Diving deep into Atlantis with Steve Orlando and UNDERTOW

November 13, 2013

In February 2014, writer Steve Orlando and artist Artyom Trakhanov invite you on board the watertight city barge The Deliverer for an Atlantis adventure like you’ve never seen before. UNDERTOW, a new pulp monster series, introduces readers to an Atlantis that has become the world superpower and a civilization that has evolved to breathe water instead of air. But Redum Anshargal is not satisfied with the ruling system and makes it his quest to hunt a legend that could be the key to air-breathing life on land. We sat down with Steve Orlando in advance of the book’s solicitation to talk about his collaboration with Trakhanov and what to expect from this unique underwater story arc. Enjoy the interview and three page preview, and make sure to keep and eye out for UNDERTOW #1 on February 19!

The covers for UNDERTOW have a cool two-part design. Where did this design come from? What message are you trying to send?

Steve Orlando: The two-part cover designs began as an invention of Artyom's, playing on the expectations people have about a book about Atlantis—the two separate worlds above the surface and below. They really play on the idea that we all have multiple fronts to the battles we're fighting, and like the contrasting images we use, they may seem separate, but really our conflicts are always inches away from spilling over onto each other. That's life, and that's one of the hearts of UNDERTOW—a conflict on all fronts, chaos on all fronts that comes from putting the modernity into Atlantis fiction. No one has a single definition anymore, and being more than one thing means fights on different stages, in different arenas. We may seem calm, a scene may seem calm on the surface, but everything could be boiling beneath. So just like UNDERTOW may seem like a civilized book than its seahorse-riding predecessors, with more modern people and more contemporary attitudes, it's maybe even more savage beneath the surface.

You're working with artist Artyom Trakhanov on UNDERTOW. How'd you connect with him? What's your working relationship like?

Orlando: Artyom and I met a few years ago when I discovered his awesome Russian-language webcomic Mad Blade, which he still works on to this day as well. I was instantly hooked, with all its folklore and badassery. It helped that I speak Russian and he speaks English. Plus I had been hunting for a Russian comics community since living there a few years back. Turns out it was there all along, hiding deep within the internet! Artyom and I collaborated on a few short stories, including a Golden-Age Time Travel and a Biblical Inbreeding Western, and when we were looking for an idea for a longer-form project, I showed him UNDERTOW. At the time I had no artist attached, but since his first look at the script I can't imagine the book without him.

UNDERTOW is written full-script, but Artyom has an incredible amount of input into the process, driving me to develop every aspect of Atlantean life and create a fully realized world for him to work in. Trust me when I say there is nothing I can't explain how Atlanteans do at this point, and the story is better for it. Artyom understands the nugget of what I'm hoping for with an idea, and then he takes it, beats it up, throws it around, runs after it when it gets away and brings back something totally fresh and unique. He has a singular view of a script, and like me he has a need to get to know his characters on an intensely personal level, whether they appear in hundreds of scenes, or just one.

UNDERTOW is set before the rise of man and the fall of Atlantis. What is the world like at this point? What kind of status quo should we expect to see in this setting?

Orlando: The world of UNDERTOW is incredibly developed, maybe even more than ours, below the surface. MAYBE it's set in our world, or maybe something fundamentally different happened in the distant past that stunted humanity's development and let something else move in. Either way, Atlantis is the world superpower, civilization exists beneath the waves, and the surface is a primordial unexplored frontier filled with prehistoric beasts, feral humans and unforgiving landscapes.

Atlantis itself is fat and rich, an enormous metropolis driven by self interest and materialism. It's a tinted mirror of our world, just a bit more corrupt, just a bit more unflinching, but not so much that we can't see ourselves. These are a people content to never see the surface, to never leave the safety of their 1st World Problems and stay the course. But not everyone can live like that, and those that don't either find a way to live on the outskirts, as in Whalefall Communities, colonies built into and surviving off of the rotting corpses of whales, or they are quietly disappeared without fanfare. Or, they join Redum Anshargal.

Atlantis is a pretty classic setting. Are you drawing from any traditional tales about Atlantis, creating a new background as needed, some combination of the two, or something else entirely? What's influenced your take on Atlantis?

Orlando: UNDERTOW's main influence is without a doubt the stop-motion adventures of Ray Harryhausen, like the [7th Voyage of Sinbad]. This drives the narrative, pure adventure with social power. But the Atlantean setting comes from various places, including a love of how truly strange and unique ocean creatures can be. The deep sea monsters we glimpse on nature programming don't need to be reimagined, they're already incredible, weird, and beautiful. Artyom and I are constantly finding new creatures, actual sea creatures or phenomena, to put into the book.

But that's not all. UNDERTOW's Atlantis is influenced by the dimensional sci-fi worlds found in Herbert's Dune, its fantasy science owes to Across the Zodiac, arguably one of the first sci-fi novels ever written, way back in the 1880s. Its pulpy sexual politics are straight out of Philip Jose Farmer. The Atlantean backstory itself is definitely grown from Artyom's, and my own, love of books like Dune, with fully realized, centuries-long backstories that offer rich, realized worlds. Why go underwater? Because I was sick of seeing medieval Atlantean stories, or faux-medieval stories of kings and kingdoms set in the present day. If our world moved past that centuries ago, why wouldn't this one? And once I decided that, it became all the more intriguing to figure out how a modern world would work, if it was all happening surrounded by water.

Who is Redum Anshargal? What drove him to the surface?

Orlando: Redum Anshargal is The Butcher from Above, Atlantis's greatest enemy, or maybe its greatest scapegoat. To Atlanteans unwilling to think past what their TV tells them, he's a killer and a terrorist. And he's definitely got a vendetta against Atlantis, but if you're willing to open your mind, he's willing to open his hand. Anshargal is a philosophical Clint Eastwood, offering the toughest love on the planet. Anshargal used to be one of Atlantis's greatest scientists, but after he was betrayed and left for dead, he reinvented himself as the warrior and explorer everyone fears. The surface is his second chance, a pure life of exploration free from Atlantis, and he's willing to put his life on the line to protect those at his side and punish those that get in his way.