In the second issue of Descender, the focus is on the robot boy, Tim, rather than our human protagonist, Dr Quon. While it might seem like Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen are borrowing too heavily from science fiction archetypes (the robot boy, the exotic band of mercenaries, the post-apocalyptic human space civilization and a direct nod to Mass Effect), they handle it with such grace and elegance that it transcends. Nguyen in particular outdoes himself here, with beautiful full-page splashes and imaginative use of colour and perspective, all done in a beautiful, delicate style. Even the violence (and there is some of that here) has a elegant beauty about it.
Lemire takes the daring step of making this issue tell a very short, very contained story in the “present day”, while using repeated flashbacks to establish backstory for Tim. It’s a great way to establish and embellish the world he and Nguyen are creating.
In terms of plot, the essential points are repeated on the title page. Robots called Harvesters appeared and laid waste to humanity’s colonies. It turns out that their “codex”, which is sort of like their operating system, was the same as one used by Dr Jin Quon in his line of robots for the family, including TIM-21. The fact that Tim carries the Harvester codex makes him a target for wandering bands of mercenaries called “Scrappers”, who roam the galaxy destroying any trace of Harvesters.
Tim had just woken up on an abandoned mining base, found his trusty “pet-bot” named Bandit and was just learning about his situation when a group of Scrappers landed on the mining moon and started hunting him. This is the image that sets the tone for the main narrative of the story: a small boy and his dog hiding from angry, monstrous men with big guns.
The parallel narrative here is a replay of all of Tim’s memories from the moment he was activated by Dr Quon, before the original Harvester attack. Nguyen uses the opportunity to produce the afore-mentioned gorgeous splash pages, rendered in subtle slightly sepia-tinted black and white, as opposed to the blue-black-white colour motif of the “present day” story arc.
These sequences show that Tim’s acquisition of self-awareness was a magical, gradual process from his perspective, and that right from the start he was a curious but emotionally fragile little boy. His adopted family on the mining moon gave him a home and family and love, but he always felt a special bond with Dr Quon. In one significant (and deeply philosophical) exchange, Tim asks, “Aren’t you my father?” To which Quon replies, laughing, “No, I’m your creator.” At moments like this, Descender approaches the heights of a classic work of science fiction literature. The subject is made even more interesting by the fact that Tim doesn’t really have a human “father” on the moon, but only a “mother” and siblings. This leaves a great deal of emotional and narrative space to be explored between Quon and Tim that promises to be an important aspect of the series at it continues.
The relationship between Robots and Humanity appears to be a major concern of the comic, full-stop. It was the Harvesters that created such a problem in the first place, but their technology came from somewhere, perhaps even from Dr Quon (unwittingly). Then there’s the interesting relationship between Quon and Tim, but we should also consider the relationship of the Scrappers to robots in general. The Scrappers are typical sci-fi villains, with cobbled-together technology, lack of true loyalty to each other and an preoccupation only with money and profit. (This archetype is borrowed whole from Westerns, incidentally.) To them, robots are just machines that can make them money. But Lemire introduces another robot, late in this story, whose involvement I won’t spoil, but the whole sequence adds another wrinkle of meaning.
The relationship between the individual robots seems interesting as well, such as the relationship between Tim and his “dog”, but the issue ends with a powerful image of two robots feeling sympathy for each other in the face of aggressive humans. It isn’t difficult to imagine that perhaps it was that sort of dynamic that, years ago, led to the rise of the Harvesters. But that’s idle speculation.
By focusing on relationships and philosophy rather than conflict (although there’s ample conflict), Lemire taps into that deep root of science fiction literature. Descender is developing into a very promising work.