Set in a world where Atlantis is a superpower, Undertow tells the story of a group of Atlantians who have set themselves free from the system. Created by Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov, this 6-part mini series from Image Comics explores their fight for freedom and all the grey elements that go along with it. Along the way there is plenty of action, politics and a healthy does of science fiction.
Personally, I have really been enjoying this series so it was great to have a chat with the writer, Steve Orlando. In our discussion we chatted about world-building, the grey elements that come along with fighting for freedom and the appeal of setting a story set underwater.
HTLC: I recently read the first three issues of Undertow and you have done a great job at world building. What is the process of building a world like the one in Undertow?
Steve Orlando: It all starts with the question “how?” We knew from the beginning that we wanted to tell a story that basically put most other Atlantis stories in our story’s past. If we, the readers, left monarchies behind a thousand years ago, why wouldn’t these people have? So once we decided we had to make this modern, to have a dirty, pretty, self obsessed ME culture, but put it underwater, the question became, “how do we get there?” We knew where we had to get, and so Artyom and I sat down and started to connect the dots. If we want to show these characters doing modern things, we had to rewrite hundreds of years of history and technology as if it all happened in an underwater environment instead of in the air. How do phones work? How does television work? What power sources work and how do they keep enormous deep sea creatures from destroying their cities? We’d worry about that if we were down there, so we had to start answering these questions. And once you start filling in the holes and giving these people a workable world to live in, the next step after “how” is “why” and with that comes the culture, the history, the religion. It’s a tapestry you assemble piece by piece as you take something we have, and imagine how this different race would have it, or equate something else to it. Just look at the Barbed Sword, the perfect microcosm of this society, something created for the book and integrated both into their technology, their religion, and OUR own cultural baggage as readers of an underwater fish people story.
HTLC: The reader is thrown into this world into the deep-end (pun not intended), explaining to the reader throughout the narrative pieces of this world when they need to know them. Do you think this works well to Undertow’s advantage?
Steve Orlando: Pun accepted regardless! I hope it works to the reader’s advantage when it comes to immersion. So important to us in the book is that things happen naturally, organically, instead of the way you’d expect them to happen in a story. That’s why Ukinnu’s narration seems to drop out once the table setting is done. We want the actions to speak for themselves, and let the reader view them objectively. It’s the opposite of using a point of view character where MAYBE what you’re told isn’t even true from the general perspective. Here the actions of the characters are laid bare for all to see and judge. Things hit you like they do in real life, in a random (somewhat) and uneven order. And there’s no narration ringing in your head explaining the happenings. Exposition flows freely and naturalistically as the story allows it, as the characters meet and provide it, instead of forcing the facts out prematurely. Hopefully it has all the brutal elegance of real life.
HTLC: There have been a considerable amount of stories from popular culture set underwater in recent years. Just in comics we have seen a rise in popularity in Aquaman and The Wake has been consistently strong. What do you think it is about this setting that has picked up recent appeal? Why does it appeal to you?
Steve Orlando: I think it’s the sense of “the other” or “the alien.” We’re egotists as a people, we love ourselves, we’re supposed to. So this idea that something else could be like us, living right under our noses, peers directly into that need to be “special.” WE are surely the most advanced, intelligent race on the planet, the only one chosen for this grand philosophical life. Underwater adventures like these play on that notion that maybe we’re so self centered we haven’t noticed another power growing right outside our view. We still haven’t explored all of the oceans. Maybe we can’t be bothered because of INTERNET and because of ONE DIRECTION and THE YANKEES ARE ON or whatever. But then we’re hit with the idea that a dark mirror world exists, a culture living in the very place we never could. It is us, seen through the looking glass, living in the dark where we live in the light. And make no mistake it’s dark at the bottom of the ocean, its pitch dark sooner than you’d think. We as a culture love to stare into this abyss, and this is the idea that something is waiting there for us. A rival to our ego, to our rugged individualism, and we can’t look away.
HTLC: Freedom is a big theme that runs through Undertow, although for each character freedom means something different to them. How much does freedom motivate the characters and how do you approach the theme?
Steve Orlando: It certainly motivates almost all the characters, even the Atlantean government, who wants to be free and secure to continue their reign as the autocrats ruling the greatest nation under the waves. But you’re right. Each character has a different definition of freedom. Just like here! Because everyone wants to do what makes them happy, but god knows that is different for every person on the planet. So how do we approach that theme? Unromantically and realistically. If you have a ship with thousands of people all seeking freedom it is a damn near certainty that some peoples’ expectations will come into direct conflict with those of others. So we use that fact, the almost absurdity of Anshargal’s goal, the unrepentant idealism of one man and the inescapable nature of those he crews, to add conflict to even the home our characters live in.
HTLC: Redum Anshargal is an interesting character as he can be seen as someone dedicated to fighting freedom or a terrorist. Do you write him with the intention of the reader making up their own mind, or by the end will there be a definitive answer?
Steve Orlando: Definitely the hope is that the reader makes up their own mind. Because there is never a definitive answer in the real world. Mother Teresa has detractors. Ghandi has detractors. So it’s a fantasy world where Anshargal would not. Of course, it IS a fantasy world. But today we are living in the world of gray when it comes to our fiction. Heroes do bad things and villains do good things, and the sides inch ever closer together. Few people set out INTENDING to do something evil from their point of view. And that’s not to say Anshargal is evil. He wants more than anything, and would give anything, to do right by his people. But he is still just a man, secretly, despite the fact that they want him to be so much more. They want him to be an icon, they’ve sainted him, they’ve deified him before he even sets foot in the grave. And the expectations secretly weigh on him. But suffice to say that even if he steps into the gray and commits questionable acts, it is all in the service of protecting his people and creating a better world for them and their children.
HTLC: On art duties is Russian artist Artyom Trakhanov, who I was not aware of before Undertow. How did the two of you team up and what do you believe he offers to the series that another artist might not?
Steve Orlando: After I met Artyom by discovering his beautiful Russian Language webcomic MAD BLADE, we decided to see how collaboration went with some short stories. After working on a western and a time travel epic, we started putting together UNDERTOW. The question of what he offers is easy to answer and difficult, because his contributions have been immeasurable. I can’t imagine the book without Artyom, his incredible vision and unique design sense, whether its in story features or on the page in layouts, have made UNDERTOW into something singular and surprising to me in a way I never could have imagined. Each page he sends me is a surprise, and its rewarding to see how he took the images in my brain and translates them to the page. Artyom’s comics madness matches mine so well, and so much of the development has been us bouncing things between our brains, that the book wouldn’t even be the same with someone else. The faces, the characters, the direction, all developed organically between us once we just planted that one seed of an underwater world that’s just as advanced as our own.
HTLC: With Undertow finishing its six issue run in July, is there the possibility of revisiting the world in the future? Do you have any other projects that we should be looking for the in the near future?
Steve Orlando: We certainly hope to! We will complete the story of the Amphibian in issue 6, but the true heart of the book, the love triangle between Redum, Ukinnu, and Atlantis, has a long way to go. Like any fiery relationship, those orbiting its event horizon will get sucked in until the pressure becomes too great and things explode. That’s where we go next. It’s Redum, Ukinnu, Atlantis. It’s Fathers, Sons, and Home. It’s another visit to a world where you will see Atlanteans doing things you’ve never seen them do before.
As for me, I sure hope I have things in the near future! More announcements coming soon, but be sure to keep an eye on the comics media this summer and fall, and to figure out why I’ve been studying yellow hypergiant sons, cow’s urine, and 1800s Indian painting.