Features and Columns

‘Descender’ and ‘Ascender’ Confront and Condemn Humanity’s Perpetual Dismissal of Their Offspring

With ‘Descender’ and ‘Ascender,’ Jeff Lemire is gunning for Mark Millar’s crown as the comic book creator with the most properties on the cusp of adaptation.
By  · Published on June 24th, 2020

Welcome to Stapled Cinema, our new ongoing series celebrating the valiant adaptations of one sequential art form into another. Comic book movies are seemingly everywhere. We’re uncovering the beauty in the best (and worst) attempts that tear the staples from comics in a dash to splash their panels upon the big screen.

Jeff Lemire is gunning for Mark Millar’s crown as the comic book creator with the most properties on the cusp of adaptation. We recently received word that his epic, delightfully weirdo post-apocalyptic saga Sweet Tooth is officially a go at Netflix, and we’re waiting to see his nightmarishly dreadful Gideon Falls gain a little more production steam, but it’s already time to start anticipating the next project oddity. It’s another grim future, but this story has its eyes on the stars as well as the sinful soul of our species.

According to Variety, Lark Productions has acquired the rights to Lemire’s two sister-series Descender and Ascender to produce and develop as a show for NBCUniversal International Studios. Co-created by Dustin Nguyen, both comics track the tumultuous relationship between humans and machines after a group of rogue robots called Harvesters rage across the galaxy decimating sentient life wherever they could find it. Yes, it sounds a little similar to one of the many subplots of Star Trek: Picard‘s first season, as well as numerous other anti-bot stories.

Artificial Intelligence is absolutely terrifying. While we’re happy to produce children, botch their upbringing, and unleash their horrifying humanity upon an increasingly crumbling world, the idea of granting machines a will of their own, so they may commit to their lives in a more fruitful and progressive fashion, sends shivers of anxiety through our bodies. We can’t allow ourselves to be replaced! We still matter!

Do we, though?

Lemire and Nguyen explore our worth in the thirty-two issues that comprise Descender. Ten years before the first panel on the first page, the Harvester machine entities slaughtered countless billions. They mysteriously appeared and struck for an unknown reason. As a result, the remaining biological lifeforms not only outlawed artificial intelligence, they formed armies whose sole mission was the eradication of any leftover A.I.

Descender begins when TIM-21, an artificial boy awakens from a decade long nap, and ventures forth into a cold, uncaring universe with only his robot dog as a companion. As he fumbles and bumps up against flawed biologicals, he discovers that his machine DNA could hold the secret to the Harvesters. He finds a few friends, but more importantly, he makes a whole heap of enemies as every bounty hunter in the galaxy comes gunning for his hide.

Ascender is set ten years after Descender and trades much of its science-fiction for fantasy. This is the brilliance of Lemire and Nguyen. They create a universe that caters and provokes the sci-fi geek, and then they force them into a realm of weird, they’re probably not prepared to handle.

The anti-bot movement succeeded. Gone are the machines, including the droids, spaceships, gizmos, and gadgets. In their place, people have embraced magic and myth. Ascender still follows a child protagonist in Mila, and when she comes across TIM-21’s robo-dog Bandit, a search for Descender‘s missing protagonist begins. While the genre swerves, the philosophical examinations that Lemire and Nguyen propose are the same.

Where do we come from? What’s our purpose? Why are we here? These questions have lingered on our tongues since creation, and the living are barred from the answers, but to not ask or seek understanding would admit defeat and despair. We turn to stories for truth, and through science-fiction, we confront our masters, demanding answers for the sorrows we’ve seen and perpetrated.

Descender and Ascender walk in the footsteps of Pinocchio, Frankenstein, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and hundreds of other like-minded diatribes. The answers they pull from these questions are not particularly revelatory, but the manner in which they investigate the thought radiates authenticity.

Nguyen’s sense of design and character penetrates the heart almost instantaneously. After Descender‘s first round of panels, the ache of TIM-21 is seen and felt. While one would not dare diminish the contribution of Jeff Lemire (how could you looking at his astonishing swath of content), too often comic book adaptations adhere to the mechanics of plot and ignore the beauty of its construction on the page.

The producers should avoid going full-300 on Descender/Ascender, but spend as much time and effort capturing the visual aesthetic, including the craft of Nguyen’s sequential storytelling, as they would the emotional beats of the script. His magic occurs in how he extracts humanity from the inhuman. No, not the robots, but the drawings themselves. They’re mere brushstrokes, but they contain as much vibrance as the artist himself. They are as much the story as the words trapped in Lemire’s ballons.

Here is a child born of our hands, forgotten by our fear. We scream Heavenward, “Why do You allow evil to persist?” And in our question, we ignore our offspring rotting in the shadows. The asking is an insult. Look around, what we need to know surrounds us.

Every tale of artificial intelligence is a story of humanity interrogating God, “Where? What? Why?” Whether the story puts us behind the eyes of the creator or the creation, we’re allowed to respond to the grand unanswerable questions and put our best guesses forward. Until the singularity becomes a reality, A.I. fiction remains a space for us to purge our sins, whether we crave forgiveness or punishment, or a little bit of both.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)