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.
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.
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.
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.
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.