From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
During my first read through of this month’s Graphic subject, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite television shows, Twin Peaks. Both stories are full of relationship drama, dripping with intrigue, and use a murder as a catalyst into much deeper, much stranger mysteries. But instead of the idyllic, Norman Rockwell small-town charm that paints David Lynch’s seminal series, this comic uses a different set of brushes: that of Jacques Cousteau’s breathtaking underwater documentaries. I’m talking about Dark Horse Comics’ incredible series Dept. H, a crime thriller infused with psychotropic drugs and buried under six miles of water. It’s a story set on Earth that is, at the same time, entirely alien, and just like Twin Peaks, it happens in a place that’s “both strange and wonderful.”
It is the near future. Earth has been ravaged by war and plague. Humanity’s only hope may lie beneath the waves. That’s why the US government has established Dept. H, a livable undersea habitat dedicated to finding answers we couldn’t on land. But first, the crew must investigate a much more personal mystery: the suspicious death of their captain. Expecting sabotage, the government has sent Mia to Dept. H to check out the scene. She’ll have to deal with the strangeness of the deep, the tensions of an in-fighting crew, and of course, personal tragedy. The captain, after all, was her father.
Writing and drawing Dept. H is comic titan Matt Kindt. Kindt is known for his mind-bending, psychological speculative fiction, but what impressed me so much about Kindt’s art in this book is just how concrete his world-building is. Without over-explaining the state of the world, Kindt creates a future that’s utterly believable, where greed in politics has robbed the world of its resources and handicapped the scientists who can help. Even the futuristic technology of the Dept. H feels instantly believable, since Kindt used the real builds of undersea creatures to design it. Whether it’s through its plot or the images on the page, Dept. H sucks the reader into a world that feels so familiar, making it even more unsettling when we find out just how strange it is.
On top of Kindt’s design work, there’s a mastery of human emotion in Dept. H that makes his characters as believable as the world. Combined with Marie Enger’s top-notch lettering work, Dept. H could have been a contender just as a black and white book. But what really makes this comic a miracle, what kept me so enraptured and entertained, was its brilliant use of color.
Painted by Sharlene Kindt, the pages of Dept. H are presented in beautiful watercolor. Beyond being the obvious style for an undersea adventure, this artistic choice goes a long way in setting the mood of the story and controlling a reader’s emotional response. For example, Kindt renders the story’s flashbacks in haunting blue and white. While making flashbacks monochrome is definitely not revolutionary, painting it in watercolor adds an inherent sadness to whatever we’re seeing. Not only do we get the necessary plot points the flashbacks contain, we know that the memories we’re seeing are heavy ones, as though they’ve been dotted (both figuratively and literally) with tears.
When we’re not watching flashbacks, the colors do a phenomenal job of creating a sense of mystery. In Dept. H, there’s no such thing as a crisp line of color, just like there’s no such thing as a completely honest character. The hues are as murky as each suspect, sometimes even bleeding outside the lines to remind us not to trust what we’re seeing. Like a noir film can exaggerate its shadows, this book can exaggerate or dampen the spectrum of its reality. After reading it, you’ll be surprised more mystery comics aren’t done in this style.
Then again, it’s that uniqueness that gives Dept. H its power, that makes it such a stand-out book. Just like Twin Peaks or the ethereal documentaries of Jacques Cousteau, it finds new light to shine on something familiar. It takes the structure of a murder mystery and the tropes of sci-fi adventure and blends them into a whole that is weirder than a sum of its parts. It takes the sequential art every comic reader is used to and heightens it with a style of painting usually reserved for another medium. And like a diving expedition in an unexplored deep sea cave, it takes all the info we think we know about our natural world and asks what we’re missing.
You can read the first two volumes of Dept. H for free with ComiXology Unlimited. Just be warned that you probably won’t be able to stop there. Let us know what you think of the series on our Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook pages, then drop me a line to let me know which other horror comics you’d like to see featured in Graphic. Finally, be sure to check out all the other aquatic horror we’re featuring for this month’s theme: Enchantment Under the Sea. For all the best in horror recommendations and reviews, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.