Writer Jeff Lemire on Moving From Image Comics' 'Descender' to 'Ascender'

"We didn’t want it to end," the writer says of the science fiction galaxy he and artist Dustin Nguyen built together in the critically acclaimed Image Comics series.
Dustin Nguyen

When Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s sci-fi series Descender launched in 2015, it introduced readers to an epic space opera where androids were outlawed and the galaxy was split between humanity and technology. With the series speeding toward its conclusion, Lemire and Nguyen surprised everyone with the announcement of a sequel, Ascender — where magic has taken the place of machinery, and the rules are very different indeed.

The new series, set 10 years after the conclusion of Descender, won’t launch until 2019 — the final issue of Descender is released digitally and in comic book stores Wednesday — but Heat Vision talked to writer Lemire about the decision to continue the storyline with a new series, and his creative process when coming up with the worlds of tomorrow.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Descender was originally meant to be a stand-alone project, wasn’t it? There wasn’t originally a follow-up series planned. What changed?

The more we worked on the book, the more we fell in love with the universe. And it was so successful, and I love working with Dustin — we didn’t want it to end, you know? But that’s not a good reason to keep it going. We started talking about what we would do next, and were throwing different ideas around. The idea of doing a fantasy book came up at one point, a completely different genre from Descender, and that was in the back of my head, even though it was nothing concrete.

Then, I was working on some issues — somewhere in the 20s, I can’t remember which issue now — and we did a change-of-pace issue where Driller lands on this planet, and he meets this old guy in a swamp and there are vampires, and there’s magic stuff introduced, and I went, "Oh, shit. This is a goldmine. There’s a whole other side to this universe," and it all started clicking.

The last arc of the series, of Descender, was called “Ascender,” so I always had that title in mind. I always knew the ending of Descender, but the closer I got to actually writing that ending, the less I liked it, which has never really happened to me before. I usually use the ending as my anchor. The closer I got with Descender, the more I thought, "I’ll think of something better," or "I’ll make it work!" It just wasn’t very satisfying. It was going to be a happier ending — not to spoil what’s coming …

You say that, but Ascender is now launching after Descender wraps, so it’s not necessarily a permanent ending, anyway. You have the mechanism to return to these characters, these ideas …

Yeah; the series was heading toward this bad ending and then I had the idea of, "It doesn’t have to be an ending, it can be a stepping stone to something that felt like a completely new series, but also seems familiar and has these characters …" It just felt perfect.

You mentioned enjoying working with Dustin, and the work you two do on Descender feels very different from your other work. It feels like something only the two of you could do together.

I think the best collaborations I’ve had — with Dustin, but also definitely with [Gideon Falls co-creator Andrea] Sorrentino — feel like, together, you create a third creator. Hopefully it’s a good creator, but it’s not either of you. Hopefully there’s something that complements each other’s strengths and brings out something new in the work. It’s the best feeling.

It feels very fresh; I can see elements of your work from other projects, but in the writing, I see you making choices that you’d never make elsewhere. How much of your attitude towards Descender is carrying through to Ascender? Are the two of you approaching the new series with the same intent as the first?

Oh, yeah. It’s me and Dustin. This is just what we do; it’ll feel like Descender, like the same world albeit with a lot of new elements; story elements and characters.

When you shift from, "We’re drawing this to a close" to "Oh, there’s a whole new series taking place in the same universe," does that change your relationship with the work? Is there a sense of relief?

There’s definitely a sense of relief. When you have something that’s really working and it comes to an end, there’s a feeling of, "OK, what’s next, how can I make this happen again?" Now, with this, I can delay that. [Laughs] I can just keep going.

You have so many different types of work that you do — you do work for DC and Marvel, both of which is different from Descender, which is itself different from Gideon Falls ...

I feed off that. That’s how I do so much stuff, because I can bounce around. That’s what keeps me excited and energized.

How do you keep it all straight?

I don’t ever mix. I’m usually only working on one thing at a time, and then I get really into that one thing. The only way I can do that is to work really far ahead on everything, which gives me the luxury of, if I’m not really into Descender or Ascender for awhile, and I’m not feeling energized by it, I don’t have to work on it for a few months. I can work on Gideon Falls or whatever I am feeling energized by. Then, when I do return to it, I’m pretty fresh. I’m usually a year ahead of my artists. For instance, I just finished writing the first arc of Ascender and I probably won’t work on that series again until next year. I have that luxury. I’m never forced to work on something; that wouldn’t breed good work.

What is your collaborative process like with Dustin? It feels like there’s more back and forth on something like Descender than on your Marvel or DC titles.

It’s interesting; we actually talk less than on the company-owned books. We have so much freedom, that it’s like — when you get something that works, Dustin and I are both pretty low-key people and we’ve never talked about the book; we’ve never discussed what we’re going to do. I give him the scripts and … we never talk! It’s the same with Sorrentino, actually.

That’s funny, because it feels like there’s such a creative connection …

That just happens creatively. We never talk about anything about the story specifically. The big benefit for me with the creator-owned stuff if that there’s no middlemen. It’s easy to bash, you know, editors at Marvel and DC, and I don’t mean it that way, they’re doing their job and they’re necessary. But with the creator-owned stuff, it’s just the two of us, and we get to do what we want to do — we don’t need to prove our idea to anyone, we just do it. Some writers need an editor to bounce ideas off of, but I’ve always been very self-sufficient. We just do our thing. It’s just fun. It’s two kids making comics.

That fun comes across, despite the fact that, obviously, there’s danger in the stories themselves.

There should be all of that. It can’t just be one note, it can’t all be tragedy, it can’t be humor. You have to have all of it, it makes the sad moments mean more, it makes the humor, the adventure, action stuff better — like, Gideon Falls for example, is horror, but it needs character work to juxtapose with the horror, to make it work. I feel like comics can be too one-note.

With Ascender, you’re shifting the focus of the book from technology to magic. What does that do to the book, in terms of the plot, but also your creativity?

The rules are different. I can do anything and explain it away with magic. [Laughs] You have to make rules with magic, that’s the thing. You have to have a logic to the magic in this universe, and that’s something I’m still figuring out as I go. Visually, I think it’s good for Dustin, because instead of doing all the mechanical stuff, all this cold stuff, it suddenly changes to this warmer, more organic, visual. It feels fresh. For me, I’m still figuring out what it means. I’m in the process of figuring out this world, doing the world building, and how it works and where it comes from.

It sounds like you’re having fun.

If you’re not having fun in comics, I don’t know why you’re doing it. Life’s too short. At the end of the day, we get to make a living making comic books. If you’re not happy doing that, go and do something else.