Book Review: “Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars”

When the next generation of great comics creators began around 2007, one of the most promising was Jeff Lemire. He was one of those rarities in American comics, a writer who can draw as well as he can write. Lemire stunned the world with his “Essex County” trilogy, a poignant, heartbreaking look at the rural Canada he grew up in and a fascinating exploration of memory and family.

After that secured his reputation, DC Comics scooped him up, and he turned in two projects for them: “The Nobody,” a retelling of H.G. Wells’ classic “Invisible Man,” and “Sweet Tooth,” a series that ended up being his most innovative and disappointing work at the same time. After one more graphic novel, “The Underwater Welder,” Lemire has spent the last few years doing work for hire for DC, Marvel and the newly re-launched Valiant Entertainment, giving doubts as to whether or not Lemire would ever live up to his promise.

I am happy to say that the wait is over. Lemire’s first series for Image, “Descender,” has single-handedly reminded us of why the world took notice of him in the first place. Moving away from the rural areas of his early work, this is instead an epic space opera, set thousands of years in the future, where humanity has colonized the galaxy and a variety of aliens have become our allies.

But lest you think that Lemire has forgotten his strengths, you need not worry; rather than take a sweeping approach to an ensemble drama, “Descender” is more like if Steven Spielberg had directed “Star Wars.” It follows TIM-21, an eerily lifelike android, waking up 10 years after a group of giant robots the size of planets caused genocide throughout the galaxy, sparing only his fellow robots.

Having learned that TIM-21’s systems are identical to these same robots, he is chased across the galaxy, accompanied by his robot dog Bandit, a homicidal mining robot who goes by “Driller the Real Killer,” TIM-21’s creator Dr. Quon and the two officers in charge of bringing TIM-21 back to the Galactic Council. At the Council, his code can be examined in an attempt to make sure that when the robots come back they will know what to expect and how to fight back.

Lemire’s story is compelling, full of twists and turns that flow together masterfully and he sets up plenty of mysteries for this first arc, but this whole thing would not be possible without his artist and cocreator Dustin Nguyen. Nguyen, who paints instead of draws, renders in watercolor gorgeous set pieces using the bare amount of color and line to create an almost washed-out, dreamy look. You hardly ever see a comic praised for its lighting, but Nguyen is clearly a painter of the classical kind, able to create thrilling and tense action with almost nothing.

I should be clear on one thing though: this is still volume one of what is clearly going to be a long story. What may come in the future for TIM-21 and his companions, and whether or not “Descender” will, in the end, be another “Essex County” or “Sweet Tooth” is not clear at the moment. But this is an excellent start to an epic, one that will make you wonder just what it is you have found yourself getting into by the end of the first volume. If you are a long-time comics fan or someone looking to start, I will just make it clear: you need this book.

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