State of the Art: Dustin Nguyen on the Humanizing Art Behind Descender

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Unlike his previous Big Two work, Dustin Nguyen became a one-man art team for Descender by sketching, painting and coloring it all himself. The result is nothing short of beautiful. The desolate landscapes are painfully lonesome, and phantasmagoric flashbacks encompass emotions both vivid and muted. The watercolor throughout lends an artistry to every panel, whether an intricate illustration of robot mechanics or clean interiors nearly devoid of detail entirely.

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The book follows Tim-21, a young android, who wakes up to find that his mining planet has gone post-apocalyptic and the family that cared for him apparently dead. What Tim-21 doesn’t know is that during the 10 years he slept, massive other-worldly machines nearly wiped out civilization. In the wake of the attack, humans vilify and destroy all the AI they can find. As the last of his kind, there’s no shortage of factions looking to kill, dissect or experiment on him.

Descender is an emotional story, and in both the micro and macro senses, an exceedingly human one. Writer Jeff Lemire laid out a world we can relate to—unfortunately not because we have so many robots, and thankfully not because we have been attacked by extra-terrestrial annihilation-bots. But it doesn’t take a major leap of imagination to recognize the way humans react to large-scale trauma. Japanese interment camps, McCarthyism and, now, post-9/11, we’ve witnessed years of war alongside other players and legislation like the Patriot Act and PRISM.

Tim-21 may be a machine, but the fear, pain and horror streaked across his silicon face is real. When he cringes or his eyes light up, we don’t see an android parsing human emotions through and intricate neural net. For us, he is just a little boy desperate to find his family. And that is Nguyen’s greatest artistic strength throughout the book. He brings to life the existential fear of an entire galaxy without losing a child’s innocence and naivete. That’s perhaps just one reason Sony optioned Descender for a movie before the first issue even hit shelves.

Here, Nguyen took some time from prepping the book’s next arc (the first collection debuts tomorrow) to sate our curiosity about his style and process. This interview also includes exclusive preview pages of the creative process for issue #7.
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Paste: With the first arc finished, how do you think it’s going? The fan reaction seems great.
Dustin Nguyen: We don’t have to cancel yet—hooray! Just kidding, it seems to be going well. I haven’t kept up with the reviews as much, but from just the few folks I meet at cons and online, I think people are diggin’ it. I sure as hell am, the story just gets better and better and more fun to draw with every page.

Paste: I’d imagine it’s very liberating, going from big properties like Batman to something creator-owned. Is your process any different on a project like this?
Nguyen: Yes, I’m handling everything from sketch to final colored art, so its about three times more work than a normal monthly DC book for me where I normally work with an inker and colorist.

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Descender Interior Art by Dustin Nguyen

Paste: Tell us about your general process for the art, taking Descender from the script to the final page.
Nguyen: I approach it like I do with any script, and rough out the entire story on boards—laying down all panels and characters in their positions, scale and surroundings. If I can, I try to nail down any emotions or gestures I feel are most important to storytelling. At this stage, though, it’s super rough and I’ll sometimes use simple faces and even stick drawings to shorthand for myself. I guess this would be the thumbnail phase, but I do them at actual size. For Descender, I use 11 × 17 watercolor boards rather than bristol because I’ll need to paint on them later.

With all the panels in position with characters roughly in place, I can see how the characters flow from page to page. I make sure the pacing moves evenly; this also lets me make sure there’s a good variation in the scale of each character. Making sure the proper ones get the right amount of face time, and also seeing if I’ve dedicated enough panels to establish the setting in each act or scene. This first step is the most important and takes the most amount of thought for me. It’s the storytelling phase that makes any comic readable.

Next I move to design and tighter penciling. Because we work on a monthly schedule, I design everything on page as I go along. Many comic guys do this because, often, there’s simply no time to dedicate to just designing one space ship or a single character. With Descender, it’s been super insane because we’re still developing and world building, so there’s a new character or planet to make up in every issue. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s very time consuming.

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Descender In-Process Interior Art by Dustin Nguyen

At this stage, I’ll often split up the book into the separate acts. Doing all the interior shuttle scenes in one pass, then moving to all the action scenes in the palace or torture room in the next. So not necessarily going from page 1-20 in order. It helps me keep track of all the gestures and emotions of each character at the moment for consistency. This is the fun stage I suppose, where I make up the characters, costumes, guns and… ROBOTS. Also it can be the most frustrating part, definitely the most time-consuming part of the process.

Then, after a lot of punching and kicking, the pencils are done, I lay out all the pages side-by-side to see once more if the story flows and is readable. If not, redraw a few things, whatever is needed. At this stage, I can template (setting the pages up in the publishing template) and send the pages of just line art off to Steve [Wands] and he can start on lettering the book without the final art. We move at an incredible speed in monthly books, and this is pretty normal, so working with super experienced design guys like Steve makes your job insanely easier.

While Steve is putting the book together, Jeff also gets a chance to look over the pencils to make sure his words work with the pictures, and if they need any changes (surprisingly, for six issues straight, we’ve never had any revisions). While all this is going on, I move to painting the pages. I have a different process for every page, but it’s basically me, painting each page, then scanning, then cleaning up the pages in photoshop and prepping them for print. Once again, I put the new final pages in the template, and send off again to Steve and he does his magic.

Then, off to Image for final corrections and approval. I think that sounds about right?

Paste: With Jeff Lemire being an artist himself, what were the design discussions like?
Nguyen: The discussions usually start with us making jokes and fun of each other, then end with us blaming each other for something totally unrelated. Then we spend about five minutes in-between to actually talk about the book. I think Jeff knows my strengths and what I like to draw, and he combines it with how he wants the book to look and feel like. When I see the script, it’s pretty much in both our heads. Jeff’s a master storyteller, and it shows not just in the final story you see in each book, but he also conveys to the artist in his scripts amazingly well. Every sentence is its own description, so it’s very easy to know exactly what he has in mind.

The majority of the characters in our book were designed based on Jeff’s description to their characteristics and personality, rather than any call out to costume or look, and that’s part of what I love about developing the book with Jeff. It’s super organic, but I think it also just comes down to us both seeing the big picture being the emotions of each character, or atmosphere of what each setting feels like, rather than focusing too much on the actual aesthetic.

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Descender Character Art by Dustin Nguyen

Paste: You have a lot to work with, in terms of the various worlds, species, spacecraft and architecture. How do you go about world building when there’s so much world to build?
Nguyen: I’d have to be honest and say scheduling has a decent amount to do with it. If we were an animation or movie studio and I had a year to research and create the perfect ecosystem of alien race vs. environment for each planet, that would be amazing. But we really don’t, so honestly, many things are created on the fly and I narrow it down to what I feel is most important for the story—atmosphere and the relation to the immediate characters in the story. I try to leave room for additional designs in the future, and I realize there’s a fair amount of inconsistency in some parts, but again, leaving room for future expansion helps a lot.

Paste: What have been some of your favorite things to draw so far?
Nguyen: I really love drawing the mines where Tim-21 wakes up. I love the cold, completely utilitarian setting, and how Tim fits into that place.

Paste: What kind of stuff are you still looking forward to drawing that we haven’t seen yet?
Nguyen: Surprisingly, there’s a gas planet that’s going to be fun as hell! It will be where I can test less-is-more when it comes to design.

Paste: While it’s the story of a young robot in a world that fears robots, there’s clearly more going on than that. Which themes in the writing have you tried to home in on artistically?
Nguyen: I feel it all comes down to emotions and characters. It’s one thing I want to convey on my part at the end of the day.

Paste: And, what do you think the robots represent?
Nguyen: I think answering that might spoil the ending.

Paste: There were some cool choices you made in terms of paneling—the lack of paneling in his memories, the series of hexagonal panels in issue #2—can you elaborate on that?
Nguyen: Thanks, I just try to make it fun and some panels stand out more than others. The hexagons are just things I love, they tile easily and are aesthetically pleasing. Did you know they’ve just recently discovered a new, 15th type of non-regular polygon that can tile, without overlapping and leaving gaps? The last one was discovered about 30 years ago I think.

Paste: I love the use of water color. Why did you choose it, rather than the sharp, clean lines or digitally rendered art we might expect from a futuristic robot story?
Nguyen: I guess I’m most comfortable with watercolor, and I felt it goes well with Jeff’s style of writing.

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Descender In-Process Cover Art by Dustin Nguyen

Paste: It seems like the use of water color means forgoing a lot of intricate details sometimes, which I think adds a lot to the unique look of the book, but is that a hurdle you have to actively work around?
Nguyen: The pro is that it really helps me work looser, and that helps keep the book on track. The cons might be sometimes, there’s inconsistencies, but I don’t really mind, and think readers enjoy the little nuances over caring too much about minor things like that.

Paste: Any news on the movie?
Nguyen: I believe we’re looking at directors and stuff right now, but honestly, I’ve been just so busy with the book it’s not something I’ve kept up day to day. I should though!

Paste: And finally, what do you guys have in store for the second arc?
Nguyen: Everyone dies and turns into robots! Just kidding, issue seven is going to be an insane reveal right off the bat, I can’t say too much about it, but it’ll definitely be something to look forward to coming back to in November.