In Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s “Descender” #3, Tim-21 has a near-death experience and meets his maker.
The near-death experience that acts as the focal point of the issue appears inexplicable and, ironically, Tim meets his human maker at the end of it instead of during it. Lemire doesn’t engage in any of the religious and scientific intersections head on, but Tim’s experience suggests the existence of an afterlife even for robots. Like older science fiction stories, “Descender” asks: What makes us human? The last scene and cliffhanger of “Descender” #3 directly addresses one of these “Human or Other” litmus tests, like Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Tim refers to what he thinks is a dream, but Quon replies, “But you know robots can’t dream.”
Robots stories have two classic trajectories, and the endpoints either treat robots as hostile aliens, inferior to human life, or are inclusive, absorbing them into a protected status. “Descender” tends towards the latter inclination. Dream-capable or not, Lemire and Nguyen present Tim as an actor who can feel and care, and their presentation of imagined history also skews tolerant instead of defensive or insular. Stripped of its space opera and technology, “Descender” is a story about the aftermath of collective violence by the powerful against the weaker members of society. If the victims were human, the anti-robot culls would have been called genocide.
Tim’s upbeat personality is a counterbalance to all this gloom and corruption. He continues to be a great point-of-view character, because he’s fundamentally innocent and outward-looking, so he’s the easiest way to experience outer space. However, he doesn’t have much depth yet. Along with his dog Bandit, he’s more of a symbol, an eternal Child. The truly dynamic character so far is Quon, a fallible, fallen man who has been coerced back into the remnants of a conflict that consumed his youth.
Although “Descender” is technically action-oriented, all the scenes with Tim are quiet instead of full of energy. The visuals and the plot never lack a feeling of direction but, from panel to panel, the reading experience for Tim’s scenes feels a little like wandering exploration. The mood is contemplative and a little melancholy but ready for wonder, just like Lemire’s “Sweet Tooth,” which also has an outsider protagonist and the theme of ended innocence.
The quiet, spooky atmosphere of the first two issues is sustained throughout “Descender” #3. Nguyen is able to make Tim’s setting nightmarish without dulling the sense of danger. His watercolor art is reminiscent of Jon J. Muth’s work on “Moonshadow.” The palette, the use of cold-toned white light and the dreamlike tone and rhythms are all similar, but Nguyen’s line is looser and less detailed. This doesn’t necessarily make it inferior, though, because the greater simplicity from panel to panel gives “Descender” sharper focus and faster pacing.
Nguyen’s visual approach in the talking heads scene between Quon and Telsa is risky but effective. He sketches in the characters’ bodies and only gives full detail and color to the faces and a few background objects. The backgrounds are almost empty in some panels but, because his approach is so clearly deliberate, it doesn’t look lazy. The faces and the conversation are automatically pushed to the forefront as a result, and the reader is reminded that conversations like these will play their part in determining Tim’s fate.
Also as before, Tim’s setting is grander and feels set outside of time, while Quon’s situation is grittier and anchors the story to reality. Tim is technically in more physical danger, but his situation is so dreamlike — a boy and his dog in a barren world — that Quon’s story has the sharper edges.
It’s a turning point when Quon’s face shifts suddenly from fearful to shrewd. It’s gratifying to see Quon use his wits to resist Telsa’s patronizing scare tactics. In previous scenes, he is still a wreck of a man, and Nguyen conveys this not only through Quon’s messy appearance but also by his subordinate posture and defeated body language. Now, in “Descender” #3, Quon shows some of the intellectual muscle of his younger self, before his function as a scientist and his self-confidence were damaged. Although the power differential between him and UGC is by no means leveled, the reader is reminded that this is the man who created Tim. He’s no longer just an instrument of the UGC, and so he becomes another player on the board, and there’s plenty of suspense about what he might do as the primary human character in future issues.