Jeff Lemire on the Coming-Through-Slaughter of ‘Descender’
The interview with creator Jeff Lemire on his newest book Descender, which releases in March.
There’s a moment when Jeff Lemire’s voice strains during the interview; it has nothing to do with Descender. It’s a moment where he’s not haunted by the past, but unable to process emotionally the prospect of having survived the past. And not only survived the past but flourished. Things shouldn’t be this good, maybe he’s thinking, after they were that bad. Maybe that’s what he’s thinking. I wouldn’t be able to say, I don’t know. Because I don’t push him on this subject. It feels wrong, it feels like an intrusion. So I don’t push. But reading this interview, you need to know there’s a moment where a kind of survivor’s guilt at the prospect of not only success but mastery creeps into this interview. It’s a moment that appears like a cosmic-level robot in near-earth orbit. Just like a cosmic-level robot actually appears in the opening pages of the first issue of Descender. And it’s a moment that like that space robot comes to dominate and simply dwarf everything else around it. It’s a coming-through-slaughter moment for Jeff and his creativity. And it’s a moment I’m both humbled and privileged to have witnessed. And you might be to, when the moment arrives at the start of the last third of this interview. Because that’s the real meaning of Descender.
But that’s not Lemire’s tone throughout the interview. He’s been generous with his time, and Lemire talks a great speed, and with certainty and confidence in his voice. It’s like we’re waiting on the platform and trains are racing by down the el, will we get in what needs to be said before the last train comes?
We begin with the genesis for Descender, a creator-owned space opera centered around Tim-21 who’s already begun to evidence a human emotional palette, portraying qualities like compassion and loneliness. Descender, which sees Lemire as writer collaborate with Dustin Nguyen as artist, really does mark a triumphant return to independent comics. After Animal Man and Justice League Dark and more recently Green Arrow, Lemire returns to the kind of work that first garnered fans’ attentions. Work like Sweet Tooth or The Nobody or (written while Lemire was working in mainstream superhero comics) Trillium. But Descender is nothing like Lemire’s earlier work, not in mainstream superhero comics or in independent creator-owned work. It’s not even like anything you imagined Lemire would do. It’s epic in scope and cosmic in scale. The idea itself, and how Lemire got to the idea, is as much of the tale as anything. So we begin with the genesis. Every idea in comics, has an origin story.
“Well the initial ideas, well sort of the root of the idea, I had before I contacted Dustin (Nguyen) were pretty unformed,” Lemire begins, “They were pretty general, undeveloped pics that I had in my head. Just something to do with robots. And in particular this young robot at the center. You know I’ve always liked stories and done stories from a child’s point of view, and it’s something I’ve kind of explored in all my work. So adding this layer of humanity versus machine, and this protagonist not being human and just having him be adrift in the galaxy are just general ideas that I’ve had before collaborating with Dustin.”
Lemire continues after a slight pause, “When I talked to him (Nguyen) about it, he really liked it a lot. He wanted to do it in…” another pause, then immediately, Lemire pushes on, “he’s input early on it was that he just wanted to draw a lot of different environments. And different places, all the time. Just to keep the book fresh and keep him excited. So that’s when I began to build the universe that Descender would be taking place in. And by that I mean build the different planets and alien races and all these science fiction elements. I knew it would be part of the book, but I hadn’t really started yet on working them out and that’s when I began. So I spent a lot of the time doing that.”
Given the opening, the inciting incident in technical scripting parlance, it’s hard not to position Descender outside the realm of comics and within the same categorization as the epic films from the late 1960s and throughout the ‘70s. The conversation shifts to the obvious, to how Lemire might have, if at all, drawn inspiration from this period of cinematic history, and from which moments specifically.
“I drew from a lot of different things that I was influenced by, 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably my favorite movie. Kubrick in particular is one of my artistic idols, so the pacing and the sense of wonder and mystery and things like that I wanted to get into the book, if I could. Also that led me onto an interesting path of Jack Kirby’s comicbook adaptations of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I started reading those and discovered the Machine Man character and found those great stories he was doing in the, I guess the ‘70s. So then I started on this weird mix of Kubrick and Kirby.”
There’s a chuckle and an affectionate kind of resignation in Lemire’s voice. Kirby and Kubrick are both giants in their fields. Lemire continues, “And then things like Pluto the manga, which I read last year, and just really fell in love with, the heart of that story. So that was a big influence as well. I’d be lying if I said A.I. wasn’t an influence, the Spielberg film, but I guess, to be diplomatic, I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, but I was a huge fan of what it could be.”
Lemire chuckles again, he’s being politic. He continues, “I found things in there that were so great and it sort of spurred my own imagination of how I would execute them. So all those things were sort of I guess the soup from which we built Descender over the last year.”
I venture into the first big question, at least for me. Earlier, and I’d have a promo copy of the first issue of Descender for about a week (maybe a little more) prior to interviewing Lemire. One image stuck for me, and it was so powerful and enduring, it prompted me to include it in a pull quote I wrote for my appraisal of the book. Earlier I said, “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.”
Weird to cross-reference that kind of movie, a political thriller about the takedown by journalists of the deeply problematic Nixon Administration. But there was something about the cinematic tone and the power of the visual storytelling that I felt resonated between Descender and All the President’s Men. How far out there was I? Was I all the way out there? Or was there something else, something deeper at work. Could Descender be priming me, and quite possibly you, to think about a political thriller from four decades ago?
So I pull the trigger, no need to spare any embarrassment. I ask the question, and there’s a slight chuckle from Lemire. “You know it’s funny you say that,” he begins, “because I don’t know if that was consciously any sort of an influence on it, but I do remember actually I watched that film on an airplane last year, right around the time I was working on, started working on, Descender. I was coming off from one connection to another, I watched All the President’s Men on the flight. So maybe that worked its way in or somewhere.”
We pull back the curtain a little farther, and discuss the visual storytelling of the opening sequence where the “Mystery In Space” that kickstarts the events of the plot is actually unfolded. Lemire begins, “It really just is a simple matter of drawing there reader into the world. I think what you mentioned there was exactly what I was going for. Sort of like this huge entry point where you see this technopolis, then we go right into the most human view we can find by first of all seeing a child, a baby who’s crying, who seems to be aware that something is going to happen before anyone else. And then Quon who is certainly a flag character, and a very human character. And we get a glimpse of that. In that scene, in that issue, you learn more and more about him. So we just start with one human character who’s very human, and then flipping, as you said, to machines that are so big and godlike, as far as the human gets. So it’s zooming in and zooming out, and hopefully that action really grabs the reader going forward, this sweeping opening sequence.”
But we don’t stop there. We plow ahead discussing the next introduction scene and the ethics of giving the audience time. “Yeah, that was the secret to that sequence,” Lemire says, responding to my appraisal of the scene where Lemire and Nguyen keep the emotional tension of loneliness and isolation for Tim-21 rather than backslide into the very much anticipated all-out mayhem of scifi survivalist horror like Alien. “I drew on my resources, Kubrick and even to a degree David Lynch, creators who create these worlds and aren’t afraid to take time and let things move at their own pace. There’re two or three pages where really it’s really just Tim wandering through this world and it’s completely silent for the most part. And Dustin executed these really big cinematic shots which Dustin executed wonderfully. And you get this really cold, sort of dirty feel of this place. This cavernous place, and he’s just alone in it. So yeah I don’t overload it with exposition or dialog or any action really. And I think that’s what really helps to set that mood or that tone which allows the reader to take their time as well. I think one of the things you lose a lot, and I know this from experience when you write superhero comics or mainstream comics you always have to execute so much plot in any given issue, and you don’t have time to let things take their time. Let certain sequences take up space on the page to create time for the reader and that’s what I always love playing with in my own independent work, when I draw it myself. And in Descender the ability to be my own boss and not need any editorial mandates, that I need a certain amount of action, you know, and really just create a mood in this opening issue and create some extra pages to do that.”
After a decade of deactivation Tim-21 awakes to discover the horror the galaxy's become.
We wind our way into considering Tim-21, all alone in the endless cold and abandon of a mining colony where everyone’s died. Lemire continues, “There’s a few things that’s going on there. Obviously it’s a classic kind of scene, I mean a boy and his dog, there’s nothing more basic than that. They’re so human and so simple, and yet, to see machines acting that way is almost shocking. Especially in this cavernous, cold world that we’ve shown. It’s really my way of wanting the reader to see that clearly Tim is going to be the most human force in this whole story, in a lot of ways, even though he’s a robot. He’s going to be the heart of this thing, and that robots in this world are evolved to a point where maybe they transcend humanity even. That they’re more human than us even, at this point.”
He continues, “And that’s something I’m going to be playing with later. It’s all just again, setting the mood and the tone and trying to make the reader really connect with this character and make the reader do something very relatable, like having a dog and belonging but also being lonely. And how Bandit (the robot dog) takes that loneliness away even just for a moment, helps the reader instantly connect with Tim. Even though we saw him as this machine, he’s clearly more than a machine. So that’s what that whole scene is just constructed to convey the idea that Tim’s so much more than a machine and that the robots are more than just tools.”
Obviously, a book like Descender wrestles with the kind of techno-angst William Gibson describes in a nonfiction essay, “Rocket Radio,” commissioned for Rolling Stone in 1989 (see yesterday’s Iconographies). In this piece, Gibson suggests:
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.
It’s a thought as chilling as anything, what if the simple fact of your birth predating essential technology compromises your humanity at some level? What if certain kinds of technology are somehow formative of the human condition? What if those of you born before us, born before the inception of Internet just aren’t human in the same way we are? What if the only true humans, are the Millennials? Project Gibson’s fear into an age of the rise of the machine, and you’re face with an entirely different complication—the problem of the coming Singularity. What if our technology gains sentience and somehow begins to feel the same way about the bits of it that are embarrassingly biological? By introducing the character arc of many of the robots being more compassionate than the humans, Descender puts an entirely different spin on the problem of the coming Singularity.
Lemire ponders this notion through a key scene in the first issue. He suggests, “The first part, I think that has the fear of the coming singularity, if you say that machines are evolving past us and picking up speed. That’s something that’s very much at the root of this book, that fear, we don’t focus too much on it in the first issue but that fear is what I think is behind the inevitable outline of robots and destruction of them. That there’s something so big and so far beyond human understanding happens, that’s clearly machine-based. But this inherent fear of sort of cosmic threats, it’s all tied in. The thing that I’ve always found interesting about robots is that there’s something so arrogant about building robots to me. It’s like building machines in a weird way is like playing God, and they reflect us back. But then you think about what’s coming and how the things we build become like us and…”
There’s a chuckle from Lemire, and a warm kind of resignation in his voice. “I’m not really saying anything new, but all of this is stuff that’s in the book. You look at Tim and he’s so human. He’s not cold or calculating and…” Lemire’s voice trails off again, like he’s come up against a hard concrete barrier.
He continues with that thought, “It’s hard to answer some of the questions because I don’t want to spoil some of the things coming,” he finally continues after weighing what to say, “But in issue two we really get to see Tim’s evolution from machine to the boy that we meet in issue one. Through flashbacks we kind of see him when he’s first created and how his very much a machine and very cold. And it isn’t until he starts interacting with humans that he tries to evolve and adapt and that he tries to become human himself. And that’s sort of part of Tim’s journey. One of the things I’m really playing with is that the horrors and several things we’re doing to one another is much more cold and calculating than these machines. I try to make the robots much more human than the alien or human characters.”
We pause for a moment, right before we get to the moment that will dwarf all others in this interview. This is the moment, if this conversation were a Lord of the Rings movie, we’d be in Rivendell. A brief moment in a clean, well-lighted place before the much more impending and imposing things to come. We just consider Descender against the backdrop of the etymology of “robot.”
The etymology of robot
“That’s actually very interesting. Yeah that’s actually at the heart of Descender in the way that humanity has treated robots. In like how we need them, and also how Tim is obviously so human. And we’ll see as the series goes on how they really were treated like third class citizens. And that’s at the root of some of the things that have happened. A big part of, what I think I’m trying to say with Descender.”
This is where it begins, this is where we’re invited deep into the psychological underpinnings of Jeff Lemire’s creative process. This is where we begin to understand his struggle toward creativity in the most reasonable and compassionate light. This is where Jeff begins one of the Greats. And like everything of this kind, it starts with a simple enough question.
What about Dr. Quon? I’m curious to know. He seems to be the single character around which the first issue revolves. Sure there’s Tim-21 and he’s the emotional core. But Quon’s journey seems to be the galaxy’s journey. And Lemire tells this wonderfully with the same scene, retold ten years apart. In both the earlier and the later scene, Quon is rudely awoken from slumber. First, ten years ago, he’s summoned by the Science Council of the Galactic Federation to help them confront the Mystery In Space that kickstarts the story of Descender. Quon’s young, handsome, clean-shaven, immediately alert, hopeful and idealistic in a galaxy where all of those attributions are supported by clean, life-affirming technology and an economy sophisticated and humane enough to support that kind of ideation. And in the second scene, Quon’s older, grittier, weathered, beat-down by unrepentant, unshaven, he’s fallen into gambling and racked up the debt and measures out his days, already his dying days, in a world where bookies’ debt collectors enjoy the same authority and political power that once a stable a mature Galactic Republic did. What happened in those few pages when we first met him just broke Quon, and absolutely ruined the world. So what about Quon?
Lemire goes straight into it, like there’s a train rushing by in the distance. He says, “Yeah absolutely. Quon is the most key character in the book by a long stretch,” Lemire begins, “It’s just like you said, he goes from being this son of the universe, this bright shining star on the vanguard of technology creating these robots that are becoming more and more advanced and more and more human and then suddenly everything he’s built his life around becomes the thing this galaxy, this United Galactic Planets, this economy, this universe, turns against and destroys. So there’s no better focal point for that transition, like you said, from this advanced booming economy, to this postwar economy. Quon’s going to go to some pretty interesting places that are very different from what we’ve seen in issue one as well.”
Then, a long pause, and Lemire continues right up until his voice begins to crackle just a little. He starts, “It’s tough not to tip my hand there. But yeah, you know, I think it’s all very much a part of this, when I first started doing comics 15 years ago, it was right before 9/11 and I lived through that and I started developing a storytelling voice by seeing the world around me. And my fiction, I would use it as a vehicle for that. You know, I think there’s a lot going on in Descender commenting on that, but I also think there’s classism, these robots are referred to as the lowest class in this world, even though they’re clearly as human as the human characters. And there’s just hopefully a very interesting kind of comment on, what you’re saying, humanity’s relationship with technology. I do think it is hopefully working on a number of different levels. And Quon is…” there’s a slight pause, “It Tim’s story but Quon and also Telsa who we meet in issue one, we’ll get to know them a lot better as the series goes on, those three. They represent different viewpoints and they very much share the lead of the book in a lot of ways.”
You can guess where there’s a change in his voice. Right at the moment when he mentions 9/11. I really want to ask but I don’t. It would be an intrusion. Jeff Lemire’s the Apple of artistic creativity. For both, their success comes from the crucible of one of the darkest moments in US history. It’s clear that Descender means a great deal to Lemire. But as much as the book is constructed by a narrative of mastery, of Jeff getting better and better at doing great comics, all the time, there’s also a second narrative of remembrance. Descender is as powerful as it is, not only because it masters all of scifi, as I suggested yesterday, but because it reminds us that it should have been impossible to make it to where we are after what happened to us. It’s one of the most personal moments, one of the most emotionally honest, I’ve come across during an interview. And it’s the real heart of Descender, the idea that we can repair ourselves, even after great tragedy, and the idea of Jeff Lemire.
If Gibson suggests that sometimes you feel a little less human if you’ve been alive before certain essential technologies, then maybe after 9/11, Lemire reminds us, maybe that’s been reversed. Maybe now, we can humanize more effectively by harnessing what once was. Maybe the correct response to Adorno’s “No Poetry After Auschwitz” is “Know Poetry After Auschwitz.” And that’s the real power of Lemire’s Descender.
The conversation doesn’t end there. There’s still plenty more to get through. We talk about influences one last time, and about intergenerational mastery of the comics and cinematic arts.
“Certainly Pluto was very much a direct I guess, to use your word, collaboration,” Lemire begins, “But looking at Kirby and stuff it’s all in there, but I don’t know that, I don’t know how closely I would consider it…” There’s a pause and Lemire considers the implications of what I’ve said. Maybe my question’s prompted him to weigh up the prospect of something I think I already understand—namely, that when you work like Lemire does, there’s a liminality between being inspired by and referencing, on the one hand, and, on the other, actively engaging with and working through the thematic implications of past masters of the comics art. At what point then, does the nature of your relationship with those past masters change? At what point then, does your own art become an interlocutor for their art, in the minds and the everyday behaviors of fans? At what point does your audience begin to count as one of those greats of the comics art?
“That is interesting,” Lemire reaffirms, “I think all the things that I grew up reading and all my influences are such a big part of me as a storyteller that it’s hard to separate sometimes. Yeah, the Kirby thing, and the Kubrick thing, those are the two guiding lights on the book. So in a way it’s almost like you feel like you’re carrying a torch a little bit.”
And even then, even then we continue on. There’s still much to talk about in the remaining five issues of the first storyarc. And in front of us, another train rushes by.