Undertow is a new ongoing series from writer Steve Orlando and artist Artyom Trakhanov, published by Image Comics. It’s a sort of science fiction/political intrigue/adventure story set in a past where Atlantis is a thriving society while humanity is just beginning its evolution on the surface world. The book opens in the middle of a battle between the Atlantean military and a rebel group lead by surface explorer Redum Anshargal. We are introduced to Ukinnu Alal, a fortunate son of Atlantis who is recruited by Anshargal during the fight. Perspective and time then shifts to Anshargal’s ship, The Deliverer and its dangerous explorations of dry land. Ukinnu is learning the ropes and Anshargal reveals what he’s looking for and what it may mean for the future of Atlantis.
Undertow is one of those books that I sometimes come across; it’s well written, well drawn, the premise has potential, but I’m just not interested. Not everything is for everyone, and apparently Undertow is not for me. This will be a positive review but I feel the need to express my personal preference up front so it doesn’t feel like a sudden U-turn at the end.
The “cold open” in Undertow is a 5 page battle that is just chaotic enough to create tension and confusion while remaining readable. You can’t really tell who’s who between Atlantean military and rebels, there are dead bodies floating everywhere, and most of the dialogue comes from people who are killed a panel later. The narration from Ukinnu Alal holds it together and culminates in a nice page that identifies him as the narrator and Anshargal as the aggressor in the attack. It’s a deft bit of storytelling that distinguishes the two protagonists visually just as the reader is getting tired of not knowing what’s happening. My only complaint of this sequence is that the white, floating letters of the narration sometimes get lost in the background. I would have preferred caption boxes.
Once the story moves to the surface the impressive design work really starts to stand out. The re-breather suits the characters wear to operate on the surface world, the creature the proto-humans are hunting, and not least of all The Deliverer herself, the giant ship that we get a walking tour of through the middle of the book. The tour is clearly an exposition dump, giving us some history of the vessel, Atlantis, Ukinnu and Anshargal himself. It’s well written and doesn’t become tedious, though there was a disconnect for me in what Ukinnu doesn’t seem to know. The questions he asks are designed to guide a reader but his character seems to have been with Anshargal’s group long enough to make them unnecessary. Regardless the sequence has some clever visuals, especially the air filled sections in the middle of a sealed, water filled vessel. The issue ends with Ukinnu’s first “dry mission” and an explanation of what Anshargal is up here looking for.
On a technical level Undertow has almost no problems. A narrator shift in the middle of the book is handled by a different lettering style for clarity, Trakhanov handles what could be a confusing mid-air battle well by positioning the attacking birds at the tops of panels throughout the sequence, and the coloring nicely delineates between open-air and water environments in several different configurations. The dialogue isn’t particularly spectacular but doesn’t veer too heavily into cliché, and plot-wise the issue certainly accomplishes quite a bit in these first 24 pages. On the other hand I found the names annoying and the end of issue cliffhanger is a pretty overused trope. In the end this is well constructed first issue of a fairly unique concept that just didn’t happen to hold my interest. If it sounds like something you might like though, I encourage you to give it a try.