When I heard Descenderspoken about at the Image event at San Diego Comic-Con 2014, there was a perceptible but very limited 3/4 of a second of silence from the audience as they tried to grapple with the idea that Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen were teaming up on a book. It was one of those moments when you realize that two largely separate aspects of your own fandom have just come together to create the comics version of a superweapon. The magnitude of it got nearly a full second of silence before the enthusiasm cut loose. Revealing the promo imagery nearly prompted a silence again. It was just something that had to be seen to be believed. There was something so strangely perfect yet unpredictable about the feel that Nguyen had already so clearly established for the book that it definitely made a firm impression on the audience even amid all the announcements made that day.
Now, we’re into Descender territory. The book is coming in a 30 page opening issue to stores in March, but I feel I ought to warn you that this book is so much more expansive than anything readers might be expecting. We knew it was about a cute kid robot in some way from the promo images, but what’s now becoming clear is that Lemire and Nguyen have exuberantly created an entire science fiction universe and are prepared to casually pile up the details to thoroughly convince you that you’re visiting foreign worlds. They are worlds oddly familiar, however, based in many ways on extensions of our own technological bent in the 21st century and the problems of industry that we currently face.
Two more teasers for what’s going to surprise you about the first issue of Descender: the absolute love of architecture and machinery that Nguyen throws into every panel of the book in trademark watercolor style to capture your imagination, and the unrushed but steady centrifugal force by which Lemire introduces and makes you care about the characters so far. In the end, the kickback on the first issue, no matter what you may be imagining, is going to be bigger than you expect.
Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen are kind enough to join us on Bleeding Cool today for a Q&A session about their new book.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Jeff, what made you decide you wanted to write a story that centered so much around technology, or at least the ways in which technology affects life in big ways?
Jeff Lemire: I think it’s just a projection of the world we live in. The difference between humanity’s reliance on technology from when I was a kid in the early 80’s to the world my own son, now 6, will grow up in is so immense.
Robotics, especially advanced robotics like what we have in the world of Descender, are sort of the ultimate example of this. Machines so complex that they are mirrors of us and become autonomous.
Having said that, I will say that the “humanity” of TIM-21 is at the core of the book, not so much an exploration of technology.
HMS: There are so many details and interesting contrasts in the first issue of Descender alone, like noting population levels at different locations at different points in time. Was it overwhelming creating the detail level for an entire planetary system, their history, and interrelationships?
JL: It was extremely FUN. I spend months building an entire universe. I have a big bible of the galaxy TIM-21 will be traversing. I know each planet, each alien species in great detail, and Dustin and I have worked really hard to give each world a very distinct look and feel. Even if all of this doesn’t make it onto the page, I think it will make the world feel more authentic in the end.
We also wanted a very diverse cast, not just robots, but aliens and humans of all kinds.
HMS: People are afraid of what they don’t understand and stereotyping or generalizing is certainly one of our most impulse-driven reflexes. Is that kind of knee-jerk reaction partly what this story is about?
JL: Yes, it’s not hard to look at our own world, the way we treat each other, the way we react to other cultures and races, and not see this fear and ignorance. So of course, that it a big part of the book. Using science-fiction to comment on that. But, the book isn’t “preachy” either. The metaphors aren’t that ham-fisted (I hope). There is a lot going on inDescender. A lot of theses running through it. Fear and ignorance being one.
HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed the character traits and personalities of Doctor Quon and TIM? And why are those traits important to this story?
JL: That’s a tough one to answer without tipping my hat about what’s to come. A lot of the way Quon and Tim are presented in the opening of the story is informed by where they will be when the story ends.
Quon, in particular, is a pretty complex character. He seems like one thing at the beginning of the book, but there is a lot going on, and a lot that will happen, that will force the reader to constantly reframe how they view him. Likewise for Telsa, our other major supporting character.
HMS: How does Descender fit into your wider creative goals right now? Is working on a sci-fi story, for instance, something you try to return to from time to time?
JL: For me, Descender is the culmination of everything I’ve done. It takes a lot of the themes from Sweet Tooth and Trillium and, hopefully, takes those to a whole new level.
What I’m enjoying most is the sheer freedom. Being able to live in this huge world we’ve built and do whatever we want. We only have to answer to each other at Image. That freedom is exhilarating and really has me fired up, creatively.
[Variant cover by Jeff Lemire for Issue #1]
HMS: Dustin, here you are on a creator-owned book from Image. I know you’ve loved working on known characters and re-inventing them in some ways, but what is it like to be composing whole new worlds and characters of a sci-fi variety?
Dustin Nguyen: Its extremely, insanely, FUN. Plus being its a whole new property that we start from the ground up, there’s no restrictions or limitations, we can truly cut loose and do whatever the hell we want – which is the best part when it comes to making up new characters and worlds.
HMS: What has your process been like on a book that requires so much design and no doubt consistency? Do you have to do endless personal reference sketches for locations and characters?
DN: It’s actually been pretty freaking relaxing. Being Jeff and I are the only ones to answer to each other, it just makes it a TON easier, less cooks in the kitchen! We throw sketches and notes back and forth, it’s easy to reference your own work as well, and if anything needs changing or to be made up on the fly, I do it right there on the page. I trust Jeff to write amazing stories, and he trusts me to tell that story the way I see works. It’s how comics should be done, I think.
HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about what elements influenced your design of space ships and city-scapes and space-stations in the first issue?
DN: I grew up on mostly Transformers G1 material, and endless Macross/ Robotechmecha. I think you’ll see a lot of that…that clunky, very old-school style of machinery. I admit, its a bit dated in design, but damn I love it. Of course, in a setting as big as the one we’re creating, I also draw influences from plenty of other things so that we can vary different civilizations and cultures, relating to the anthropology of their inhabitants.
Stylistically, A lot of my actual interior and space station designs are call backs to the earlier years before comics, when I was doing 3D mechanical design and HVAC for different architectural firms. Again, probably dated in design, but I have a ton of fun drawing it.
[Sketch by Dustin Nguyen of TIM 21]
HMS: How did you devise the “look” of TIM’s unfolding of robot capabilities in the full-page spread in issue #1? Were there other iterations before you settled on this version?
DN: That was based off Jeff’s description of how TIM 21 reacts when threatened- kinda freaky. I did a few takes on it, but it was mostly to get TIM’s human aspects the way I wanted and not so much the robot parts. I sort of imagined it the way a Siamese fighting fish male flares out its gills when it sees another, or its own reflection.
HMS: What sorts of things are you most looking forward to illustrating as Descender continues?
DN: There’s a flashback sequence Jeff just wrote and the storytelling elements in it is fantastic. Besides that- the most exciting thing will be us trying out different ways to tell this gigantic story based around TIM, and having as much fun as we can. Oh, and some sweet aliens and robots :)
*Side note: You really have to check out Dustin Nguyen’s Tumblr for teaser images in process for Descender and other cool stuff. Jeff Lemire’s blogspot will also keep you up to date on his approximately one million equally interesting comics projects.