Descender vol. 1 review

descenderbg3Worth it if you are a Lemire or Nguyen fan, enjoy reading robot/galaxy travel-themed science fiction for kicks, and don’t mind a frequent déjà vu feeling. 

No spoilers beyond some story elements from issue #1.

+ The story in Descender is consistent and engaging, caveats notwithstanding. The UGC is a galactic federation of planets in a world filled with and largely dependent on robotics and robots. One day gigantic, planet-sized robots turn up at all the system’s nine planets and wreck havoc, leaving much of the world in disarray, only to disappear without a trace soon after.

Since the giants, now called Harvesters, were robots, eradication of robots of all kinds within the galaxy follows, attesting to the eternal charm of prejudice and mass violence in civilization. But where did the Harvesters go? Will they return, and what then? The UGC sets out to prepare.

Meanwhile, ten years after the attack a companion boy-robot, Tim-21, wakes up from his long hibernation to find the mining colony where he was assigned all silent, and the crew, including his assigned family, all dead. And then he finds that everybody’s after him for some reason. Now why would that be?

+ Character design and page layout/ panel arrangement are impeccable. It’s veterans bringing us this title. Shut up, Milla Jovovich’s character from Fifth Element! We know you had red hair, too. Geez!

+ Driller is a cool, unpretentious supporting character. His interactions with the dog-bot are genuinely funny at times. And who doesn’t need a friend with a head screwed on right, and a bodyguard at that, in a world gone to shit? Maybe he’s a key to get us to care more about Tim-21? Because until the end of volume one Tim-21 is sort of, well, just there. An emotional core of the story is still lacking. It may be on the horizon, but six issues in it’s still not quite there yet. “Little robot, big universe?” Flesh it out more, please.

+ The dialogue is mostly unforced and not overdone, and only seldom steps into cliché territory. There isn’t too much dialogue altogether and the story is effectively told though image as much as words. This is great and plays to the strengths of the comic form.
screenshot_2015-06-11-08-02-462 – Image Comics, the comic’s corporate publisher, suggests Descender to mature readers. But the only thing that really makes the point warranted is the occasional display of violence. Mass robot extermination, even if we’re to care for their fate as sentient, is way in the background. Other than that, there’s nothing in volume one that an, umm, “immature” reader won’t be able to grasp. And that’s not exactly good.

– Unfortunately, Descender is too clearly derivative in the concepts it uses. This is something hard to avoid when hundreds and thousands SF titles saturate the comic storytelling market, but this one still feels too recycled for an “original” story. Tim-21 is little Osment in Spielberg’s AI. Driller is not just a killer. He’s a Transformer. Like Optimus Prime’s cousin. Harvesters are Mass Effect’s Reapers. UGC is Mass Effect’s Citadel and the nine planets are something like the different races of Mass Effect’s universe’s UN-like organization. (And I thought Mass Effect itself was already a hodge-podge of generic sci-fi.) The problematic of robotic sentience is likewise standard SF fare by now. And so on, probably, for those who care to look for these things.

+ Still, the way Descender’s derivative elements are combined doesn’t piss one off. These elements are just there and if you don’t think about their origin too much, chances are you’ll have fun with the way they’re put together.

– Some of the Telsa and Quon-centered stuff can be just run-of-the-mill “OK, this needs to be included in a galactic SF story,” but maybe it’d be worth making sure. Maybe it doesn’t. Telsa especially feels like a token character. While you may need those, she gets way too much space for that.

– Dustin Nguyen’s art is stylish and smooth and pretty “whoa,” but his touch is a bit too delicate for the heavier tonal elements Lemire was going for with the story. I love Nguyen’s pencil-watercolor combination, and total kudos for cutting down on computer use in a digital-ridden age. It’s just the dominant whites fail to give the comic’s world the gravity it needs. The lightness makes things look clinical and sterile, but more saturation would help fill in the contours. And not necessarily literally.

Writing and drawing these things can be hectic, but in the end I would have preferred Lemire’s more raw and free graphic feel for the volume (see a chunk from his variant cover just below). On the other hand, maybe Nguyen’s take on Descender’s universe takes more than one read-through to get used to. The first time around it felt too much like an eerie dream.

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+ Finally, though, where do we stand having read this volume? Gonna read the next one? Sure, why not. We know from the galaxy’s explanatory charts that the world was planned carefully and deeply enough to give us much more content, and much of it has been left unexplored in volume one. Plus there’s a nice cliffhanger at the end.

Plus it’s Lemire, though I can’t yet figure out if his reputation is not part-built on hype. Then again, what isn’t?

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