“It’s going to be a very emotional story”: Jeff Lemire on the Politics, Collaboration and Hope Behind Descender

Comics Features Jeff Lemire
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If you had to guess the biggest threats to humanity as we know it, a few obvious harbingers might be nuclear war, drug-resistant pathogens or possibly cancer. But to some of the most sophisticated scientific minds, the answer is far more exotic: artificial intelligence. Elon Musk, the Tesla founder currently on track to transport humanity to Mars, called it our biggest existential threat before donating $10 million to a grant foundation designed to keep tabs on self-conscious software. Bill Gates mirrored the sentiment in a Reddit AMA last January and Stephen Hawking’s even joined on as a prophet of machine-induced doom.

This new environment of android paranoia injects a biting relevancy into Descender, an affecting new comic series from writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen. With its debut issue launching Wednesday, the space opera revolves around a cosmos where all robotics have been violently rendered illegal after mechanical giants begin to inexplicably wreak destruction on the worlds around them. At the center of this chaos lies TIM-21, a boy automaton struggling to find his place in this hostile universe as vicious bounty hunters pursue him.

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Like the best sci-fi, Lemire’s script transcends the fantastic to dissect such universal issues as fear, acceptance and hope. Though Descender’s surreal, star-punctured world — illustrated in lush watercolors by Nguyen — may be a far cry from our earth, the struggle of wholesale persecution because of the actions of the extreme few is painfully germane today. From the same scribe behind such reflective graphic novel touchstones as the Essex County trilogy, The Underwater Welder and Trillium, we’d expect no less.

On the cusp of launching a wave of new comics including the next iteration of Hawkeye, AD: After Death with Scott Snyder, Roughneck and Bloodshot Reborn, Lemire chatted with Paste about writing literary tearjerkers, the book’s political context and why no other artist besides Nguyen could illustrate Descender.

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Paste: How did the initial concept of Descender arise?
Jeff Lemire: I don’t even remember the initial spark for the idea. I know I had been reading a manga called Pluto last year by Naoki Urasawa. It’s a modern retelling of the Astroboy story, the boy robot. That was definitely swimming around in my head. And I can’t remember why, but I had started reading and tracking down the old Jack Kirby 2001 comics. I don’t know if you’ve read them, but Jack Kirby adapted 2001: A Space Odyssey when it came out, and then he actually turned it into an ongoing series at Marvel for a while in the early ‘70s. It was just a really trippy, cosmic Kirby thing that had nothing to do with the movie. I’d been reading that, and there was a character in that called Machine Man, who for some reason, I just loved. So I had all those things swimming around, and I’d just finished Trillium at Vertigo, which is another sci-fi book. I’d really enjoyed that book, and I really enjoyed the designing and world building that went into that, and wanted to do more. All that stuff worked itself into what became Descender.

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Paste: The second scene of Descender opens to a young android boy discovering that he’s the last survivor on a mass tomb of a space station strewn with corpses, and we soon learn that he’s also being hunted by bounty hunters. On a scale from one to ten, how devastating will Descender be: are we looking at subdued weeping or ugly, red-faced sobbing.
Lemire: [Laughs] Well, you know…I don’t know. Everyone finds my work super sad. I never do. I always find it uplifting in a weird way. But it’s going to be a very emotional story. That’s obvious right from the get-go. I want readers to really care about this character — TIM-21 — and what happens to him. Does that necessarily mean it’s going to mean death, destruction and loss from here on out? No, I don’t think so. There will be some of that, but there will hopefully be some humor and a lot of hope as well. I think more than anything, it is a story of hope. It’s the story of a universe on the brink of ending, and this boy represents a new way of living and hope. There will certainly be some sadness to it, but I think there will be some humor and heart and hope as well.

Paste: I think the humor and heart of your work is what gives it its emotional edge. If it was simply death and destruction, it’d be nihilistic. When you see tragic events happen to Gus [from Sweet Tooth] or the the couple in Trillium, there’s added emotional depth there.
Lemire: I’m never one for putting a character through hell for the sake of it. There’s usually a purpose for them to go through to hopefully get to somewhere better. That’s always been a common thing of how I approach stories, even from Green Arrow to Animal Man to Sweet Tooth and everything else.

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Paste: This topic is so timely. One of the major themes here is the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. Bill Gates recently voiced his fear of super intelligence in a Reddit AMA and Elon Musk funded an endeavor to put restraints on artificial intelligence. Was any of this floating around in your head when you came up with the concept?
Lemire: A little bit. There are certain things in Descender that I’ve dealt with in the past. I think you can see a direct parallel with Sweet Tooth in TIM-21. But one thing I’ve never dealt with is the idea of mankind’s relationship with technology. I know for myself, I have a 6-year-old son now, and I see his relationship to technology, when it’s just him on an iPhone or an iPad. I think back to when I was a kid, and we didn’t even have home computers yet when I was growing up. You think of that leap of how different his world is from mine when I was a child, and project that forward another 20 or 50 or 100 years, and you can’t even fathom what it’s going to be. That’s certainly something at the heart of Descender. And whether that’s something to fear or something to embrace, that’s one of the running things.

These robots have evolved to the point where they’re as human as us, and they become feared and hunted. We end up hating these things we’ve created, because they’re maybe going to outlive us. That’s definitely on my mind when I’m working on the book.

Paste: One quote that really stood out to me was the newsline broadcast: “Fearing a link between our own robots and Harvesters, anti-robot fanaticism is sweeping-across the galaxy, resulting in widespread robot culls or a Robot Genocide.” This scenario has played out in multiple ways throughout history, in that one set of extremists has influenced the way people feel about an entire movement or culture. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between ISIS and Islam, and the argument between Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. Is Descender informed by any of today’s politics?
Lemire: It absolutely is. When I first seriously decided to become a cartoonist would have been ’99/2000, right before 9/11. I’ve been writing and illustrating stories in the world post-9/11 since then, watching the world change around me. I think it’s very much like you said with those politics, the way fear, ignorance and paranoia have influenced the way we view other cultures, the way American and Canadians view Islam. It’s not hard to draw a parallel between that and the way the human characters in Descender view machines.

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Paste: I didn’t know if there would be a difference in your perception, being Canadian as opposed to American.
Lemire: There are subtle differences, but on the whole, we’re kind of joined at the hip [laughs]. We go where you guys go mostly. I think in general, you just look around the world right now and the way that fear is driving the decisions that our government is making, and the way we’re treating other cultures around the world. It’s just as relevant here as it is in the U.S.

Paste: What made Dustin Nguyen right for this project?
Lemire: Dustin’s so awesome. I’ve always been a big fan of his stuff. I think he’d been working at DC for almost 15 years exclusively, mostly just Batman stuff. His stuff’s amazing, but he kind of became known at DC as the guy they could turn to when they had a deadline because he was so reliable. He would do good work quick. I don’t want to say they took him for granted, but I think they did take him a little bit for granted. I would meet Dustin at conventions, and I would see his personal work and his sketchbooks and these amazing watercolor paintings he would do. I just knew his style was so much more diverse than Batman comics. I always wanted to see him do more of his own stuff like that.

When I started Descender, he was one of the first artists I called, because I knew he was finishing his exclusive contract at DC around the same time I was. He’d been eager to do some creator-owned stuff. After working 15 years at DC, he had had a big body of work, but nothing he actually owned himself. I approached him about this, and I knows he loves sci-fi, anime and robots and this stuff I love. I knew that, purely from a visual, storytelling point of view, we had very similar styles, in the way we like to break a story down visually. So I thought it would be a good collaboration. It’s proven to be even better than I could have imagined. It’s been the most effortless collaboration I’ve ever had. Immediately, we’re on the exact same page on how we want everything to look, how we want the story to be told. There’s very little communication between us. I write stuff and he executes it even better than I could have imagined. It’s been fun to see him grown and stretch himself from the project.

To answer your question as to why he’s right for it, aside from how much I like him, Dustin has a background in design as well. I think he did some architectural design before he got into comics. He’s also done design in toys. I know he’d be someone good at designing all the robots, the architecture and the various worlds. He would put the right amount of thoughts into that. And not just draw something that would look cool, but draw something that could actually function in the real world. He designs the robots in such a way that you can actually take them apart and put them together. They’re really thought out in that respect. When you’re building a world about technology and machines, you want an artist whose mind can wrap itself around that and execute it properly.

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Paste: The work he’s doing reminds me of some of the CG modeling he did for his Authority run with Ed Brubaker.
Lemire: You’ve read the first issue, but in Descender we’ve built this whole galaxy. Right now there are twelve worlds in it. I really worked to give each world and planet its own specific feel, character and look. From world to world, it’s going to look pretty different, and the machines will be different. Everything is so thought-out visually by [Dustin] — it’s pretty amazing. And the first issue of Descender, when it comes out in print, will have some of his developmental sketches in the back. You’ll see some of his design work on some of the various robots. He’s great.

Paste: You’d mentioned 12 worlds — the issue only mentions nine, so I assume you’re going to introduce more?
Lemire: Yes. There are nine core worlds —what we call the megacosm or galactic counsel — then there are a number of fringe worlds, which are smaller planets. Some of them are uninhabitable, or young colonies. Right now there are quite a few of those, but I’ve only written about a couple. The nine core worlds are where the main story will hop between the most.

Paste: Before I opened up Descender, I was expecting something so much more mechanical and harsh and isolating. I loved the watercolor textures and color shifts between the orange and the aqua. It adds so much humanity to the book.
Lemire: That’s the other reason, to answer your earlier question, is what makes Dustin so perfect. When he told me he wanted to paint what we did together, before we knew it was Descender. He said he wanted to water color paint every issue, which normally would be a warning sign, just because there aren’t many artists who could pull that off on a monthly schedule, but I knew that Dustin could.

And the you see exactly what you said. We’re dealing with a story that’s about technology and machines, and these intricately designed worlds, but then he executes it with watercolor, which is a very organic-looking medium. So you have this tension on the page between the mechanical and the organic built into every panel. That’s what the story’s about. It couldn’t be more perfect.

Paste: That’s the theme of the book embodied in its execution.
Lemire: Exactly. His style embodies the theme of the book. That’s very rare. [Laughs] I don’t think that’s something we actually planned. It just seemed to work perfectly. It’s been great.

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Paste: Descender’s been optioned by Sony. It made me think back to 2011, when Essex County was optioned. What does this new development mean for you, and what role are you actively playing in it?
Lemire: There’s been Hollywood interest in a lot of the stuff that I’ve done, but Descender’s felt different right from the start for whatever reason. I don’t know if that’s because a lot of my other stuff’s a little more idiosyncratic, and Descender has a bit more of a high concept to it. As soon as Dustin and I announced Descender at San Diego last year, all we had really was the basic plot and Dustin’s first promotional image. There was immediate interest from Hollywood right away. It felt different, the way the option happened so quickly, before the first issue’s even out. There was a bidding war between various major options for it, that’s something I’ve never been involved in before. It was surreal. This one does feel a bit different, and I actually think it’s going to get made, just in the way that Sony’s really looking at it just to become a major franchise for them, and not just a small indie film. They’re putting a lot of focus on it.

Dustin and I will be executive producers on the film, or films. We will be involved, to some degree. The amount we’ll be involved will depend on how much we want to be. I don’t know. For me, I think the best way to be involved in the movie is to make the best comic book we can; one that gives them good source material to work from.

The film and everything is exciting if it happens, and I hope it does, but it’s not really the end game for Dustin and I. We both really just want to make a great comic book. That’s where our heads are at in the moment. We’re working on the comic and giving them material to hopefully adapt. It’s been a great experience and it’s really exciting, but at the end of the day it’s the comic book we both love and have really poured our hearts into.

Paste: Have you considered any actors or actresses to play TIM, Jin Quon or Captain Telsa?
Lemire: It’s funny — I don’t think of that stuff usually. When I write a script or draw stuff, I’m not casting it as a film. With TIM being a kid, that’s tricky. I don’t know how they would cast a child actor. It’d probably be an unknown. I don’t even know where they’d start with that. Even with the film news, I haven’t even thought about who Jin Quon or any of the other characters. I just see them as Dustin’s drawings. I can’t image them being anyone else yet.

Paste: Is there any activity on an Essex County film?
Lemire: That option that you spoke of ran out, and the film never got off the ground. But there’s been other developments more recently, but nothing that I can speak about yet. But there’s certainly some discussion going on about that, and about Underwater Welder as well.

Paste: You’re also working with Scott Snyder on AD: After Death.
Lemire: That’s also quite exciting. I’m also finishing another graphic novel that I wrote and am drawing myself, and as soon as I finish that, probably next month [Roughneck from Simon & Schuster], I’ll dive into AD with Scott. We’re looking at October or November to release it. I’m really excited to work with Scott. We’ve been really good friends for a number of years now, and we’ve also been helping each other out behind the scenes on everything we’ve done. Now I can fully collaborate with him on AD. It’ll be something new for me to draw something of this size that I haven’t written. It’s going to be a good challenge to me as an artist. I’m excited about it.

Roughneck is probably the closest thing I’ve done to Essex County since Essex County. A lot of the stuff that I’ve done recently has been more sci-fi based, between Sweet Tooth and Trillium. I love genre and I love sci-fi, but I wanted to get back to doing something a little more grounded and smaller in scale, and just a little bit more character-based. It’s the story of a brother and sister in a small northern community who have been estranged for a number of years. They come back together in the small town where they grew up and face all of the stuff they went through as kids that pulled them apart. It’s the story of reconciliation between the two of them. Hopefully that will be released in Spring of ’16.

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