Thursday, January 07, 2016

Descender, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

We will never get away from the image of the killer robot, despite all of the hard work by Isaac Asimov during his long career. We will always assume, deep down, that any mechanical man secretly wants to kill and destroy, his metal hands running red with our blood. Why should a robot be any better than us, after all? And don't we secretly, in our heart of hearts, have that list (short or long) of people we'd gladly slaughter if we could?

Jeff Lemire turns to writing science fiction for the ongoing comics series Descender, the first six issues of which are collected in the recent Vol. 1: Tin Stars. This is an ongoing series -- clearly modeled somewhat on the Vaughan-Staples Saga, because success always breeds similars -- and so there are only building mysteries, introductions and plot hooks here; any endings or climaxes will be far off in the future if Descender runs like its creators and publishers hope.

And, yes, it is about killer robots. The other kind, too, but let's be honest: murderous robots are more interesting than the mild law-abiding sort every time. (I love Sladek's Tik-Tok in a way that Asimov's Robbie could only dream of.) The main character of Descender is TIM-21, a boy robot in a medium future interstellar society that was mostly peaceful and prosperous under the United Galactic Council...until a fleet of mysterious planet-sized robots [1] later dubbed "Harvesters" devastated that society, killed billions, started a many-sided violent scramble over the cooling ashes, and launched a galaxy-wide pogrom against all of the more normal-sized robots.

TIM-21 wakes up on the remote mining colony where he lived as the companion to a human boy, to find all of the humans dead and the robots torn apart. But wait! His human "brother" might just be alive, somewhere out there in the universe, and so Descender has its first plot spine. (Possibly second, if you grant "what the hell is the deal with the giant killer robots" primacy.) And he's quickly on the run, because his waking up sent a signal to all sorts of people that here is an interesting robot -- some of them want to help him, some of them want to study him, and a lot of them want to destroy him immediately or sell him to other people who want to destroy him.

Luckily, some of the helpful ones get to him first. Well, first-ish. But that doesn't last too long, and by the end of this volume TIM-21 and his set of companions -- grumpy terse destruction machine, once-great robotocist fallen into despair over his Big Secret, blue-skinned female Hard As Nails military type and her brick of a sidekick -- are in the hands of the faction that most hates robots in the whole galaxy.

So this is moving pretty quickly, at least in the sense of events adding up. But a galaxy is a big place, so I'm sure Descender could find planets and mysterious habitats and giant killer robots enough to keep TIM-21's adventures going for a long time.

This story is a departure from what I know of Lemire's work -- giving the big caveat that I've never read his superhero stories, just his generally depressive indy-comics stories -- and shows clearly the Saga influence. The characters are crisply drawn and only slightly cliched, and they have a big, complex universe to bounce around in. Lemire also is willing to damage his characters early and often, which isn't seen in big adventure stories like this, so I expect the status quo will change repeatedly and radically as this goes on.

I'm less familiar with the work of Dustin Nguyen, who illustrated this book -- to my eye, he's working directly in paint, with a watercolor look and only limited ink-work underneath or on top. He's clearly got chops, though, and depicts all of the strange things that Lemire throws at him and uses his color washes to convey mood and time well. His work isn't quite as supple and distinctive as Fiona Staples on Saga, but he could get there before too long, and his style gives him a lot of technical advantages in telling a story like this.

Descender is soft SF, of course -- comics never touch the hard stuff -- but it's smart and knowledgeable for comics SF, and is telling its particular story well. I look forward to seeing what else TIM-21 can find in his big galaxy.

[1] Who are not at all like the Celestials, so forget that entirely. Also, is there a size at which a humanoform mechanical being stops being a "robot" and starts being a spaceship, or space station, or or something else? Because the size of a planet seems really close to that line, if not over it.

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