Four years ago, when Descender hit comic book store shelves, it was met with excitement based mostly on the creative team. Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen weren’t exactly unknown names at the time, but hard science fiction stories can be a tough sell in comics. Descender is part of a larger swell of imaginative, exploratory creator-owned series that have pushed the medium of monthly comics into new territory, and now Lemire and Nguyen are poised to take on the next chapter in this ambitious story.
It wouldn’t be impossible to read Ascender #1 without reading Descender first, but navigating through it without the larger context would rob readers of some fun. Particularly the final issue of Descender, where Lemire wrote a letter to the readers about how their response to Descender changed the trajectory of the story he and Nguyen were telling gives readers valuable insight into where Ascender, and its creators, are coming from. The issue opens in familiar locations but with unfamiliar faces; the panels include helpful reminders of when readers last saw various planets, and what they were like before the end of Descender. For readers who want an even more in-depth reminder of what happened over the previous series, Image has provided a timeline on its website.
Ascender doesn’t feel as surprising and fresh as Descender did, but Nguyen’s art is as textured and beautiful as ever, and with the roots of this world firmly planted already, he has more room to play around. With robots gone and all advanced technology with it, Ascender has a lot more rich color and is teeming with a different kind of life than Descender. The two books make wonderful contrasts to one another. The first few pages introduce readers to this story’s ostensible villain, a mysterious witch named Mother who seems to control the universe with the same jackbooted approach that the United Galactic Council used to take.
The most fun part of Ascender though is seeing familiar faces. The main character, Mira, was introduced in the final pages of the last issue of Descender, the young daughter of Andy, Tim-21’s brother. Andy is struggling with Mira’s desire to join the rest of the world under Mother, while he recognizes the danger the woman poses and how much has been sacrificed to keep them apart from the threat that she poses. More recognizable friends appear, and the issue ends on a cliffhanger that’s perfectly Lemire and Nguyen.
As a comic, Ascender is enjoyable, a visual delight thanks to Nguyen and letterer Steve Wands, who also did a remarkable job on the first series. But the book really excels as a companion and sibling to Descender. It’s in the contrasts between technology and magic, male and female that these two books find deeper, richer meaning. Lemire did admit that he’d thought Descender would be the end of this particular story and fans played a big role in sparking the light that brought Ascender to life, but it’s also clear that both books will be stronger for having the other to be reflected against. It’s no surprise that the characters are interesting and the story is compelling; the creative team is very good at what they do. But the particular joy of Ascender is found in that comparison, something very few comics can offer.