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Lemire on Exploring Personal Themes, Building Worlds in Sci-Fi “Descender”

by  in Comic News Comment
Lemire on Exploring Personal Themes, Building Worlds in Sci-Fi “Descender”

In the distant future, a lonely robot boy searches for safety in a world that actively seeks to wipe his kind out. Although androids were once partners to mankind, an unexpected, violent attack from world-destroying machines known as The Harvesters turned humanity against them all a decade ago. Now, all forms of artificial life are illegal, with bounty hunters ready to turn them into scrap — even little TIM-21, who has only just woken up after a ten-year shut down to find a very different world from the one he once knew. Not only is he at risk for simply existing, but secrets within his robotic makeup might just reveal the origins of The Harvesters, ensuring that all manner of enemies will chase him to the ends of the galaxy.

ADVANCE REVIEW: Lemire & Nguyen’s “Descender” #1 is “Filled with Imagination”

This is the world of “Descender,” Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen‘s highly anticipated new series from Image Comics. Between Lemire’s penchant for building sweeping yet personal stories and Nguyen’s gorgeous, painterly art, the book is stunning to behold. From the moment the pair revealed their first teaser image at Comic-Con International last year, they found themselves approached by multiple film studios, ultimately landing with Sony, which has started developing the story for film.

Fans will get to learn what all the buzz is about when the first issue comes out next month, but for now, Lemire shares his thoughts on the series and how it fits into the recurring themes in his work, the development of his relationship with Nguyen and the one element of the eventual film he wishes he could control.

CBR News: Jeff, you previously described “Descender” as a space opera — with issue #1 premiering soon, do you feel like you’re still creating within that space?

Jeff Lemire: I thinks so. I don’t even really know what ‘space opera’ means, to be honest, I just know that if you call something sci-fi, the really hardcore sci-fi geek can get really picky about the science in it. My stuff is a little more from an emotional point of view, and I make up fun stuff, so I just call it a space-opera. I approached “Descender” the way I approached “Sweet Tooth” and even “Trillium” to a degree — I’m using genre, in this case science-fiction, to tell what is really an intimate, small story. It just happens to be set against a really big backdrop. It’s interesting in that it’s the biggest backdrop I’ve had for a story. “Trillium” was science-fiction and I spent a lot time developing the world the characters were on and the alien species and things like that, but in the case of “Descender,” it’s even bigger. There are twenty planets I’ve developed to that degree now, and we’ve built a whole universe that we’ll see throughout the series. It’s a huge canvas, but the story itself is very focused on the main character, TIM-21, as he tries to figure out who he is in this world.

With a world that large, is the cast size proportionate?

Yeah, it’s a big cast. TIM-21 is the main character for sure, and his is the through line, but it really is an ensemble book, even more so as we get into it. I’m into the second arc already, script-wise, and certain characters who were just throwaway characters for one scene, I ended up loving the design Dustin did so much that I brought them back for other stories.

TIM will never be in one place for very long. The first thing Dustin and I collaborated on when working on this was the fact that he wanted to draw a lot of different environments, to really do a lot of world building and give every planet its own personality and distinct feel, so we’re going to see a lot of that. There was a lot of developmental work before the issue even started, getting these planets and everything together, and giving them each an identity. We will see that. It’ll be a lengthy, ongoing series, so even if we don’t touch on everything we’ve developed, I think it’s good to really know the world we’re in, even if we don’t see it all. It helps feel authentic.

It seems like “Descender” shares some key themes with some of your other works — being the ‘other’ in a hostile environment, seeking for something lost — does this feel like a natural progression on what you tend to explore creatively?

Absolutely. That’s a recurring theme from the beginning of my work, starting with “Essex County.” For whatever reason, I’ve always gravitated to young male protagonists. I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself — I’m sure it has something to do with my own childhood — but I feel like it’s a very natural way to write. I really understand their voice and point of view. “Sweet Tooth” and “Descender” really are very complimentary books, there are similar themes, but the worlds are different. “Sweet Tooth,” for all of its sci-fi elements, is still very grounded in our worlds. “Descender” is a big backdrop which opens a lot of storytelling possibilities that will maybe allow me to go beyond what I did with “Sweet Tooth” and take this idea of humanity evolving and post-humanism even further, through the eyes of this boy. So its exciting and it allows me to revisit themes but go further and further each time.

And transhumanism itself would create a whole new sort of outsiders, many of whom would be sort of lonely pioneers.

Yeah, and I can really relate to that. My childhood was a bit lonely, and my teenage years weren’t the easiest. Like a lot of people who turn to storytelling or art, that was my way of sort of exploring it. I’ve always kind of felt like that — I think a lot of cartoonists do. It’s a lonely profession in many ways. You’re by yourself a lot, and stuck in your own head.

In a cast of robots, they may not have the same emotions, or relate to life the same way as humans. Are those experiences helping you relate to the characters you’re creating?

Yeah, I’ve kind of had to be conscious of the different voices of the different robots because they all have various degrees of reactions and how “human” they are. TIM is one of the most advanced robots. Based on his experiences with humans, he learns how to adapt and react to different things based on what he’s seen, so he’s very human. There are other robots that aren’t, that are much more stereotypical machines with various degrees of humanity. I have to keep asking myself, “How would this robot react to this? Would it be the same as TIM?” The various points of view are very interesting, and I think TIM ends up being one of the most human characters in the book by the end of it, just because he had such a loving childhood with his human brother and mother, who he is looking for.

How are you building the mythology of the different robots?

I kind of see it as developing different tiers of robots, TIM being on the vanguard as the latest wave of them, the last wave to be developed before some incidents in issue #1. I kind of worked back from him to robots being less and less sophisticated and human looking. A lot of it came from building the different planets and worlds. Once we settled on the environment for that world — for instance, a desert planet or an aquatic planet — we started to imagine what kind of life they would’ve needed to thrive there, asking what people would need to use to survive in different places. There is a bigger mythology which is part of the central mystery of the book, and part of what TIM’s quest is. Much like “Sweet Tooth,” there is some mystery surrounding his origins and what makes him special, and that mythology is something I worked out in great detail. I have the book plotted basically page-to-page through issue #24.

A lot of stories introduce these big mysteries or mythology without thinking it through, and then you’re sort of scrambling to make pieces fit later. I really wanted to make sure that I knew exactly where I was going with this stuff before I started the script. I wanted it to track really well and be legitimate, with a good ending for the readers, so I did a lot of groundwork before getting that first script to Dustin.

How has your relationship with Dustin evolved since you began this project?

He’s a lot funnier than I realized he was when I first met him. He’s super funny and has a great sense of humor. Creatively, I knew he was really good, but I didn’t know how good he was until we started working together. He was at DC for almost fifteen years, and he did great work there, but to a certain degree, I think they started to take him for granted a little bit just because he was so good. Also, he was one of those rare artists that could deliver a monthly deadline really quickly, so I think he was always the sort of guy they went to when they needed something, and he didn’t really get a chance to spread his wings.

I saw his sketchbooks and some of the painting work he would do outside of comics, and it was so amazing — the sense of design he would bring to things. This book is really letting him cut loose on that. He might design a robot or alien or something, and its so far beyond what I expected or imagined that it’ll spawn a new storyline for me. On the last page of the first issue, we introduce some characters, and he drew them all so differently. One of them in particular I loved so much, I knew I could make a regular character out of him, so I developed a whole new storyline. I guess that’s the fun of collaboration. You get someone you really trust and you spring new ideas from each other all the time. It’s been great and really effortless. Right away, we were on the same page. He really just gets the scripts right away, and delivers stuff that’s so far beyond what I’ve expected that it inspires me to write the next one. We’re also at a similar spot in our lives. We’re the same age, and we both have young children, so it’s a very effortless collaboration.

When Dustin designs a robot or a piece of technology, he actually designs it as a three-dimensional thing that could exist in our world. There are these blown apart sketches that show how all of the pieces fit together, or how they would fit together if it was real. He thinks it through in such a legitimate way, and then executes it in the watercolors, which is such an organic-looking medium. You have this tension between this really mechanical design and this expressive medium, and that juxtaposition on the page is really unique.

Even in the first issue, I feel like Dustin really unleashed his full talents. How has both of you moving toward more creator-owned work felt?

It’s the best thing ever. Nothing compares to building something this big, putting this much effort into it and knowing its yours. You own it, you control it and no one can take it away from you. That’s irreplaceable. I spent five years working exclusively for DC, and I did a lot of stuff for Vertigo that I’m very proud of, but even that doesn’t compare to what I’m doing now with “Descender” and some of the other projects I have coming. I’m very lucky that I’ve built enough of a readership that I can sustain myself finically with the creator-owned projects. It’s hard to go back to work-for-hire when you can put that much work into something and own it yourself and control it — it’s kind of hard to go back, to be honest.

What aspect of the series are you most looking forward to working on?

There are scenes and moments we have planned that I’m very excited for, but I think its just having put so much work into building this world. Having the book come out month-to-month and seeing people come along the journey with us is going to be really rewarding. I’ve been working on it for a long time now, so I’m excited to share it with everyone.

One of the ways “Descender” will be shared is possibly as a movie — what has it been like, having the Sony deal come together while simultaneously working on the comic?

It was fast and surreal kind of experience. The last two or three weeks have really been a whirlwind, with Dustin and I talking to a lot of people. We had a number of offers on “Descender,” which is so weird! I have a lot of books now, over the last ten years, and nothing has been optioned — and this hasn’t even been published yet. I think a lot of it has to do with the amount of work I put into the book beforehand, that I can actually present people with a completed story and see where it’s going. But it’s quite exciting. They made a great offer, and they seem to really understand the story and share our vision for where we’re going with it, so fingers crossed that it happens.

I have an agent that takes my stuff around, so when we announced the project at San Diego Comic Con last summer, for whatever reason, that promotional image Dustin did of TIM struck a chord, and there was a lot of interest, immediately, from different film studios asking to see it as soon as we were ready to show it.

Will the two of you have any involvement in the film?

We’re both executive producers on the film if it gets made, so we will be involved, but to what degree? It’s still very new, so we’re figuring that all out as we go. There will be involvement with us though, for sure.

If there was one element that you could have complete control over in finished product, no matter how outlandish or minor, what would it be?

That’s a great question — I wish I could resurrect Stanley Kubrick and he could direct it.

That’s what I was thinking!

Zombie Kubrick!

Honestly, though, I’m so focused on this comic. That’s my passion. I don’t even think like that, or imagine it as a film. I worry about making a really good comic each month. It would be fun to see it become something else, but that’s not my aspiration. My aspiration is to tell a really great story with Dustin. However they interpret it will just be really interesting to see.

Lemire and Nguyen’s “Descender” debuts March 4.

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