'Ascender' #1 Review: A Cliche-Filled Start to the 'Descender' Sequel

ascender
(Photo: Image Comics)

Last summer, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen's sci-fi odyssey Descender came to stunning, devastating conclusion after 32 issues. Now, the co-creators are back with a follow-up to the Eisner Award-winning series, taking readers back to that world in Ascender, but make no mistake: it's not exactly the same place readers have been before

Ascender is set a decade after Descender's conclusion and centers on Mila, a young girl stuck on the planet Sampson that was once the center of the United Galactic Council. Now Sampson is, as the book puts it, "cut off from the rest of the galaxy" with its formerly technologically advanced way of life reduced to a far more primitive lifestyle. This descent into a time before tech is no accident. This dramatic shift is the doing of the vampire witch Mother, whose rule eschews technology in favor of witchcraft, magic, and torture of anyone who doesn't get in line.

It's this elimination of the high-tech for the magical that marks a severe and dramatic genre shift from Descender which is one of the most successful elements of the first issue. While those familiar with Descender will recognize and feel at home with Ascender, it also manages to feel accessible for new readers as well. A solid first third of the issue is devoted to setting up Mother's brutal new world before moving us to Sampson and introducing us to Mila -- only then hinting that there was once a far different way of life.

ascender mother 2
(Photo: Image Comics)

However, while the book is accessible for new and returning readers alike thanks to that genre shift, much of the issue feels somewhat tired and done before. It's nearly impossible to miss the heavy Star Wars feeling Ascender #1 has. Mother looks every bit like a vaguely female take on Emperor Palpatine and her magical torture of a prisoner early in the issue is little more than a bootleg Force choke. Mila very much looks and feels like a young Luke Skywalker crossed with Rey, and the market we first truly see her in? Well, the moment feels very much like a spiritual cousin to a galaxy far, far away, and the arrival of what appears to be a robot of sorts at the issue's end only reinforces the Star Wars vibe.

All of that said, even with the Star Wars of it all, the hero's journey isn't one that's exclusive to to the franchise. In Ascender #1, Lemire and Nguyen offer up just enough to hint that Mila's journey will be a fresh one as well as create genuine intrigue as to the potential conflict of the series. Mother discovers that there may well be someone else out there with magic working against her; it doesn't take much to thinking to recognize that this is going to put Mother and Mila on a collision course, but it does leave open the question of how.

Unfortunately, though, that question -- as well as the beauty of Nguyen's lush watercolor art -- may not be enough to save it from being little more than a worn repeat of stale tropes. Specifically, Ascender #1 is a very whitewashed world heavy on the wannabe medieval European vibe when it's not borrowing from Star Wars. While there's plenty of opportunity for that to change, it's kind of jarring -- particularly when the few characters who read even remotely non-white are presented as vaguely incompetent.

Overall, for those coming in from Descender, Ascender will feel like an interesting next chapter, but on its own it is nothing special. Too reliant on stereotypes and tropes, this opening issue is a just a little too cliché and precious to truly rise to the heights its title teases.

Published by Image Comics

On April 24, 2019

Written by Jeff Lemire

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Art by Dustin Nguyen

Letters by Steve Wands