One of Descender’s strongest themes has always been the notion of robots having souls — sometimes souls more pure and more sensitive than the flesh and blood humans that surround them. Our central robot character, TIM-21, may look like a little boy, but in his heart (or his “codex”, to mention the ongoing Macguffin of the series) he’s blessed with astonishing strength and enough power to be a deadly threat. He wouldn’t ever use that power, of course, or so goes the logic of the character, because he’s such an obedient, friendly, good sort of person. In this latest issue, #12, we are treated to a glimpse into the history of his twin brother TIM-22, and the dark circumstances that have prompted him, from time to time, to show just how powerful these robots with the same codex as the Harvesters can really be.
Those following the series will remember that issue #11 ended with a cliffhanger fight between TIM-21 and TIM-22 just getting off the ground. The biological people (Dr Quon and the biomechanical alien Captain Telsa) are being used as a human sacrifice by the robots on Machine Moon to the Harvesters themselves. (We don’t actually see these characters in this issue, but it’s a fair guess that they aren’t having a good day.) TIM-22 has led his “brother” down into the depts of Machine Moon and challenged him to a deadly fight, offering only the most simple-minded of explanations (sibling rivalry, basically). TIM-22 is selfish, and crafty, and more than a bit evil, whereas TIM-21 is still the sensitive and sweet kid we’ve come to know. So, the fight sequence is basically an examination of bullying, with TIM-22 using all the methods at his disposal to hurt his counterpart, and TIM-21 mostly running away.
Interspersed with that “present day” scenario is a fascinating bit of backstory for TIM-22. Unlike TIM-21, who spent his working years with Andy, who loved him, TIM-22 has to live with (and protect) a grumpy and abusive old man, who locks him in a closet and puts out cigarettes on his face. All the while, TIM has to keep his cool in this environment, stay obedient and docile, and most of all not fight back against a human he could easily kill. As this storyline goes on, we get some very telling hints about TIM’s relationship with the Harvesters, which is after all the whole reason for him being a valuable model, not only to the robot lords of Machine Moon, but the human authorities as well.
Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, of course, do their usual super jobs of bringing the story to life. Nguyen’s work stands out this month, particularly because he has to portray some fairly subtle emotions on TIM-22’s face as he endures most of the horrible events told here with a quiet strength and a growing rage, given full release when he finally attacks his brother. (The change in hair colour from black in the early scenes to orange in the later ones helps us tell the two otherwise identical boys apart. And, though it merits a longer discussion, we should at least note that black and red, along with white and pale blue, are the major colours used in all the panels of this comic, constituting a recognizable and distinct artistic palette.)
There are many more storylines and characters to catch up with, but issue #12 of Descender is remarkable in its restraint, focusing almost entirely on building one character, TIM-22, so we can understand his motivations in later scenes. This deliberate and novelistic approach to storytelling is one of the the things that keeps us coming back to this superb series each month.