Descender takes a turn in issue #17 (released just before Christmas last year). This innovative and emotional science fiction comic has spent its past five issues on “singularity” stories, focusing on one character at a time and adding layers of meaning and development to their backstories. Here in issue #17, Jeff Lemire puts all the pieces back together and moves forward into a new story arc, titled “Orbital Mechanics”. Rather than instantly blend all of the storylines, Lemire instead gives us pages with three different stories being told simultaneously in a “split screen” format. Given what we’ve come to expect from Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen as comics creators and storytellers, it should come as no surprise that this potentially distracting and confusing storytelling method comes across as clear, graceful and emotionally satisfying, with the bulk of the issue featuring little to no dialogue. For comics creators with less talent, this style could be a disaster, but in their hands, it sings.
The three major stories are the continuing fight between TIM-21 and TIM-22, Dr. Quon and Captain Telsa’s efforts to escape from the Machine Moon, and a touching, awkward reconciliation between Andy and Effie on the Planet Sampson. All three stories feature themes of redemption, revenge and addressing the consequences of past actions. Quon, for example, has much to apologize for, and the towering collection of grievances that is Telsa only grudgingly tolerates his mere presence. But she also is smart enough to realize that he might be her only way out of the Machine Moon detention facility, as the robots of that moon are organizing for a second Harvester-like attack on the human population of the galaxy. If there is any chance of stopping them, the human governments and authorities must be warned. Necessity forces Telsa to collaborate with the traitor, and their story arc involves a lot of traditional sci-fi tropes, running through corridors, fighting evil robots, just trying to escape from a semi-mechanical antagonist. (I seem to recall seeing that story somewhere before.) But this arc gives the whole issue a forward momentum and a sense of energy. One can almost hear the tense soundtrack as the scenes shift from escape, to brutal hand-to-hand violence and, surprisingly for Descender, eroticism.
The Effie and Andy arc here is the most interesting because it is so different from what we’ve seen before in this comic. The back story from issue #15 is almost essential to understand the significance of what happens here. Effie and Andy were a couple as youths and grew up together. It was the issue of robots and robotics that finally drove them apart, with Andy developing into a rabid anti-mechanical scrapper, and Effie taking the opposite tack, becoming an activist for robot’s rights. But Effie herself is proud of her humanity and while she supports the rights of all intelligent things, she doesn’t want to actually to be mechanical. The ironic twist in issue #15 is that Effie is horribly wounded in an explosion and has to have several body parts replaced with robotic equivalents. That leads her to reject Andy out of hand, but here in issue #17, Andy convinces Effie to enjoy one of the greatest of human pleasures one more time. This is tricky business for a science fiction comic, since cyborg/human sex could easily read as off-putting, but here, Nguyen and Lemire once again shine, giving us the key moments from a passionate sexual encounter that seem sexy, tender and finally heartbreakingly human, as the couple finally pulls their clothes back on with looks of instant regret. This whole sequence reminds us, in a fresh way, of what this series is all about: the relationship between machines and humans, and the complex and subtle dance of power and responsibility that comes along with creating new forms of life. Andy and Effie are a complex couple, but somehow, in all their contradictions, they “fit” together, but can’t sustain that relationship on an emotional level. This imperfect match with many moving parts is a great metaphor for the relationship between many things in our society, gay and straight, male and female, whatever racial or class distinction one cares to make: but somehow we have to fit together, however uncomfortably. Andy and Effie “fit”, even if they don’t really want to. So do Quon and Telsa, for that matter. These characters need each other.
One of several triple-panels in this issue of Descender, showing the three main stories
Which makes it doubly ironic that the characters who most resemble each other (TIM-21 and TIM-22) are simply too similar to share the galaxy. Their fight sequence is based on pure malice and hate; a raw sense of survival, rather than cooperation. TIM-22 literally believes that he must kill his brother, and though TIM-21 doesn’t want to harm the closest thing he has in the universe to a family, he’s ultimately provoked enough to take action. Some part of TIM-21 dies in this issue, just as parts of Effie died in issue #15 (or Driller’s tragic star turn in issue #16), but all our main characters do make it out of immediate danger here, and on to the greater task of escaping from Machine Moon and gearing up for the ultimate struggle between the two galactic forces of technology and intelligence that must find a way to live together.