with the bounty hunters tracking him; he and Bandit, his “pet” robot dog, attempt to escape using any means necessary. If the first issue’s intent was to awe visually (which it succeeded in doing) this issue’s focus is on how we perceive the characters of this story. Although Tim-21 seems to be just a boy, he’s not, and that’s something Lemire seeks to remind us of in this issue.
As Tim runs from his pursuers, we’re treated to both realtime events as well as flashbacks, presented in two page spreads. My first review covered how dramatic the effect of using two pages had in relation to the art, but in this issue the emotional response is much more subdued. Courtesy of Steve Wands who letters and designs the series, contrasting Tim’s current plight with his origin story makes for a strong empathetic connection between readers and the robot. Within the flashbacks, we see Tim and Dr. Quon interact for the very first time and we learn that Tim was designed to be a companion for a human boy, Andy Tavers, traveling to the mining colony with his mother. From the start of these flashbacks, Tim appears to grasp things beyond his programming. He questions Dr. Quon about family, and wonders why he won’t be asleep along with the other humans making the journey. In both instances, Dr. Quon almost harshly reminds Tim that he’s a robot, and doesn’t have family or need sleep. While Dr. Quon’s explanations make sense logically, they evoke a different response from readers who start to see Tim’s relationship with Ms. Tavers grow through flashbacks as well as his will to survive in current time. The most jarring example of juxtaposition comes on pages 13 and 14. In flashbacks, Tim saves Andy from a near death experience and Ms. Tavers expresses thanks and compassion by hugging Tim tightly. Nguyen captures Tim’s reaction perfectly, in an expression that is so distinctly human it’s enough to make you cry. Tim looks as if he’s finally found a home. Cut to present time; while Tim runs through the mines looking for a place to hide, he stumbles onto the dead body of Ms. Tavers, uttering in shock: “M-Mommy?”
There is no way you cannot empathize with Tim and this is where Descender separates itself from the surfeit of other sci-fi tales of a similar theme. Lemire’s robots aren’t human, and yet his writing and Nguyen’s art paint for us a different picture. Highlighted throughout the issue in the flashback scenes, Tim’s memories aren’t archival units brought up with precision. Rather, they’re painted as overlapping moments, blending into one another without delineation, with perspectives ranging from omniscient to first person. Think back to a memory from your childhood; how do you see it? This isn’t the story of how an android “learned” to be human, this is the organic blossoming of a new species, with thoughts as real as any of ours but without the dependency on us as creators teaching emotional response. This is no better depicted than at the close of this issue. Tim is cornered by the bounty hunters deep within the mines; with no options left, he shoots a plasma beam right through the leader of the group. In both surprise and retaliation, one of the bounty hunters fires on Tim, effectively killing him, as his system struggles to back up memories before it fails. Before the bounty hunters can make it from the mines, they are attacked by one of the “drillers,” a machine that slowly comes alive before their eyes. Having killed the bounty hunters, the Driller stands with Tim in his arms repeating “[I] don’t know what to do…”.
If the first issue made us wonder what’s in a man, Descender #2 certainly ups the ante for the next round, describing sentience in a completely unique way, while leaving more unanswered questions looming for future issues: how exactly are these machines coming to life, and why is Tim the key?
Descender is written by Jeff Lemire, with art by Dustin Nguyen, and lettered and designed by Steve Wands. Issue #3 hits shelves, May 6; published by Image Comics.