All of the characters in Descender (with the possible exception of the TIMs) have an undercurrent of rage and confusion. Their world changed so dramatically, and so quickly, with the Harvester attack that it re-drew the lines of society in a profound way. In some ways, there are parallels with the Trump phenomenon: those humans who were inclined to hate robots and held their tongue now felt empowered to go full-out with their hate. Those robots who were mistreated and abused by humans felt free to lash out, even though it goes against the very core of their programming. Now the social lines are as divergent as they can possibly be, with anti-human and anti-robot camps stewing on different planets, gearing up for the big showdown. We’ve explored this theme with Andy, Telsa, TIM and even Bandit, but here we get the final “singularity” issue, which features fan-favourite Driller, and brings all the issues that this comic explores into sharp focus.
From the very start, Driller’s catchphrase has been “Driller is a real killer,” which previously read as funny and even endearing, because Driller is just a Drilling robot, a brute with a heart of gold. The idea of such a good-natured simpleton (think a robotic Lennie from Of Mice and Men) being pushed too far and lashing out (think…. heck, a robotic Lennie from Of Mice and Men) is a time-honoured way to build character-based tragedy. And by the end of issue #16, that’s where we wind up with Driller. He’s a real killer.
We spend most of this issue standing witness to the building of the mining colony on Dirishu, where Andy and TIM spend Andy’s childhood. Driller and another robot, Scooper (guess what he does) work tirelessly for years to create the caverns and tunnels necessary for the colony to extract the valuable minerals. They are supervised by Henry Tusk, hitting all the notes one would expect from a slave driver in Antebellum America. He’s mean, disrespectful, uncaring of his “workers’” well-being (at one point, Scooper falls ill and is forced to work on) and generally abusive and selfish. The life Scooper and Driller live is grim, to say the least.
Jeff Lemire is too good a writer to make this a cartoonish story in which the humans are horrible and the robots simply snap and react. Driller is responsible for at least one death, but that scene comes as other lethal forces are bearing down on the colony. The last panel, featuring Andy looking pensive, does imply that Driller feels some culpability for the death of his mother, even if he isn’t directly responsible. That ups the dramatic stakes for the character while still giving us enough ambiguity to retain sympathy for the giant robot.
Descender always explores, among other themes, the responsibility that humans have towards the intelligent life they create (carbon-based or not), and the responsibility that life has towards humans. Given that theme, this issue, and this whole “singularity” arc, has done much to render out our main characters with more shades of grey and positioned them well to move on to the next, presumably more plot-driven arc. But that issue of responsibility, almost filial or parental responsibility, and how circumstances force characters to break with it, is front and centre in this issue, making the phrase, “Driller is a real killer,” equal parts tragedy and charm.