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Descender is the best new comic book of 2015

Descender #1
Descender #1
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Over the past couple of years, no one's stock in the comic book industry has risen faster than that of writer-artist Jeff Lemire. Working under an exclusive contract with DC, Lemire had been building up his portfolio with work on titles like Animal Man, Justice League Dark, Green Arrow, and his critically acclaimed comic Sweet Tooth.

That contract is now history.

At New York Comic-Con in October, Marvel announced Lemire would put his own spin on its beloved Hawkeye series, and earlier this year, he announced After Death, a new project with fellow star, writer Scott Snyder.

And if Descender, his latest project with artist Dustin Nguyen, is any indication of what's next, then we're all in for a treat.



Lemire heads to space in Descender and drops readers in a world that doesn't feel safe — robots obliterate, bounty hunters run free, and there's no knowing what's lurking in the deepest, darkest shadows of the cosmos. A young boy robot named TIM-21, who comes complete with bed head, is our guide.

"I was really inspired by [Naoki] Urasawa's Pluto, as well as Akira and Jack Kirby's adaptation of 2001," Lemire told me. "But I think more than any of that, it was a desire to return to some of the themes of my previous books, Sweet Tooth and Trillium, and hopefully explore them in a bigger and deeper way."

Sweet Tooth and Trillium were strange books — telling stories of animal-child hybrids and time-traveling explorers, respectively. And Lemire is right. There's a hint of both in Descender, as well as elements from the Steven Spielberg film AI and a bit of the manga Attack on Titan, though Lemire tells me he's never seen the latter.

The result is a beguiling, beautifully drawn book that is one of the most promising comics of 2015.

Space is the limit

In the last few years, comic books have begun exploring space in a way that resembles what comics were doing in the 1960s during the vaunted Space Race. The comics juggernaut Saga heads into space, as do Bitch Planet and Ody-C. Even superheroes like the Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers and Captain Marvel have gone into the cosmos. It's a good time for comics fans who love sci-fi, in other words.

Descender stands out from the huge crowd of cosmic comic books thanks to the story that Lemire and Nguyen are bringing to life.

"For me, it goes back to a childhood love of sci-fi. I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick Pohl and just love the expansiveness of it," Lemire said. "I love the sense of wonder and mystery and fear that the depths of the unknown — in this case, deep space — makes me feel."

Exploring space through the eyes of a child is what makes Descender tick. It's not just that the book focuses on a kid — the book has a way of making you feel like a kid, capturing a childlike wonderment. There's a quiet moment where readers watch TIM-21 wake up and walk around his empty house, like a robotic Kevin McCallister (from Home Alone). He's startled, and it's made clear he's an android:

Descender (Nguyen/Image)

In your head, you can hear the sound of TIM-21's tiny metal body shifting. You can see the surprise on his face. You empathize with TIM-21's surprise, but you yourself are surprised that the boy you've been following is a cyborg.

Sony is interested. And it's no surprise why.

Before anyone even had their hands on a copy of Descender, it was reported that the comic book's film option had already gone to Sony. Considering the glut of superhero movies, seeing a studio take a chance on a comic book without the star power of the Avengers or the Justice League is big news.

That can both be a blessing and a curse. With Descender in its infant stages, there's a worry that Sony's looming involvement might affect the decisions behind the comic book. Lemire was quick to assure me that this isn't the case.

"I ignore it totally," he said. "Comics are my passion and the love of my life. If and when the material is adapted, the better I make the comic, the better the well they have to draw from. But making a great comic is the end game for me, not film or TV. If that stuff happens — that's great, but not the priority."

That's comforting because it lets Nguyen have as much freedom as he wants. Nguyen has worked on DC's Li’l Gotham, a kid-friendly comic. That same spirit carries forward in his depiction of TIM-21.

But that childlike wonderment can very quickly give way to chilling, fear-evoking sequences:

Descender #1 (Nguyen/Image)

"Dustin and I are both pretty easygoing guys and approach story from a similar place," Lemire said. "And we both have a lot of respect for one another, so it has been a very fun and easy collaboration. I write things that entertain me and that I think he will have a blast drawing, and he delivers beyond my wildest dreams each time."

What's next

In a sense, Descender is another sign that comic-book creators and the comic-book audience aren't monolithic. Readers want more than simple tales of superheroes saving the day. Comics can offer quiet, even terrifying, tales of robot boys and the treacherous space they live in. This wasn't always the case.

"I started doing smaller independent books like Essex County and Sweet Tooth before getting involved in mainstream superhero stuff. And I always felt more comfortable doing my own material," Lemire said. "So the fact that the comic readership is diversifying so much and welcoming different kinds of stories is amazing. They want new things, not the same old things represented over and over again."

Of course, a few more books as good as Descender wouldn't hurt.

Descender #1 goes on sale on Wednesday.

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