As intriguing as it is murky, Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov's "Undertow" #1 packs a punch despite its choppy start. This series imagines Atlanteans as the dominant species on the planet, with all the technological advances and stifling sociopolitical systems that come with the title. So when Angry Young Merman Ukinnu Alal gets an invitation from the infamous terrorist Redum Anshargal, he seizes the opportunity to leave chronically complacent Atlantis for the freer, more dangerous world of the surface. His journey isn't as clearly constructed as I might've liked, and I don't have a strong sense of where the series is going, but I'd definitely call this a successful first issue -- because it's handily hooked me in for the next one.
To be honest, I'd be back for Trakhanov's colors alone. He uses a pulsing, pop palette that's equal parts pulp movie poster and Great Barrier Reef. Like a kaleidoscope minus the twinkles, this issue is dominated by thickly painted, vibrant backgrounds that swallow up the foreground. Characters become completely orange or completely blue depending on the scene, an effect that's not only beautiful but perfectly mimics the feel of being underwater. When you're submerged, everything is the color of the water you swim in. So too with Trakhanov's panels.
The Atlanteans themselves look monstrous and creature-ly, with the bleeding backgrounds often reducing them to the essence of their rough lines. They're designed as an effective blend of human and horror features, so that Redum Anshargal, Ukinnu, and Uruku all have that Ray Harryhausen look.
There's also a lot of thought evident in the design of the Atlanteans' technology, which is clunky rather than sleek. It looks about as comfortable as modern scuba gear, reinforcing the plot point that it's very difficult for Atlanteans to stay on the surface for long. They haven't yet found a technological workaround that isn't awkward and easily broken.
On letters, Thomas Mauer's made some interesting choices. His use of free-floating captions made for some beautiful panels, but it also confused the story somewhat. Without any styling outside of font color, it wasn't as easy to tell which captions corresponded to which character. I may just be particularly thick, but I didn't realize that the narration had switched until three or four panels into Redum's lines.
Once I did, I was fine going forward, but this did compound my biggest problem with the issue: it opens with a tough-to-follow fight scene. As I said above, Trakhanov colors everyone with the same background palette; when they start out as a mass of bodies fighting one another, it's hard to tell who's who. Which face is the speaker's face? How can I identify it from the others?
Perhaps confusion is the effect that the creative team was going for, but it's something I'd wait to deploy until after the reader's firmly in the world. There are so many other ways for Orlando to introduce Ukinnu's backstory. This one added nothing that the narration didn't already cover, and when combined with Trakhanov's art, obscured important information.
Still, I like that Orlando's decided to make his Atlantis a political one. He's set up some interesting ideas about individuality and choice in the context of a colony that must by its very nature carefully guard and curate its choices. There's no clear sense of which questions this book is asking about those themes, but the script has made it clear that they're in play and well-suited to this world.
Even for those readers who find the opening more off-putting than I did, Trakhanov's remarkable art and Orlando's unique premise should be enough to bring them back for Issue #2.