Sunday, December 31, 2017

REVIEW: DESCENDER VOLUME 4: ORBITAL MECHANICS

Souls scattered across the stars...


INTRODUCTION 
With backstories for Driller, Telsa, Tim-22, Bandit, and Andy/Effie out of the way, DESCENDER VOLUME 4: ORBITAL MECHANICS delivers on some much needed plot development for the larger story of the machine vs. organic conflict. After two whole volumes of this being somewhat stalled, it is finally brought forward in ways that feel important and sometimes surprising.

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 This felt like the entry into the series that I have been waiting for. The story is back on track, the art is back on par, and the characters are as good as they have ever been.

CHARACTERS
The cast benefits from all the time VOLUME 3 spent on it's more obscure members.The revelations from Driller's issue generate a satisfying amount of drama with Andy and his crew. The results of these pivotal moments drive him, Effie, and Andy forward as characters while also making way for someone new who may or may not become an important player in what comes next. The fight between Tim-21 and Tim-22 concludes, but the end result is not immediately what it seems and both of these companion bots have some some neat twists hiding up their baggy sleeves. Psius is still a bit of a mystery to me, but it was fun to see more of his scheming and I look forward to seeing what frightening plans he has for the future. Nagoki (Telsa's dad and an important member of the UGC) divulges a very important piece of intelligence that connects a couple of important dots regarding why Tim-21 is so important to everyone. The chapters of this volume are definitely a lot more plot/event driven, but there's still some great stuff going on with the people involved along the way.

WORLD/SETTING 
There's a much greater emphasis on the universe this time around. Conversations are had regarding the Harvester threat, characters are trying to reach specific destinations, and the writing has done a great job of making things that happen in one place feel important to another. There's this great inter-connectivity between everything that makes the world(s) feel so much more alive than before. Even back in the first volume it wasn't entirely clear how one thing connected to another, but now, there's a distinct sense of unity across all people, places, and things. This is a good thing because location-wise there's not a ton going on. Most of the action takes place in different starships, UGC bases, and The Machine Moon. These are all rendered with a bit more detail and care than they were in the previous installment, at least. There are also two more exotic planets that the story does go to. One is all water which sounds boring, but story-wise it's pretty cool. The second is a swamp planet which is something a little different from what's been shown so far as well. All in all, the setting definitely takes a higher precedence than before, there is a tiny bit of variation in the backdrops, and there is a little more effort into depicting where all the characters are. 

PLOT/TONE 
While it could definitely be argued, that this volume is just setting up future installments, I felt as though it was as satisfying as it should be with weaving a compelling space opera while still building hype for what comes next. With the threat of the Harvesters taking the forefront, the overall tone of the story is far more pressing. There's this excellent sense that the characters are racing against an invisible clock and that the shoe could drop at any moment. Although the Harvesters do not actually make a sudden and devastating appearance, there are a number of smaller hammers that do come down which result in there being twists around every turn. There are also some fun side stories that keep things interesting without distracting too much from the main thread - the troubled relationship between Andy and Effie being chief among them. 

ARTWORK
Some of my criticisms about the backdrops being a little bland in VOLUME 3 do not carry over into VOLUME 4. It looked like a bit more time and effort was put into this area of the visuals and there were decidedly more "high budget" shots as well. Sure, there will still occasionally be a character standing in front of nothing but textured white, but this is the DESCENDER style that readers know and love and it's possible that this is the best looking volume to date. My only remaining criticism at this point would be that for some reason everyone has weird-looking hands. They're not anatomically incorrect or anything, they just look like they belong to an old man which might be alright for characters like Doctor Quon, but looks weird for someone like Andy.  

CONCLUSION 
It took a while, but I feel like the all the buildup that has been taking place is finally paying off. The characters that were explored in VOLUME 3 all have important parts to play which made learning their backstories feel all the more worthwhile. The dots are connecting and the different locations have converged to one larger stage. The pace has picked up, the twists have increased in number, and there are plenty of new open threads to look forward to.

REVIEW: DESCENDER VOLUME 3: SINGULARITIES

When singularities converge...


INTRODUCTION 
DESCENDER VOLUME 2: MACHINE MOON was a sturdy continuation of the story, but faltered in that it didn't do enough to move the overarching story thread along. My hopes going into VOLUME 3: SINGULARITIES was that this would be rectified. In some ways, I found that it does amend a handful of the things that kept the preceding volume from being awesome, but it wasn't what I anticipated it would be since the story moves forward by actually taking a few steps back. 

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 While I definitely liked this installment better than the previous one, it still felt oddly lateral in terms of story progression and a little less than extraordinary when it came to it's visuals.

CHARACTERS
This series has always been filled with strong personalities. The key highlight of this particular volume is that it explores the backstories of some of the more obscure and/or mysterious members of the cast. Each of the five chapters spends it's time exploring the past of 1-2 characters (some of them are paired up). They start off in their distant memory and build up to where the are in the present tense of the plot. Bandit, Andy and Effie, Driller, Telsa (and a little of Tullis), and Tim-22 are the featured characters in these singular adventures. Things kick off with a bang as the readers finally get to know what went into Tim-22 becoming such a psychotic murder-bot. I've never been a huge fan of bandit, the barking dog-bot, but his issue went a long way towards endearing him to me and by the end, I could finally look at him as a full-fledged member of the crew. A couple of the other stories tread on some familiar ground, though. We already knew what happened to Telsa's mother so revisiting that  in her chapter felt a little pointless and her story of rebelliously joining the military against her father's wishes wasn't terribly original, but she's such an awesome and visually striking character that this was still a lot of fun. Driller's story also felt a little dull since it explored his existence as, well ... a driller. I wasn't even sure about why the writers devoted a whole section of the volume to him until a pretty awesome twist that comes toward the end. To close things out, Andy and Effie's complex past is explored which felt like a timely series of flashbacks given how unlikable Effie (if that's even her go-forward name) came off when they first introduced her. Overall, I think this series of flashback-centric issues really built out some of the less known and less likable characters in a hugely positive way.


WORLD/SETTING 
The world is far less important in this entry. There are still plenty of exotic science fiction locations that serve as the backdrop for the memories of the various featured characters. It's just important to note that there isn't anything particularly spectacular going on in this department. A lot of familiar places are revisited like the mining colony Tim-21 and Andy are from, the sparkling hub city prior to the Harvester attack, and some shots of various UGC facilities. There are some new places as well like the refugee camp Andy winds up in and the shady market that Telsa wanders into, but these backgrounds are very much in the background. None are rendered with particular attention to the little details nor is there any special emphasis placed on being somewhere or going somewhere else. 

PLOT/TONE 
Each chapter plays out in the same format: The story kicks off with a character's distant past and gradually flashes forward from that point in time to where they wound up at the end of VOLUME 2. The formula itself doesn't really feel tedious at all, I kind of liked that they stuck to this theme throughout the whole of the volume, it created some nice cohesion that you don't always find in a graphic novel. What did feel a little off though was actually the glimpses of what happens in the present. It sort of felt like they wanted to give the story some forward momentum even though there was only room for a couple pages per chapter of that content. The result is a sense that these bits are shoehorned in and don't add much value to the overall narrative readers have been following. Had I not felt like things were at such a standstill in the previous volume, I think I would have received this one far better. In my review for VOLUME 2 I stated that I wanted to see things move forward again at the exciting pace that VOLUME 1 set. This certainly does not do that, but I also didn't mind the more reflective nature of the individual stories being told because I felt like there was a lot of progression in terms of unveiling some important information about the various side characters and that this sets them up to play a bigger role in the story proper.

ARTWORK
The water paint inspired look is still as beautiful as ever, but it feels a little rushed this time around. There's nothing that looks particularly different or bad and most of the time, characters look perfectly crisp. I think for me, I just felt as though the backgrounds were a bit more white-washed than usual. This isn't anything new for the series, but there's a distinct lack of any kind of "money shots" present. Previous volumes have had a fair number of memorable shots on both the character and environment end of things and I just didn't really note too many of those here. I've also picked up that sometimes people's hands look weird. I couldn't put my finger on it other than to say that it was almost like there was too much detail there in the penciling.



CONCLUSION 
It's not the important narrative push that I hoped for, but there was definitely some important information conveyed here. Characters that have lingered on the sidelines get their time in the spotlight and benefit from some much needed depth. Some of the revelations provided in these pasts feel like they are setting up some interesting story beats in VOLUME 4 so I definitely look forward to those payoffs. Overall, I think this was well done even if what the series really needed was a good push onward.