Descender Vol. 2 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen tells you right from the front cover what this volume is about: seeing inside the robots. The cover is a gorgeous illustration of empathetic companion robot Tim-21 with all of his gears and metal exposed and the front and back leaves show the human-like outer profile of the TIM-series superimposed on their metallic skeleton.
The story follows the Hardwire, a rebel robot collective who take TIM-21, Telsa, and Quon into their custody, and show us the inner workings of the hidden robot society. It’s not entirely about the robots, though – we also meet a scrapper who hunts down robots for bounties. That scrapper is Andy, TIM-21’s human brother, and TIM-21 is his new bounty. From the first chapter of this volume, I (once again) loved the artwork and the space opera/post-apocalyptic mash-up story and world, and I was hooked by the new storylines.
I can’t talk about Descender without first talking about how much I love the art. I have to get that out of the way first, because otherwise I’ll just keep returning to it. Nguyen’s scratchy, imprecise line art paired with gorgeous watercolors are a great visual schema for this world – the sketchy feel matches the history of the world, because it’s full of places and creatures both beautiful and strange; it’s a technologically advanced civilization recovering from near-destruction. For landscapes and many scenes in high-technology areas, he forgoes a lot of the lines and emphasizes the fluidity of the watercolors, creating a light, clean feel that contrasts well with the deliberate ragged clutter of cities and ruins. His choice in color palettes plays into that, too: the robot home world gets light colors with only one or two colors in varying shades that play up the texture and whiteness of the page; a ruined planet gets many saturated colors, creating chaos. The character designs are also very cool, from Telsa’s bright red hair and blue skin to the many alien species who are throwbacks to the covers of pulp science fiction novels.
After a slightly slower first volume that takes time to establish the world and TIM-21’s relationship to the Harvesters as the last remaining model of the line of robots that many believe brought the Harvesters’ destruction upon the galaxy, this second volume takes off quickly. With every step, it launches the story into higher-stakes territory. TIM-21, Telsa, and Quon are taken to the Hardwire homeworld – a place that shouldn’t exist in a galaxy where robots are outlawed – and separated from Driller, Mr. Tillus, and TIM’s pet-bot. The latter group doesn’t get as much page time in this volume, though I can’t complain too much because Driller and the pet-bot got a bit annoying last time, and Mr. Tillus rarely says anything anyway. Telsa is sure that the Hardwire are scheming, Quon (true to his robot-obsessed nature) is more trusting, and TIM-21 just wants to find Andy.
Which is convenient, because Andy wants to find TIM-21. I was initially skeptical when Andy was introduced early in this volume. I didn’t believe he could have survived the plague that killed his mother, and I thought the story, centered around TIM-21’s desire to find Andy, would suffer from revealing him so early. Andy’s journey, though, takes the reader to some strange new places and introduces an interesting set of characters who blend the organic and robotic together, which is ripe for conflict in a world where the organic species denounce robots and the robots feel pretty similarly about the organics.
There aren’t many clues to the larger story about the Harvesters, their origin, and their purpose in this volume, but the story is definitely building there. In the meantime, we learn more about various factions and building tensions between them, and there is a series of separate but increasingly dramatic reveals in the last chapter that demand the reader come back for more. It was particularly interesting to get the aforementioned insight into the Hardwire society. They seem to have made quite a comfortable life for themselves despite the organics’ best efforts to wipe them out. Of particular interest is Psuis’s apparent belief in some sort of robot afterlife – first in terms of a massive backup of all the AIs destroyed by humans, and then, curiously, as a truly non-physical existence. It makes you wonder whether this is tied back to the Harvesters after all.
The cast is getting bigger, but there’s little need for many of the characters and less time to spend developing each character’s identity. Many of these secondary characters crowd into the same niche and could do with a little more differentiation. Andy’s alien buddy Blugger is fairly unnecessary; he only serves to give Andy information and a tracking device that gets Andy to characters we already know – who can then give Andy that same information, and a more useful tracking device. Other characters simply aren’t given a lot of time (so far), like Psius’s underlings and the whole cast of characters at the UGC, so while they serve some purpose they could use some more fleshing out.
My other big qualm with this volume is that the dialogue got trite in the later chapters. This is related to the problems with character, because characters feel like tropes when they are simply vehicles of the plot with no motivation of their own, and that’s both reflected in and an effect of the dialogue – the characters say what the plot needs them to say, and don’t have a voice of their own. There’s a lot of potential in the relationships Lemire and Nguyen have created between their characters, but it’s hard to believe in the characters, to get caught up in their motivations and problems, when they’re saying things we’ve heard a hundred times before.
Telsa says of her father that he “never wanted me to join the UGC. And no one else ever took me seriously. They thought I’d been handed everything. Truth is, I had to work twice as hard to make captain.” Another character says, elsewhere: “I know we didn’t end things on good terms. And — and I don’t think I’ll ever understand why you chose to live your life this way.” I’m sure I’ve heard those exact phrases in other books, shows, and movies. It’s fine to tap into those narratives, but it’s also important to ground them in specificity, to tie those tropes back to individuals with a particular voice, motivation, and perspective to get the reader invested.
Descender Vol. 2 is a solid follow-up to the first volume, and certainly kicks the story up several notches while steadily building the world and mythology. The characters could use a little more life, but they’re not bad, and I will certainly come back for more.
- Beautiful watercolor art with excellent color choices
- Fun world-building
- An intriguing, fast-paced space opera story
- A few too many characters and too little character development
- Characters and dialogue can be trite