‘Descender’: Jeff Lemire explores the intimate heart of new sci-fi comic

March 03, 2015 | 8:00 a.m.

After nearly five years working under an exclusive contract at DC Comics, Jeff Lemire is a free agent again, and 2015 looks to be a landmark year for the prolific comic-book creator.

In addition to new for-hire projects at Valiant (“The Valiant” and “Bloodshot: Reborn”) and Marvel (“All-New Hawkeye”), Lemire is working on four creator-owned titles: “Descender,” “Plutona” and “AD: After Death” at Image, and “The Black Hammer” at Dark Horse.

A promotion image for "Descender." (Image)

A promotional image for “Descender.” (Image)

Debuting Wednesday, “Descender” is the first of Lemire’s new creator-owned books to see release, a science fiction ongoing with artist Dustin Nguyen that follows a boy robot, TIM-21, as he makes his way across the galaxy on the run from anti-machine bounty hunters, armies and more.

“I had wanted to do more science fiction,” Lemire said. “I had finished a book for Vertigo last year called ‘Trillium,’ which was a sci-fi story, and I really enjoyed the world-building you get to do in science fiction and the designing of planets and alien races and technology and things. I found that really fun and wanted to do more of it, but on a bigger scale. So I started thinking of other science fiction-type stories that might interest me.

“Like any idea, it doesn’t come all at once.. but I’d always been fascinated by robots and robotics, just from the idea that robots are, in a weird way, kind of like us playing God, creating something in our own image and then setting it loose,” he continued. “I take that and think of the end result of what that can be. Our obsession with technology and mankind’s relationship with technology and how it’s constantly growing, especially in the last 20, 30 years. It’s just growing so fast. It seems like every month it leaps so much further ahead, so I’m taking that and projecting it forward.”

In terms of specific influences, Lemire had been reading Naoki Urasawa’s manga “Pluto” last year, and found himself moved by Urasawa’s modern retelling of Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy” story.

“Particularly I just loved how human he was able to make the robots in the story, how they just seemed like real people,” Lemire said. “All these things just start to mix together and you start to develop your own ideas and so it just started very small with this idea of a young robot on the run across the galaxy, being hunted. That was the germ, and it grew from there.”

And for the first time, Lemire cultivated that original idea with an artistic collaborator, Dustin Nguyen.

Jeff Lemire. (Courtesy Jeff Lemire)

Jeff Lemire. (Courtesy Jeff Lemire)

“This was always one I was going to work with someone else on,” he said. “You can only really draw one thing at a time because it takes so long to draw something as opposed to writing scripts, but at the same time, I really wanted to do more creator-owned work, and knew that the only way I could do that was to work with another artist and not draw everything myself. So ‘Descender’ was something I was always developing with someone else in mind, and Dustin became involved very early in the process. I didn’t have much more than the initial spark of the idea before contacting Dustin, so right from the beginning, it was something I developed with him in mind.”

As soon as Lemire began receiving design work, he started conjuring new ideas inspired by Nguyen’s images, and that strong collaborative chemistry is on display in the bold, atmospheric first issue. The story begins with widescreen sci-fi action before shifting to more personal, subtle storytelling when TIM-21 enters the narrative, and Nguyen’s intricately designed, lushly painted artwork is a great fit for Lemire’s script, transitioning smoothly from the large-scale spectacle to the more intimate character work.

It’s an exciting new work from two creators unshackled from exclusive contracts for the first time in years, and Hollywood has taken notice, with Sony acquiring the film rights before the first issue even hit stands.

‘DESCENDER’ No. 1: Dustin Nguyen cover | Jeff Lemire Variant | Jeff Lemire Variant 2 | Page 16  | Page 17 | Page 18 | Page 19 | Page 22-23 (unlettered)

Character designs: Bandit | Blue Skin | Digger | Quon Tullis Nagoki | Tesla | TIM-21

Hero Complex readers can view covers, pages and designs from “Descender” No. 1 in the gallery or in larger versions via the links above.

In a recent telephone conversation, Lemire spoke about Nguyen’s invaluable contributions to the title, the importance of a strong emotional core in TIM-21 and his reactions to the Sony option.

Hero Complex: As an artist yourself, how much input do you have on the designs for “Descender”?

Jeff Lemire: I always try to work with artists whose work I love and who I trust, and Dustin, I knew he approached storytelling from a similar place that I did, and we had a lot of the same influences on this book. A few lines of description here and there and Dustin can do something so amazing that there’s no sense in me trying to give him sketches or anything. He actually comes from a design background originally; before comics he was involved in architectural design, so in addition to being a great cartoonist and storyteller, he’s a really good designer. Which is one of the main reasons I approached him for this book, because there’s so much to be built, from technology to architecture to different alien races and planets. So much thought needs to go into the look of things, and Dustin’s so good at that. I just let him do his thing and inevitably it’s something better than I could have imagined anyway. And then it gives me new ideas.

HC: Did Dustin suggest painting the book, or was that something you had been thinking about?

Dustin Nguyen's "Descender" cover. (Image)

Dustin Nguyen’s “Descender” cover. (Image)

JL: No, that was all him. I’ve known Dustin for a while, we were both at DC [Comics] for a number of years. I was exclusive at DC Comics for five years, and I believe Dustin was an exclusive at DC for 14 or 15 years. He’s been there a long time. This is the first thing he’s done that he co-created and will own himself in all that time, so it’s exciting for him. And I know that he just wanted to put his all into it. One of the things I loved about Dustin’s work was his watercolor stuff. A lot of the stuff he was doing at DC was under a pretty tight deadline, so he didn’t always have time to even ink himself, but he knew that when he finally got to do something that was all his own, he wanted to fully paint it. And I was all for it. Normally that would be something I would be worried about because most artists can’t even pencil a book on a monthly deadline, let alone pencil it, ink it and paint it, but Dustin has a well-earned reputation as being one of those guys that is both incredibly good and very, very reliable and fast as well. If anyone could do it, he could. He’s still very much on schedule; he’s on the third issue, and doesn’t look like we have anything to worry about in terms of schedule or anything.

But the painting certainly makes the book unique. It’s a book about technology, about robots, so there’s a lot of thought that goes into the design of things, and then he executes it in that watercolor medium, which is a very organic medium, so you get a really interesting thing going on on the page where the art style almost embodies the themes of the book, where you have the technological and the intricate world, but executed in a very organic and human way, which is really what the book’s about. So it’s perfect for “Descender.”

HC: Why did you choose not to renew your exclusive contract at DC Comics?

JL: I was just looking to do more creator-owned stuff. That’s where I started in comics, doing my own stuff that I wrote and drew myself, and that’s always been my first love. Writing superhero stuff for DC over the last few years has been really fun and I really enjoyed it, but in my mind, it was always something I was going to do for a little while to help build a readership and also just for the fun of doing it. But at some point I wanted to get back to doing more creator-owned stuff and less work-for-hire stuff… After four years, it felt like the time to push back in that direction, so now instead of writing three or four DC books and then doing one creator-owned book, I’m doing four creator-owned projects and one work-for-hire project now, and I feel that’s a very healthy place to be at.

Jeff Lemire variant for "Descender." (Image)

Jeff Lemire variant for “Descender.” (Image)

HC: Why did you decide to take “Descender” to Image?

JL: Image right now—all of my favorite comics are being published by Image, and all my favorite creators are doing work there, so it felt like a really great place to be… I feel like they’re putting out a lot of really good books right now, and they’re all very diverse and very different from one another. There’s a lot of excitement, and I wanted to be a part of it. From a practical and business point of view, the contract that Image offers is really hard to be beat. It gives you complete freedom over the property in terms of creativity and what you put on the page, but also in terms of what you can do with the media rights and film rights and things. You retain complete control over that, so it’s hard to beat right now what they’re offering.

HC: That comes in handy considering the book has been optioned for a movie, so you have complete control over the rights.

JL: We were allowed to do that, to shop the book around and make that happen, Dustin and I. With other publishers, you wouldn’t totally have control to do that. That’s part of the freedom that we’re enjoying at Image. But more so, it’s the creative freedom of being able to tell the story we want to tell, the way we want to tell it. Image is very much about letting us execute our vision on the page and not getting in the way and just supporting. We’re only answering to ourselves, we don’t have any kind of editorial interference. It’s just completely the creators’ vision on the page every month, and that’s pretty exciting and thrilling.

HC: There are a lot of sci-fi books at Image right now. What makes “Descender” stand out from the crowd?

JL: I never—when I go into a project, I don’t think too much about if there’s a lot of other sci-fi books out there or horror books or whatever. I just tell the stories I want to tell, and I think that is evident on the page. “Descender” has a lot of heart, and we’re very passionate about it, and it has a big sci-fi concept like a lot of books being published right now, but maybe unlike a lot of those books, it’s told in a very intimate, character-driven way. It’s all about the characters and the heart of TIM-21, the main character. The big, high-concept stuff is all world-building and all in the background. That’s the canvas, but the story itself is very small and heartfelt.

HC: How has it been building a book with a collaborator? Has working with Dustin changed the way that you’re scripting this book at all?

"Descender" No. 1 Page 19. (Image)

“Descender” No. 1 Page 19. (Image)

JL: Yeah, a little bit. It’s awesome. When you get a collaborator you really click with, like I am with Dustin, it’s very effortless. Dustin’s an extremely easygoing guy, and he’s very open to whatever I want to do. And at the same time, he’ll take my ideas and, as I said earlier, he’ll execute them in a way that is often so much more than what I imagined that it gives me new ideas. For example, the last page of the first issue, we introduce a set of characters and a lot of them were going to be throwaway characters that were just going to be around for the first couple issues, but one of the characters in particular, Dustin designed him and I just loved the look of this character so much that he ended up—now I’m on the eighth script and I’ve decided to bring that guy back and make him a major player in the whole series just because I loved how Dustin designed him and he gave him so much personality that I knew I wanted to explore more.

It can be little things too. The little dog robot Bandit, Dustin had the idea of having this HUD display different symbols for different emotions that the dog was feeling. It’s a very simple idea, but that’s something I can use so much in terms of storytelling. We’re really clicking right now. It’s been really fun working with him, and like I said earlier, it’s just very effortless. We seem to be really on the same page of the kind of story we want to tell. There’s very little back and forth; I just present the ideas and he does his thing, and we both just really enjoy what each other are doing. It’s just fun, which is good. It’s good to have fun.

HC: You’ve worked consistently on creator-owned projects while doing your for-hire work. Has your experience at DC informed the work you do for yourself?

JL: A little bit. More than the content or the way I approach story, it helped me learn how to work with an artist. Because before DC I had only written stuff that I would draw myself, so throughout the four years at DC, I really got to work with a lot of different artists and get used to the idea of letting go of the visual side of story and trusting your artist. And then writing scripts that allowed that artist to really bring their strengths to the project. So I really learned a lot there. But in terms of the content or the way I’m telling “Descender,” if anything, it’s getting back to the stuff I’ve always been doing with my creator-owned stuff, and getting a little bit closer to doing that more.

"Descender" No. 1 Page 17. (Image)

“Descender” No. 1 Page 17. (Image)

HC: How did Steve Wands get involved as letterer?

JL: When did I meet Steve? Steve lettered my last graphic novel, “The Underwater Welder,” and I’m trying to remember how that happened, though. Steve, if I’m not mistaken, was a staff letterer at DC when I first started there, so I think he must have lettered a few projects with me at DC, and I might be misremembering, but I believe he went freelance at one point and just sent an email to a lot of his collaborators saying he was freelance and that if you had any stuff that needed a letterer, he was free. It was just through that, and having worked with him on DC stuff, that we struck up a friendship and a working relationship. Steve, on this book, he really is a big, big part of the collaboration as well. Sometimes letterers are overlooked, but this book—the different robots, lots of different aliens, everything needs a different kind of font or a different style. He’s really doing a lot of design work in the book as well in terms of the cover designs and the book design itself. He’s really helping to set the feel of the world of “Descender.” He’s been great.

HC: What do you think attracted Sony to “Descender”?

JL: I can’t really say I know. Like I’ve said before, I’ve done a lot of creator-owned books in the past, and there’s always been interest in them from Hollywood and different discussions of things, but nothing moved as quickly as “Descender” did. As soon as we announced the book at San Diego Comic-Con last July, and we only had a bullet point synopsis of what the book was about and Dustin’s first promotional image, which ended up being the cover to the first issue, I don’t know what it is about that image or the idea, but immediately, as soon as we announced it, my agent was getting calls from people wanting to know more about it.

So there was something that seemed to capture Hollywood’s attention. And then it moved really quickly. I spent a lot of time developing the story and laying out the entire series over the last six, seven months, so I was able to present that and the first issue and things happened very quickly. I think it was just the mixture of a really big high concept but also really strong character work, and there was something that had real heart to it. From what I gathered in a lot of the conversations that we had with different studios was that they often get great ideas and great high concepts, but there’s often not a lot of heart attached to it — high concepts but with no real reason behind them. I think “Descender” has both. It’s a big, broad, sprawling canvas, but it’s a very intimate, heartfelt story, and the combination of those two things made it attractive.

Unlettered pages 22-23 from "Descender" No. 1. (Image)

Unlettered pages 22-23 from “Descender” No. 1. (Image)

HC: What are some of your hopes for this movie if it goes into production?

JL: I try not to get too concerned about the movie because I know a lot of it will be out of my control. Dustin and I are involved to a certain degree, but at the end of the day it will be somebody else who’s translating our ideas. I worry about what I can control, and that’s the comic. So I have a very clear vision of what we want the comic to be, and that’s where I put my hopes and dreams. (Laughs.) I just let the movie be what the movie’s going to be. I have said that I hope they get someone who can capture the heart of it, because I feel like Hollywood’s obviously wonderful at capturing spectacle and big visual things, and “Descender” certainly has that, but I think if they lose the heart of the story, which is the story of this little boy looking for his place in the universe, if they don’t hold on to that at the center, all that big stuff will collapse in on itself pretty easily.

HC: How much of the plot do you have mapped out at this point?

JL: The whole thing. I think that was the other reason we were able to sell it. The nature of the story revolves around a lot of mystery, so I wanted to make sure that I knew where everything was going. I spent a lot of time, before writing any of the scripts, just plotting out the entire mythology that I had built, and trying to keep everything together so it all tracked and I knew where everything was going to be. Because I didn’t want to just start introducing all these big cool ideas and be scrambling at the end of the series to make sense of these things. I spent a lot of time figuring that out, so I really do have the whole book, the whole series, pretty tightly plotted at this point. Once you have that framework that you know is going to make sense and track, it allows you to really experiment and, you know, I’ll take an issue here just to do a quiet issue about this character. You can go off on little tangents as long as you have somewhere to come back to.

— Oliver Sava | @LATHeroComplex

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