It’s becoming clear what Descender is really about as we reach issue #3, and the good news is that it’s about something very interesting. This is really a story about “descent” in the biological sense of the word, and a contemplation of how much of one’s personal identity is influenced by genetics, and how much by upbringing and surroundings. This is all played out in a story about robots, of course, but the metaphors are very thinly disguised, and made all the more transparent in this issue.
There’s also another metaphor, operating no less powerfully, which is far more familiar to comics fans: that of power and responsibility. In this case, the power is that to create life itself (whether than be through robotic or biological means) and the question is that of how much responsibility an individual bears for the actions of that newly-created life. This is an elaborate recapitulation of the basic parental responsibility, but here it takes on an interesting and apocalyptic twist.
The two main characters here are Dr Quon, who we saw in the previous issue only in flashbacks, and the robot boy Tim, who in the previous issue had just been saved from destruction by a giant utility robot helpfully named “Driller”. (Guess what he does?) Both are in fairly immediate danger through this whole sequence, with Quon being held responsible for a major civilization-damaging catastrophe (for which he already blames himself) and Tim being hunted by bands of anti-robot pirates. Here the two protagonists finally share some panel time, in the “present day” timeline, and we get a sense of where the story is going to go from here.
Jeff Lemire’s writing remains heartfelt and has a rare and welcome sense of human drama among all the science fiction ideas. A scene between Dr Quon and Captain Tesla, who appeared to take him from his poverty and ruin to investigate the possibility of his harvester codex winding up in Tim, is an effective three-page dramatic exchange, relying on character and idea rather than visuals. It’s to be complimented in any kind of comic, especially a science fiction comic.
But Dustin Nguyen’s work continues to astonish. The way he uses colour in this issue, representing a mental interior with pinks and shades of grey and a quasi-organic design motif that evokes the inside of a brain, is one among deft touches. His use of selective detail (faces fully rendered, backgrounds sometimes sketched) is also wonderful, and he even gives little Tim a moment that Dr. Manhattan would be proud of.
In a way not really tackled since the days of Asimov and Philip K. Dick, this comic explores the internal life of robots. When Tim asks Dr Quon at the end of this issue about the meaning of his dream, and Quon responds that robots can’t dream, we’re right back in 2001 territory, and with no less commitment to genre. Artificial Intelligence, as a literary genre, allows us to explore questions of consciousness and moral responsibility, because it allows intelligence to stand apart from humanity and comment on it. There’s a scene about mid-way through when Tim encounters another robot, who explains that they were all destroyed by the Scrappers, bands of humans that wander the galaxy destroying robots after the destruction of the attack of the Harvesters. “Why?” Tim asks, as he and all the rest of the robots are portrayed very much as innocents, as servants who were just trying to do their jobs. “Because they were hurt and wanted to hurt something back,” the other robot says, an observation many humans would not have been capable of making. It isn’t a new storytelling device by any means, but it’s interesting and effective when the machines in a story are more human than the humans.
That is, except for Dr Quon, who is also something of an innocent (at least, with regards to how his codex got into the Harvesters) and has a sympathy for the robots not shared by his captors and certainly not shared by the Scrappers. As someone who knows just how complex these machines are, and how much empathy they were designed to evoke in humans (he designed them that way), Quon’s approach is more nuanced. He even tolerates the barking pet-bot, whose “arfs” populate the whole issue. The final splash page is somewhat typical of this sort of story, with Quon acting in good faith, getting Tim going again, Tim acting in good faith, just trying to survive, and the other two characters scowling judgementally at both of them, pushing them for answers they simply don’t have.
After three issues, I, along with many other readers I’m sure, am very much “on side” with Tim and Quon and wonder what sorts of adventures await them, and more importantly, what sorts of revelations about the nature of intelligence, morality and empathy await in the coming issues of Descender.