Interview: Jeff Lemire on the Stellar Future of Descender [Exclusive Art]

By: Lindsey Morris 

 

2015 is already a banner year for the creators of Descender, which has seen smashing success weeks before the release of its first issue. With the film rights recently acquired by Sony Pictures and amazing groundswell from the gorgeous preview pages, Descender is poised as an early contender for the best comic of the year.

Writer Jeff Lemire was kind enough to speak with Comics Beat about the incredible universe he has been crafting with co-creator and artist Dustin Nguyen in their new monthly ongoing series.


Comics Beat: Let’s start with a summary of Descender. What can readers expect from the series?

Jeff Lemire: So Descender is a science fiction comic in an ongoing series that I’m writing, and Dustin Nguyen is drawing and painting. The story sort of focuses on a young boy robot named Tim-21 who becomes, for various reasons, the most hunted robot in a universe where all robots, androids, and AI have been outlawed, hunted, and destroyed. There is something special about Tim and the secrets surrounding his origin that make him the most sought after robot in the universe.

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Jeff Lemire #1 Variant

CB: Tell me about the process for creating this story. You’re blending themes that you’ve worked with before in Sweet Tooth and Trillium like time, space, and being ostracized and hunted. Did this narrative come naturally to you?

JL: It certainly is an exploration of stuff that I’ve touched on in the past, but in a lot of ways … Like in Sweet Tooth, there’s the idea of the complete innocent, lost in a world full of fear and hatred and violence. Seeing it through his eyes is always something that has fascinated me and continues to.

I think as a parent myself, I kind of look at the world that my son will grow up in, and the fear and ignorance in everything going on – and it’s a scary place. I start to worry about what will happen when I can’t protect him from that anymore, so that’s always something that’s very much on my mind, and definitely something that went into Sweet Tooth, and again into Descender.

I think Descender has maybe something a bit new for me, in terms of exploring our relationship with technology. And again, I think that goes back to my son. He’s six now and I look at his relationship with technology compared to how it was for me when I was six. I’m 40 now, so you know, when I was a kid we didn’t even have computers in our houses or anything and here he is swiping an iPad when he’s five. It’s such a bizarre leap in technology and just the way he relates to technology. So that’s something that was on my mind as well. You look at Tim, and he epitomizes that, because he IS technology. He’s the ultimate interface between mankind and technology – he’s a robot so advanced that, in a lot of ways, he’s the most human character in the book.

So that was all swimming around in my head when I was developing the story, for sure.

CB: It’s funny you should say that, because when I was reading the first issue, I actually forgot for awhile that Tim was a robot.

JL: Yeah, I kind of wanted that. When I was first writing, I almost wrote it so that the first half of the book you think he’s just a normal boy, until he kind of reveals himself. And the way Dustin watercolors the book – the humanity he puts into the faces of the children and in general – I knew, hopefully, that Tim would be a very relatable character.

CB: Well Dustin is doing an amazing job, those pages are breath-taking.

JL: Yeah, it’s crazy he can do that on a monthly schedule. He’s a machine. Dustin was exclusive at DC for I think 14 years, and I think he was underused there. They sort of took him for granted just because he was so reliable. He’s one of those rare guys that can do the monthly deadline without much of a problem. So when they had something they needed to get done, they went to him, and as a result he didn’t get much opportunity to spread his wings. I’d see his sketchbooks and stuff at conventions, and I saw the drawings and paintings he’d do, and I knew that if he had a chance to do creator-owned, he’d really catch some people by surprise. He’s really embraced the opportunity on this book for sure. I’m pretty lucky to be working with him.

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A Nguyen sketch for Tim-21

CB: So how did you two end up on this project together?

JL: Well I was at DC as well for what, five years? So Dustin and I just got to know each other through circumstance of being at events together or whatever. I think we both really admired each others work and always talked about wanting to do something together. And then I knew his exclusive was finally coming up and mine was as well, and I was looking to do more creator-owned stuff so it just seemed like a great time for us to try something, and he was really into the idea. So it was just a combination of good timing, and us both being at a point in our careers where we were both anxious to do more creator-owned stuff.

It’s a very effortless collaboration to be sure, and he’s an easy-going guy, so it’s very easy. I’m very hands-off with him, and he’s the same with me, because we really like each others work and just let each other do our thing. It’s very relaxed – there’s very little communication outside of “Oh, this looks cool, thanks!”

CB: Well that was actually my next question, because it seems like you maybe don’t give him too much direction, and just let him go nuts. All that freedom could be a little overwhelming to some, but you both seem to be taking it in incredible stride.

JL: Yeah, I know his work, so I knew that we both come at visual story-telling from a similar place. I knew just inherently that he would tell a story just as good or better than I could if I was doing layouts or whatever, so I didn’t feel the need to control that element. I just let him do his thing and it’s been awesome working with him.

Comics Beat exclusive look at the Ray Fawkes variant cover.

Exclusive look at the Ray Fawkes #1 variant cover.

CB: Did you have the watercolor medium in mind already when crafting the story?

JL: No, I think I had a one-page sort of pitch of Descender that I showed him, and it was pretty undeveloped at that time, just the basic idea. The idea of him doing it in watercolor wasn’t part of it then, but as soon as he said he wanted to do that I got really excited about the possibilities.

Another thing Dustin does really well is he has a background in design. So when you’re building these cultures, worlds, technologies, architectures, and everything else, he can actually design that stuff. He has the robots figured out on a 3-dimensional level where he can actually take them apart and put them back together. So when you have that degree of design sensibility in the pages, but then executed it in watercolor, which is a very organic looking medium, it creates a very interesting visual tension on the page.

Sci-fi can be very cold and sterile, depending on the artist, so the use of watercolor gives it a certain sense of life, an organic look that I really like.

CB: So how long was the first issue in the making? It’s almost flawless, so a lot of careful work must have gone into creating this introduction.

JL: Just by the nature of the story there was a lot of ground work to be done before I could start writing scripts. The story itself revolves around a central mystery involving Tim, and these giant robots that appear in issue one – what they could be and what they might mean. So there was a lot of things I had to make sure I had figured out, and I had to know where I was going.

On top of that, just the world building. There’s I think 12 or 13 different planets at this point that we’ll be visiting throughout the story, and I wanted each one to feel like a real place. So you have to put a lot of work into designing and figuring out the technologies and cultures of these worlds, just to give them a different look and feel from one another. There was a few months of hardcore world-building and plotting before I wrote scripts. It’s been awhile – at least 8 months before I wrote any scripts.

CB: The first issue of Descender is already incredible cinematic. Was that on your mind while creating this universe?

JL: Oh, for sure. When Dustin and I started talking about Descender and conceiving it, our influences were a lot more cinematic than comic. Just by its nature the sci-fi we really loved tended to be films or television shows, and not so much comics. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie, so a lot of Kubrick’s pacing and the way he frames shots were really in my mind, and Dustin’s as well. Dustin brings his own set of influences, but I really feel like the pacing on this is a lot more cinematic than other work that I’ve done.

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CB: So Sony Pictures recently acquired the film rights to Descender. And super quickly!

JL: Haha, yeah it all happened very quick. I’ve had other properties or stuff I’ve created… there’s always talk of stuff happening, options and stuff, but it takes forever for anything to actually get done, or it falls through. But this one, for whatever reason, as soon as we announced the book at San Diego last year with Dustin’s promo image, there was just a ton of interest from Hollywood right away. I guess it just sparked something, and basically as soon as we had the first issue ready we started getting offers. It was a bit of a whirlwind.

At the end of the day it’s very exciting and everything, but Dustin and I mostly just care about telling the comic. I kind of write for him. I write stuff that hopefully he’ll think is really gonna be fun to draw, and when he reads the scripts and reacts, that’s sort of the satisfaction I have. That and seeing the art come in. If the movie stuff keeps happening and turns out to be good, that’s awesome, but again, I’m really focused on the comic. That’s what I control and that’s what I can get excited about.

CB: Is there anything else you can tell us about what we have to look forward to in the wake of Descender #1?

JL: Yeah, well every issue is going to be painted, which is fun. The cast is a little bigger than the first issue would have you believe. Tim-21, it’s his story, but there are a lot of other characters that bring different points of view to this universe that I’m excited to explore. Issue #2 kind of focuses a bit more on Tim’s past. We see how he came to the colony, and his first interactions with humanity and how they made him who he is. We learn that he’s very adaptable. You know, he’s a machine created in a laboratory, and he was sent to this colony and you kind of see how his first interactions with humankind evolved him into this character that you see in #1.

The final call for pre-orders is Monday, 2/9/15, so be sure to use Diamond Order Code JAN150567 to reserve your copy!

Descender #1 hits the shelves 3/4/15 from Image Comics.

SDCC ’14: Jeff Lemire Explores A Futuristic Universe Through A Child’s Point Of View In ‘Descender’

DescenderCoverFinalLowRes-01By Kyle Pinion

Announced at Image Expo this year at San Diego Comic Con, Jeff Lemire’s first ongoing series with Image, Descender, is described thusly:

Ten years ago massive, planet-sized robots called “The Harvesters” materialized without warning and invaded the orbits of all the United Galactic Council’s worlds wiping out entire planets and civilizations before disappearing again. In a fear-fueled response to this machine holocaust, the galaxy blamed millions of robotic companions, whom they suspected of somehow spawning The Harvesters. All robots and androids were immediately outlawed and ruthless bounty hunters called Scrappers were charged with scouring the universe for any surviving robots.

The incredibly life-like artificial boy, TIM-21 may hold the secrets to the origin of The Harvesters deep in his machine DNA—and as a result is the most-wanted robot in the universe. With only his small pet-bot, Bandit and the lumbering mining droid, Driller at his side, TIM-21 goes on the run. Before long the entire galaxy is looking for this rag-tag group of unlikely companions, as they make their way from one exotic planet to the next with new foes advancing on them at every turn.

 

Lemire and I chatted briefly about this exciting new series as a third part to our earlier discussions about his upcoming DC Comics work and The Black Hammer at Dark Horse. We discussed some of the sci-fi direction of the series and just why the child-protagonist was such a key choice for Lemire and his collaborator Dustin Nguyen.

What triggered the idea for Descender? How long has it been percolating?

Descender actually started as an idea for a company owned character. Then I realized as if changed and grew that it was becoming something totally different and I would be better served to go all the way and make it into a creator-owned project. I’m drawing a 200+ page graphic novel for Simon and Schuster right now called Roughneck, so I knew I wouldn’t have time to draw Descender or The Black Hammer so I decided to try working with other artists whom I admire and want to work with.

With Trillium, Justice League United (to an extent) and now Descender, you’ve started to edge more towards science fiction, is that a major area of influence for you as a writer?

My work has always drifted towards genre. Even the first Essex County had scenes that were steeped in “magical realism” or genre. And I would argue that Sweet Tooth and Nobody were sc-fi too. So I don’t see this as a move towards sci-fi. And having said all of that, Roughneck is probably the most grounded thing I’ve ever done. No genre elements at all.

But, I do see what you’re saying in terms of “space-based” sci-fi. What I liked most about Trillium was the world-building, so Descender will allow me to develop and create not just one alien planet or race, but dozens.

I also seem to be reading more and more sci-fi lately. Dan Simmons has become a big influence. His “Hyperion” books blew my mind.

It’s difficult to pave new ground in science fiction, what are you hoping to contribute to the genre with this series?

Honesty, who knows? I don’t go into something trying to make a big statement or contribute to the genre, I just try to tell a good story. One that I like and would want to read. What it becomes beyond that is beyond my control.

I will say that I intend to use space opera here the same way I used the post-apocalyptic genre in Sweet Tooth. The genre elements will be the backdrop and the focus will very small, character based work.

What is it like to write from both the perspective of a child and a being that isn’t quite human?

I’ve always enjoyed writing kids. Right from the first Essex County. It just seems to be something I’m comfortable with and something that comes naturally to me. TIM-21, the lead character in Descender, is no different. He is probably the most “human” character in the book. At least at the beginning of the series. That may change as the book unfolds.

Androids aren’t often portrayed as children, ‘AI’ excepted, what made you decide to make Tim a child? And what differentiates a child android from an adult android in this context?

See above. I love writing kids and I love exploring story through a child’s point of view. That sense of innocence and wonder and awe. What a great way to explore big sci-fi ideas. There are so many different types of robots and androids in the book, not just human-looking androids or adult/child androids. And they all have different functions, personalities and motives.

What is the aesthetic of the setting? We’ve seen outer-space set stories in western like backdrops, steam-punk, Blade Runner type dystopias, clean minimalism and so on. Is there a particular direction that informs the universe of Descender?

All of the above. Each world and each planet they come to will have a different aesthetic and look. It;s a great way to keep the story fresh and let Dustin really cut loose. One planet may be a aquatic planet, the next issue they may be on a space-port that is like deep space old west. It just keeps reinventing itself.

What do you think, or hope, Dustin Nguyen will bring to this overall vision? Was he instrumental in the development of the concept, or did he come on-board afterwards? If the latter, did it change in any significant fashion from his involvement?

Dustin brings an incredible amount of humanity to the characters. Just look at that promo image. The look on TIM-21’s face is something I could never describe in a script. It’s just so perfect. He is also an incredible visual story teller.

It’s funny, I like to write kids and i knew from his sketchbooks, Lil’ Gotham etc… that Dustin likes to draw them. So it was a perfect match.

Does Descender center on humanity specifically, or will readers get an opportunity to see alien races as well?

Humanity is only one race that is represented in the book. The galaxy we focus on has a dozen planets, each with it’s own race and culture.

Are there any particular scenes or moments that you’re very excited for people to read?

The opening sequence in issue 1 is pretty “big” in scale. I can’t wait to see how Dustin draws it. And the cliffhanger in issue 2 is pretty good too.

Descender will debut in March 2015 from Image