Ascender is the not-so-cleverly-titled sequel to Descender, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s critically-acclaimed, Eisner winning series. Taking place ten years after the “rip-roaring and heart-felt cosmic odyssey” that was Descender, Ascender centers on a young girl, Mila, stuck on the planet Sampson, the former center of the “United Galactic Council” which is now “cut off from the rest of the galaxy.” The inhabitants of Sampson scratch out a hardscrabble life in a “pre-technological” age thanks to Mother, a zealot who trucks with witchcraft, torture and long black capes.
Credited as “storytellers,” Lemire and Nguyen swap out Descender’s science-fiction bromides of spaceships and robots for Ascender’s fantasy banalities of dragons and magic. In an effort to double-down on the trite and tiresome, our storytellers set their plucky protagonist off on the heavily trafficked road of the hero’s journey. And while Lemire and Nguyen may have traded in the tech of their previous series for the arcane arts this time around, blood sacrifices and flying four-eyed lizards are no defense from a good Star Wars reference. Ascender enjoys at least six: one for every four and a half pages.
But so what? Star Wars references are cultural currency. Why be creative or show intestinal fortitude to make myths when reprocessing them is easy, safe and financially sound? Given the awards and pabulum couched as critical acclaim for each series – not to mention a forthcoming Descender film adaptation – it feels a fool’s errand to criticize Lemire and Nguyen for making the least risky choice every single time. How are the rote plot, characters and settings of Ascender #1 any different than what passes for entertainment nowadays?
Any praise Ascender merits – and any risks it takes – fall to Nguyen’s watercolors and capable cartooning. If different than most mainstream comics and professionally executed are your only criterion, than Nguyen’s Eisner-winning work in Descender carries over to its sequel. Washed landscapes of verdant forests, castle courtyards and lava lairs are all well-rendered, but routine enough to keep pace with the predictable text. To demonstrate how small and fragile Mila is, she is always drawn in long shots as a tiny silhouette against an angry orchid or crimson sky. These bruised colors echo her own aching ego as she’s trapped on a derelict rock, far from the fame or adventure of her dreams...or so she thinks. In close ups, Nguyen allows Mila to get nearly eye-to-eye with her adult interlocutors which hints at her courage while keeping her less than equal and awash in a nimbus of rinse water greys.
The one image to take away from Ascender is a giant flying turtle. (Like Caucasians, reptiles seem to fare best in fantasy worlds.) Since every idea in this comic is borrowed from somewhere else, perhaps Nguyen is riffing on Stephen King’s multiverse (who probably borrowed it from someone else) or perhaps he simply thought it fun to draw a turtle sailing the skyways. Either way the lack of explanation adds élan to an otherwise grab-bag of genre tics and clichés.
Perhaps it’s too harsh to rest Ascender’s bankruptcy of ideas on only one of its storytellers when Lemire’s script shoulders as much (more?) of the burden. Lemire works his familiar familial theme into Ascender which his readers have come to expect and depend upon. Like legions of others, Lemire has made a prosperous living and professionally respectable career being a family guy. He’s never met a damaged ragamuffin or traumatized and (mostly) straight white male whom he hasn’t found a way to write into a family either by their own blood or manufacture. When not hammering home ‘the family,’ Lemire’s stories stick to the most popular literary themes: love, war, survival, coming-of-age, good vs. evil, etc. This isn’t to fault Lemire for writing stories that rely on these themes, but to point out he’s more run-of-the-mill than exceptional. And yet he maintains steady employment, receives positive critical attention and is more prolific than many of his peers: there are a lot of middling comics on the shelves bearing the name Jeff Lemire.
Ascender is the Platonic ideal of a Jeff Lemire comic. There’s Mila, the feisty adolescent who stands up to prejudice and will likely face down the fascist power structure currently ruling the universe. Her “good” is balanced against the “evil” of Mother (the name, believe it or not, is ironic) all of which lines up on a path to war, survival and (for some) death. Even for the least Lemire-agnostic, what’s the appeal of Ascender when there are dozens and dozens of other nearly identical stories—many written by Lemire himself!—with similar themes and characters? Again, what does Lemire believe? What does he say that separates him from his contemporaries or the sources he so liberally borrows from?
Lemire employs fantasy tropes i.e. magic, pseudo-European medieval settings, the hero’s journey, etc. with barely a twist. Mother refers to the giant lizard-like dragon she rides as a “ship” and there are two appearances of robots. The head of a robot magically materializes as a “message” after Mother tortures a prisoner and the issue ends when another robot crash lands in front of Mila. These aren’t disruptions of the fantasy milieu so much as reminders that Ascender’s epic fantasy is a sequel to Descender’s space opera—robot residue of more technological times. Lemire’s imaginary world is a white space with no people of color save for a blue-skinned woman, a couple of green flying-monkey-like creatures and an taupe colored ogre-ish military official. Lemire isn’t the first (nor the last) straight white male writer to not populate a “fantasy” world with people of color. Before Lemire-o-philes cram the TCJ inbox defending their boy, Descender featured several people of color so expect Ascender to follow suit as the series goes on. Why wait? This is a new (old) world, why not start with more people of color? Setting-wise it’s also not clear if Lemire favors the Edenic albeit “devastated” setting of Sampson with its flying turtle, ramshackle marketplace and night skies so clear Mila can see three moons (!!!) to its sci-fi antecedent—more of Lemire’s saying nothing while grubbing for the middle way.
Any of the auteurism Lemire displayed as a cartoonist in Essex County and Sweet Tooth, both of which built the reputation he now enjoys, has vanished or, perhaps, was never there in the first place. Perhaps his idiosyncratic cartooning provided a ruse to hide his writing. As I recount the handful of Lemire comics I’ve read I don’t recall ever finishing a series or getting all the way through a graphic novel. I lose interest and don’t care. Again, given Lemire’s success and prolific output, I'm the minority. Which brings me to an interview Lemire gave the Hollywood Reporter when Ascender was announced. Lemire was asked how he and Nguyen collaborate. Lemire said, “Dustin and I are both pretty low-key people and we’ve never talked about the book; we’ve never discussed what we’re going to do. I give him the scripts and … we never talk! [my emphasis]” The interviewer follows up to say how “funny” this arrangement seems given the quality of the work. Lemire responds, “… with the creator-owned stuff, it’s just the two of us, and we get to do what we want to do—we don’t need to prove our idea to anyone, we just do it [...] two kids making comics.” Bully for Lemire and Nguyen that they enjoy such creative freedom and rapport. How wonderful. How perfect. As for Lemire’s core audience or those asked to think about his work, oh well; that’s on them! So if Ascender appears as a string of tropes and clichés built off of a stale template and weaved together with pretty watercolors, so be it. Lemire doesn’t worry or care. For him, “it’s just two kids making comics.”