Monday, November 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #326: Undertow Vol. 1 by Orlando & Trakhanov

There's a tendency in comics towards the baroque -- to make things bigger and more complicated and full of stuff just for the heck of it. It led to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, "Days of Future Past," and most of what you can find in the Direct Market any given week. There's nothing wrong with that -- and, in a collaborative visual medium, you have to assume that everyone will want to contribute something, and so complexities will build up like lime in old pipes -- but it can make getting at the heart of a story difficult at times.

Undertow is an adventure series that I suspect will have at its heart the eventual rebirth of a great city-state fallen into corruption and decadence. And its initial focus is on a band of outlaws from that city-state, battling the forces of evil and making a better life for themselves in their own way and with their own rules. The fact that the city-state is Atlantis, and that all of the characters are water-breathing creatures living a couple of tens of thousands of years in our past, though -- that's where the complications start to come in.

We're thrown headlong into this very complicated world in the first collection, Undertow, Vol. 1: Boatman's Call, written by Steve Orlando and drawn by Artyom Trakhanov. (And I'll have to admit up front that I read this as a digital proof on a tablet, which I think didn't show Trakhanov's dark, moody art to best effect. So I'm going to assume that it's much better and more subtle than I could see -- I think it was, actually, from what I could squint at -- and mostly not talk about his work from here on.) Orlando throws a lot of characters at us, often without a lot of introduction, and it's not always clear who is who or what any of them have to do with each other. (This may have been clearer if I could see the art better.)

Our pseudo-central character is Ukinnu, the scion of a rich Atlantean family who joined the armed forces out of cussedness and the kind of old-fashioned virtue that's denigrated these days. But Orlando doesn't use him to show this world to the reader; he's around the edges of things and there for important events, but neither a major player nor a strong viewpoint. Redum Anshargal, the Nemo-esque head of the rebels and captain of the gigantic amphibious ship Deliverer, is a stronger character in that he does more, but what he wants -- besides the generic "show them all and make Atlantis revere him" -- isn't clear. There's some level of skulduggery on the Deliverer, and some even vaguer stuff back in Atlantis, among people who I often didn't recognize.

The main plot of this clutch of issues is an expedition onto the surface world by Redum, Ukinnu, and a few others: they seek the fabled Amphibian, an Atlantean born with the ability to breathe air. Apparently, the three-quarters of the Earth's surface covered with water doesn't provide quite enough space for Redum to find a place to settle away from Atlantis's single city, and he wants to breed in air-breathing abilities to the children of Deliverer, a strange and silly idea in more ways than I have have time to delineate. Since the touchstones of Undertow are complication and ideas borrowed from other stories, that quest is both dogged by an Atlantean hit team and jeopardized by the fact that the Amphibian has turned himself into a Kurtz-like figure among a human tribe. (It's not clear why the humans revere him as a god, since he doesn't use Atlantean tech much and his amazing ability to breathe air is no big deal to them. I suspect it's because they have to do so to make the plot work out right.)

There's a lot of running and fighting, both on land and in the sea, but even more talking -- this is a deeply talky comic, although the dialogue doesn't really make things clearer. I would like to be even-handed, but I found Undertow to be a mess: confusing, unengaging, and a bit tedious in all of its hugger-mugger. But, again, art carries half of the storytelling weight in comics: in print, with crisper reproduction of Trakhanov's art, this may well read a lot better.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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