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.
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.