Interview: Steve Orlando talks the first half of his new series Undertow, plus a promo for issue 5!
Atlantis is the world superpower, and Redum Anshargal is its worst enemy. If you want to break free of the system, he can offer you a place at his side, exploring the wild surface world in his watertight city barge The Deliverer. He and his hostage-protege Ukinnu Alal hunt the Amphibian, a legend that could be the key to an air-breathing life on land. But as they become the hunted, can Anshargal’s team survive long enough to turn the tables on the godlike beast they set out for?
Undertow, by writer Steve Orlando and artist Artyom Trakhanov has passed the half way point, and sees its fourth issue hitting the shelves this Wednesday. The series blends, pulp monster adventure, with deeper socio-political issues, shocker we like it so much.
In anticipation of the latest issue, we got a chance to talk to Steve about the series so far, and some of the various themes that have cropped up.
Graphic Policy: So we’re at the half way point of the series, with the fourth issue soon to be released, and things are bit interesting. To me, it seems like faith in a higher power is a theme of the various stories. The Deliverer’s faith is shaken without Anshargal. Anshargal seems a bit uneasy after meeting the amphibian, and then there’s Atlantas’ faith in its own society’s ability to function with Anshargal on the loose.
Steve Orlando: Definitely! I would say it’s about faith in structures, and what happens when the structures fail you (as Christopher Nolan would like JGL to say). But movienerding aside, it’s true! Safety is really so tenuous in society, and we scoot along smiling ignorantly about it. As the adage says, society is three missed meals away from revolution. We need to believe there is SOMETHING guiding the ship, watching out backs. And the minute that changes, we start to get edgy. All is right while Anshargal is there, but when their icon is late to return, maybe not returning at all, they flood to fill the gap. This is just like us! Watch as a leader dies, or even a pop icon dies, and the question is always “who will step in?” “who is the next king of pop” “who will take the title?” And more to the point, look at the insecurity we faced in the mainstream until we finally were told Osama Bin Laden was dead, until we say Saddam Hussein’s children’s corpses on the front page of our newspapers. We need proof! And that is why the Atlantean government can’t have Anshargal running around alive, reminding its people that the forces of power are just a bit impotent. It can snowball, it can sow questions, and actual democracy does not mean job security, so they don’t want that. And thus the lies about Anshargal’s death. Thus the lies to keep the faith abated.
I would say, you can’t have a book about a modern, political Atlantis and NOT examine the relationship with blind faith, desperate faith in structures. Otherwise you’re not talking about today.
GP: Lets first focus on the Deliverer. It seems to me that many of the members of the ship have given up the authoritarian nature of Atlantis, for Anshargal’s rule and leadership. They’ve just given up one form of heavy leadership for another.
SO: Have they? That’s a question they wrestle with themselves. Anshargal has high aspirations of giving everybody choice and democracy and freedom, but is also so dedicated to enforcing freedom that he may be stepping on his own toes. He gives the council decision making power, but gives himself the final say reviewing their decisions, in his mind, to ensure that everything happening honestly and true to his vision of freedom. And that says a lot, because despite his ideals, he inherently doesn’t trust people to behave the way he wants them to, that is, honestly. His is the classic conflict between idealism and reality, and its a fight he doesn’t know how to win, despite only wanting the best for his people and his mission. He is, at his core, the opposite of the Atlantean government. He has the best intentions but can’t help but check his idealism with cynicism. Atlantis has the worst intentions, and only rarely departs from manipulation for brief moments of altruism. That is what the Deliverer’s citizens have traded- evil leaders faking goodness for good leaders forced to dabble in evil. And perhaps, in reality, that is the most we can hope for.
GP: They also seem to quickly fall apart with Anshargal’s long departure, as if they need his leadership or they’re lost, even going so far to discuss mutiny, and a change in leadership.
SO: I think this falls back to structures. We, as a race, are needy. We need instant gratification. So it’s not mutiny so much, at least in the mainstream mindset on the Deliverer, as utilitarian panic and problem solving. They don’t necessarily need his leadership, as much as they just need a leader. They need a safety net. Look how quickly destabilized governments replace regimes. Maybe them, maybe we, are all just a little bit hypocritical, and for all their talk of wanting freedom, needing it, they’re too afraid to handle it. Like I said, three meals, revolution. They all love Anshargal, love him so much, as long as he’s perfect, as long as he never falters. We love icons and heroes, but we love to see him fall, we love to cannibalize our own. And the citizens of the Deliverer are only human, or, that is, only Atlantean. They smell blood in the water, we all do, and some rush to defend their pack, others rush to feed.
GP: Bau Zikia has stood up on the ship, filling in that power vacuum, but also seems to be on board with Anshargal and give him a chance.
SO: Zikia and Anshargal are on the same wavelength. As we’ve seen, she is the only one he unclenches around. They have known each other longer than anyone else in the cast, and have seen each other at their worst. In many ways, they’re two sides of the same kind. Or perhaps it’s better to say they are two hands working for the same body- Anshargal, the fist. And Zikia, the open palm. And the body is their goal, their ideals. Zikia is willing to step into Anshargal’s shoes to maintain order, and because she knows better than any how and what he would want. Maybe even better than himself. She, like him, checks the crew, but her powers are in her words and her elegance, not in her stone faced resolve. Zikia’s powers are subtle, she is just as much of a manipulator as Anshargal, but she does not use violence. She doesn’t need to. Imagine the psychological powers of Hannibal Lector with the altruism of Gandhi.
GP: Anshargal’s mission seems a bit different, as he’s on a journey for his own God in a way in the amphibian. While the people look to Anshargal for freedom, Anshargal is looking towards the amphibian for the same. But, I get a sense at the end of the third issue; he’s a bit disappointed in his discovery.
SO: Anshargal’s mission is one of hope, and perhaps that does mean God. But Anshargal is not looking to the Amphibian to provide him freedom in the same way the citizens look to him. The amphibian is a means to an end, like cold fusion or stem cell, he is the chance for a scientific breakthrough. Anshargal has ideas about what the amphibian is like, and what he might be, but in Issue 3 we see not precisely disappointment but shock. The face he sees is one he’s seen before, and that is something he did not expect. But make no mistake Anshargal has not put the Amphibian on a pedestal the way his crew has him. The Amphibian simply has something he needs, and like everything else that will benefit his crew, he will stop at nothing to get it.
GP: There’s also this interesting dynamic of God, country, corps, in the way Anshargal’s world is set up. Anshargal is sees the amphibian as a god, there’s Ashargal’s troops, there’s also the Deviler as a country.
SO: Certainly. Anshargal is making his own new world for people to live in, but he still has a certain set of rules and training. He maybe even doesn’t want to, but then Undertow is all about how sometimes people are fighting against themselves. We are often our own worst enemy, and so maybe Anshargal is falling into the same steps his enemies did. The question may end up being can he defeat himself, in order to do right by his crew? Anshargal is torn between the same things anyone starting a new society is. Our founding fathers created a document that could be questioned and changed. But Anshargal’s crew expects him to be infallible, so he can’t make mistakes, he can’t publicly question himself. He has to be perfect, and no one can do that, so he is falling back on his own life to pull from when it comes to social engineering.
GP: We know Anshargal sees the amphibian as a missing key, and the next step for the Atlantean’s growth. What does he actually want to do with it? How will he actually adapt the amphibian’s ability and use it himself?
SO: The Amphibian is an Atlantean that can breath air or water. He has a labyrinth organ that processes oxygen without using his gills or water as a medium. Anshargal hopes to use his DNA to make his crew able to do the same. He wants to make life on land sustainable. With gene therapy he could alter the DNA of future generations and make it so Atlantis could never touch them. They could live completely on land, and forever be free of the dangers of Atlantis. It’s not a quick fix, you can’t inject DNA into your arm and change your own physical body. He cannot help his generation to breath on land, this is the life they’ve chosen. But he CAN fight for the future. And doesn’t every generation wish greater success for the next?
GP: I can understand how Atlantis sees Anshargal as a threat, whys is it now that Atlantis has decided to take care of him? I’ve gotten the sense he’s been an annoyance for some time.
SO: You’re right! Atlantis has been trying to kill Anshargal for a long time though. As we see int he flashbacks, they’re constantly sending spies into his organization. They’re constantly trying to find him, catch him during a counterstrike, and maybe get lucky. This situation is like Zero Dark Thirty. Notice how that movie covers a decade of them trying to catch Bin Laden. They never stop trying even though they keep failing, and they get more and more desperate as things continue to fail. This latest incursion is their best chance yet, and maybe they’ll get lucky, sending their version of Black Ops after him.
GP: Overall, while I mentioned earlier there was a theme of higher power, there’s also this undercurrent about power corrupting. Atlantis is clearly corrupt, but Anshargal seems to be getting corrupted by his obsession too.
SO: Atlantis is undoubtedly corrupt, as the line between government and corporate interest and media power has completely disappeared. This is one party, selling you your life on every level while you don’t even realize that just by not questioning it, you’re buying it. Anshargal though I don’t think is corrupted by his obsession, per se. It’s more tragic than that. He’s desperate to succeed, he’s desperate to go to lengths to serve his people and be what they want him to be, even at the expense of himself. Think of The Operative in Serenity, “we’re building a better world,” he says, but “[he’s] not going to live there.” Of course he’s a villain, and Anshargal is on the other side of the coin, the other side of the fence. But he is so crushed by his iconic nature that he has perhaps gone too far in the name of the greater good. He’s flawed, sometimes delving into the gray area so that everyone else can stay snow white.
GP: So the series seems to be going strong, can we expect a second volume?
SO: I hope so! Artyom and I have put so much into the first six issues of Undertow and we have a lot more to say about these characters and their lives. We would love to return and tell a second arc, talk more about the true heart of the series: Ukinnu Alal, Redum Anshargal, and Atlantis. We need to delve further into the truth of idealism versus reality, with another, even greater dose of Science Fiction insanity.