Undertow #1 by Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov

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<i>Undertow</i> #1 by Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov

Writer: Steve Orlando
Artist: Artyom Trakhanov
Publisher: Image
Release Date: February 19, 2014

Back when humans were still grunting at each other in caves, Atlantis thrived as an advanced civilization. But the mighty empire of the sea was not without its upheaval. Enter Redum Anshargal. Depending on your loyalties, he’s either a revolutionary legend or a terrorist butcher. Those few who wish to be free of their Atlantean shackles — arranged marriage, fixed elections — can join Anshargal on the surface, as he searches for a mythic Amphibian in hopes of making a land-based life for his people.

War roiling in the exotic locales beneath the water’s surface of Undertow creates some fantastic escapism, but what’s really interesting about this debut comic’s setup is how it rouses our innermost rebels. Whatever twists lay ahead, and however valiant or treacherous characters turn out to be, it’s that “hard liberty before the easy yoke” tone that resonates. Life above is dangerous, but antihero Anshargal has a good sales pitch: Come with me if you want to live free. From the overall plot to the bedrock themes, there isn’t much to dislike. While more explanation of Atlantean culture is expected down the line, writer Steve Orlando’s terse script keeps Anshargal mysterious, a laconic Ahab messiah questing toward life or death.

While the plot is still in that inchoate first-issue phase, the art is impeccable. There’s a chalky quality that you wouldn’t expect in an aquatic story, but the resulting graininess makes it feel raw. So many of these pages could be your next desktop background. Under the water, artist Artyom Trakhanov harnesses odd angles and varying depths to realize the bloody chaos of a triple-axis battle. Topside, the verdant terra firma and burning skies are a punch in the visual cortex.

There’s an undoubtedly pulpy feel to the book, and like so much classic sci-fi before, it drives at something deeper: poking around that next frontier, pushing toward something greater because it’s better than complacency, and suffering the cost of that new freedom. All of these sensations make for a compelling narrative, and paired with Trakhanov’s visceral illustrations, Undertow would need to try very hard to blow it.