By Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen
Descender‘s latest arc, “Singularities”, has been more a string of one-shots; taking time out from the macro story to offer us little glimpses into the “secret origins” (to borrow a DC phrase) of the book’s central cast. After two trades of mostly linear & highly serialized storytelling, this has been a fun shakeup. Issue #15 is all about Andy Tavers and Effie, aka: the Queen Between.
Perhaps it is because the issue is giving us two origins for the price of one, but Issue #15 doesn’t land with quite the near-perfection of most Descender issues. That’s not to say Issue #15 is weak in any way. It’s just that Lemire and Nguyen have set such a high benchmark with this incredible series that the reader notices anything less than excellent. The pair attempt, and almost succeed, to detail the backstory of both characters in a mere 22 pages and just about pull it off. But there’s a couple small problems. In their noble attempt to cram such a massive story into an easy-to-digest 24 page slice, Lemire & Nguyen have inevitably crafted an issue that feels a touch rushed.
Lemire’s trademark as a writer is a masterful command of the melancholy. His work is rich with depression, the story often stalling for a character to internalize and fester. His work isn’t about concepts and ideas like Warren Ellis or Mark Millar. Lemire’s work is about feelings. The apocalypse unfurling is irrelevant compared to what it makes the protagonist feel. So it’s strange to get from him an issue that prides the idea over the emotion. With so much story to explain in such a short amount of time, Andy & Effie get little breathing room. So whilst the “idea” of the great pains they’re enduring are very much present, we don’t really get a sense of “feeling” said pains. This cramped nature of the writing also means certain extracts of dialogue are heavy in exposition. This leaves the issue reading a little like a slab of information instead of a story.
But this is nit-picking for nit-pickings sake in order to generate a more rounded review. The short of it is, Lemire & Nguyen have churned out their 15th stellar issue and are swiftly cementing Descender as one of the top-tier creator owned books on the stands.
Structurally the story is as neat as a bow. We follow Andy & Effie from the day they met to the day their love crumbled. We see them meet, fall in love, only then for Andy’s ever-growing hatred of robots to slowly drive a wedge between them. The final pages are painfully ironic, as Effie becomes everything Andy hates.
Without the ties to the larger Descender story, this could have worked as a stand alone Twilight Zone style tale: a cautionary warning of what our anger can cause us to do to those around us. Because, despite the sci-fi setting, this issue is a relatable human story. This short story is about the perils of obsession. Andy is propelled by his hatred of robots. As he ages this hatred grows from a negative element of his person into his defining character trait. Descender has never been subtle in its allegory. On face value it has always been a story about humans who hate robots. But underneath all of that, Descender is a tale about racism and bigotry of all kinds. By giving us the P.O.V of one of the series’ chief supporters of robotism (yeah it’s a word, shut up) this issue becomes an interesting distillation of Descender‘s core ideas. We see how Andy’s fear of robots as a child turned into an adolescent hatred. We then see how the hardships of adulthood sharpened this hatred into misguided bigotry. We watch inner pain shape a once innocent little boy into a monster. In a story such as Descender, it’s too easy to say “the repressed are the goodies, the oppressive are the baddies.” This issue pushes the allegory further than that basic through line. This issue reinforces the idea Descender has toyed with before. That underneath it all everyone is human. Fear is the great softener of the moral compass. With Andy we see a man who has nothing but his wife Effie. And we see his descent into racism destroy what little he has left.
On the art front it’s difficult not to descend into sycophancy as you bask in awe at Dustin Nguyen’s incredible work. With this issue we see him achieve the same thing he achieves every month. He helps showcase the sheer agony of the story by visually presenting it with contradictory beauty.
A tale of this much pain, suffering and bile should not look so delicate and beautiful. But the vast difference between the beauty of the imagery and the ugliness of the ideas explored means the two elements show each other up spectacularly. Nguyen’s work in water colours has seen him work in children’s books, such as Batman Lil’ Gotham, as it captures fairytale aesthetic frequently associated with children’s work. Despite Descender not being for children, this works incredibly well here. The style makes you nostalgic for childhood. With those thoughts at the forefront of your mind as you read, the story feels fragile in your fingers. The art’s beautiful combination of soft lines and merging colours makes the whole thing look somehow dainty. It’s the perfect reflection of the book given its major themes of 1) childhood escaping through your fingers and 2) society collapsing beneath the weight of bubbling hatred. These are both themes of once beautiful things inevitably crumbling, so it’s fitting that the book looks as equally delicate as the world it’s presenting.
Though Lemire has a lot to achieve in getting across quite so much story in such a short amount of time, and it doesn’t always work in this issue, Nguyen uses color to help nail the feel of each beat in shorthand. So even though we’re rushing through certain character moments’ Nguyen’s colors help us to feel them. When Andy and Effie kiss for the first time the skies are a romantic pinkish purple that bleeds into their skin tone. When they have their first argument they are aboard a blue ship to reflect the coldness that’s brewing between them. When Effie leads an aggressive rally she’s on a fire-planet flushed with hot reds to symbolise her bubbling rage. The characters and their emotions are first and foremost. Nguyen uses them to guide his work more than any story element. The visuals are awash with subtle little elements like this that really help you get into a character’s head space and make the issue rife for a re-read for all the hidden little elements to discover that you missed first time around.
Aside from a couple clanging pieces of exposition heavy dialogue, Descender has turned out yet another great issue. This is a team that gets the best out of one another. Lemire’s fascination for all things melancholy and Nguyen’s en-capturing of fragility are perfect counterparts. The caliber of their work and their suiting of one another makes clear that this pair are swiftly cementing themselves as the creative team to rival Vaughan and Staples.