Recent Dorkiness

First Date With a Fish-Man

It's a rare occasion indeed when I walk into my local funnybook store on New Funnybook Day and find absolutely nothing in my subscription folder. In fact, by my reckoning, it's happened exactly twice in the last 25 years. The first time, it kind of pole-axed me. I didn't know how to react, and wandered around the store in a daze before stumbling, depressed, out into the street and back to work. That was last year or the year before (the trauma no doubt blurred my memory of the exact date). When it happened again last week, I took it much more in stride. “These things happen,” I told the boys at the counter, and calmly scanned the racks for something to read over lunch. I almost went with that new She-Hulk book from Charles Soule and Javier Pulido. I've not read Soule yet, after all, and I've been a Pulido fan since his days on Ed Brubaker's Catwoman. I'd passed it over the week before, but I was curious, and I figured it would go down alright with the gyro I was planning to purchase from the Greek place around the corner. So I had that book in hand, and very nearly walked up to pay for it, when this cover caught my eye:

Undertow 1 Cover

Perhaps it was the shocking pink that did it.

That's the first issue of Undertow, by Steve Orlando, Artyom Trakhanov, and Thomas Mauer. I picked it up rather unenthusiastically, I'll admit. I'd never heard of either the writer or the artist, and that cover's interesting, but not awe-inspiring. But, hey. I had nothing else to read except that She-Hulk book I'd already passed over once, so what the hell, right? I gave it a flip-through, and immediately liked the interior art more than the cover. It's got a rough-hewn feel that I like quite a bit, backed up by a talent for drawing interesting faces, and an insane attention to detail. Click on the SUPER-embiggenable page below to see what I mean: Trakhanov Undertow 1 The story seemed to be an underwater sci-fi adventure thing, starring some kind of humanoid fish people. I saw the name “Atlantis” and that, combined with the pulpy designs and rugggedly pretty art, was enough to sell me. A quick scan of a couple of word balloons to make sure the script wasn't completely inept, and She-Hulk went back on the rack. For better or worse, I was going to lunch with Undertow. Trakhanov Undertow 1 Fish Fight

As first dates go, it wasn’t bad. This issue’s pretty exposition-heavy (as first dates often are), and that leads to some choppy dialogue here and there. The language is perfectly readable, don’t get me wrong, and there are moments of greatness. Check out that page above, for instance. “He walked around the ship like a fist” is a really nice bit of wordsmithing. But sometimes one bit of dialogue clumsily bumps into another, and makes things awkward. Which, again, is something that happens sometimes on a first date. Especially a blind one.

In this case, the blind date was with Undertow‘s central character, an adventuring fish-man pirate messiah by the unfortunately bullshitty sci-fi name of Redum Anshargal. Kind of a mouthful, isn’t it? Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. But, hey! This was a spur-of-the-moment lunch date! I’ve been set up with worse. Of course, then that thing happened where, after a strong first impression, it dawns on you that your date has some strongly-held viewpoints that come up out of nowhere to shape the rest of the evening. Because sure enough, I think I was about halfway through the issue (and my gyro) when Undertow switched out of adventure mode and Anshargal started going on about the glories of freedom and danger, and how they spark innovation, and how the Atlantean masses are guilty of comfortable complacency in the face of governmental corruption.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I find rugged individualism charming, and I’m sure we’ll eventually discover that Anshargal is exactly right about the society he’s left behind. Still, I dubbed the series “Libertarian Sea Opera” on the spot, and the phrase has unfortunately stuck with me.

Of course, the big question with any first date is if there will be a second one. And in this case, I think there will be. There’s a lot to like here, if you’re a dork. I mean, it’s an adventure story with cool pulp sci-fi trappings. So there’s ray guns and flying submarine cities and neat-looking Atlantean tech. It’s set in prehistoric times, so there’s all kinds of batshit stuff like giant vulture attacks, and Anshargal’s quest for the elusive “Amphibian.”

Which brings me to the thing I liked most about Undertow: the way it treats its concepts. This is a science fiction story about an aquatic race exploring dry land, an environment as deadly and alien to them as outer space is to us. So a lot of attention is paid to things like keeping their environment suits “watertight,” and the new miracle of condensation.

Trakhanov Undertow 1 Condensation

click to embiggen

It’s just a neat comic. The political stuff is important, but at this point it’s background. It motivates the characters to go out and do the things they do, but it’s the exploration, the science, and the adventure that are really important.

And the artwork, of course. Because, if I didn’t get it across above, this is a pretty book. Trakhanov still has room to grow, but he’s one of a new generation of funnybook artists who seem inspired by a more classic tradition of cartooning. His work has substance as well as style, and that’s nice to see. The comics industry has had generations of artists who seem to have learned to draw primarily by looking at other comics artists, and the result sometimes has the retarded, hemophiliac feel that always comes from incest. So I’m happy to see more varied (and technically superior) work coming into vogue again.

It’s popular funnybook wisdom that the 90s were a decade dominated by artists to the detriment of writers, and that the Noughts, in response, were a writer’s decade that diminished the impact of the artwork. But the current decade seems to be bringing with it a renewed interest in both, and that’s also good to see. It takes words AND pictures to make good funnybooks, after all.

Does Undertow have both? I think so, if in a “diamond in the rough” sort of way. Here’s to hoping Orlando and Trakhanov continue to grow along with their comic. If they do, I look forward to many more dates with them in the future.

Grade: B

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About Mark Brett (431 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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