Comic Book Review: Descender #1 and #2 (Heavy Spoilers)
Descender #1 and #2
Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen
Written by Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth) and penciled by Dustin Nguyen (American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares), Descender is Image Comics’ newest blockbuster. Space-operatic in nature, Descender defies precise categorization only two issues in as it is quite grand in scope. Sony has already optioned it for film production. Set in a universe where nine unique worlds – called the “core planets” – and races (including human descendants) live under the rule of the United Galactic Council, the path has been neatly paved for a galactic drama ripe with debates about the nature of AI, political underpinnings, and classic sci-fi action. At the core of such grand ideas is a little robot boy named Tim-21 and his robot dog, Bandit.
The story opens with Dr. Jin Quon, father of robotics and AI, on the capitol of the core planets shortly before giant robots known as Harvesters appear and lay waste to the capitol and the other nine core planets. Cut to ten years later, Tim-21 awakes on an abandoned mining colony and finds, to his horror, that everyone he knew has been killed. As he uplinks to, lets call it the extranet, he learns of the disaster wrought by the Harvesters and the fanatical hatred for robots and AI the attack bread. A mixed-race group known as Scrappers, contracted by the United Galactic Council, exists for the sole purpose of destroying all surviving AI units and harvesting their processors.
Issue #1 ends with the Scrappers’ arrival on the mining colony as Tim-21 and Bandit flee for their lives and issue #2 succeeds in performing half of a heart transplant on its readers. The beautifully Nguyen-illustrated issue tells two stories concurrently: the left page panels show Tim-21 as he runs for his life while the right page panels tell the heart-wrenching story of just how Tim-21 came to be. As he escapes the Scrappers’ initial attempt to seize him, he begins an attempt to back up his memory: a pretty young woman who was a miner on the barren moon, purchased Tim-21 to play with and entertain her son, Andy. Tim-21 quickly assimilated, becoming a beloved member of the small family, before – just after being put to bed by his mother – a tragic mining accident befell the colony. Poisonous gas killed Tim-21’s mother and, we are led to believe, everyone else on the colony. We also learn what has attracted the Scrappers’ attention so quickly when it is revealed that the digital fingerprint on Tim-21’s codex is, well dammit, identical to that of the Harvesters and was spotted the moment he created a link to the off-world network. Saved from death at the hands of the Scrappers by a hitherto dormant mining robot, Tim-21 lies unconscious with his memories destroyed while Dr. Quon, having survived the harvester attack 10 years earlier, dispatches the robots with whom he lives in hiding to Tim-21’s location.
The story we’ve seen is emotionally rich and the artwork is phenomenal. The coloring conveys an emotional depth equivalent to the plot and enriches the story line in ways that are not easily articulated. The bareness of the wasted mining colony stands in stark contrast to the vibrant colors of the pre-disaster capitol and the warmth of Tim-21’s memories. The characters themselves are emotive and real and it is not lost on the reader that Tim-21, a robot, possesses far more empathy than the organics who hunt him. Though the concept of an AI’s right to life is well-worn territory, Descender takes the argument a step farther, beyond the argument of sentience. Much of the AI genre exists upon the fundamental precept that, if a machine does not wish to be shut off, it has expressed the most fundamental human characteristic of self-preservation and ceases to be “artificial.” Descender has moved beyond this comfortable argument and it examines the attachment that develops between an AI and its “masters” though the more appropriate and emotionally evocative term within the context of the story is “family.”
Tim-21 has lost his family and exists in a universe where he is largely despised. Readers, who will be left emotionally incapacitated as Tim-21 calls out for his “Mommy,” will form an immediate emotional attachment to the character just as his mother and brother did. Issue #2 ends on a devastating cliffhanger and, already, we pray that Tim-21’s kindly (though slightly indifferent) creator will be able to restore his cherished memories.
Descender #3 available May 6th by Image Comics.
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