Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen gained quite some renown through their science fiction original series Descender, which introduced a massive universe where robots are ubiquitous and a part of everyday life. After 32 issues charting the course of the main characters of the series as well as the entire world, Descender concluded with a massive ending to shake up the status quo for the series and provide room for a sequel. Now the first volume of Ascender has released, picking up 10 years after the conclusion of Descender, with a world that has clearly changed in countless ways since readers would have last seen it.
Ascender opens by introducing a familiar location – the former capital of the UGC. Yet from the very first panel this planet is wholly unrecognizable, covered in nature with technology nowhere to be found. This is a microcosm of the entire world of Ascender, where the once-familiar technocracy has been replaced entirely by magic and fantasy. The atmosphere and mood provided to the world keep Ascender feeling unique and original, and the sense of unfamiliarity makes it incredibly accessible to those who have read Descender and those who start with this volume. While the experiences are sure to be different due to some callbacks to Descender, the series does an excellent job providing enough exposition to newer readers through the lens of the main character Mila, who was born after the events of Descender.
Mila as the lens to view the world through is an incredibly inspired choice on Lemire’s part. Mila is an enjoyable character, written as a relatable child who isn’t a jerk or unintelligent, but just wants more independence. Her sense of wonder is palpable, and her desire to be free is one of the strongest emotions in the whole comic. Her father Andy’s point of view is equally interesting, as he embodies the readers who came from reading Descender, and remember the events of that series. His connection to the world is different, it is visibly not his own, while it is definitely Mila’s. The juxtaposition between Andy and Mila makes every scene with the two of them incredibly engaging for fans new and old alike.
Mother, the villain of the series so far is incredibly interesting. She embodies the new world, and has clearly amassed power while the rest of society was still recovering from the loss of robots. The breadth of her power is evident early on, as is her brutality. Every scene she appears in has an atmosphere that just covers the page, she exudes power and fear. Even when she doesn’t appear, the sight of her soldiers inspires dread, and it is clear that she is willing to use her power for her own ends no matter what. Just as Mother embodies the danger of the new world, Bandit – Andy’s robot dog – represents the safety of the old world. Bandit’s appearance brings a wave of familiarity and safety to the book, and his apparently new capabilities make him even more interesting than he was before. Bandit’s return to Andy is one of the most heartwarming scenes in the entire book, especially when juxtaposed with the horrific scenes of torture that Mother inflicts on others.
Dustin Nguyen’s art is a massive part of what makes this book as impressive as it is. Every page is gorgeous, with character designs that are distinctive from the beginning, and landscapes that are a joy to look at. The layouts aren’t as flashy as they were in Descender, but the colors are even better than they were, and the entire book is incredible to read. Nguyen’s ability to draw facial expressions and body language adds a level of authenticity to the book, making every character consistently expressive. The watercolors make the whole thing even stronger as a whole, making everything feel fantastical and different. It really cannot be said enough how incredible the art is, and how well it complements the writing.
Ascender is an excellent sequel to Descender, as both Lemire and Nguyen have improved upon their craft to release a comic that’s better than the majority of its predecessor. The character beats hit harder, the antagonist is far more menacing, and the art is an unbelievable improvement to an already gorgeous style. This volume is accessible to new readers while still being rewarding for those who have read Descender, and is well worth the read for both groups.
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