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[Interview] Steve Orlando & Artyom Trakhanov Talk World Building, Character, and Subverting Fantasy in UNDERTOW.

Last month Image Comics launched “Undertow” from Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov. The series subverts typical conventions of fantasy by depicting Atlantis as an advanced, corrupt, capitalist society. The world is filled with fantastic creatures, and features Atlanteans who look nothing like a human, but the issues on the pages are very real.

Ukinnu Alal is a young disenfranchised Atlantean who is discontent with everything around him. In a life changing moment he meets Redum Archsrgal a known war criminal and the leader of the Atlantean rebellion. Ukinnu makes a choice for the first time in his life. He joins the rebellion. His enthusiasm defines the main narrative of the series weaving a fantastic story about your relationship to home, rebellion in its many forms, and the danger of freedom.

That’s just the first issue. It’s intoxicating in it’s allure. It’s one of the most imaginative and exciting debuts of the year and features awe-inspring art by Trakhanov. If you loved the first issue and you’re dying to know more about this incredible series, look no further. I sat down with Steve and Artyom to talk about inspiration, rebellion, creature design, social commentary, and everything in between.

Hit the jump so you can be part of the conversation when Issue #2 surfaces next week.

Bloody-Disgusting: “Undertow” depicts Atlantis as a corrupt capitalist society, what was your intention with subverting the idealistic view of this mythical city?

Steve Orlando: We’re looking at it as a looming specter, we won’t visit Atlantis that much, but you’ll see the effects in the way the characters act, and what drives them. I wanted to do something modern. Every time we see Atlantis its about ancient history as it relates to humans, or the theocracy with Kings. There are no real countries these days that have Kings with actual power. If their going to be an advanced civilization there was probably a period of monarchy but things have past that. There’s no such thing as the perfect society. You can say more if you satirize what’s going on with America and what’s happening in the world thanks to globalization.

BD: Within the narrative of “Undertow” what does the Atlantean rebellion want?

SO: Well that’s a lot of the main drive of where the character arcs are going. You have Redum Archsrgal say in the first issue that he doesn’t even really care about Atlantis. He doesn’t care about the people who are just floating along, he just wants the people who seek something better. The people on the Deliverer who’ve had horrible things done to them by the government, by corporations plan to move past this society that’s so worthless to them and start something new. The real question is that the best response, can people actually do that?

Unkinnu has had less bad things happen to him but is much angrier than Asrchgal. The interplay between them will inspire how they move forward. Without getting too philosophical, look at the ideas of the sixties, the seventies, and so on. It always means something different. The old guard coming up against the young kid, who thinks they’re better than everyone else, but maybe they’re just young and angry.

As for what the rebellion wants, it’s a huge question that the characters are trying to answer themselves.

BD: Is Redum Anshargal a force for good?

SO: We’re living in a post Tony Soprano and a post Game of Thrones world. Are most characters today purely a force for good or evil? Clearly the protagonists of today are layered in a way that normal humans are. The idea of a pure altruist is an outdated concept, and I think it makes a character more relatable.

People love Jaime Lannister, he’s a murderer and into incest but somehow people find him magnetic. That’s not to say that Anshargal is into incest, but he cares immensely and believes he’s doing the right thing. These characters are broken characters just like anyone else. Just because he cares more than everyone else and believes in himself doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do. That’s reality. He certainly thinks he has the moral high ground. There are a lot of people in Atlantis that are just as bad as he is good, and a ton of people in between. Beside his own intentions and his own passion there really is no way to say whether he is a force for good or a force for evil.

History is written by the victors, and interpreted by us. There are people on the ship who think he’s a coward. There are plenty of people who want to strike back aggressively. Some believe he’s resting on his laurels and a land society is the best solution. That’s why they’re trying to find the Amphibian. Atlanteans are maritime, they’re sea people. They’re like sharks. If a shark stops moving it dies. There’s a contingent that thinks that if they keep moving they can achieve the purest Atlantean life possible.

Anshargal certainly thinks he’s doing the right thing. There are people who agree and even less people who think he’s going about it the right way. But he’s still a flawed character, so he doesn’t want only good things.

BD: What stories served as inspiration when creating the unique world of Undertow?

SO: There was no Undertow until I went back and reread 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Before that, this was a police procedural and it was really shallow. I was really taken with the Nemo character. I’m really off the cuff with that desperation in Anshargal comes from him. It’s an adventure book, but there’s a lot of pain in Nemo.

Beyond that, there is Dune. It’s endlessly fruitful in its inventiveness. Frank Herbert accomplishes so much with the backstory that doesn’t even make it into the main narrative. I threw a lot of that into the book.

There’s also this obscure science fiction book from the 1880’s I came across called Across the Zodiac. The invention and the ideas were shocking to me. The use of apergy as a form of antigravity in that book is in Undertow. I wanted to use it as a nod to the book. The things inferred in that book are amazing to me. It’s about a guy who travels to another planet in a concrete spaceship. The things he surmised are just fascinating. Those are the three main influences.

Comics have an unlimited measure. There’s no reason to ever hold yourself back. You can have the wildest ideas. You’re only limited by what you can put on the page. Every time I write something that’s a crazy idea or a crazy design. There was a bucket list for the book filled with so many things I just thought would look awesome and those influences were a big part of it.

BD: What or who is the biggest inspiration for the art?

Artyom Trakanov: Right now it’s easily Hayao Miyazaki, Hugo Pratt, the Mignolaverse, and Sergio Toppi. Ah, and the Bioshock videogame series!

BD: Artyom, how did you decide on the unique color palette? Particularly the opposing shades between on land and underwater.

AT: Honestly, I’m stunned by the warm response to my colors in this comic. In fact, I can barely happily entrust the job to someone who could handle the colors much better than I could. Speaking of the approach to color, I try to think not just of the certain feel that each particular scene should evoke, but also of the rhythm and color progression of the entire issue as a whole – the alternation between water and land, and the emotional tone of the narrative (this become even clearer with Issue 2’s release). But for me, the color work is still a bit of an adventure in masochism.

BD: Artyom, How did you come onto the project and what interested you most about Undertow?

AT: Steve found me during his research into the Russian comic book scene (which at the time hardly existed at all). We have been together through some excellent short comics, and then started to work seriously on Undertow. Steve “hooked” me from the very first phrase of the pitch, and when I got to know about each new hero or detail of the story’s world, I realized I was literally itching to draw them. So it all worked out!

BD: The alien creature designs are very distinct. What was the motivation for making them look the way they do?

SO: It came from Artyom and I having hours of conversations talking about everything you can imagine. It won’t make it into the book but if I have to somehow write a scene in which an Atlantian goes to the bathroom, I know how they do it. It was a lot of collaboration about what we wanted the characters to do. We know what’s on the inside and what’s on the outside.

They have a waxy substance on their bodies just like sperm whales have on their heads. Which is what scientists think makes them capable of maintaining their physical integrity at super deep depths. We had to deal with why these characters don’t explode on the surface. This waxy substance is all over their bodies. A lot of the design was problem solving in a modern setting. They have ballast organs right above the hips. They can inflate this organ to become more buoyant. When its not inflated they are denser and they can walk like a normal person would. The fins on the back were something Artyom designed which allows them better control in the water. Things like larger hands, larger feet, and slightly longer torsos. You only have to look at Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps to see how the ape form would evolve in certain scenarios.

A lot of it was me and Artyom throwing problems from the story at each other and solving them. As we did these characters evolved physically.

AT:The majority of the heroes of Undertow found their “tough” face very quickly. However, I remember going through a lot of options for Redum’s face, and even then his final form didn’t mature until after I’d worked through many pages of the comic. I purposely left time to draw and redraw the characters from time to time, so I could “cement” their images.

BD: The first issue mentions that “Freedom doesn’t mean safety” but with freedom comes an incredible amount of danger, what is the goal of their freedom?

SO: The goal is to have a sustainable society on the surface. A lot of people want to settle. Build a society on the ship. Everyone on the Deliverer wants to live in a society free of consumerism and of Atlantis where people do what they’re told. There is a kind of poking fun at intellectual mumbo jumbo. A lot of the secondary characters talk like freshmen philosophy majors. It’s because they’re just going along for the ride. They’re having a great time talking about things without really knowing what they mean. In an ideal world they’d never have to worry about Atlantis again.

Given the fact that they still have to breath water that safety is never going to happen. That’s the main thrust of finding the amphibian so maybe they could really live on land. Then they’d be mostly untouchable by Atlantis. Atlantean soldiers coming to the surface have no idea what they’re getting into.

It’s a commentary on when we had a frontier. Look at people who were living on the frontiers, they really just wanted to live their lives. They were in constant danger from incursion, the climate, or things they weren’t ready for. There is always a price for independence. That’s something we don’t have today because we’ve been everywhere. The tradeoff between danger and freedom is one of the book’s major commentaries on human existence.

BD: I enjoyed the tease of the humans in the first issue. It made me think Atlantis was just one of many societies. Are the Atlanteans alone?

SO: Humans have certainly evolved along a different path in this world. If the Amphibian is real, there is certainly something else out there. Atlantis might be the only advanced society in the world but that doesn’t mean that the way everyone is living in downtown Azu city is the only type of society out there. People are trying other things. There’s certainly an Atlantean outback, and there are whale fall societies. When a whale dies whole ecosystems spring up around the carcass. In the case of Atlanteans it’s never worked.

There are certainly other creatures. The question of humans is an interesting one. They’ve taken a step to the left in terms of evolution but that doesn’t mean they’re completely primitive. They can live in virtually any climate. You’ll see humans that live near the equator that are almost hairless; you’ll see polar humans that are basically humans plus polar bears. They’ve taken over the surface but in a completely different way than what you’d expect in other stories.

BD: Will we ever return to Atlantis?

SO: You’ll definitely see some moments in Atlantis. Without spoiling too much, you’ll also see Atlantis coming to the Deliverer. Anshargal is almost the Osama Bin Laden of Atlantis. Every moment he’s alive is an insult. It kind of makes sense that they’d send people after him. At some point you’ll see the Atlantean version of Zero Dark Thirty.

BD: Ukinnu is a lot like us. Lost in mediocrity. What made you want to subvert the more fantastical elements of fantasy by rooting the protagonist in the mundane?

SO: In a case like this where there is going to be so much that is alien I wanted to have something you could engage. It’s interesting you say he’s like us, because people say that him having wealthy parents doesn’t make him relatable. Not many, but it’s certainly been a point of view. I hope he is like us; everybody’s got something they want to get away from.

Us millennials are like the black sheep of history. It gives us an entry point to the story. We don’t breath water, we don’t have UV lasers, and all that business. Ukinnu is the connection. He’s kind of like us. Ours is generation that is struggling to identify itself even into our late twenties and at the same time our generation is in the spotlight for not being able to identify itself. It was interesting to me, making a story out of that struggle.

It’s important to me to have someone in the story that people can relate to. That was something that Artyom and I agreed on from the start. If you have a really un-relatable setting then the characters need to talk like real people. Which is right out of David Milch’s playbook from Deadwood. He says people would criticize the show as completely unrealistic, saying fuck, cunt, and cocksucker in the Wild West simply didn’t happen. That might be true, but the way people did swear in the Wild West was the way Yosemite Sam talks. Which sounds ludicrous. To make the dialogue relatable we decided the same thing, without going too much into super idiomatic speech. Hopefully it anchors the story for people because these aren’t characters you’d meet on the street.

BD: Atlantis seems to be a world where everything is handed to you. There is no struggle. The opportunity of making his own destiny and doing work that matters in the Rebellion must be a huge draw for Ukinnu.

SO: Definitely. There are moments where Ukinnu has to step up. It’s almost shocking to him to get an affirmation, because he’s not used to having to do anything. It’s one of the first decisions he ever had to make. It’s something people often wrestle with. In many ways our problems bring us together, instead of showing us how we’re different, we all struggle with the same things. Hopefully we can relate to the characters taking charge in their lives.

BD: Artyom, how did you decide on the unique color palette? Particularly the opposing shades between on land and underwater.

AT: Honestly, I’m stunned by the warm response to my colors in this comic. In fact, I can barely happily entrust the job to someone who could handle the colors much better than I could. Speaking of the approach to color, I try to think not just of the certain feel that each particular scene should evoke, but also of the rhythm and color progression of the entire issue as a whole – the alternation between water and land, and the emotional tone of the narrative (this become even clearer with Issue 2’s release). But for me, the color work is still a bit of an adventure in masochism.

BD: What was the most difficult scene to draw?

AT: The first thing that comes to mind is the first scene of the first issue. I’m still happy with the way it came out, and I am glad that many readers understood that the atmosphere of war chaos in the scene was more important for us than a clear separation between the warring parties. And yet, on the page it is too easy in this maze of bodies to lose yourself, and I understand that I didn’t yet have the experience to implement the full plan.

BD: What’s your favorite part of writing Undertow?

SO: Well it’s a comic book. The Amphibian is undoubtedly one of my favorite characters. I know you haven’t met him yet, but you’ll find out about him soon. We’ll rework dialogue and we’ll rework scenes but with The Amphibian it all just sort of happens. The energy of appearances with him is just so fun that it certainly is one of my favorite things.

Otherwise, the more true answer is a thing I didn’t expect. Where a character I thought would be a one off character ends up forcing themselves into more things. I end up liking them so much that I find more ways to work them in. There’s a character in this first story arc that I thought was going to die in issue two but is in the rest of the book now.

BD: What is your favorite part of drawing Undertow?

AT: The ability to create a world where not everything is quite what you’d expect, but each element still has a hint of the familiar. I’m not even sure I can say what’s more interesting, the drawing of the underwater world, or the adventures on dry earth.

BD: How far have you outlined the series?

SO: The whole thing in broad strokes. That being pages long emails I sent Artyom to calm him down and reassure him that I have a plan. It’s definitely a six issue mini series and a three-act story. With each piece being satisfying. I don’t like when you get to the end and their like “see you next time!”

The arc of finding the Amphibian is the first story and you’ll get the whole thing. The arc of where the main characters are headed will keep going if we return to it. The meta themes and the relationship between society play out over a longer arc. I wouldn’t say how many issues it is, because I planned it as five issues and its now six.

Artyom has been adding pages to every issue. We’ve never had an issue at 22 pages because he expands action scenes because he gets excited and things become a two-page spread. I usually am very anti two-page spread but I finally had something in issue three. It’s definitely three acts with each one being a tasty meal on its own.

BD: What is the main theme of the series?

SO: Our relationship with home. That’s a little bit of a chirpy answer for an action series. It still has punching. Both Ukinnu and Redum are dealing with their relationship with Atlantis. That might sound mopey and livejournal, but we’re doing it as an action book. With lasers, weapons of mass destruction, and gravity bombs, a lot of things that most people’s relationship with home does not involve.

I’m relatively liberal person who’s half gay from central New York, which is largely a socially conservative area. Writing a book about a complex relationship with the way you grew up is pretty hardcore. I wish I had a laser when I was younger but I had no laser. I studied a lot of folklore in college. A story is really something when it has a basic human emotion as its heart. What myth and folklore tricks us into thinking about these things. Using the fantastic to explain something that is super fantastic. If I can write lasers and giant monsters to make you evaluate your teenage angst then that’s awesome and if you just like lasers and monsters that’s awesome too. It depends on what’s more important to you. You can’t discount the wealth of experiences that goes into how someone views something. I know what this story means to me, I’m excited to see what people think about it and what it means to them when it’s all over.

Undertow #2 hits March 19th AKA next week. You’d be a fish-faced fool for not picking it up. We’ll have a review featured on the site sometime next week. Look out for Orlando at Emerald City Comic Con at the end of the month. Bring plenty of copies of Undertow for him to sign.

And for those of you who haven’t checked out Issue #1. We loved it. Check out the review here.



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