In the world of the upcoming Image series Undertow, life isn’t what you think. In the Earth that writer Steve Orlando and artist Artyom Trakhanov have created, the undersea kingdom Atlantis is the world’s primary civilization. And while humanity’s myths of Atlantis paint an idyllic picture, Undertow’s undersea kingdom is full of corruption, inequality and despair. While Atlantis’ rules and rich elite are content with the status quo, it’s people are displeased and looking for a way out; and Atlantis’ Number One enemy Redum Anshargal thinks he knows where to find it…. the surface.
After doing a series of well-received short stories for comics anthologies for Image and DC’s Vertigo imprint, the enterprising Steve Orlando is creating an entire world here with Undertow. Scheduled to launch on February 19 as a six-issue series, Undertow takes a dark look at the fabled Atlantis and finds sinister secrets in the murky waters but with its people clinging on for hope in the world above.
Newsarama: Steve, what can you tell us about Undertow?
Steve Orlando: Undertow is a throwback adventure story about pioneers. It just happens that these pioneers are from Atlantis, and the world they're exploring is the surface - their own final frontier. They're exploring a new world, and a new way of life, free from the corrupt one-party system holding them down in Atlantis. But anytime you face the unknown, there's danger. The cast of Undertow is on the run from Atlantis aboard the Society Barge The Deliverer, an enormous water-tight airship touring the surface world, helmed by the pirate, scientist, zealot and protector Redum Anshargal.
They thought stepping on the ship would set them free, but whether it’s the dangers of the wild or the dangers within, freedom is a fight they fight every single day.
Nrama: Tell us more about Redum and the man by his side, Ukinnu Alal.
Orlando: Redum Anshargal is the most controversial figure in modern Atlantean history. To Atlantis, he's a violent terrorist, striking at Atlantean wealth and safety, rumored to be dead, almost a legend. To the crew of the Deliverer, he is a savior and leader, the man that keeps them safe while they reinvent their lives. As for what he is to himself, that stays inside. Anshargal had another life before it was destroyed by Atlantis, and starting a new society that they can't touch is his best revenge.
Ukinnu Alal is his hostage, or maybe he's his protégé, or accomplice. Ukinnu comes from a rich Atlantean family that has planned, vetted, and focus-grouped his entire life for him, to help their public image. If he were a teenage woman, he'd have had a debutante ball. They set him up with a tight job and a trophy wife, but he can barely come up for water. He enlists to turn his back on it all and embarrass his family, but when Anshargal attacks his platoon, Ukinnu sees a chance to be something even more embarrassing to his family: a traitor. It's his only way to show them he's his own man.
Nrama: Sci-fi has a long history of memorable ships, from The Millenium Falcon to The Enterprise. Can you tell us about Redum’s The Deliverer?
Orlando: The Deliverer is a floating stronghold home to thousands of refugees and social engineers. The ship runs on the wonder energy called Apergy (first mentioned outside of the story's cannon in Percy Greg's fascinating 1880 science fiction novel Across the Zodiac: the Story of a Wrecked Record). Anshargal is the only surviving member of the team that created the Apergy dynamo, which can only function in open air. The Deliverer is home to all sides of life, as citizens develop new crops that grow outside of water, unique to their culture. There's sports arenas, orphanages, hospitals, and of course barracks. It's a grotesque image of industrial beauty, with cavernous interior rooms that make it seem more like a great dead metal beast than a machine. And as its huge shadow looms over the surface, the beasts below cannot understand what they've seen.
Nrama: And the people aboard The Deliverer have all their hopes and dreams hooked to the dream of a life above the waves, on the surface. And the key to that is a mythical creature called the Amphibian. Who or what is the Amphibian?
Orlando: The Amphibian is an Atlantean legend, in many ways one of their Bigfoots or Loch Ness Monsters. The mainline is that the Amphibian is a cryptid, but the crew of The Deliverer thinks otherwise. They think that this creature, an Atlantean freak born with labyrinth organs, that can survive both in the air and in the water, is real. What's more, if they can find him, they can use his DNA to give their children and future generations a chance to live on land without water suits. Why is it so important? It's the first, best chance for the citizens of The Deliverer to truly escape Atlantis, to truly invent a new life on land, if not for them, then for their children and their children's children. Each generation always hopes the next one will do better, achieve more, and this is the way it's possible.
Nrama: How would you describe the world as a whole in Undertow, and what’s it like being an Atlantean living in it?
Orlando: The world is immediately alien, as life underwater requires different technologies to modernize. But once you break below the surface, it’s surprisingly like ours. The old human emotions, prejudices and passions start to boil up like crude. The average Atlantean lives in one of the nation's sprawling cities, working a comfortable, middle class job and not asking questions. They're happy wrapped up in their consumerism, their marketing media telling them what they need, their news keeping them just afraid enough. Bad things never happen on screen for them, so they never wonder if bad things happen at all. It's a few steps worse than our world culturally in every way, an obscene extrapolation of us. It's a suffocating inertia, normalcy and blindness as citizens float through their lives. You have probably heard of Anshargal, maybe one of his attacks, but they happen on the outback. You can't be touched by them. But you best keep living your life, working so you can buy more things to keep up with your neighbors, so the zealots like Anshargal don't win.
Nrama: And air-breathing humans – are there any in Undertow?
Orlando: There's plenty of humans! The problem is, in this world, it's the Atlanteans that evolved with reasoning and higher intelligence. Humans are one of the dominant species on the surface world, incredibly diversified across almost all continents. But they're savage, a loosely developed form of pre homo sapien man. In the cold climates, they're covered in dense hair and jet black skin like a polar bear. Near the equator, they're hairless and almost albino. They can create basic tools, basic huts and shelters, but they've never gotten past that. Studying the humans is a huge project for some on The Deliverer, some believe they could be taught more than it appears.
Nrama: Atlantis is probably at the top of the list of seemingly mythical places people are enamored by. What drew you to that to tell this story?
Orlando: I wanted to take it into the present day! I am a huge fan of world-building fiction and alternate history. After years of talking Atlantis with friends at college, I knew I had to put my mark on the lost city. But as I decided to make it a metropolis, a mirror of the world outside our window, it had to be more than a city. It had to be a nation. All the mythical interpretations were a huge part of the reason I wanted to make it modern. I wanted to use all those myth takes, and make them the ancient history for a new type of marine culture. Those fantastic tales, the Greek histories, the seahorse rides, the alien crash sites, that's all religion and conspiracy history to them. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't, it all depends on who you ask. Just like we approach miracle cults in today's world, you have Atlanteans that believe those theories, and ones that don't. Either way this is the next step for those ancient tales. This is a steel and stone urban take, no longer quite fantasy, but sci-fi adventure.
Nrama: Is Undertow sci-fi for the sake of sci-fi, or are there some broader themes you’re hoping to tell here?
Orlando: If you ask me there are always broader themes; a creator can't help but put what's on their mind, what's happening in their life, onto the page. Even if it's not intentional, it's there. But specifically, Undertow is a sci-fi adventure first, and asks questions underneath. Certainly it’s about the nature of freedom, the danger of exploration. It’s about how society grows when there are no rules- what's essential, what isn't? What are the hard rules, and the soft rules? It's about what it takes to wake up from the life you're living, and deciding if you even really want to. It's all there underneath the punching and the giant sloths and the laser pistols.
Nrama: Undertow is poised to be the first full-length comic readers have seen by you after doing anthology stories for Vertigo and Image in 2013. What made Undertow the right story and what made 2014 the right time to do it?
Orlando: Undertow, I think, was always going to be one of the first. It's been with me for almost four years at this point, from inception, to pitching, to development, to production (so that's the 2014 answer- we wanted to get enough done that it can hopefully hit monthly and on time). But story wise it was just an idea I couldn't let go of. I remember four years back, rambling about corpses in downtown Atlantis to a friend as we road-tripped to see AC/DC. He was a captive audience since he was driving the car, and I think I rambled for at least an hour about it. The chance to really do some world-building, so old school action throwing, and some weird, weird social thumping, was all to perfect. It's a chance to show you how Atlanteans do everything! The normal stuff, and even the strange, personal stuff. And that's something I couldn't pass up when I thought of it. And then I met Artyom, who is just as crazy as I am, if not more, and it snowballed endlessly from there.
Nrama: I have to know more about Artyom. He’s coming out of nowhere here with an art style that’s amazing. How did you and he hook up for Undertow?
Orlando: As I said above, Artyom is an easy match for my strange ideas because he has the same madcap wonder for sci fi that I do. I found Artyom after I got back from Russia and was searching for new, fresh Russian comics (??????). The only books I found in stores there were John Byrne Wonder Woman translations and Jim Balent Catwoman. I knew there had to be some newer things on the web, and soon I found Mad Blade, Artyom’s frankly amazing webcomic series. Being able to speak Russian I read through the entire thing and sent him a gushing fan email. It turns out he was up for trying some English comics, as well as putting up with my confident middle-school level Russian skills, and comics history was forged (slight hyperbole here). Artyom has never been scared of an idea, no matter how challenging and strange. Our first work was about bastard, cannibal offspring of angels hoarding human trinkets in the caves of the old west. Out second short was about the maybe hate maybe love relationship between a dying time traveling hero from the 20s, and the beastly demi-thing he unleashed upon the world during his first experiment. So what I told him I wanted his help inventing a modern Atlantis from the ground up, he feared not and in fact kicked me in the ass repeatedly to explain even more, pushed me to define life to the smallest detail. The guy brings out the best, and I couldn't imagine the book without him.
Nrama: According to Image Undertow is a six issue miniseries, but from the sounds of it you have put enough thought for it to be something much, much bigger. Could you see going further than just six issues?
Orlando: The first miniseries is definitely a satisfying arc, following the crew as they hunt for the Amphibian. But there's more Undertow after that, structured as follow-up minis. We have three acts, and hopefully you'll all love Act 1 enough that we can come back for more. But just in case, we're pulling out all the stops here. Nothing left in the quiver! Just wait until you see the Amphibian!