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Steve Orlando: Undertow

A look at the Atlantean comic book series brimming with modern themes

by David Graver in Culture on 11 April 2014

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"Comics are a beautiful medium. The combination of visual art and text engages both sides of your brain, causing you to retain more than from a similar story in other mediums," shares writer Steve Orlando. This is certainly true of his latest series "UNDERTOW"—done in collaboration with artist/colorist Artyom Trakhanov and letterer/designer Thomas Mauer. Its engaging artistry is met with a riveting tale, sci-fi influences and a new take on a world often referenced in mythology: Atlantis. Issue 3 is soon to be launched and the fourth is not far around the corner, via publisher Image Comics. If you're unfamiliar with comics outside the world of well-known superheroes, this is the perfect place to begin.

Orlando speaks further on the innate value and artistry of the format; "Comics are an alive, pop culture medium that truly lets you tell the story you want, the way you want, and in as fantastic a way as possible. When you want to create wonder, there is no better way." While his tale is one of Atlantean society, the story of its inception is an international one. While living in Russia in 2007, this Hudson Valley-based writer spent time trying to find the Russian comic book scene. "Even though I was in all these different cities, I never found young Russians making their own books, but a lot of people adapting existing ones," he notes before mentioning that he wasn't looking deep enough. Shortly after his return, he found Trakhanov online. They bonded over shared interests and comic themes—soon, a working relationship developed.

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"This was the perfect project because it allows us to do just what folklore should—use an extraordinary story to talk about what's happening in our everyday world," Orlando says. "Folklore has always been that way, with witches and goblins making wild and interesting the plights of everyday people. And with their strongmen and cultural baggage, comics are the folklore today." And, with publishing houses like Image, people have become interested in more than just "people in tights punching mad scientists." As the sci-fi genre has grown, and the world of zombies continues its cultural relevance and resonance (thanks in part to Image Comics' "The Walking Dead"), there's been growth across many genres within the comics industry.

On the origins of UNDERTOW, Orlando explains that it "came about from a fundamental misunderstanding I had with almost all the other stories about Atlantis we've seen, when it comes to fiction." Atlantis is a place of dreams, and something that has appeared in culture for centuries. Noting that "we're intrigued by the notion of something that was once there, but now isn't," the author delved further into what he found to be recurring themes: "First, that the stories were less about Atlantis and more about how Atlantis relates to humans, and second, that most of the Atlantean societies still seemed medieval in nature." He sought to "extrapolate it into the present day as if it evolved just like our world. And in doing so that also solved the other issue of making it an Atlantis story about Atlanteans." In turn, Orlando brings life to "modern metropolitan fish people, worrying about the same things we are—relationships, corrupt government, where they'll get their next hit of fermented algae."

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Amidst the fantastical story driving UNDERTOW, there are relevant social and political issues. With a core question being: what do we sacrifice by seeking freedom? Safety is certainly one proposed answer. "With the ever-tightening grip of globalized corporations and interconnected governments, UNDERTOW yearns to break free. It examines what it would truly take to live free of that system, to hunt down an unconquered frontier and live freely on it. These characters have found a way, and with the frontier, with freedom, comes the loss of safety. That's the truth of UNDERTOW, and that's where adventure comes from too." And as with other great and important stories, it's exciting and enjoyable to consume.

As for what's next in the series, Orlando hints, "The next steps for the story are all about building society. The first story of UNDERTOW was about getting away from Atlantis. But the next step is about looking at what happens when some people want to get back at it."

Issue 3 will be hitting shelves this month. Subscribe to UNDERTOW digitally at Comixology for $3 per issue, or visit your local comic book store—like NYC's Midtown Comics—for print editions.

Images courtesy of Steve Orlando

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