Ascender Vol. 4: Star Seed
Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen, storytellers
Image Comics, 2021
Star Seed is the big conclusion not only to Ascender, but the whole Descender/Ascender saga (which began in 2015). Descender was set in a universe where robotics had been outlawed after an apocalyptic event caused by planet-sized robots called Harvesters. It centered around a young android named TIM-21 who was trying to reunite with his human family, dodging bounty hunters all the while. The series ran for 32 issues.
Ascender is a sequel series: it picked up the story in the same universe ten years after Descender‘s conclusion. Magic had now almost completely replaced machines. The story featured Mila, daughter of the characters Andy and Effie from Descender, but eventually involved several other characters from the earlier series. It ran for 18 issues; the last four are collected in this volume.
The story opens with TIM-21 on the Machine Moon, the home of “all of Machinekind.” He is shown two worlds: the Machine Moon and its twin, the Magic Moon. Visiting the home of magic he is given access to all magic, as well as all data, and wills himself back on the former mining colony DIRISHU-6, reunited with his family. TIM was trying to make everyone safe, but instead he has set up the final battle between technology and magic. When it seems that all is lost, the Descenders return and save the day. Effie plays a surprise role in returning magic to the universe at large, restoring the balance. Tim has been transformed, but he is there to witness the universe being reborn.
I confess that there were times when I wondered where this series was going: it was hard to imagine how such a wide-ranging tale could find a satisfactory resolution. But Lemire and Nguyen pulled it off, against all odds. The characters kept growing right to the end, technology and magic found effective visual representation, and Nguyen’s art was consistently beautiful.
The Department of Truth Volume 02: The City Upon a Hill
James Tynion IV, writer; Martin Simmonds, artist; Aditya Bidikar, letterer
Image Comics, 2021
In this second installment Cole (still trying to wrap his mind around a world that has the Department of Truth in it) meets a long-term operative named Hawk Turner. Hawk is a spooky character who describes himself as “the magic man of the D.O.T.” He has been behind the fixing of some big manifestations–and it turns out that his story is entwined in Cole’s. He was the government agent who visited the child Cole and his family after Cole reported his contact with the evil star-faced man. Having decided that national paranoia about a monstrous Satanic child abuser would be useful, Hawk began engineering it, only to pull the plug after realizing a manifested star-faced man would kill children for real.
Back in the present he walks Cole through the history of magic, religion and mysticism, which leads to things called Tulpas: thoughtforms, an externalized manifestation of something inside the mind. They then go on an extended hunt for Bigfoot, a classic contemporary Tulpa. The story centers around one family, whose experience is documented in the form of handwritten illustrated diary entries, a further experiment in a comic that is already visually experimental (at times recalling both David Mack and Bill Sienkiewicz). Back at the origin of Cole’s childhood visions, Hawk reveals that he has been working with D.O.T. nemesis Black Hat for years. He is convinced that the Lee Harvey Oswald running D.O.T. is not the actual man of that name, but a Tulpa embodying the shadowy idea of an assassin that was spreading in the press at the time. Cole now has deep knowledge that he lacked before, and choices to make.
American Vampire 1976
Scott Snyder, writer; Rafael Albuquerque, art & covers; Dave McCaig, colors; Tula Lotay, Francesco Francavilla & Ricardo López Ortiz, additional art
DC Black Label, 2021
This ninth American Vampire collection is set in 1976. Skinner Sweet has become mortal (which looked ambiguous to me in the previous collection). His desire for recovered immortality is a driving force in this arc. but it is far from the only one. His old lover Pearl Jones (Preston) shows up in the company of Jim Book, another old acquaintance who Skinner had turned into a vampire and was thought dead. They want him to help them steal a train car which is part of the Bicentennial celebration and contains a map that will show the location of the Council Of Firsts (who represent the ancestral monsters).
They need the Firsts to figure out how to fix a garden which will provide the only thing that can kill the Beast, an ancient evil who is served by the Gray Trader–all of which I only vaguely remember, since it has been five years since the last installment of the series. But I was comfortable in the hands of the creative team, who seem to have plotted all this out beforehand, possibly from the beginning. The story is full of old-school notes referring back to previous issues and story arcs.
Other recurring characters include Agent Pool (of the vampire hunting organization Vassals of the Morning Star, VMS), Travis Kidd (the rockabilly vampire killer who used wooden fangs and whose slogan was “bite them back”), Dracula (I think we have seen him before), and Felicia Book (daughter of James Book, and a VMS member). The First turn out to have a deep American connection. They came over from Europe and made a pact with General Washington in exchange for refuge. The Tongue also appear, another group vying for power which I had forgotten.
The seventh issue is a fun interlude called “Family Trees,” relating historical stories with guest illustrators. But it all comes to a head during the big Bicentennial celebration on July 4, 1976. Even President Ford has come over the the side of the Beast, who he calls “our true Lord.” The conclusion is a huge battle between good and evil, which is meant to be an apocalypse for all of humanity. But Skinner comes through, surprising everyone. This is the closing chapter of the original series, but Snyder says that there will be more. In a 2020 CBR interview he said “We always had this plan to end it in 1976 but then take it to the present and, in the present, do these series with modular stories like B.P.R.D. for Hellboy through the V.M.S., our organization that hunts monsters. It’d be something along those lines where we do cases in the present starring the characters from the original series and those cases would be informed by or flashback to moments in history and modular stories that took place in the past…” Sounds good to me!