By Zack Quaintance — Ascender #1 is an odd comic, in that it feels like both a vague continuation of a previous story (Descender, to be exact), and a wholly new beginning that’s not beholden to anything that’s come before. I don’t mean any of that as a criticism. To the contrary, I think it’s all to the book’s credit. Allow me to explain...in the current market, it’s not at all uncommon for books to cease for a few months, giving the trade time to come out and the artist a time buffer with which to get ahead. Sometimes, these books come back following time jumps or new status quos or major cliffhangers.
What we get in Ascender, however, is a total aesthetic realignment. Whereas Descender (which wrapped up with Descender #32 in July) was a hard sci-fi book with a focus on robotics and an almost-believable bend, Ascender is a foray into dragons and magic and all things fantasy. It’s still firmly within the genre fiction category, but in many ways its gone to the complete other side of the spectrum, trading its science for whimsy.
And the effect is a freeing one! At least as it applies to series artist Dustin Nguyen, who in this book is drawing his 33rd issue within the Descender/Ascender world. Nguyen’s artwork in Descender was forlorn and moody set of visuals, using its dull watercolor palette to often blur the lines between where reality ended and the existential fever dream began. His visuals—as much as Jeff Lemire’s plotting—often begged the question about where the robotic intelligence stopped and where the human soul began. It was a highly philosophical story stowed within the trappings of a space opera, one as likely to ask what makes an individual distinct as it was to throw a robot with drills for hands into a coliseum fight for its survival.
Ascender #1 doesn’t really pick up on the question of humanity versus simulated humanity that so thoroughly drove the previous volume of this story, at least it doesn’t seem to yet. That’s not to say it will never return to that issue. There are certainly hints of it. First and foremost though, what’s happening in this new world (10 years past the events of the previous story) is a technological purge driven by monsters and magic. There are new powers, new villains, new status quos. I won’t go into them—this is an advanced review and we’re nothing here if not wary of spoilers—but I will again return to the idea of freedom. Both Lemire’s script and Nguyen’s visual execution feel liberated, and that’s a very good thing for our story.
If I had to guess, I’d wager this ends up being a story of extremes and balance. With Descender, a case was maybe made against extreme reliance upon robots and AI and the trappings of technology. It’s still very early—in the interest of symmetry, I’m guessing Ascender may also run for #32 issues)—but I could see this book as a warning against turning entirely away from tech to embrace folklore, mythology, and ideas rooted in the sensational. I’m just guessing, but there’s maybe a larger point there—shifting the genre within this story has opened a wide range of new possibilities.
Overall: As Descender was to hard sci-fi, Ascender is to high fantasy, although traces of the past story remain. Most importantly, though, this realignment seems to have instilled writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen with a new sense of creative freedom, and I’m excited to see what they do with it. 8.5/10
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dustin Nguyen
Letterer: Steve Wands
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: April 24, 2019
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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.