REVIEW: Ascender #1 is a fascinating realignment of the world from Descender

Ascender #1 is slated for release 4/24/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — Ascender #1 is an odd comic, in that it feels like both a vague continuation of a previous story (Descender, to be exact), and a wholly new beginning that’s not beholden to anything that’s come before. I don’t mean any of that as a criticism. To the contrary, I think it’s all to the book’s credit. Allow me to the current market, it’s not at all uncommon for books to cease for a few months, giving the trade time to come out and the artist a time buffer with which to get ahead. Sometimes, these books come back following time jumps or new status quos or major cliffhangers.

What we get in Ascender, however, is a total aesthetic realignment. Whereas Descender (which wrapped up with Descender #32 in July) was a hard sci-fi book with a focus on robotics and an almost-believable bend, Ascender is a foray into dragons and magic and all things fantasy. It’s still firmly within the genre fiction category, but in many ways its gone to the complete other side of the spectrum, trading its science for whimsy.

And the effect is a freeing one! At least as it applies to series artist Dustin Nguyen, who in this book is drawing his 33rd issue within the Descender/Ascender world. Nguyen’s artwork in Descender was forlorn and moody set of visuals, using its dull watercolor palette to often blur the lines between where reality ended and the existential fever dream began. His visuals—as much as Jeff Lemire’s plotting—often begged the question about where the robotic intelligence stopped and where the human soul began. It was a highly philosophical story stowed within the trappings of a space opera, one as likely to ask what makes an individual distinct as it was to throw a robot with drills for hands into a coliseum fight for its survival.   

Ascender #1 doesn’t really pick up on the question of humanity versus simulated humanity that so thoroughly drove the previous volume of this story, at least it doesn’t seem to yet. That’s not to say it will never return to that issue. There are certainly hints of it. First and foremost though, what’s happening in this new world (10 years past the events of the previous story) is a technological purge driven by monsters and magic. There are new powers, new villains, new status quos. I won’t go into them—this is an advanced review and we’re nothing here if not wary of spoilers—but I will again return to the idea of freedom. Both Lemire’s script and Nguyen’s visual execution feel liberated, and that’s a very good thing for our story.

If I had to guess, I’d wager this ends up being a story of extremes and balance. With Descender, a case was maybe made against extreme reliance upon robots and AI and the trappings of technology. It’s still very early—in the interest of symmetry, I’m guessing Ascender may also run for #32 issues)—but I could see this book as a warning against turning entirely away from tech to embrace folklore, mythology, and ideas rooted in the sensational. I’m just guessing, but there’s maybe a larger point there—shifting the genre within this story has opened a wide range of new possibilities.  

Overall: As Descender was to hard sci-fi, Ascender is to high fantasy, although traces of the past story remain. Most importantly, though, this realignment seems to have instilled writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen with a new sense of creative freedom, and I’m excited to see what they do with it. 8.5/10

Ascender #1
Jeff Lemire
Dustin Nguyen
Letterer: Steve Wands
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99
Release Date: April 24, 2019

For more comic book reviews, check out our review archives.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.

Top New Image Comics of 2018

Image Comics  has established itself as the most prolific publisher of creator-owned comics.

Image Comics has established itself as the most prolific publisher of creator-owned comics.

By Zack Quaintance — The last two years or so have felt relatively quiet at Image Comics... relatively. The company has released many wonderful oddities and gems, as always, but there hadn’t (arguably) been as many books that do things like sell movie rights before issue one (Descender), land creators TV deals (Bitch Planet, Deadly Class, Sex Criminals, etc.), or land their trades in hip indie bookstores (Monstress, Saga, Southern Bastards, Wic + Div).

That, however, changed in 2018, with Image Comics launching more hits last year than they have in possibly any other 12 month period. It’s been truly impressive, so much so that we felt obligated to update our top new Image Comics of 2018, including a bit about why we like each book as well as its odds for longevity. While it remains to be seen which (if any) will crest two dozen issues and land on end caps at Powell’s Books or The Strand, these comics are still all well worth a look today via our top new Image Comics of 2018.

Let’s do this!

Special Note: This page has been updated from an earlier piece—Top New Image Comics of 2018 (So Far)—to include comics released in the latter half of the year.

Top New Image Comics of 2018

Three issues in, Steve Orlando and Garry Brown are doing career best work on the haunting father-son story,  Crude.

Three issues in, Steve Orlando and Garry Brown are doing career best work on the haunting father-son story, Crude.

Crude by Steve Orlando & Garry Brown
Crude was one of my favorite books from Image in 2018, but it unfortunately has now ended. Steve Orlando is one of my favorite writers and like his superhero work, Crude’s plotting was complex and layered, rewarding readers who kept up while shrugging at those who didn’t. What set it apart from Orlando’s other writing is that behind the violence and severe badassery was a heart-rending father-son tale. Artist Garry Brown (Babyteeth, Black Road) did fantastic work, using truly haunting imagery to depict egret and anger plaguing our protagonist.
Odds to Run for Years: Zero. This one has, sadly, ended, but is now available in trade.

Bitter Root
David F. Walker and Chuck Brown
Artist: Sanford Greene
Colorist: Rico Renzi and Sanford Greene
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Although this list is alphabetical, I’m happy to be starting with Bitter Root, which I’ve been waiting for since writer David F. Walker and Sanford Greene prematurely-ended their excellent run on Marvel Comics’ Power Man and Iron Fist. This book seems to have grown from the ashes. It’s a monster-hunting book set during the Harlem Renaissance that involves questions of race. It’s smart, well-done, and brought to life with phenomenal art. I love it and hope it runs for a very long time.
Odds to Run for Years: 95 percent.

Crowded also succeeds via the all-important badass attitude factor.

Christopher Sebela
Artist: Ro Stein
Inker: Ted Brandt
Colorist: Triona Farrell
Letterer: Cardinal Rae
As I wrote in our Top Comics of 2018 full list, Crowded has emerged from a number of challengers to rank as one of the best near-future horror stories in comics. The book accomplished this by extrapolating a startlingly-realistic idea (crowdfunded assassination bounty hunting apps) with as taught of a buddy-drama/chase thriller narrative as we’ve seen in any medium. This is a white knuckles story, both in terms of what’s happening on the page and what it has to say about the direction of society.
Odds to Run for Years: 90 percent.

Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Die joins a number of recent stories in different mediums aimed at capitalizing on nostalgia for role-playing games like D&D. Where it stands apart, however, is with the tone of its sensibilities, which are dark, dark, dark. I suspect that ultimately the real villain of this modern fantasy story is time, and what a scary idea that is. Also, Stephanie Hans art is worth the price of this one alone. Although it’s only two issues old, Die is an easy choice for our Top New Image Comics of 2018.
Odds to Run for Years: 100 percent.

Gideon Falls  seems like a lock to become a long-running book.

Gideon Falls seems like a lock to become a long-running book.

Gideon Falls
Jeff Lemire
Artist: Andrea Sorrentino
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Steve Wands
As I wrote in my review of Gideon Falls #1, it feels like Jeff Lemire has spent his career dancing around the horror genre, dipping a toe in or dangling a foot, without jumping all the way in. Well, that stopped with Gideon Falls, and the result is one of the top new Image comics of 2018. While doing promo for the book, Lemire—who teams with long-time collaborator Andrea Sorrentino, one of comics’ grittiest artists—said he re-worked these characters from early sketches he did before he was published. It also, however, feels like while re-working these characters, Lemire was watching Twin Peaks, as the book’s first ar is clearly an homage to that show. Now in its second arc, however, Gideon Falls has grown into its own unsettling thing.
Odds to Run for Years: 100 percent.

Ice Cream Man
W. Maxwell Prince
Artist: Martin Morazzo
Colorist: Chris O’Halloran
Letterer: Good Old Neon
Ice Cream Man is a unique book within our list. While the others involve continuous serialized narratives, this comic is a horror anthology series, tied together by cameo appearances from the titular awful ice cream man. It’s a smart commentary on our everyday lives, and the concepts of each issue vary wildly. One may deploy three separate narratives with little dialogue, while the next might be a straightforward horror story with a clear protagonist. The variety just one small part of why this book lands on our Top New Image Comics of 2018.
Odds to Run for Years: 75 percent.

Infinite Dark by Ryan Cady and Andre Mutti is a smart, psychological mystery story.

Infinite Dark
Ryan Cady
Artist: Andrea Mutti
Colorist: K. Michael Russell
Letterer: A Larger World Studios’ Troy Peteri
Infinite Dark is an incredibly smart and immersive comic set in the bleakest possible time I can think of: after the heat death of the universe. It features a sparsely-populated cosmic arc in which a forlorn head of security must investigate a rare murder mystery on the vessel. Steeped in deep and thoughtful psychology, this is special sort of comic doing impressive (if unpleasant) things with its tone. Check out our interview with Infinite Dark writer, Ryan Cady.
Odds to Run for Years: 80 percent.

Skottie Young
Artist: Jorge Corona
Colorist: Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Letterer: Nate Piekos of Blambot
Like Infinite Dark, the next entry on our Top New Image Comics of 2018 list is also a forlorn one. Middlewest from Skottie Young and Jorge Corona is set among the windswept plains of inner-America, re-imagined here in a way that emphasizes the inherent magic of a lonely region. Corona’s imaginative work and Young’s emotional writing have brought to life a striking and heartfelt, character-driven tale.
Odds to Run for Years: 75 percent.

Oblivion Song  might be Robert Kirkman's best work yet.

Oblivion Song might be Robert Kirkman's best work yet.

Oblivion Song by Robert Kirkman & Lorenzo De Felici
Robert Kirkman’s most famous work, The Walking Dead, was adapted into a television mega hit, giving him the fan base and cachet to basically guarantee prolonged runs for new titles. Oblivion Song is no exception, and as I understand it, Kirkman and artist Lorenzo De Felici completed 12 issues before even announcing this book’s existence. And Oblivion Song lives up to that level of swagger. Launched the same day as Gideon Falls, this book is arguably Kirkman’s best (although I have a soft spot for Invincible). Everything about it is deeper and more nuanced than The Walking Dead or Outcast, yet still accessible. Simply put, this book is build for a long haul.
Odds to Reach #20: 100 percent, in fact, I think they’re probably already done with it.

Self / Made
Mat Groom
Artist: Eduardo Ferigato
Colorist: Marcelo Costa
Letterer: A Larger World Studios’ Troy Peteri
One of the biggest surprises on our Top New Image Comics of 2018 list is Self / Made, which debuted with a creative team I was entirely unfamiliar with. It also debuted, however, with a rock solid first issue that ends in an intriguing twist. This may be cheating a bit since the second issue came out in 2019, but the follow up to the debut builds on this book’s concept even further, raising questions about the very nature of our existence and the role of creators and gods. This book is smart, stylish, and intriguing as all get out. I highly recommend it.
Odds to Run for Years: 80 percent.

Skyward is one of the Top New Image Comics of 2018.

Joe Henderson
Artist: Lee Garbett
Colorist: Antonio Fabela
Letterer: Simon Bowland
As I’ve been telling any comic fan that will listen, Skyward has done basically everything well throughout its earliest issues. This is a polished book, one that confidently knows exactly where it’s going, taking slow but effective steps to get there. As I’ve written in Skyward reviews, this book’s greatest strength has been the careful pace at which its creators disperse information. Too many #1 issues fall into a trap of dumping tons of exposition too soon. Skyward—which has a fantastic concept involving the world losing a dangerous amount of gravity—gives just enough info to stay oriented without feeling clunky. It’s all very impressive.
Odds to Run for Years: 80 percent.

Read more about Image Comics on our comic book Reviews Page.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes
fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.