Comics

How 'Descender' Draws a Map of All of Sci-Fi

Released next Wednesday, Descender's a game-changer. Here's why.

Start with a story because every comicbook has a story. Sure, of course that’s true, every comicbook does have a story, but I mean it in a different way, of course. I mean, every comicbook has a story that is also the story of its reader, as much as it has the story of the creative act, as much as it has a story that animates it lead characters and its supporting cast.

Descender, the most recent creator-owned project by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen, tells a moving, hauntingly beautiful tale about humanity’s step into an entirely new phase of evolution. At the beginning of the story, human beings have already achieved the Star Trek outcome—we’re part of a galactic empire spanning who knows how many galaxies (maybe, as in the original Star Trek, only about 19% of the one we currently reside in). There is an administrative center to this empire, humans and aliens (it seems politically incorrect to use the term, doesn’t it?) coexist in a peaceful symbiotic economy. This administrative center is also the pinnacle of human and alien artistic and scientific achievement.

Everything is harmonious, everything is good. Except of course, it isn’t. Because at the very opening of the story, there appears a loose thread in the grand narrative of cosmic empire being woven—a threat on the horizon, that first appears as a mystery in space. Seemingly out of nowhere, right in the middle of cislunar space, there appears a gargantuan robot, on a scale that would render the entire planet the size of beachball, were the robot the proportions of a human. And the mystery? Not where did this robot come from—because that answer is painfully obvious; it came from “us,” from the dominant species that inhabit the peaceful, harmonious galactic empire—but how did that robot come to be? How did something so far beyond the robots that currently inhabit these worlds, robots that are little more than anthropomorphic vacuum cleaners and vehicle assemblers, come into being? And how could it have come into being without anyone noticing? Dr. Jin Quon, one of the leading lights in robotic and informational systems research, a young man with nothing but a bright future ahead, is one of the first to investigate. And there begins the tragedy, and the also, a story of great hope.

What Lemire and Nguyen present, is a second-phase space opera. Think of first-phase space opera as Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s an evolutionary story about humans expanding beyond the confines of their immediate habitat of the Earth. First-phase is about human cultural inventions expanding into a galactic milieu for the first time. Think of medical ethics and moral safeguards against rampant scientific experimentation, but think of those against the backdrop of what was done to Rocket Raccoon. You’ll get an idea of the power of first-phase space opera. Or think of proverbial speech and metaphor juxtaposed with the dead-pan literalism of Drax the Destroyer. Or diplomacy and negotiation set against the warlike blood-feud driven culture that Gamora is heir to. First-phase space opera is all about reaching a point where we can not only coexist, but prosper together with other species, all of them extraterrestrial.

Second-phase is something else entirely. What all aliens share with us, is a biological basis for life. But what if the life and the intelligence were artificial? What if the intelligence were AI, and the bodies were mechanical? What if the alien life we encountered in our travels throughout space were seeded not by spontaneous evolutionary processes or by some Divine creativity, but by other lifeforms much like ourselves? Or even, by ourselves? Would we be able to engineer an ecosystem of prosperity with self-aware, independent life-forms we were the originators of? Would we want to, entering into relationships with such robots as superiors? Or would it be war rather than economic interdependence? Will the story of human (and alien as well) and machine always be mitigated by the preposition “against?” This is the drama Lemire and Nguyen usher us into with Descender.

Art from the forthcoming Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

But that’s not my story with Descender. Mine’s a little different, and it goes back to when I first got to read the premiere issue, some weeks back now. And it goes back to an uncanny coincidence involving All the President’s Men.

You’re hearing this story in compressed time, and that’s part of what makes it so uncanny. Because there’s a similar kind of time compression Lemire’s engineered into Descender’s first issue. I had a little more than a week with issue #1 before interviewing Lemire (an interview that can be read in tomorrow’s Iconographies), but certain ideas became immediately apparent, and only were only magnified during that week or so. One of these ideas was the how the art and the storytelling connected with art outside of the medium of comics. Almost immediately, just after the first reading, I was prompted to write up this quote for the book:

When considered within comics culture, it’s easy enough to see in Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender the strands of creative DNA that reach back to classics like Tezuka’s The Mighty Atom or Urasawa’s Pluto. But when considered within the broader context of popular culture, Lemire’s writing and Nguyen’s art usher us into the presence of a work every bit as powerful as 2001: A Space Odyssey or All the President’s Men.

Read Descender just once and it’s meaning is plain, this book isn’t only a space opera, it is an epic. And not “space” epic, Descender won’t easily be defined by genre limitations. Descender conforms to the more literary ambitions that Philip K. Dick saw in science fiction, rather than the pulp origins of the genre expressed by a radio show like Dimension X (It’s real thing, I promise, Google for Stephen King & NPR to hear King tell how his mother chided him against listening to the show before he’d go to sleep). Descender reaches beyond conventions and expectations, the conventions and expectations of both the genre of scifi and the medium of comics. No surprise then that after reading I’m reaching for texts outside of comics.

But that’s not what’s uncanny about it. Why was my mind drawn specifically to 2001: A Space Odyssey and All the President’s Men? Sure movies from the 70’s do something profound, and they’re some of the greatest movies in the history of filmmaking. (Side-note: before we get too pedantic, let’s just say that even though it was released in 1968, Kubrick’s Space Odyssey laid the groundwork for much of the ‘70s cinematic history.) But why not The Godfather or The French Connection? Jeff himself will tell the story of the actual connection much better in the write of the interview. It’s a story about napkin notes hurriedly scribbled on an airplane ride. But bear in mind, that that story came to the fore nearly two weeks after the power of the image saturated my mind. That really is the spellbinding power of Lemire’s plotting and scripting and Nguyen’s art. That it would be All the President’s Men that popped for me, and refused to let me go.

Remember “widescreen” comics from, honestly, it feels like just a few years back now, but it’s been the better part of two decades. Remember The Authority and The Ultimates? Well those books were great. Not just a case of a super-powered science villain performing a daring bank heist in broad daylight, the “widescreens” would throw armies of superpowered villains, the entire mobile infantries of rogue nations at our heroes. It wouldn’t be a case of a good part of Main Street getting demoed, it would be all of NYC (like in the end of the first Ultimates book). “Widescreen” comics give us a grandeur of action on a planetary scale.

Icon of a Bygone Era?: Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, enthroned

But even when they were done right, “widescreens” always seemed to struggle with the intimate moments. Think of that conversation in the first Ultimates book that pushes Bruce Banner over the edge and gets him to Hulk out. Think of Jenny Sparks interrogating her husband in the first Authority collection.

What 70s movies excel at is blending those two storytelling tropes together. The grandeur of impressive spectacle and the intimacy of emotionally fraught human interaction. John Frankenheimer’s sublime car chase in The French Connection is only relevant because its animated by Popeye Doyle’s dogged intensity. That last bomb run in A New Hope only works because, without realizing it, Luke relies on the Force and turns off the targeting computer. And that’s what Descender succeeds at as well—blending together the two disparate threads; emotionally fraught intimacy and a visual aesthetic that places readers inside a panopticon of violence.

But the real story, my real story that leads me into Descender and then through, isn’t a story about the ‘70s. It’s a story about the ‘80s and a story about what happened faraway; intergenerational contestation that played out in Japan in the realm of manga publication. And it’s a story about why I felt the need to, let me emphasize that, why I felt I needed to, change my Twitter banner image.

Pretty much since Twitter had banner images, I’d had mine set to a single image. One you would rarely have seen before, but laced with meaning. Because sometimes, you got to pick a side. The image in question was an image of Akira, in many ways the absentee lead from the pages of Katsuhiro Otomo’ 2,000-plus page magnum opus of the same name.

Akira was a psychic in a world where humans had surrendered the use of, and ultimately turned their back on, their innate ability, favoring instead technology to intermediate their experience of the world. Read Otomo’s Akira closely enough and there’s a very clear message of a judgment delivered against those who would rather kill you with a tank than by strangling you. Those are the same kind of people who never develop telekinesis, or any other enhanced psychic abilities, Akira seems to intimate. You can read that off of nothing more than Akira’s blank stare and his incapacity to respond to external stimuli. He’s not autistic, quite the opposite. He’s so self-reliant even perception of external stimuli is a compromise of self-sufficiency.

But the reason for Akira decorating my Twitter banner does not lie with in the story itself, or even in the ideas the story provokes. Akira was my banner image because the its meaning drills down far deeper, into the creative DNA of the historical moment as much the book itself. Because sometimes when there’s a fight, sometimes you got to pick a side. And because no one deserves to be called the God of Comics, especially if that’s a title that comes from others.

By 1982, when Akira was first released in Japan, Osamu Tezuka had popularly become known as “Kamisama no Manga” or the God of Manga, an affectionate title given to him by fans as much by fellow creators of manga. Tezuka had earned that title, like Will Eisner or Jack Kirby or Julie Schwarz, Tezuka had been one of the great comics proselytizer throughout his career. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that the reason it’s culturally normative for 40-somethings in Japan to read comicbooks on their train commute into and out from work today, is down almost singlehandedly to the work of Osamu Tezuka. But in the process of honoring Tezuka, and mimicking his style of cartoonish simplicity, creativity had become stifled and output uniform.

New Colors to the Mast: Changing Banner Images on Twitter

Akira signaled a deliberate attempt by Otomo and his collaborators to break with the tradition of simply re-articulating the past, and instead attempt to redefine the creative techniques of manga. A return to popculture’s first principles, that’s something worthy celebrating, and continuing to celebrate. A breaking down of the walls of a self-enforced popcultural monopolistic creative style.

As powerful a cultural statement it is that Otomo makes with Akira, manga creator Naoki Urasawa makes a far more powerful one. What if the way from Tezuka’s monolithic dominance of the popcultural landscape is, as Trent Reznor suggested on The Fragile, is through? What Urasawa does with Pluto, rather than directly confront the diffuse and unquestioning acceptance of Tezuka’s tradition, is mitigate against it. How? By directly evolving Tezuka’s characters beyond their cartoonish simplicity. Instead of a “versus” dynamic, a “because of” evolutionary dynamic. Because of Tezuka we can now do this with his characters and settings, Urasawa seems to be saying.

And without knowing the terms of that cultural debate, Jeff Lemire’s Descender taps the same issues, as much within the structure of its story as within the debate around creator-owned versus mainstream produced. You won’t see the connections until after you’ve read the first issue, and the issues still to come, of Descender. But the debate is simple, it’s the story of making a choice—intergenerational evolution rather than intergenerational decimation. And that cultural narrative is shaped by a story that evolves rather than confronts the sensibilities of widescreen storytelling in comics.

Like so many cultural narratives in scifi, this is somewhere Bill Gibson treaded before the rest of us. In Distrust That Particular Flavor, Gibson writes about first meeting Otomo:

But even in Tokyo one finds a reassuring degree of Net-induced transitional anxiety, as I learned when I met Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira, a vastly popular multivolume graphic novel. Neither of us spoke the other's language: Our mutual publisher had supplied a translator, and our "conversation" was relentlessly documented. But Otomo and I were still able to share a moment of universal techno-angst.

Ironically it’s just a few paragraphs earlier in that same piece, “Rocket Radio,” a commission for Rolling Stone back in 1989, that Gibson gets to the heart of the techno-angst that drove Otomo in the first years of that same decade. Gibson writes:

“I belong to a generation of Americans who dimly recall the world prior to television. Many of us, I suspect, feel vaguely ashamed about this, as though the world before television was not quite, well, the world. The world before television equates with the world before the Net—the mass culture and the mechanisms of Information. And we are of the Net; to recall another mode of being is to admit to having once been something other than human.”

Take out the words, “the Net” and replace it with “Tezuka,” and you’ll better understand the terms of the world Otomo was facing.

Descender is certainly one of the most ambitious scifi space operas of all time, and maybe outright one of the best. Not only does Lemire evolve the debate from first- to second-phase space opera, moving the debate from biodiversity with technodiversity (humans and aliens with machines) to consciousness-diversity (an ecosystem of humans, aliens and robots evolving together), but he also leverages that story to enter into a debate the modes of creative production in a commercial market.

But that story’s best told by Jeff himself, in his own words. Tomorrow, in The Iconographies.

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