Sunday, April 3, 2016

REVIEW: DESCENDER VOLUME 1: TIN STARS



INTRODUCTION
Every now and then, I come across something so unexpectedly good that it just blows me away. I've had a couple of these occurrences as a result of my participation in 2015's Booktube SFF Awards Readalongs which are hosted by the Goodreads group of the same name. Last year, I enjoyed books like RAT QUEENS VOLUME 1: SASS AND SORCERY, and SIXTH OF THE DUSK. During this year's readalongs, I began with DESCENDER VOLUME 1: TIN STARS, a graphic novel I'd never heard of before. It's published by Image though which is the same comics distributor that prints the RAT QUEENS series and it looked really cool when I checked it out, so I decided to give this one a chance.

HOW I RATED IT
5/5 The art, the characters, the world, the story, everything just left me stunned and wanting the next volume in my hands immediately (sadly, it's not out just yet). In the meantime, I at least get to write about how fantastic this graphic novel is and all the reasons why everyone who's a fan of science fiction and/or comics should give it a try.

CHARACTERS
Poor Tim-21!
One of the things that was pretty interesting about this work is that there isn't really a main character. There are certainly a bunch of really important ones, but this also doesn't have the power-team feel to it at all. What you get instead is a bunch of individuals who each have their own thing going for them, all of which are involved in something much bigger than themselves. There are about five (and a quarter) of them in total, but the two that are the most developed are Dr. Quon, a man known as the father of robotics and Tim-21 an android designed to be an empathetic child's companion. After the shocking turn of events that mark the beginning of issue 1, both of these characters' lives are changed forever and certainly not for the better. Tim-21 finds himself on an abandoned mining colony. All of his human company is dead after a tragic accident and in the years that he's been powered down, the galaxy has turned against synthetic organisms of any kind. For all purposes, Tim is a child -  a child who finds himself scared and utterly alone save for his yippy dog-bot pet thing (the quarter of a character). Dr. Quon on the other hand is a different sort of washed up. The world suspects that he has something to do with the giant space robots that nearly destroyed every living thing and shattered society as they knew it. That's a pretty heavy burden to bear and as the reader, I was never really sure if maybe he DID have something to do with the calamity that the story opens with. There's a lot that gets revealed with both of these characters and while I'll obviously not spoil any of it, I will say that it was very rewarding to slowly uncover more about who they are. Dr. Quon, in particular, is a very interesting figure because readers get to see him at some very different stages in his life. Seeing him as a college-age student, young man, and middle-aged man felt like something I've never really gotten in a comic before. I know super hero stories tend to do flashbacks to childhood/youth, but those tend to be big jumps in time. The only other kind of time jump I've seen is when a comic portrays events that aren't all that far back from the main story arc which therefore results in the character(s) not looking all that different. The three iterations of Quon offer some particularly interesting insight into who he is and it's even just visually cool to see him in several different stages of adulthood.

Part of a fantastic flashback sequence
Rounding out the crew is a strangely alluring female space commander, her brutish right hand officer, and a large mining bot known as Driller. Driller is a character that's so simple, he actually feels deep. Because he's a robot designed for really only one thing, he often describes himself as being too dumb to do something. The most heart-wrenching of these moments is when he is trying to repair Tim-21 after he suffers a good deal of damage and is on the verge of shutting down permanently. Lacking the capacity to fix the little robot, Driller is sent into something as akin to panic as a robot of his programming can achieve. He also has a fatal distrust of all organic beings given that he has seen them hunt down and disassemble his kind. The other two characters I listed before are mostly just okay. The captain is visually interesting given her bright red hair and alien complexion, but her stern, militaristic veneer keeps her from being all that interesting on a characterization level. There are some little breadcrumbs dropped that hint at future developments involving her, so I wouldn't rule her out just yet as being compelling, she'll just be a bit of a late bloomer at this point. Her officer on the other hand is pretty dull despite how impressive he looks physically. There's always a chance he could wind up surprising me in a later volume, but at this stage he's kind of just got the big tough guy thing going for him and not much else.  

WORLD/SETTING
By far, one of my favorite things about this series is the world. It's one of the few pieces of science fiction I've ever seen in any medium where the shiny futuristic setting remains that way. Sure, the world is kind of torn asunder right away, but the glimmering white of the futuristic imagery doesn't just dissipate after five seconds of enjoying it. And not everything is whitewashed either. If you are a fan of darker, dingier locales, then this work also has you covered in that regard. The place where readers first meet Tim-21 is pretty gloomy, and there is a planet later on in the volume that is sort of a wasteland/junkyard type desert world. There's also some other types of scenery that pop up in different flashbacks from cozy bedrooms, to high-tech laboratories, and even an exotic alien ruin. There's just a lot of variety and each and every location is rendered with lovingly crafted artwork. In fact, it's the art that really makes all of these locations feel as special as they do, but more of that in just a bit.
Opening with a bang

PLOT/TONE
This is a story of a utopic, science fiction universe being thrown into disarray. The catalyst for this chaos is a surprise galaxy-wide attack by robots whose chests are the size of planets. They bring destruction across the galaxy, very nearly wiping it out entirely. But there are survivors and the central galactic government works tirelessly to try and restore order while also preparing for the inevitable return of the mysterious robotic entities. If you haven't guessed it by now, this is a remarkably dark story-line, but not one that's entirely hopeless. A lot of the light comes from Tim-21's innocent outlook on life. He's only really ever known love and warmth so while he wakes up alone and hurting, he remains optimistic things can somehow return to the way they used to be. There is also the constant dropping of new hints at what might really be going on which kept me always wanting to read onward and find out what answers would be divulged in the next chapter. While the end of this volume ultimately leaves off with a bunch of different questions, there is one major revelation that dramatically changed the way that I now view the plot. It's a clever development too because while it left so much unanswered, it also turned everything on its head so much that I don't think I could have handled any more truth drops. There's a very complex web that's being spun here and it's only just beginning to unravel. I think this is one piece of fiction that I'll be revisiting to try and see if there are any things I missed the first time which might give me hints into what will come next.

Some stunning cover art featuring the
main characters
ARTWORK
Since this is a visual medium, the quality of the artwork can really make or break my enjoyment of a graphic novel and in this case, the art just kills it. There is a somewhat watercolor sort of style to the art. It's definitely not actual water color, but it's as close an approximation as I've ever seen in digital illustration and the effect it creates is so beautiful. There's also a vague anime feel to it. It's a LOT more intricately detailed than an anime style, but the way that characters' faces look and even just some of the atmospheric elements do distinctly take inspiration from the iconic Japanese art-form which gives all of the art an even more unique quality. Like any comic, there are definitely some panels that just don't look quite as good as others. They're the more mundane shots, the ones that kind of get rushed along and unfortunately, the water color style doesn't hold up too well when this happens. Shots where this is the case can look very sloppy and even unfinished in some spots. This isn't a huge problem, since I would say the vast majority of the imagery is painstakingly detailed, but it is worth mentioning that when a particular section is bad, it's REALLY bad. I'll also call out that it didn't really affect my overall enjoyment of this book. I get that not every panel is going to be a masterpiece and a few bad images here and there is a small price to pay when the other 80% of the book looks as good as it does.

CONCLUSION
This is not only one of the best comics I have ever read, but also one of the most compelling pieces of science fiction literature that I have had the privilege to indulged in. You definitely have to have a stomach for a little bit of gore intermittently, be into space-centric science fiction, and like graphic storytelling as a medium in order to enjoy this to the fullest, but if all of those sound like things you like (or can at least tolerate) then you should definitely pick this up. It has so much to offer readers and after finishing it, I can honestly say that I think there is so much more still to be delivered. I really do think this is an absolute must-read and that it's only the start of something even greater.

DESCENDER VOLUME 1: TIN STARS can be found in eBook and Paperback versions on Amazon.
  • I would recommend going with the paperback since the artwork is too good not to put on a shelf and there are a couple of full-page spreads that may look a little weird on an eReader.

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