We’ve got “last stands” and “epic conclusions” all over the sci-fi and fantasy world, but they’re only made impactful by the all-is-lost moments that precede them. And in the six-volume Descender saga, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, Rise of the Robots serves up that all-is-lost moment with a dash of hope.
Descender Volume 5 continues our tale, showing us short snippets of each character’s story. Captain Telsa is imprisoned by Tim-22. Andy and Effie are trapped in a barrage of laser blasts from the robot revolution. The UGC is racing to save them. Driller explores a magical planet with a newfound companion. Tim-21 is embroiled in all of these storylines in one way or another, thanks to his robot network connectivity. Each thread becomes part of the larger garment, and Rise of the Robots culminates in a shocking and horrific event that will no doubt usher us into a grand ending.
I love Descender more with each volume, even if the story isn’t improving from one issue to the next. Instead, it’s the love with which the story is crafted that draws me to it. Lemire and Nguyen clearly adore science fiction, and that adoration bleeds through every panel. Descender hits every beat that good sci-fi should hit, but also subverts expectations. The rise and fall of Dr. Quon results in his eventual redemption, and his arc in this volume particularly stands out. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s refreshing to see a character grow and change over the course of an epic graphic novel series, when Lemire and Nguyen could have just settled for tried-and-true (though unoriginal) tropes.
Instead, the author and the artist take tropes and inject them into little lines throughout Rise of the Robots to pay them tribute without relying on them. This can lead to some stumbles. The dialogue isn’t always sharp or polished, but it gets the message across. Lemire makes each line important, even when a character utters something that feels like it’s pulled from a b-grade sci-fi flick. The art and the story make this feel like a cut above the science fiction that inspires it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually get a miniseries adaptation of this story.
All that said, Volume 5 wilts ever-so-slightly, but that’s okay. These are the final throes of the dungeon, just before we unlock the boss door and encounter the final conflict. Rise of the Robots reads as though the characters are chess pieces shuffling around to set up a wild gambit, so some of the scenes feel truncated or lessened as a result. There’s a lot of story to cover in a short page count. Lemire and Nguyen make a worthy effort to move those pieces into place and set us up for one hell of a checkmate.
However, and I cannot stress this enough, Driller remains the pinnacle of the series. The robot’s quasi-self-banishment brings him to a strange new world where he has to make friends with a humanoid and traverse a treacherous landscape. To see the world through Driller’s mechanical eyes–especially considering the context of his past–is an utter delight. Of all the characters in this series, his role in the final volume is the only one I can’t predict with any sort of confidence. Driller is, indeed, a real killer. And here I mean “killer” as in, just a cool fuckin’ dude.
If you’re this far in the Descender series, I have a hard time believing you’d want to stop, even if Rise of the Robots doesn’t have as much to offer as its counterparts. I’ve already pulled the final volume off my shelf, and I intend to read it as soon as I’m done typing this. Hopefully, you’ll do the same after you finish reading this. Fingers crossed for an amazing finale.