Comics: ‘Descender’ and others take us away from winter

'Side-Kicked.' -- art by Miguel Mendonça
‘Side-Kicked.’ — art by Miguel Mendonça

As the Iowa winter takes hold, it’s a good time to let comics creators — both established and new on the scene — take us to various other locales. Our destinations include a galaxy in the midst of an interplanetary battle over robots, an alternate Chicago endangered by labor unrest among sidekicks and an island where mainstream heroes go to away a reboot.

Descender, Volume 1: Tin Stars

Writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen are the all-star team-up behind Descender, a sci-fi tale featuring a boy robot who might be the key to understanding a multi-planet catastrophe — and preventing another.

Tin Stars collects the first six issues of the creator-owned title, which is published by Image. The story follows the adventures of TIM-21, a companion robot who looks like a human boy, who “awakens” after 10 years of deactivation to find himself alone — or nearly so — on a moon that has suffered a devastating attack.

Soon, he comes to the attention of various parties, all of whom wish to possess him and uncover secrets potentially hidden in his codex (his robot “DNA”). Early on, he is “killed,” and he has what he later describes as a dream in which he sees dead robots (notably, no electric sheep are in evidence).

The mystery of that experience is left for future storylines, but Lemire has plenty of action and intrigue to work with, as mechanical and organic beings wage various sorts of battle, all while living in the shadow of a threat they don’t understand.

Nguyen’s art is rendered entirely in watercolor, and is similar to his beautiful work on Batman: Li’l Gotham. The technique allows for both detailed panels and more impressionistic moments, equally powerful for close-ups of characters and wide shots of planetary landscapes or swaths of space. TIM-21 is brought endearingly to life, his empathy (a part of his programming) apparent in his wide eyes.

Descender is in development as a film, but it is difficult to image how a movie version could capture the essential qualities of Nguyen’s contribution, which is central to the book’s success.

'Side-Kicked.' -- drawing by Miguel Mendonça
‘Side-Kicked.’ — drawing by Miguel Mendonça

Side-Kicked, Volume 1

To get Side-Kicked going, Russell Brettholtz turned to Kickstarter. With the help of more than $10,000 in pledges, the inaugural issues were created and printed. In October, Darby Pop published a trade paperback edition.

Those Kickstarter roots might have something to do with the rushed vibe of the collection. If you can only print issues until the pledges run out, you have to get the story you have to tell told.

And it’s a good, if somewhat familiar story. Tired of being disrespected by the A-list heroes of Chicago, the sidekicks go on strike. The villains soon take advantage, and lessons are learned all around — including by the “don’t-call-us-henchmen” seconds of the major villains.

Brettholtz tells his story efficiently in four chapters, but the tale could use more breathing room. We don’t have time to get to know any of the characters or their full backstory and motivation. Indeed, it’s difficult to remember which sidekick goes with which hero, what anyone’s power might be, or what their particularly grievance is.

Miguel Mendonca and Bong Dazo’s art is appealing, especially as rendered in Sara Machajewski’s vibrant colors. But the human figures are often awkwardly presented. When characters are standing in the traditional superhero pose with hands on hips, all is well, but other positions seem less natural. Various stances and the positioning of arms in space are just off enough to call attention to themselves or to make the reader wonder if the characters could use a good chiropractor.

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Side-Kicked ends with a “The End?” leaving the door open to more adventures for the newly-appreciated sidekicks. With the issue at its heart resolved, however, it isn’t clear where the story could go from here.

A-Force, Secret Wars

Marvel has decided to collapse its multiverse — mostly as a strategy to end the company’s Ultimate line (while still saving Miles Morales, who has taken on the Spider-Man mantle over on the Ultimate side). To do that, they launched Secret Wars, the main story of which was supported by action in a host of other titles.

A-Force features an all-female team of heroes who come together to protect a rare, beautiful island on Battleworld, the interim space where Marvel stories are taking place ahead of the reboot. An island full of women with great power that stands isolated from the rest of the planet sounds a lot like a well-known location over in the DC Universe, but these women are not Amazons.

Instead, She-Hulk leads a group that includes Medusa, Dazzler, Captain Marvel, the female Loki, Sister Grimm and Ms. America. G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel) and Marguerite Bennett (DC Comics Bombshells) come together to pen a fast-moving story of invasion, betrayal, friendship and sacrifice.

Dynamic and expressive art by Jorge Molina (pencils and inks) and Laura Martin (colors) serves the story well, whether the women are duking it out with various villains or struggling to stay united as everything seems to fall apart.

The creative team brings a new character onto the scene, and while her fate in the five-issue series is somewhat unclear, one hopes she returns in the new A-Force series launching in December with Wilson at the helm.

A transitional series like A-Force could be filled with pitfalls, but the creative team gives us enough information to understand the fluid backstory while still telling a coherent tale that points to a post-Secret Wars future.