Today, we continue our descent into the wonderful world of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender graphic novel series. The last three issues have earned 9s across the board from me, and Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics continues the tradition of excellent sci-fi space spelunking. Volume 3 brought us some significant reveals that shook the story by its ankles, sending a cascade of shiny story nuggets from the overarching narrative’s pockets. Orbital Mechanics takes a breather on the heels of Singularities, bridging the events of the past issue into what I can only hope will be an epic two-volume climax. Spoilers ahead for the previous volumes.
Captain Telsa is captured by the machines in their secret base. She and Quon reform their tenuous alliance and plan to escape with Tim-21. Driller contemplates his role in the events leading up to the destruction of Tim-21’s home, putting a strain on his relationship with Andy. Andy, meanwhile, deals with his lingering feelings for Effie, and the UGC works on a secret weapon that could stop the return of the Harvesters.
Of course, if you haven’t started Descender yet, this will all read as some form of gibberish to you. For existing fans, Orbital Mechanics takes a slower approach, offering quiet character moments and short snippets of action and intrigue. This volume feels like the lull at the end of act two. The cast is unsure of their future, and all feels lost, to some degree. And it’s in these moments that characters begin to reveal their true natures. How does Andy react to Driller’s murderous revelations? Can Telsa and Quon set aside their differences to escape the Machine Moon? Is Tim-21 the only key to unlocking the origin of the Harvesters? Orbital Mechanics welcomes these questions and either answers them or promises to explore them further as the story continues.
I particularly admired the art in this issue, and the way Lemire and Nguyen rely on it to tell much of the story. The first issue of this volume tells three stories with little-to-no dialogue, and it’s one of the most impactful sequences the series has offered thus far. It serves as a sweeping portrait of each main character’s mindset as we pick up where we left off. It’s a wonderful experience, and I actually felt slightly disappointed when later issues started to lean on dialogue.
This brings me to my only minor issue with Orbital Mechanics. The dialogue, in many places, feels like a second thought. It borders on cliché, and I can only attribute that choice to the space opera pastiche of Descender. What could reasonably be attributed to a skewering of the genre eventually feels undercooked. To be fair, these moments are never enough to make me scoff at the series. They’re just a minor smudge on an otherwise beautifully told story.
Orbital mechanics gave me more Descender, and I already love it for that. Although much of it simply bridges the gap between an Act 1 conclusion and the beginning of Act 3, it still retains the wondrous sci-fi elements that make the whole series great. I’m already hankering for the concluding volumes 5 and 6.