Steve Orlando and the World of Undertow
Recent miniseries from Image Comics, Undertow, has proven to be a big hit with members of the Mighty All-Comic and readers everywhere. This series is really something else, with both story and art that are quite unlike anything else being published. Masterminding the world of Undertow is creator and writer, Steve Orlando. We recently had an opportunity to chat with Mr. Orlando about his work on this series and we jumped at the chance!
Steve Orlando: The Food Network. Actually that’s not that much of an exaggeration. I started going to conventions as an aspiring writer in 2000, when I was young, inexperienced, and pretty bad. And with me and my 14 Year Old Naive Ideas, came a New X-Men spec script featuring Beast watching Emeril Live and cooking some type of shallots dish, using the “Bam!” catchphrase. I thought a cooking hobby would humanize him. ANYWAY I bandied that script about, and some wonderful souls (in this case Tony Bedard, then at Crossgen), saw fit to look them over and humor me. I took his critiques to heart, and kept writing and writing for the next ten years. I gave up on Hank McCoy and cooking, and started reading and writing as much as possible. Short stories followed, leading to my first major work which was Vertigo’s MYSTERY IN SPACE, where I wrote a fun, folksy story about a race of space centaurs hallucinating their way through puberty on root vegetable drugs. From there my penchant for writing about strange alien people doing human things was only fostered further when I met Artyom and told him about UNDERTOW, where we have Fish People doing dirty human things all over the page.
Undertow has been a wild ride right from issue #1. The story is powerful and well-written, the artwork looks unlike anything else, and the overall concept is fascinating. How did you first conceive of the plot for Undertow? What influenced this story?
Steve Orlando: Thank you so much for saying that! The idea for Undertow all started with an image, a dead body in the center of a Metropolitan underwater city. Back then this was a procedural, LAW & ORDER: ATLANTIS if you will. But when I reread 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I realized it could be more. We could flip the story, make it 20,000 Leagues Above the Sea, with a modern Nemo. And if you have Nemo, as anyone who reads LOEG knows, you need to have politics. And thus the rings of the story began to expand, it became a science fiction adventure that’s a dark mirror of where our own society could go, that shows that some parts of higher thinking life are not uniquely human, they’re immutable, and they’re not always the good things.
The influences? Frank Herbert, Jodorowsky, Percy Gregg (one of the first sci-fi writers ever from the 1800s), Ray Harryhausen, and, it turns out upon reflection, Mikhail Bulgakov. Just as Bulgakov blended genre with satire, so do we. We use the fantastic and the sometimes absurd to talk about the world today, but in Bulgakov’s own caring way, not out of jest, but out of a desire to make us better. We do that, but with lasers and barbarian land gods.
What has the reader response been like in general?
Steve Orlando: Diverse and Enthusiastic! I LOVE the questions people are asking. To me, that’s the heart of good fiction. We give you enough to spark your own imagination. We take you on a ride that makes you want to dive deeper, delve deeper. We have tried to create an immersive experience, where answers come along organically, instead of in a neat little row, just like real life. We tried to cut interior monologue to only the bare minimum, so the actions speak for themselves, just like in real life. When you see two people fighting on the street you don’t know what’s going on in their heads, you make your own assumptions. And it seems like people are excited about it. It’s bare bones storytelling, it’s a naturalistic take on Fish People exploring the land in a sci-fi energy powered society boat. That’s the least natural thing we can imagine, and so making it so has been fun and people seem to agree.
Steve Orlando: Without question. UNDERTOW is really a love triangle, like any book, it’s about relationships. This is an episode, and it’s important to us that this is a complete, satisfying episode. The story of the Amphibian and the hunt for its blood will be complete. But the story of Redum, Ukinnu and Atlantis, which is really the universal story of Fathers, Sons, and Homes, is far from over. We tore our cast apart and put them in more danger than they’ve ever faced. Now their long journey apart has come full circle and they’re back together. But they’re not the same and may not fit together the same way as before.
The artwork in this series has quite a unique overall appearance. How did Artyom Trakhanov become involved in this project?
Steve Orlando: After I returned from Russia I scoured the web for a Russian comics community, since I did not have time to dig deep enough while I was there. That’s when I came across Artyom’s beautiful Russian Language Webcomic MAD BLADE. I reached out to him, and it turns out he was looking for a chance to work in American comics. And more importantly it turns out we both love the same crazy, explosive brand of wild comics wonder. We bounced around a few anthologies, including NOBODIES VOLUME 2 from DRAWMORE INC, where we wrote an end-of-life story for a time traveler who is out of time. Next up I mentioned UNDERTOW, and the rollercoaster began.
Has Artyom been involved in the story as well?
Steve Orlando: Extremely so! I couldn’t imagine the book without Artyom. He is infinitely creative and devious in his genius. His characters and ships and creatures have driven the story powerfully as we developed it, honing the tone and feel of the story. He has designs for even the background characters, so that even city shots are filled with unique people. He populated the world. And sometimes we loved a design so much that whole new characters and plots grew out of them.
Is there more for us to learn about Redum Anshargal’s background and the greater origins of his life and philosophy?
Steve Orlando: Definitely. We know he used to work for Atlantis. We know he lost his family, and we know somehow that he immediately recognized the Amphibian once he came face to face with him. That’s what made him Redum Anshargal, but we’ve only seen snippets of what happened. There is still so much to explore, to see what turned him from a scientist into an idealist soldier.
Steve Orlando: The book, I think, is about freedom, and what that really means. As Anshargal says in Issue 1 and as we see throughout the series, freedom doesn’t mean safety. These characters are pioneers, they’re living on the frontier. And we’re seeing what they sacrifice for freedom. It’s a trade-off. And we will see if a crew of thousands can really agree on what freedom really means.
There must be more to explore regarding the primordial god the protagonists recently encountered! Will we see more about this side of the story in the future?
Steve Orlando: The Amphibian’s philosophy will definitely play into the rest of the miniseries. He is not JUST a madman, not completely. He has a system of respect and beliefs, even though he is at his heart dedicated to being profane. This is, in many ways, his religion, to profane the beliefs of others, to mock any power around him. And as our team witnesses the horror of his camp, and receives their chance to earn his respect, their mission changes yet again. The Amphibian and Anshargal clearly know each other, and why they do reveals more about both men.
How has it been working with Image Comics? Do you feel you have been generally free to tell the story you wanted to tell?
Steve Orlando: Unquestionably so. Throughout the process Image has been incredibly supportive of our story, and of us telling it the way we want to tell it. We have never received any restrictions on content, and it has been wonderful to have a chance to say what we want to say, the way we want to say it, even when we’re saying it about lustful Fish People.
Are there any other upcoming projects you have in the works that you’d like to mention?
Steve Orlando: Yes! Keep your eyes peeled for another short story in the fall, easily one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, that starts in the 1800s and ends at the epilogue of human civilization, four planets, four homes into our future. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading about Georgian Martial arts, thinking of 2015. And of course check out OUTLAW TERRITORY VOLUME 3, out now, also from Image, which is up for an Eisner and features a great story of revenge from me and Celal Koc!
If you haven’t already gotten on board with Undertow, you’re seriously missing out on a terrific miniseries! While this one is wrapping up soon, be on the lookout for the inevitable trade paperback release and future projects from this dynamic creator. You can follow Steve Orlando on Twitter at @thesteveorlando