By Erik Grove
If you haven't been reading Undertow by Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov from Image Comics, the bad news is that you're late to one of the craziest and most visually stunning new books on the shelves but the good news is that you still have time to remedy that. With the first 3 issues out now and available at fine local comic book shops and available in digital format from Image, you can quickly get up to speed in the story of pulpy exploration and political intrigue as rebel Atlanteans led by Redum Anshargal try to break free from the sea and build a new future on land, if they're not killed by primitive men or the god-like Amphibian. I've been a fan of this book since the first issue and I'm excited to bring you Essential 8 Questions with Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov!
Erik Grove: I'd like to start by getting a sense of your comic book beginnings. What comics inspired you and made you want to create comic books of your own?
Steve Orlando: I actually realized as I was going through my stacks of long boxes that one of the biggest influences on me was John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake's Martian Manhunter, launched in the late 90s to support JLA. I had just gotten heavy into comics, after a decade long period of courtship which began with some West Coast Avengers back issues at a flea market and Web of Spiderman purchased at Waldenbooks. But JLA locked me into the wonder, and I read everything in support of it, even all those Prestige Format One-Shots. But when Martian Manhunter launched I entered expecting one thing and got another.
My widescreen action brain from JLA wanted kicksplosions! And we got that, but what we also got was a fascinating, in depth exploration of what it meant to be alien. We were sociologists, studying Martian culture. We explored their relationships, their day to day lives, their passions. Ostrander and Mandrake fully dug into what culture would be like for a race that could both use telepathy and shape shift. What would their values be like? What would they find important if physical appearance was completely fluid? It was this mix of culture and catastrophic action that has been a part of my work since. Not quite mature readers, not quite just superhero capes and mustache twirling, it was a singular creation.
I also have been hugely inspired by The Homeless Channel from AiT/Planetlar and Matt Silady, for the sheer drive and passion behind the book's creation. Here was a unique story and a creator unresting in getting it told, and the art style Matt created was something ingenious to accomplish his goal. I think it reads wonderfully and it keeps me going at my own work.
And lately am driven by wonderful books like Glory and Prophet, part of the Extreme studios relaunch that is rolling out at just the pace it should- the pace of creativity. This, to me, is what comics are about – reinvigorating concepts with new energy and points of view to introduce them to a new generation. These are characters with a loaded history, but here creators have put the work in to mine the power behind the ideas. To me that's comics, that's folklore, and I'm always inspired to see it happening.
Artyom Trakhanov: I think that it was Battle Chasers by Joe Madureira, Hellsing manga by Kouta Hirano and a Russian adventure comic series called The Thursday's folks. That was a pretty standard combo of tastes for a silly Russian kid at those times (2005 or so), and each book had a crazy impact on me. Those were the dark times of Russian comics, with bad Internet and bad comic scans. It was way later when I was introduced to the work of the artists whom I really love these days – Moebius, Serjio Toppi, Hugo Pratt… Even [Jack] Kirby The King was a mystery for me for far too long. But those are bread and butter for my brain now, of course.
EG: How did you get your start working in comics? What were the first kinds of things that you worked on?
SO: The internet! That's not completely true. I went to Comic-Con International when I was a sapling, and some wonderful creators took pity on my scripts and follow up emails. After over a decade of pitches and spec scripts, I was lucky enough to be invited by my friend Tyler Niccum to be part of Outlaw Territory from Image Comics. The following year I published Octobriana, an 88-Page Oversized newsprint collection of Russian Pop Culture action, drawn by Animal Man's Chaz Truog.
Soon after, I met Artyom through his kick-ass webcomic Mad Blade and we worked together on some short stories, one a western about cannibal angel children, and the other a time travel epic featuring a dying explorer and an antique pistol. Around the same time I worked on a strange story about centaurs in Vertigo's Mystery in Space, all while secretly plotting Undertow thanks to, you guessed it, the internet!
I always thought I'd write about a man in a cape, and maybe someday I will, but so far it has all been Hessian westerns, Russian wonder women and attitudinal fish-men looking for a fight.
AT: I am very stubborn, and have been working on a very first project I ever came out with for quite some time. It's called Mad Blade, and it is my ongoing weekly Russian webcomic series (I swear, Steve and I will work on the English translation for it one day!) which I've been cooking for almost ten years now, relaunching or putting it in the table every time I realized that my art or story is bad and naive. Now it's fine, I guess… And thanks to Mad Blade, Steve found me a couple of years ago, and we decided to work together!
EG: Shifting to Undertow, with issue number 3 we finally meet the Amphibian, a ruthless god-like super being that lives among the humans. The characterization and design of this character seems critical to the series. What was the process like for creating him? Did the character appear fully formed or did you tinker much to the get the right mix?
SO: The Amphibian, like a lot of creations in Undertow, truly came to life once it was filtered through Artyom's insane skill and power. I had an idea what I wanted, and that was mostly to be something completely different than what we'd seen with this type of character before. But the baggage is there for some of it. The Amphibian walks around naked, but he's not the first – Namor has been wearing a speedo for years, and Alex Ross drew him naked in Marvels because he thought it made more sense. And if Namor or Aquaman can punch a hole in a Navy Destroyer, what could that strength really do to a human body? What if they were just a bit insane, and in love with the power they had. So much of the Amphibian was about upending people's expectations, overturning the cultural cache of characters with these types of powers. It's more than "our version is crazy!" He's more than a person, at least right now. It's more like "our version is veritably elemental!"
But I knew he had to be a force, he had to be an X-Factor for Anshargal's plan, and with that meant raw power and chaos, cutting through the expected track of the story. I wrote the scene with light description of his appearance, but as always more with the feelings he should convey. The power he should exude. And Artyom brought it to life in a gruesome, awe-inspiring way. From the first design sketch I got, which was of Kishar Gelal, the Amphibian, covered in blood like warpaint, I knew we had the design.
AT: I honestly had a blast with the character of Kishar Gelal (a.k.a. The Amphibian). Other characters took some time for finding out their looks, but with Amphibian, I was very certain from the very first minute, I think. And one of the main references for this character was Colonel Kurtz! Crazy! Not only visually, but character-wise there is something weirdly appealing in him, which sometimes even scares me. So he, Uruku and Redum are probably my most beloved characters in the book, and sometimes I think that Kishar is the leading one (but then Steve sends me another scene featuring Uruku and I have badassomeness overdose).
EG: What's the creative process like for Undertow? Steve, I know you work full script but how much outlining and documentation did you create to develop this world? I'm envisioning a lot more notes and backmatter than ends up making it to the final page.
SO: Like I mentioned above, a lot of the direction in the scripts is about emotional or evocative results, rather than cold hard facts about what something looks like. Sure, I give some physical shorthand for characters, but its not a hard rule, more guidelines like the pirates' code. Artyom and I love a lot of the same things, so we were instantly on board when it comes to sources to draw from – Herbert, Moebius, Burroughs, it was all there. We have had endless conversations about these guys, and it comes through to the work.
So in general when I script for Artyom, I know he's a mad genius already, so I talk about how a character like the Amphibian makes other characters, or the reader feel. I talk about what Anshargal wants his appearance to communicate about him. I know Artyom can work those ideas through the mind furnace and come up with something unique and great. But there is certainly history, lots of history for the characters that we talk about, so we know how they got to where they are. And that goes for technology and architecture too. We know how Atlanteans go to the bathroom, just ask us at a convention. We know everything about these characters. A lot of our creative process is us looking at something and answering the "why?" It's us problem solving the struggles of a metropolitan life underwater, inventing things to get the characters to the lifestyle they want. So the creative process is very alive, very amorphous, and a constant conversation moving between us.
AT: Often I will make a suggestion for a character or image, and Steve will consider this idea and certainly include in the plans for the book. We often discuss some general plans for the story on a global scale – that is, it seems to me that many writers both express their opinions and weigh them with their collaborators, to make each other better. Also (and I do not know if it's good), I often take liberty in extending some scenes and pages, so 22 pages script always seems turn into 23 or 25. And wait to see what I've done in the sixth issue!
EG: Artyom, what goes into a finished book for you? You do it all; linework and color. What tools do you use to get to the end product?
AT: A lot of blood, sweat and tears, of course! You should see my original pages, hah. But seriously, my work is pretty chaotic. I use all kinds of paper and black material – and this means not only brushes, inks, markers and pens, but also black oil pastel and stuff like that. Same goes for my colors – I'm not a big fan of the process itself, so I try to experiment with palettes and coloring styles as much as it possible to keep myself invested (while staying at my weird unrealistic vibe, of course).
SO: I'll only add to Artyom's answer here that his best tool is his crazed creativity, which drives everything else that hits the page.
EG: For readers that haven't tried Undertow yet, what would you say to entice them to give it a shot? Are there any comparisons you make to other types of stories? If you like this … then you'll love Undertow etc.?
SO: This is comics that are, at their heart, made to actualize what is great about comics. This is wild science fiction without budgetary or policy constraints. We're shooting for the fences with some truly vibrant images that you've never seen anywhere else before. The idea is to take Atlantis to new places, new locales, so your eyes can follow these strange spacemen in watertight suits into never before seen worlds. It's a bleeding edge take on a classic sci-fi setting with its minds on the problems you're facing in your life right now. What if you were raised underwater? YOU might not be much different.
What leads us there? If you like the wild idealism and punching of Black Science, or the grit and social conscience of Global Frequency, or the pulpy action of Hellboy, then you'll love the reckless abandon with which we rocket Undertow to your brains.
AT: I don't wanna say If you'd like to see Star Wars underwater, go see our book. This, or any other comparison is not the point of this work – for me, at least. We're trying to change (at least a little) many things that were in stagnancy for far too long. This is what we want, and we hope this could bring joy to people.
EG: What's next for you two after this series completes? I've read that this mini might lead to more parts in a grander story down the road with this world and these characters. Is that something you're already talking about?
SO: Artyom and I have more to tell in this world, and these characters have more steps to take on their collisions courses. Just like real life, we unfold the stories in chapters, themes, like the zeitgeists of the present day. The next story will seem like it brings these characters closer. but the closer two like charges get to each other, the stronger they repel. We will get there. The first priority is delivering as much crazy action and wild adventure in the first miniseries as we possibly can, and we're not holding anything back!
AT: Doing something as big as the first Undertow book is so huge for me by itself that I still can't wrap my mind around it right now. Finish it first, then consider the future – that's what I keep saying to myself for the last couple of months.Though I am certain that Undertow should go on!
EG: Finally, what comics or comic projects are you excited about? Do you have other work coming out you'd like to discuss? What sorts of things are you looking forward to as fans?
SO: I am SUPER excited about the just-announced Supreme series from Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay! To me, these focused, creator driven relaunches of Extreme characters are like a modern version of the Silver Age relaunches at DC Comics. They're what comics are all about, what folklore is all about— taking an older concept and reinvigorating it for a new generation, for a new set of circumstances. You keep what's at the core, and mold everything else to match what's on readers' minds. That's why the magic origins of the 40s became the sci-fi origins of the 60s, became, in many cases, legacy origins for the 80s and the children of the baby boomers.
As for me, I do have some fun things coming out this year, currently unannounced. BUT I can say I've been studying the life cycles of stars, 1800s Indian painting, Tesla's plans for a peace ray that he kept only in his head, Tibetan funeral rituals and obscure Korean foods.
AT: As a fan I'm always dying to read the fresh issues of Hellboyverse, Prophet, Hawkeye and Pretty Deadly. Some other books, too, of course… Seeing a new movie from Park Chan-wook would've been great. And Orcstain #8!
As a freelancer comic artist I'm currently helping with development of character concept art for several comic projects – one, written by Brian Funk, is called Enforcer and tells a very interesting fantasy story about gangwars in the magical city of Meridian. Also, very soon I'll have a small short story with another writer, and I am pretty hyped about this.
Undertow #3 is on shelves right now!
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, OR. You can follow him on Twitter @ErikGrove and read short fiction and novel excerpts from his creative projects at www.erikgrove.com