The world of Atlantis becomes a powerful modern play on politics with Image Comics’ latest series, Undertow. Bringing the undersea realms to life is writer Steve Orlando, who took time out to chat with us about his protagonist Redum Anshargal, the conditions under which his protagonists live, the influence today’s political realities had on the creation of this series, and why you MUST hit the comic shops for Undertow this Wednesday.
Matt Santori: Steve, thanks so much for taking time to talk to Comicosity again about Undertow! Since last we spoke, it’s become obvious that Undertow is a deeply political story. Can you talk a little about the origins of that influence?
Steve Orlando: I think it’s interesting how a lot of people have said that. I didn’t really set out to make an explicitly political story. It’s not House of Cards underwater. But, at the same time, comics have traditionally always had a strong correlation to the political, starting even with Doc Savage. I was going to say starting with Superman, but Doc Savage had a special code for his readers, basically handing out moral authority. It was one of the first types of PSAs before there was television. And then you had Superman who was trust-busting and throwing corrupt landlords out of buildings and all sorts of defenestrations.
In some ways, I feel it’s a long-standing tradition that I’m happy to be a part of. But, the other thing is, I really set out to do a story about what’s on my mind and on the mind of a lot of people today. Looking at America, it is about politics. Our point of view character is probably a little younger than me, but is supposed to talk to the millennial generation, which is me. We’re struggling with the loss of faith in our government, and our corporate and economic systems. If I was going to talk about that, I had to make it a little bit political.
SO: That is interesting. I’ve never been asked that before, and it was kind of a happy accident. The villainy of Atlantis in the book is largely, on the surface, somewhat passive. This is a post-Game of Thrones world, and villains don’t have to be mustache-twirlers. There are grey areas everywhere. I wanted Atlantis to be this spot where you question whether the heroes are heroes and if the villains are villains.
Certainly, when you get right down to it, Atlantis is not doing good things. But it is appropriate for the title “Undertow,” because they are in league with corporations. It’s a one party system. They use the media, marketing, and consumerism — that “keeping up with the Joneses” idea — to manipulate the everyday citizen into just going with the flow and getting swept up in that. I’d love to say I planned that from the beginning, but I’m pretty self-effacing, so I’ll be the first to admit it was a happy accident. But I think it’s appropriate because if you are going to talk about consumerism, it fits.
There are swaths of people that are happy to believe bad things aren’t happening as long as they don’t see them happening — largely because of the wedge issues used by political television and advertising that tells them what to be looking at, instead of just deciding what they should be looking at themselves. Coming from a corporate and marketing standpoint, today those two are almost the same thing, when you have lobbyists and money interests in the government, connecting it to the corporations. That’s not to say that all our leaders are active hedge-fund investors and trying to wield that power in the same way, but the fact of the matter is, the villainy of it is not waking up, as Anshargal says in the first issue. The villainy of it is not caring or not wanting to think.
It’s not like the normal citizens of Atlantis are cannibalizing each other in the streets. It’s not Sodom and Gomorrah, but if people were cannibalizing each other in the streets, as long as it’s not their streets, they wouldn’t care. That seems kind of shocking and unrealistic to people sometimes, but at the same time, I think it is somewhat like our society right now.
Without getting too fiery about it, you see these news items about how racism is over when it’s clearly not. Maybe if you’ve always lived life as a middle class white male, then you might think it’s over, because you’ve never seen anything else. It’s even more staunch today with the fight people are having over the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, where there are large swaths of even-minded moderates in certain political parties who haven’t gotten behind it because it’s in fact so absurd, they assume it’s not even an issue.
It shows you can pull off some pretty evil things in society. If they’re so comically unjust that people assume they wouldn’t be happening, it’s all the easier. They already assume it’s against the law, and it’s not. That type of passivity, getting caught up in the undertow, is really what drives the book. So, if I’m going to talk about, you can’t help but look at what’s happening in our society today.
MSG: Redum Anshargal is a charismatic leader, portrayed as a dictator by his enemies, imagined as misled by those in his own community. What goes into evolving the in-story perception of a character, not just their perception by the reader, when you are constructing a story?
SO: I try to take a look at the way people disagree, and conflate their ideas about icons of today. God help me when I start to ramble — I’ve said some pretty inflammatory things already here — but I originally said Anshargal is the Osama bin Laden of Atlantis, except that all the things said in the media about him are lies, which were not about bin Laden. It doesn’t have to be that extreme, though.
Idiomatically, it’s great to be able to say that someone who suffers for others is Mother Theresa, but when you look into the issue, it turns out there were huge groups of people who were against Mother Theresa for a variety of her views. I don’t really have an opinion on it, but there are few icons in mainstream society that people conceive of as so positive, and even within that, there are those who turn her into something completely different because of their point of view.
You can’t have a character like Anshargal, who has made himself a cultural icon and effectively given up any sort of personal life to be something more, without people having suppositions about him. They’re going to have ideas about him and put it all out there to reinforce their own experiences. None of them are going to be same. That’s one of the big pushes of the book — that he certainly is an idealist, and he wants people to live how they want and live free — but the reality of having a ship with over a thousand people on it is that definition is going to be different for everyone. And sometimes, that definition will be directly contradictory. So, what do you do when that happens? How can he be what he wants to be for everyone? Well, he really can’t.
It’s just like our own society. We love to be star-makers. The only thing we love more than that is to tear those people down, or to see them fail eventually. It’s like social Nascar. If the idea is to use Atlantis as a modern society, I didn’t see any reason to believe they’d be any different than us.
MSG: Redum’s team is on the search for the fabled Amphibian, who will play a big role in the events of issue #3. Why is this such a priority for the group (or Redum specifically) given the vastness of the ocean on Earth?
SO: For him, I think it’s symbolic, but in other ways, really not. The ocean is where Atlantis is, and he’s lost everything to them. This entire society he’s created, his persona, and, in fact, the entire book on a meta-scale is his reaction to what was done to him by Atlantis. Without spoiling anything that’s coming up, Anshargal was basically churned out of the military-industrial complex as waste and somehow survived. Why land is because Atlantis is everywhere else.There is mention of people who have tried making settlements in whale carcasses, and living in the outskirts, and sometimes they do in really poor fashion. But the reach goes everywhere the water goes.
Also, more than even that, it’s symbolism. He doesn’t want, in his mind, to have a sequal to Atlantean society. He wants new things — a new way of life. The only place to be truly free of Atlantis is to go where Atlanteans can’t go. This is why he seeks out the Amphibian in the first story arc.
And it’s not for him. I’m trying to make the pseudo-science somewhat realistic in that it’s not like he’s going to inject the Amphibian’s DNA into his body and somehow grow lungs. This is for future generations in a world he’s unlikely to live in. It’s for his children or his children’s children. The biggest victory for him would be if the children of the road he’s travelling don’t even know Atlantis exists, because they are a new type of people living their own way, completely free of that influence.
It’s not like Atlantis can easily go to the surface. That may seem unrealistic, but if you look at how many places in the ocean that we haven’t visited because we can’t survive there. And because we’re focused on other things. That seems kind of mundane, but I believe it speaks to the Atlantean global mindset: we’re focused on ourselves, and we don’t really care what’s out there. In the future, if Anshargal can truly create a self-sustaining society, then they wouldn’t even have to think about that.
But that’s far down the road, past fighting to have a place where they won’t get attacked everyday. There’s a pioneering aspect, I realized. It’s basically about pilgrims being asked, “Well, why would you want to live out there in such dangerous conditions?” It doesn’t sound that crazy when you look at history, which is full of people who have done that over the idea that they could escape persecution. This continent was settled by people who were thinking like that, so it doesn’t sound like that strange an idea.
MSG: Ukinnu’s role as POV character gives us a pretty clear sense of the differences between the lifestyle of Atlantis and those on the outside. Do you have plans to go inside Atlantis culture in depth as well?
SO: In the long game, we’ll eventually have to go back. I can’t deny that. As Hitchcock says, if you show a bomb, you have to show it going off. We will eventually go back, but a lot of the way we visit it is through flashbacks and small asides, because when we go there, I want it to be in a way we haven’t before. We’ve all seen a lot of Atlantis. Yes, we’re doing it in a different way in this book, but we’ve seen it a lot. I’m trying to focus on something that we’ve never seen. We have these people in these strange, water-tight spacesuits, hunting sloths!
In issue #3, you’ll see a little bit of the Atlantean government and how it functions behind the scenes. We saw a little of the aristocracy in two flashbacks in issue #2, and we certainly get more of those as we go on. You’ll see in issue #6 a quick visit to Atlantis in a small epilogue drawn by a Russian artist. It is quite gorgeous, even more European in style and creating an even more haunting feel for the book. A lot of the way he interprets the city is like the Gungan city in Star Wars Episode I, but without the weird racial stereotypes, but instead with some really disgusting aristocrats — which I suppose are another type of stereotype, but not racial.
We’re definitely going to visit when I feel it’s important, and eventually we’ll have to go back for the endgame, but right now, we’re just hoping these characters can survive their current conditions.
MSG: With the third issue of Undertow arriving in comic shops and online this Wednesday, what would you say to readers for whom this has fallen under the radar or have passed it up?
SO: In issue #3, you finally get to meet the Amphibian, who is the craziest, most exciting character I’ve ever created. If you thought you knew Namor, and you thought you knew Aquaman, and you thought you knew what it would be like to be a super-hero or have super-powers, living among normal humans on the surface and underwater, then you should really see what the Amphibian will be like. It’s not what you expect.
MSG: Awesome! Can’t wait to see. Thanks so much, Steve!
Undertow #3 arrives in stores this Wednesday, April 23, 2014 from Image Comics.