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REVIEW: Ascender #1, Lemire & Nguyen's Descender Sequel, Is a Complete Joy

Story by
Art by
Dustin Nguyen
Letters by
Steve Wands
Cover by
Publisher
Image Comics

Last summer, after 32 issues, co-creators Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen brought their modern sci-fi odyssey Descender to a close with a cataclysmically apocalyptic finish. Now, about half a year since the Eisner Award-winning Image Comics series came to a close, Lemire and Nguyen have reunited to launch a sequel series in Ascender. And while the new comic is immediately visually familiar to fans of the previous, acclaimed series, it is clear from the opening pages that Ascender will prove to be a much different book than its predecessor.

Taking place a decade after the events of Descender's conclusion, the new series eschews the advanced, spacefaring sci-fi technology of the previous series in favor of a much more magical, fantasy-based setting. It's a post-technology world; gone are the robots, spacecraft and other sci-fi gadgets and gizmos that established Descender as a science fiction epic, and in their place are castles, villages and magical spells, marking a complete genre shift for its follow-up.

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Despite the more mythical setting and genre, Ascender still very much feels like it's in the same world as Descender, as it should; the series very much shares the same creative DNA as Descender and takes place firmly in that world, with previous events and characters receiving passing references. Nguyen's lush watercolor art is still as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as ever, though with a more earthy color palette than seen in Descender. Tonally, Ascender echoes its predecessor, with its child protagonist, Mila, exploring this new fantasy world just as Descender's Tim-21 had ventured into that series' sci-fi reality. Both series share themes of redemption, self-discovery and the value of love, with Ascender putting a particular emphasis on familial love from a character that should be quickly recognizable to Descender readers.

And yet, it all feels new at the same time; Ascender #1 does not feel like what could have been Descender #33. While having read Descender certainly enriches the experience of diving into Ascender, thanks to references to and returning characters from the concluded series, Lemire and Nguyen have crafted a perfectly accessible jumping on point for new readers that quickly draws audiences into this new world with fresh eyes and just enough background to avoid coming off as overly expository. This brave, new world stills comes off unknown to Mila so, as the primary P.O.V. character, we are immersed in it through her eyes.

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Lemire has found a natural collaborative partner in Nguyen and the duo had created what is perhaps Lemire's most sentimental work to date in Descender; a modern, mature fairy tale that happened to also include apocalyptic robots and grizzled bounty hunters.

With Ascender, Lemire and Nguyen double down on the fairy tale elements right down to its supernatural, fantasy setting. The new series is also about a child trying to discover their greater place in a world populated by adults that have been worn down by life and grown a bit cynical as a result, but does not feel like a complete retread of Tim-21's interplanetary odyssey. Given the preceding series, a collision course of sorts between technology and magic seems like something of an inevitability, with the world of Descender poised to dovetail into the new series at some point, but for now, Lemire and Nguyen are clearly playing a longer game, and are laying the foundation of this new fantasy world.

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A must-read for fans of Descender, as well as Lemire and Nguyen's other work, Ascender #1 is a fresh jumping on point for new readers that may be intimidated by the prospect of reading 32 previous issues collected across six volumes. A shift in genre and setting but not tone, nor the creative team's award-winning storytelling sensibilities, the latest Image Comics series feels both familiar and new all at once, and opens up a new playground reader will be hungry to see them delve into.

Ascender #1 is written by Jeff Lemire and illustrated by Dustin Nguyen. The new series goes on sale on April 24 from Image Comics.

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