It’s funny—I never thought about it before, but I have a pretty strong association between comic books and sex. Saga, Rat Queens, Bitch Planet, Tank Girl, Harley Quinn—almost all of my favorite series or characters have sex or sexiness as important components of plot or character development.
Yeah, yeah, sex sells, blah blah blah. I’m not mad about it. This is 2016, and being scandalized by sex, especially in art, is sooo 50 years ago. I love a good sex scene in a comic; it’s a great way to explore everything from character development to sociopolitical issues in an imagined future. But because sex is so ubiquitous in comics, it’s surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) refreshing to find a comic book that does without it. Which is exactly what Descender Vol. 1 does.
The plot centers on a child companion robot: a robot boy built to accompany a human boy. The human is likely long dead, following an apocalyptic event that resulted in a general hatred of all robots when massive robots the size of planets mysteriously appeared and wiped out a huge swath of life in the known world. But the boy-bot might hold the key to solving the mystery of what brought said apocalyptic event about. He is chased across worlds by bounty hunters and powerful government figures, as well as the creator that brought him into the world. And we explore questions of what it means to be robot, or human, and where is the line that divides AI from “actual” consciousness, in the process.
I’m obviously trying not to give any spoilers here, and it’s difficult to dig in without doing so. But the more I look at the plot of this book—still, no spoilers—the more I realize how simple it really is. There is a fair amount of tension and interesting plot points, but it’s not near as dense or complex as many other books I’ve read, especially among independent comics. Oddly, that’s something that actually makes it appeal to me even more.
I love a complex story, but sometimes a compelling exploration of simple themes—such as the concept of what, exactly, makes us “human”—is more powerful than the densest plot. Descender Vol. 1 does a great job of exploring those perennial questions that are deceptively simple to ask yet seemingly impossible to answer. And it uses the viewpoint of a child bot without devolving into romanticizations of “childhood innocence” or anything foolish like that.
The plot is helped along significantly by the artwork. Dark and sometimes horrifying scenes are painted in dreamy, watercolor styles, which are sometimes elaborately color-saturated and sometimes little more than sketches with a few splashes of color for highlight. This visual storytelling gives the book an extra layer of tone and subtlety. Pivotal, action-packed scenes are often fully colored, while flashbacks or scenes of verbal exposition might be given less flashiness. The words can say less because the visuals say so much.
It’s lovely to see a classic sci-fi tale rendered so artistically, and it adds a layer of seriousness to a story that’s already delving deep into the questions that keep many of us up at night. And there has been neither sex nor sexuality used to drive this story yet, which is certainly not unheard of, but unusual enough to seem a bold choice in itself. Sexiness sells, and I’ll still buy, most of the time. Romance drives the plots of many of my favorite books, too, even the ones without nudity (which admittedly are rare on my shelves). But when sci-fi worlds give us so many other lenses with which to look at life, I’m glad to see a book that takes a different tack than what I’ve become used to. And it does it in a way that is beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable. I already can’t wait to pick up the next trade.
I’m curious if anyone else has had a similar (or markedly different!) experience when it comes to sex in comic books. Tweet me (@ElyseHauser) if you’d like to share your thoughts!