Descender is far from my favorite Lemire book. Back when I was able to say I had a single favorite writer, I would have said Jeff Lemire was my favorite writer, but even then I felt like Descender wasn’t his strongest work. That’s not to say it’s bad! It’s a solid book with absolutely incredible art on every page, but when it came down to it, the book just didn’t hit me as strongly as some of his other works.
When the book ended on a tease for Ascender, I was intrigued, and boy did that first volume work wonders. It turned the six volumes I’d previously read into history being referenced in passing, bringing the excitement of when Marvel references a random Bronze Age Spider-Man comic into the world of Descender. Seeing all these recognizable characters in entirely different situations was so interesting and made the world feel fresh.
Unfortunately, this feeling dissipates by the second volume. Jeff Lemire is not a writer who excels at worldbuilding, I’ve realized — his best works tend to take place in the real world, and the biggest aberration to that is essentially a pastiche on the past 80 years of superhero comics. Descender and Ascender are the books of his with the most original world around them, and I feel like they suffer when he has to dedicate time to fleshing them out rather than character work. This is especially true in this volume, which intends to fill in pretty large chunks of the gap between the final issue of Descender and the first issue of Ascender.
Each of the five issues collected in this trade serves to fill in some new information about the characters we’ve either been familiar with or are just now meting. We find out what led to Telsa becoming a ship captain, and her relationship with Helda. We find out some more about what happened to Effie and Andy, and we end up seeing the tragic conclusion of their relationship (more on that later). We learn a lot about the antagonist of the series, her backstory, and the world that her magic resides in. None of these expository scenes are bad at all, but they exist outside of the wondrous lens through which the first volume was experienced, making the whole thing feel less magical.
My complaints aren’t just a vague gesture toward the lack of wonder in the book. There’s some plot stuff that bothers me too, mainly how Lemire resolves the story with Andy and Effie. Fridging has been a tired trope for decades, and no matter how much emotional significance you try to give the moment, it always just feels gross. This specific part involves Effie being turned feral, and begging Andy to kill her in her brief moments of lucidity. Andy does it, and it’s supposed to be this big heartbreaking moment, but it instead just feels unpleasant and honestly kind of repulsive. We don’t need to kill women to make men feel sad — it’s 2020, and we should have stopped this at least two decades ago. It’s a frustrating plot point that really prevents this book from clicking for me, despite how good the art is.
And let me tell you, the art is stellar. Dustin Nguyen is one of the best artists currently working, and every page is gorgeous, as they tend to be when he’s working on them. The flashbacks to the more mechanical world look starkly different from the present day, more fantasy style, and both work exceptionally well. There’s nothing really more I can say about it beyond that, because it doesn’t really do anything new, but it does what it sets out to do incredibly well.
All in all though, I’m frustrated with this volume as a whole. Ascender was probably never going to be my favorite book or anything, but it’s reached a point of making decisions that actively hamper my enjoyment of it. I hope it improves.