In its latest issue, #18, Descender gets back to business, driving the plot of this story forward after taking some time to develop the characters in recent issues. This issue is classic space opera science fiction. Fans of Star Wars will find much to enjoy, but even when Descender uses a conventional structure, the quality of the storytelling and the expert use of the comics medium allows it to rise above the fray.
The main event happening in this issue is escape. Split into two camps, our main characters are both escaping imminent danger (which is probably why this issue is so reminiscent of the first two acts of The Force Awakens). On Sampson, Blugger, Andy, Effie, Bandit, Driller and Telsa’s old mentor Officer Tullis are running to escape a Dune-style giant worm. And on the Machine Moon, Telsa, Quon and TIM-21 have to steal a ship and escape, not unlike the escape from the Death Star. Interspersed between those events are sequences set in the UGC council, where the we’re reminded of the larger political consequences of the ongoing conflict between humans and robots.
There are several spolierific plot developments in this issue that we won’t reveal here, but suffice to say that one of them readers likely didn’t see coming, one of them significantly raises the political stakes and the third, alas, is a bit obvious. This might be the first time that Descender was somewhat predictable, but the predictability of the twist doesn’t take too much away from its effectiveness. This is, for all its innovativeness, a book set in a specific genre and it can be forgiven for occasionally succumbing to the tropes of that genre.
The effect of the previous arc, in which each character received their own issue for a significant portion of their backstory, is to give these new sequences more emotional depth, and muddy the waters of the conflict to a certain extent. It isn’t as simple as “humans vs robots”, as Andy (supposedly a vehemently anti-robot scrapper) is searching for TIM-21, and the supposedly anti-robot UGC is betraying some of its own anti-technology principles in order to get an upper hand in the continuing war. Credit must be given to Jeff Lemire for a commitment to narrative complexity in a genre that doesn’t always welcome it.
As usual, Dustin Nguyen outdoes himself here, creating an almost abstract, minimalist space where scenes often take place in front of empty backgrounds of white or pastels, but still suggesting the vastness of various planetary terrains. The scenes set on the UGC homeworld are reminiscent of the opening sequence of the original Superman, its minimalism lending additional weight to the words being spoken by sombre authority figures. Descender, like all great space opera, includes lots of unnecessary complexity in its backgrounds, conjuring a complete and different universe from our own, in which many different stories could be taking place. That Nguyen could establish that space, all while carving out a distinctive, uncluttered look and feel to the panels, is a real achievement.
The big twists, one of which comes right at the end of this issue, provide enough narrative momentum for the next few issues to capitalize on their energy and heighten the already rich science fiction adventure narrative that Descender celebrates like few other works, in any medium.