This week brought us issue #11 for Dept. H, the Dark Horse series written and drawn by Matt Kindt and colored by Sharlene Kindt. Only a couple of weeks ago, the first hardback volume of Dept. H, collecting issues 1-6 arrived in shops. I took the opportunity to compare the single issue comics reading experience to the experience of reading the hardback collection, and true to Kindt’s plan, they were quite different.
Kindt has always liked to include a massive amount of extra detail in the borders and extras of his single issue comics to argue for publishing in both formats, and he’s made the case well on Dept. H, too. The single issues of the series containing extra sketches, designs, little hidden bits of information, and of course the wrap around cover. Reading the collection of issues 1-6 was not, however, deficient in any way. In fact, it gave me the sense of reading a slightly different story. The run came off as streamlined, darker, more mysterious and a little more tense when read as a concentrated narrative without extra elements.
Mia’s investigation of her father’s murder “six miles deep” reminded me much more of a bottle story set on a space station in sci-fi stories than it had previously. The overtones of exploration and adventure seemed to come out in a more pronounced way in the single issue comic. I’ll leave it to neuroscientists to figure out why we can have different experiences of reading the same story, even if we read the same book twice, much less a story in different formats, but in short, Kindt has convinced me that in superspy-like way, there are two codas to Dept. H, and one them has floppy covers and one doesn’t.
However, the world of Dept. H is scary in any case, the intense “pressure” of being under an immense weight of water with a group of possible killers is nail-biting. Mia’s determination to figure out how her father died and why, seems to keep releasing air from a valve on an emptying tank. One begins to wonder if she is her own biggest danger, and that’s saying something given the situations she gets herself into as she tries to research the members of the team on this research station built by her father’s dreams but consciously ruined by at least one assassin. Issues #7-10 take a different tack than the first arc of the series–they branch out, explore, wade around in lush colors (thanks Sharlene Kindt) and take us all over the world, through time and back, providing salient backstories on the great explorer Hari, and each member of the submerged team.
We also, in a more wandering way, learn a lot about Mia’s childhood. At the center of this–the pressure point–seems to be Hari’s overwhelming personal will. His decisions are final. His inspiration is paramount. He’s the superstar by his own definition, and perhaps that of others. He’s a famous explorer, after all. We begin to see that he’s the kind of person who others might wish dead because of his absolute drive. Even Mia admits it. Following him through life seems to have been soul-crushing for her and others. She preferred space, but she wasn’t even allowed to keep that personal goal.
Returning to the “here and now” of Dept. H in issue #11, released this week, our feet touch bottom once more with Mia. She’s weighed the team members’ histories. She has all this information. But now how is she going to fit the pieces together in time? It’s almost like this kind of situation calls for Kindt to compose remarkable full page spreads–I can think of a couple of occasions in Mind MGMT where that was the case. We need to visualize the information with the characters before we can see the big picture. Mia feels close to seeing the big picture here, too. But her own clock is running down. She hasn’t slept in forever, she’s popping some kind of pills to keep it together, and she’s paranoid, terrified, and desperate. But what’s she most afraid of?
Only the amazing recurrence of the ghostly apparition of The Diver can plumb her big terrors. She willingly confronts terrors, strapping on a diving suit just to reach her bunk room again to retrieve a helmet with video footage evidence of an earlier attack on her brother Raj. But the Ghost Diver, patiently following her around in the dark, becomes her partner in conversation. And then we begin to hear what we’ve only heard through the occasional fragments of conversation and flashbacks. What could drive Mia to do the things she’s doing? What could keep her down here in a seemingly doomed underwater station, risking her life every day? The fact is, she has nothing to go back to.
That may seem untrue on the surface–after all she has a kind of “on-pause” romance waiting for her topside, but if we look deeper we find a lot more truth. Threading its way through Dept. H is the idea that a terrible virus has been ravaging humankind. It killed Mia’s mother, it seems, and part of the motivation of exploring the deep sea of the Mariana Trench was to come up with a potential vaccine or cure. It doesn’t seem to have been a single, apocalyptic event that struck the planet, but a gradual spread, leaving less and less hope of recovery from a weakened world. Despair has set in, and humans are beginning to feel that erosion of hope, it seems. At least Mia is. What could drive her to stay in a drowning station? There is no world worth going back to. If she dies at great depth it might actually be a better death than the one hovering above sea level.
This virus-infested world is a world we don’t see. We have seen flashbacks of the past, before the virus really set in, and it’s a green world or a world of deep space, and we’ve seen a very limited perspective on reality in issue #1 when Mia is making her way to the underwater station. But we don’t really see the suffering or the despair. It’s just there in the characters, in their situation, in the fact that no one seems to really be able to make firm decisions whether to go forward or backward. Cut off from the world, they’ve become institutionalized to this strange artificial world through following Hari for so long, but mostly because there is not really anything else worth being or doing.
But issue #11 brings this out in perhaps hallucinated conversation, perhaps true haunting, as Mia and the Ghost Diver chat. It does not take a neuroscientist to realize that when someone’s world is collapsing at great speed, they often choose one thing, one point of focus, and place all the weight of their existence on the outcome of that goal. For Mia, it’s finding out what happened to her father. We can only imagine the world she has seen above water but we begin to see its impact on her through her choices and behavior. And it’s the biggest, shadowiest presence in Dept. H. We are only just beginning to see the full scope of the size and scale of the larger human drama pushing down on our characters.
Issue #12 of Dept. H. arrives on March 22nd.