A few years back, Jeff Lemire nearly fell from the stage during a DC Comics panel at Emerald City Comicon. Dustin Nguyen caught him — or as Lemire tells it, “saved his life” — and next year, the two superstars will team on a new science fiction series from Image Comics called “Descender.” No doubt, there were a few more steps along the way, but it looks like Lemire’s misstep led to what now becomes one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2015.
“Descender” was officially announced today at Image Expo with Lemire writing the series and Nguyen illustrating. It was also revealed to CBR News that Nguyen would be painting over his own pencils with watercolors giving the space opera an otherworldly, organic look and feel.
Lemire teased that the creator-owned series is about a young robot’s struggle to stay alive in a universe where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters lurk on every planet looking for anything with artificial intelligence. TIM-21 is the most-wanted robot in the universe because the incredibly life-like artificial boy may hold the secret to the mass death and destruction unleashed by giant robots ten years before the story of the comic begins.
Like Lemire, Nguyen is coming off an exclusive contract with DC Comics but will continue to work on several projects with the publisher. Lemire shared that he will finish his writing duties on the year-long weekly series, “The New 52: Futures End,” will write the newly launched “Justice League United” through at least issue #12 will continue to work on a series of “Teen Titans: Earth One” graphic novels, which were announced in March.
Lemire and Nguyen also discussed with CBR the freedom creator-owned projects allow, their fear (or lack thereof) of robots and a number of plot threads and character beats that will be explored in even the first few issues of “Descender.”
CBR News: You have both been exclusive to DC Comics for some time now, working with classic characters ranging from Green Arrow and Batman to The Atom and Hawkman. Why is it important — and intoxicating — to tell new creator-owned stories with new characters as opposed to reimagining iconic superheroes from the Golden Age of Comics?
Dustin Nguyen: I did a creator-owned project with WildStorm years ago called “Manifest Eternity.” I think the big difference is the schedule. What I’ve felt so far working with Jeff and Image is the level of flexibility that is offered. There is no “you can’t do that.” It’s not that I don’t like drawing Batman. It’s just as a creator you want to do a lot of different things — things that you can’t do on a monthly schedule or on a book that is supposed to look a certain way.
Jeff Lemire: And it’s nice to have something that we own and that we control. We own every aspect of “Descender” and we get to make all of the decisions. We’re not being dictated things. If we want to take the book in a wildly different direction or try and experiment or try new things, it’s totally on us if it succeeds or fails. That kind of freedom is hard to say no to. I’ve enjoyed writing and drawing creator-owned projects like “Sweet Tooth” and “Trillium” but now to have the chance to work with a great artist like Dustin is really exciting for me.
You mentioned “Sweet Tooth” and “Trillium,” which were both published by Vertigo Comics. Why the decision to being “Descender” to Image?
Lemire: My exclusive contract with DC was coming to an end and personally for me, it was time to diversify a bit and work with other publishers. And that shouldn’t be misconstrued in any way as anti-DC Comics. There was no big falling out or anything like that. They’ve really treated me well and I’ve enjoyed working with DC but as I said, it was just time to see what else was out there and try some different things.
Obviously, Image has been producing some of the most exciting monthly comics over the past couple of years. They’ve just exploded. A lot of the stuff that I read is published by Image and when you see all of that happening and the kind of creativity that’s happening there and the caliber of talent they’re recruiting, it’s hard not to want to be a part of that.
Nguyen: Agreed. When you hear that a creator like Jeff is leaving DC, everyone thinks that something horrible happened. But that’s rarely the case. DC has been great to me too. And when Jeff asked me if I wanted to do “Descender” with Image, I was like, “Okay. Let’s check it out.” And it was cool.
Lemire: More than anything, it’s just the sense of excitement at Image right now. It’s contagious and you want to be a part of what they’re doing. You see books like “Southern Bastards,” “Manhattan Projects,” and “Saga” and everything else, you want to be a part of that. Those books are all so great and so inspiring. It makes you want to step up your game and do something like that, as well.
How did you two connect for this project?
Lemire: Dustin saved my life three years ago at Emerald City Comicon. Really. We were on a DC panel and Dustin came late and I was sitting at the end of the table and I went to push my chair over to allow him to sit next to me, not realizing that I was going to fall right off the stage and Dustin grabbed me and pulled me back. I owe him my life.
Nguyen: It was romantic, man.
Lemire: It was romantic. [Laughs] Our eyes locked and I just saw robots…
Nguyen: In space. [Laughs]
Jeff, when we spoke a few years back before the launch of “Trillum,” you told me you weren’t much of a “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” guy but you were more into classic sci-fi writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Comparatively speaking, is “Descender” more a space opera like “Star Wars” or more classic sci-fi like the works of Niven and the Big Three?
Lemire: This really is a space opera. The one thing I learned while writing “Trillium” is that I like writing sci-fi and while I aspire to write high-minded, hard science fiction, space opera is what I am drawn to after all. “Trillium” was really more of a space opera but while that term is sometimes looked upon as meaning “trashy” in the sci-fi world, to me it just means doing a big, fun, sprawling mythology in space. Doing “Trillium” was really fun and I really wanted to do more of that and tell an even bigger story with more worlds not just one world. I wanted to build a whole universe rather than just one planet with one race.
Dustin is an artist that I have admired for a long time. I have been a fan of his work forever, long before I started working at DC and I always kept an eye on what he was doing. He is so versatile and brings so much energy to all of his work. He was someone I always wanted to work with at DC and never got the chance. But this is even better, getting to do something creator-owned with him is obviously more rewarding.
Nguyen: I think we actually talked about doing something a few times and it just never lined up.
Lemire: That’s right.
Dustin, are you a fan of science fiction?
Nguyen: I’m a huge sci-fi fan. Like Jeff, and I didn’t know this about him until now, while I have always loved sci-fi and that genre, I was never that huge a “Star Wars” fan. I mean, I loved “Star Wars” but never to the level to where it’s all that I see when I think of sci-fi. When we first started talking about the book, what drew me to it was that Jeff wanted me to draw it based on my stuff outside of drawing Batman. If you look at any of my fan art and stuff that I do on the side, you would see that this is the book that I was meant to do for a while. Once you start seeing the art, it will all line up.
I’m reading from the solicitation here but what we know so far is that “Descender” is about one young robot’s struggle to stay alive in a universe where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters lurk on every planet. What can you tell us about this one young robot?
Lemire: The high concept is just that — there is a ragtag group of robots on the run, jumping from planet to planet. The main character is an extremely lifelike robot named TIM-21. Ten years before our story begins, there was a cataclysmic cosmic event where 10 massive robots the size of moons appeared in orbit above the 10 key planets in the galaxy and immediately attacked and wiped out entire races. And then they suddenly disappear without any explanation of who they were. In the wake of this attack, the universe bans together and decides to eliminate all androids and robots, fearing that they have a link to these giant destructive robots known as ‘Harvesters.’
We pick up 10 years later and androids and robots and anything with an artificial intelligence have been outlawed and are being hunted and destroyed for scrap. TIM ends up on a distant moon mining colony and becomes the focus of a galaxy-wide man or robot hunt. It is believed that he may hold the secret of these giant robots within his machine DNA.
It’s his story and his story to survive along with this oddball group of companion robots that he hooks up with and it’s also the bigger mystery of who the destructive robots are and how he is somehow linked to them.
Is TIM self-aware that he is robot?
Lemire: Yes, he is aware that he is a robot. It’s not like “A.I,” where he thinks that he is a little boy. That’s never part of the story. The mysteries come from external things around him.
Amazon is working toward a delivery drone service but many fear that level of robot freedom would wreak havoc. That’s a subject Daniel H. Wilson has explored in his “Robopocalypse” series, too. Do you fear a robot uprising or are you hardwired to your iPhone and constantly connected?
Lemire: I’m not scared of machines, though I am not super hooked in or anything. I’m not really a gizmo guy. I’m kind of a luddite, really.
Nguyen: Going back to my love of sci-fi, you hear the word “robots” a lot and I just love robots. I love everything from “Robotech” to “Terminator.” I think Jeff and I even talked about “Transformers.” Jeff knows I love robots. [Laughs]
Lemire: Yes, I do. And there are all kinds of robots in this future world. Everything from extremely lifelike ones to really old school, clunky ones and they all have a common link. We’re creating this whole mythology around all of these different robots and the planets they inhabit. It’s really cool and a lot of fun.
You’ve teased this ragtag group of robots and again, the release reveals two named Bandit and Driller. Can you share any details about these two robots?
Lemire: I don’t want to spoil too much yet but Bandit is a pet-bot, a future equivalent to a dog or a cat — really just a child’s toy. And there’s a bit more mystery around Driller so I don’t want to spoil that one. And I should say that the book isn’t all robots. There are a lot of humans and aliens too. It’s a pretty big cast. One of the many characters is Dr. Kwan, who was the leading figure in advanced robotics leading up to the attacks and since then has fallen on hard times.
Sounds a bit like Dr. Singh from “Sweet Tooth.”
Lemire: [Laughs] There might be a few similarities, yes. People that liked “Sweet Tooth” will dig “Descender.” A lot of themes I explored in “Sweet Tooth” I’m exploring again but taking it in a different direction. As a starting point, you have a young character on the run in a world that he doesn’t fully understand. But I think the similarities kind of end there. If you think of what I did with “Sweet Tooth” and “Trillium” and mix them together and add Dustin to the mix, you can see where I am going.
Nguyen: The robots don’t eat candy, do they? [Laughs]
Lemire: No. And they don’t have antlers.
The lead is a young robot. Is “Descender” an all-ages book?
Lemire: It’s not for kids. It’s for adults. Like “Sweet Tooth,” children might be the main characters but this is definitely not a book for kids.
What is the look and feel of “Descender”? And Jeff, since you’re not drawing “Descender,” how involved have you been in the design stage?
Lemire: Not much really. When you work with someone like Dustin, for me anyways, I just focus on story and character. I let him do all of the visual stuff. It’s on him to build the world visually and tell the story the way he wants. I know he and I will probably collaborate on the art at some point and that will be fun to do. We’ve talked about how we both want to, kind of like I did with some issues of “Sweet Tooth” and “Trillium,” push the boundaries of what a monthly comic can be in terms of format and finding different ways to tell a story. Not always going the traditional route.
Nguyen: That said, Jeff and I do go back and forth on how the characters should look. There are certain sequences where we want it to look a certain way and step away from what I have been doing on more mainstream books. I think the advantage of working with Image is that we have a better schedule.
The book is going to be fully painted and I am definitely hoping that Jeff will jump in on art at some point. It’s going to be fun to get to do stuff that I always wanted to do without the constraints of following a certain template for a page or a certain schedule. Sometimes a schedule is really restraining to what you can do creatively. Every time I look at one of the books Image puts out, I get really jealous. It’s like, “Damn. I wish I had the time to do this.” And now I can’t complain. I just have to put the work into it.
Lemire: As Dustin mentioned, the plan is to paint the book himself with watercolors mostly. If you’ve seen the stuff he’s done on “Batman: Li’l Gotham,” it’s pretty stunning work. It’s going to be visually so rich. It involves the mechanics of robots but it’s going to feature a really organic style. It’s going to create a really interesting visual tension. I can’t wait to see it.
Nguyen: That’s definitely one of the things that drew me to working with Jeff. Every time, I think of his work, I think of this handmade filter. And it’s always a really good-looking comic book. We’re not making a new IP where we can just sell it later. We both really want to do this really good-looking book that you can hold in your hand that’s totally kick-ass.
Lemire: We’re just experimenting now. I’ve written the first two scripts. And the first one has a lot of world building. But in the second one, we get to slow things down and start to tell the story at a slower pace than you normally can in monthly superhero comic where you have to execute a certain amount of plot every month and move the story a certain amount. With us creating this ourselves, we can take our time with the story and not get so caught up in moving the plot. Even in our second issue, I already see that happening where we have an idea of how we are going to lay that out not like a traditional comic. We’re really experimenting and pushing each other in new directions. And it’s good to have someone on the same page that wants to do that stuff.
And I think it will be really cool at some point, maybe for a certain issue or certain part of the story, where I would draw an issue and Dustin would paint over it or try something like that.
Nguyen: This is a true collaborative book. We can even hand letter it. [Laughs] it would take forever.
Lemire: And there would be tons of spelling mistakes.
Dustin, you mentioned that you wanted to make a really good-looking book that you can hold in your hands. Assuming “Descender” will also be available digitally, do you consider that format when designing a book?
Lemire: Dustin and I haven’t really talked about that yet. I never think of that and I probably should. [Laughs] I only really think of it in print and I know that’s an old fashioned way of looking at things now.
Nguyen: I am with Jeff, though “Li’l Gotham” was entirely digital. And we worked off a template. When DC was doing their first digital books, our book was the first one that fit in the format. Not “Li’l Gotham” but “Justice League Beyond.” I have that in the back of my mind: How will this look on your iPhone, iPad or your Android tablet?
But again, I am with Jeff. I want it to look really good on paper in a book. And Jeff has even gone as far to talk about how the trade is going to look, what we’re going to do with the cover and the inside covers. I have always felt that it you have good technology, it should be able to adapt to what you’re doing. You shouldn’t have to adapt to technology.
Lemire: And one huge advantage to working at Image — that I really never though of until we were just talking now — is no ads until the back, which means they don’t break up the story. That always drives me bonkers. I spent so much time on “Trillium” or something, planning every aspect of what happens when the page turns and pacing it so carefully and then you get the issues back and you turn to the big reveal and there is an ad for one of Dustin’s stupid Batman comics. [Laughs]
We are going to create a whole package from the cover design to the book trade dress to the interior cover to the interior pages. It’s all going to feel like one coherent package and part of the same world. That’s something that Image has really embraced. Look at what Jonathan Hickman is doing with design elements and things. That’s all really started to take off. In a book like “Descender,” where we will have multiple worlds and alien races, I am already anticipating a lot of fun things you could do with the back banner and the inside covers and things like that. It won’t be dead space but space to world build.
I hate to ask you about the end before you even begin, but do you have an idea of how many issues or an end date in mind?
Lemire: It’s pretty organic at this point. When I did “Sweet Tooth,” I knew the ending right away. It was just a matter of how long it would take me to get there. That’s not so much the case with “Descender.” I have a general idea of how it’s going to end and where things will end up but it’s pretty open. I guess it will really depend on how successful the book is. If the sales warrant us to keep going, I am sure that we could go for two or three years on it. There is enough material there for sure. And if it doesn’t happen and the book isn’t successful enough to sustain itself, I can’t see it being any less than 12 issues anyway.
Before I let you go, I know readers will be wondering how this affects your work at DC Comics.
Nguyen: “Descender will be my full-time book but I still have a bunch of stuff to do for DC. I have a bunch of covers to do, and I am still working with the DC Collectibles line. We’re still developing “Li’l Gotham” toys and a bunch of other stuff. But for at least the next year, it’s going to be mostly “Descender.” The book is going to take a lot of work so it will be my main project.
Lemire: I will see “Futures End” through until the end. And I am still working on the “Teen Titan: Earth One” series of graphic novels. I am really excited about continuing those. And I am not sure how long I will be on “Justice League United.” At least through 12 issues, and then we’ll see what my schedule permits.
Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen launch “Descender” at Image Comics in 2015.