Ascender #1: The light in the darkness
This is an advance, spoiler-free review of Image Comics’ Ascender #1, scheduled to hit comic shops on April 24, 2019.
Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender was a fascinating series. It had distinct, memorable characters, numerous alien worlds, and engrossing plots and subplots for days. And I’ve only read about half of it! If I had to level a criticism at the book, though, it would be that—at least early on—it often struggled to find the right balance between exposition and letting us figure things out by observation. It’s an understandable struggle; after all, when you’re building a galaxy of your own from scratch and asking folks to invest in it, you want to make sure you give them enough to justify that investment. And Descender did indeed justify; but, it would have been even stronger if some of the world-building had been parceled out over time, in whispers and campfire-tales, instead of being given through direct revelation.
Well, the much-anticipated sequel to Descender is here; and whether it’s experience, having an established backstory, or some other third thing, it seems like this time Lemire and Nguyen are much more content to thrust us into the mess without special handling. Ascender #1 begins some time after the conclusion of its predecessor, so things are quite a bit different. Veteran readers of this galaxy will surely recognize or anticipate pre-established history and characters; but this is not the world they left behind. For the most part, both old and new readers alike will encounter a mysterious landscape here, and there is much we do not know by the end of it.
But it is not as though we are lost. There are some very familiar tropes in play here, and at least at the beginning, Lemire and Nguyen lead us along those well-trod paths without any deviation. We may not see or understand all of the details in this strange, far-off place, but we can see struggles common to all people in these characters. There is wickedness, goodness, and the importance of truth. There are villains and jaded heroes, and innocence in its twilight. We recognize ourselves in the fundamental nature of these characters, though we cannot recognize their surroundings; and to me, that’s the best kind of sci-fi there is.
Time will obviously tell whether or not Ascender lives up to the reputation of Descender, but here at the start, I’m intrigued—more, I think, than I was back at the start of Descender. The storytelling from Lemire and Nguyen is more natural, shows more faith in its audience, and reflects a comfort between creators and with this galaxy and its characters than it has before. The design and production quality is top-notch thanks to the work of letterer and designer Steve Wands. I read more comics than I can remember some months, but here is one of the few that stands out, and I can’t wait to see what awaits next month and beyond.