The ASCENDER DELUXE HARDCOVER offers a sci-fi yarn with a high fantasy aesthetic

I sometimes find myself looking toward the night sky and asking the question: who are we? It’s a complicated question, and I’m not sure I even know what I mean by asking it, but I am sure others have asked it before me, and will continue to ask it long after I’m gone, or at least so long as there are stars to question and voices to ask.

Ascenderwith its swathes of fluid darkness and starlit machinery, easily resonates with the query – or at least with the landscape I’ve posed it to – and in fact might at first seem ideally suited to speak to it, given the cosmic stakes of the story, and the human cast of characters on whose lives and actions those stakes are cast.

Telling the story of Mila, a rebellious girl living on the planet Sampson, Ascender picks up ten years after the events of Descender. It’s a dystopian universe. Robots are outlawed, and Mother, a vampiric witch, holds galaxies in thrall with a despotic stranglehold on magic that has come to take the place of technology. The arrival of a robot from out of the sky plunges Mila into adventure where familiar characters from the earlier installment of the story appear and the nature of magic, technology, and the humane are revealed.

Collecting all 18 issues of Ascender together, the new deluxe hardcover edition begins with a propulsive thrust, and writer Jeff Lemire doesn’t linger to establish much in the way of alien landscape or society. Rather, the reader picks it up as they go along. At best, this makes the presentation of details like the dragons used for interplanetary travel an intriguing addition to the book. The focus of the story is on a small cast of characters and their relationship to one another, rather than being a sprawling melodrama, and the book benefits from the focus, if, at times, it doesn’t always allow the breathing room needed to allow character interactions to carry their full emotional weight. Particularly in the opening episodes, there is a somewhat repetitive structure where Lemire relies on the pursuing vampire horde to interrupt conversations between Mila and her father her. They stop, they talk, their talk is interrupted by an explosion, they outrun the horde, they stop, they talk etc. The narrative being structured as a quest it makes sense to propel characters onward toward their goal, but thankfully as the story develops this heightened jeopardy mellows out as the main motivator and characters are given more airtime. Once Lemire establishes multiple perspectives to jump between this reliance on action to punctuate the story beats lessens and the emotional content of conversations and exchanges comes to the fore, which is certainly to best effect.

When given the space, artist Dustin Nguyen’s fluid colors and ephemeral lines give shape and texture to even vast tracks of empty space. I found myself particularly struck by the full-page panels depicting massive citadels or gigantic machines looming above the horizons of planets. Nguyen seems to have an ability to capture the materiality of air and light, especially when they play on massive structures. In instances such as this there’s space enough to capture the detail that enlivens the storytelling, although in others – they are a rare few – Nguyen relays more so on the reader’s ability to recognize setting from the context of the story and, sadly, clarity can be somewhat lacking. He has a knack for the kind of spindly composition that give certain characters a decidedly Gothic flavour, and in larger moments can use setting to great effect, in one memorable instance placing a moon behind one character’s head to give them an otherworldly white halo, creating a memorable and resonant composition that feels totally unique to the book. Steve Wands Lettering is utilized to good effect, with different characters possessing their own balloon shapes and colours, and helps to augment character, although certain SFX do clash a little when laid over Nguyen’s striking watercolors.

For what it is, a sci-fi yarn with a high-fantasy aesthetic, Ascender delivers an entertaining read from a surehanded creative team, while perhaps failing to hit the mark on potentially larger themes. One character’s plea, for the universe to be made whole not through the forceful suppression of difference, but rather through its celebration, could perhaps have been explored a little deeper, the cast of characters expanded to include the experiences of robots, monsters, and humans existing on the fringes of a domineering political system, and the story made to reach beyond those of characters recognizable from an earlier installment. However, having said that, the drama that does unfold, of families lost and reunited, is competently delivered, and Lemire and Nguyen hit the aimed for emotional beats, there being enough human drama and explosive action to propel the story on to its universe shattering conclusion.

While Ascender may not reach certain philosophical heights or attempt to answer the question of what it may mean to be a machine or a human, or indeed a hybrid of both, it tells an engaging, and at times heartwarming story, that I’m happy to have read. Sometimes, on winter nights as cold as these, it may be best to turn toward the warmth of home and abandon any stargazing inquiries for the comfort of a story set somewhere far across the universe.

Verdict: Buy



Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dustin Nguyen
Letterer: Steve Wands
Publisher: Image Comics
Ten years after the conclusion of DESCENDER, magic has taken the place of machinery and the rules of the universe are very different. Andy and Effie’s daughter Mila spends her days exploring the lonely wilds of the planet Sampson and trying to stay out of the clutches of the all-powerful vampire witch known only as “Mother.” But like her parents her, Mila does n’t like to play by the rules, and when a certain robot pal of her dad’s shows up, nothing will ever be the same!
LEMIRE & NGUYEN reunite to take readers on an unforgettable fantasy quest with all the scope and heart of the sci-fi classic DESCENDER!
Publication Date:
October 2022

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