I would like to preface this review with a bit of a story. Stick with me. A few weeks ago I was catching up with an old friend from high school. After just a few minutes of talking, it turned out that the person I once knew had blossomed into a full-fledged conspiracy believer of the deepest and most insane levels. Forget the JFK assassination. That’s ginger beer, man. We’re talking Hollow Earth theory, shapeshifting, interdimensional Lizard People in the government: you name it. At about the forty-minute mark of my old-friend-come-new-nuisance’s story, he crescendoed at the Atlanteans vs. The Martians pre-human Earth theory. The one that says before humans an even more advanced society of non-humans lived in Atlantis, and the Mars bad guys came down from space and obliterated them. It was at this point that I asked my friend to leave my home. Diplomatically, of course. After some discussion with fellow Capeless writer Thom Obarski about it, I remember saying these exact words: “I would never actually believe something like that, but I would LOVE to read it in a comic book.” I had no idea how prescient that statement was.
You can only imagine how delighted I was to find out that this book is about ALMOST that exact same thing. Atlantis exists, their technology and knowledge are far superior to the primates they call humans, and it all takes place in prehistory. Sadly, there are no Martians. We’re only one issue in, so who knows? Maybe Martians are on their way. But I digress. On with the review.
Undertow, from the very first page, feels alien. It also feels like you, as a reader need to discern what is happening all on your own. There is no set up to a reveal. There is no hand holding. You will have to do some work to keep pace. This is enforced from the opening sequence. You’re looking at a sunrise, the ocean, and seagulls, but the sky is yellow-ish blue and the clouds are green. We’re looking at Earth, but not as we know it. We see aircraft in the sky but none that we are used to. Although things seem relatively quiet above the water, we immediately plunge into the depths of the sea to find an entire world exists and that world is at war. Creatures are being laid to waste by our lead character, Redum Anshargal. If saying that name five times fast is hard, try thinking it five times fast without “Redrum” from The Shining entering your mind.
This is compounded by the formidable visual talents of Artyom Trakhanov. It is almost never just one character per panel—more like five to six characters. There are several instances in this book where having a lot going on tiptoes on the line of hard to look at. It might even cross it once or twice: but not from a lack of talent: more from the perspective that it really was hard to tell what was meant to be seen, on top of the fact that I don’t necessarily even know what I was looking at in the first place. Luckily in a few parts of the book, there were literally little indicators that give you some insight as to you what the machines and technology are. But the opening sequence and the surface sequence both felt slightly hard to take in, given how much was happening at one time. Though what came off as too strong to me might look like an artistic powerhouse to another viewer, so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.
As far as the writing, Steve Orlando has a firm grip on how to establish this Earth and these characters. The lead is a military leader with a stern resolve and a deep relationship with everyone he leads. He is a rebel, outcast from Atlantis, recruiting others who would rather take their freedom than live in a rotting Atlantean society. While a man of action, he also empathizes deeply with the plight of the ones who were willing to follow him. The secondary character who narrates came off as slightly typical, though. A rich kid who felt oppressed by his parents runs away to the military, only to be taken by the rebel Anshargal. This felt like a thread that will soon develop. Why was this person spirited away in the first place? Do his family ties play into that at all?
The issue on a whole plays as a statement about the risks a society faces when becoming too complacent. What can happen when comfort becomes a hindrance. It has other familiar elements as well: the boy who wants to get away; the Captain who was painted as a villain but turns out to be the good guy; even an orphanage we come to know briefly that most definitely will come into jeopardy down the line. What makes them work is the details put into each portion. You aren’t left with too many questions at any point in this book. The hook for me, though, was the great set-up to issue #2. The search for the fabled amphibian. Something so simple, yet so on the money. If the Atlanteans breathe by way of using gills, naturally, the big breakthrough would be the ability to breath air. This was such a nice little touch, it really made me smile and ask Why didn’t I see that coming?
This book has a unique hook, a rich, colorful world to inhabit, and solid plotting from start to finish. I am excited to see how this book develops. I have never seen this story depicted in a comic book, before so I do not know what to expect. That alone is enough to keep reading. But I stand by what I say in terms of the visuals. While strong, they can feel oversaturated: the same with the coloring. All-in-all, though, none of the faults were enough to deter me from the plot or wanting to continue the story from here. Image has taken a chance on publishing something so alien and I encourage you to do the same. At least the first issue.
“Undertow #1” gets a 8 / 10
Mike Sains is a Staff Writer at Capeless Crusader. When he isn’t writing, he’s podcasting at various places online. When he isn’t podcasting, he’s collecting comic books, FunkoPop! figures, and vinyl records. You can hear him on Geek Girls, Nerd Boys, The Tower of Sour, and The Inverse Delirium, all available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @MikeSains.