This Week’s Finest: Descender #22

by Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen

The notion of a comic book “event”, is one that began as a loose definition before ultimately being commodified by corporate actors as a means of generating sales in the direct market. Marvel & DC basically run different self described “event” story mini-series and crossovers year round. Corporate IP across smaller publisher’s consistently goes out of their way on a yearly basis to generate interest in their fledgling comic series with “event” crossover books or relaunches of those core titles. In general, this tends to result in less then satisfying comics experience, with books that are often being guided with a heavy hand from editorial and conclusions that rarely match the epic promise of their concept as everything has to be reset to the status quo by the stories end. But there’s plenty of classic comic story arcs that we now retroactively look back on as “events” which defy these conventions, story-line’s or crossovers of another era when the bombast and scope was a byproduct of the comics that preceded it, and the consequences for what you were reading at least felt real to the wider narrative. Events in comics were by-products of great storytelling, not and end to itself. Descender #22 understands that, and when it self identifies as a “five part event”, it’s doing so on the strength of all that’s preceded it in the series. And issue #22 is an event in the most literal sense of the word, in that, it’s the best single issue so far of the excellent science fiction series from Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen for how it brings the book’s past threads to the forefront to create an epic opening salvo of the new story arc.

Through twenty two issues, Lemire & Nguyen’s Descender has been a strange comic books series that started from a complicated back story involving artificial intelligence gaining consciousness via technical innovation, a group of rebel separatist robots at war with humanity and galactic genocide at the hands of a mysterious group of machine based organisms called the Harvesters. That books initial complexity has served as a base line for even further twists in the ongoing narration and story structure, involving an ancient race of robots increasing tension between robot separatists and their human counterparts. Yet at it’s core, Descender has always centered on the main protagonist Tim 21, the innocent boy robot who’d been unconscious since the Harvesters genocide, and his fascinating evolving supporting cast of old friends, scientist, soldiers, androids, aliens and robots. Issue #22 is the beginning of the titles ‘Rise of The Robots’ arc, and it’s a near perfectly orchestrated coalescing of the titles disparate plot threads involving the cast and the comics larger inherent mythology. Series writer Jeff Lemire has displayed a profound maturation in his comics work recently since he departed the DC Comics mother-ship a few years ago that’s been most pronounced in his creator owned work on titles like Royal City, Black Hammer, After Death & Secret Path. You can plot the beginnings of his creative ascension on Descender, a title whose themes and genre trappings varied wildly from the creators past work, but maintained his deeply empathetic storytelling style. Descender #22 is notable for how he manages to play off what we already know and understand about the expanded cast while also continuing to subtlety mine deeper into their psyches. That, combined with Lemire’s expertly crafted orchestration of the books overarching narrative into all the events of the current single issue, makes #22 a tremendously engrossing and multifaceted read experience. It’s striking and fast paced, but with a adherence to the series larger backstory and themes for a deeply affecting installment.

Dustin Nguyen is an artist that prior to Descender, had explored nearly every corner of the Batman & Wildstorm universe in his advanced bibliography. He’s never produced work quite as mind blowing as he does here, with issue #22 being some of the creators best work yet on the title. Eschewing the traditional pencil and inks for watercolors, and exploring the space age futurism science fiction micro-genre, Nguyen’s output on Descender is significantly different from his past work in terms of both aesthetics and themes. But the artist has been effortless in his application of those methods and style on the book since the series inception, with #22 being some of his most complex and visceral work yet. Descender #22 is visually marveling in equal parts for it’s deeply personal character work, and bombastic space opera. Nguyen has always had a impeccable design sense with a singular art style, and he pulls out all the stops for an epic single issue here. Robot infantry descending on a single ship, an armada of galactic battleships in conflict, character’s floating in the sea, robot decapitations by hand; Nguyen does it all in his beautifully lush and inviting watercolors. The artist has severely expanded the scope of Descender over twenty one issues, and #22 is the full realization of the series immense potential of his visual storytelling.

Corporations want comic events to be exactly what they call them and nothing else as a means of monetizing readers intrigue. But what actually defines an event in comics exist on a spectrum, and ultimately will be decided by what creators and readers of the medium determine it to be. Issue #22 of Descender is many things; a triumph of the series in itself, an ascent of the books history, and an epic single issue. When a comic is twenty two issues in this market where books rarely last past ten installments, showing no sings of slowing down, almost perfectly utilizing it’s past narrative for it’s current iteration, & in consequence, releasing one of the best issues of series yet; that’s an event in the truest sense of the word for it’s distinction and achievement. Captain America becoming a part of Hydra or The Watchmen infiltrating the DCU are events because the comic companies that publish those books say they are, with the expectation that the market will act accordingly. Descender #22 is an event because it’s an extraordinary single issue of an extraordinary comic, in the opening salvo of what looks to be an extraordinary story arc. You can call it what you want, but Descender is a comic event that truly matters and satisfies in a way that other books with the same descriptor never could. Descender #22 is the opening chapter for the comic summer event you’ve been waiting for.

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