The Underwater Menace of Dept. H

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Going underwater is a strange idea. Going beneath the sea is progress – scientific achievement, discovery, invention. Yet going deeper is also horror, uncertainty, violence, pressure. Matt and Sharlene Kindt propel Dept. H forward on this sense of horror. The plot has the possibility for different perspectives on water and the sea, but it’s felt mainly as surreal horror and impending doom. As the series progresses, it feels increasingly hopeless and terrifying through Matt and Sharon’s depictions of the invading water. The passing of time is marked almost solely through the increasing flood level and decreasing hope in the background of every page.

Sharlene Kindt’s coloring is a central part of this series, and it’s the first time she and her husband have worked together in comics. Her water colors give a sense of murkiness to the whole thing, great for depicting water obviously, but also creating an odd sense of place. The coloring creates a sense of ambiguity and skewed perspective in every image. The lack of strong panel borders makes the coloring stand out even more. In this page from issue 1, both the top and bottom panels lack clear borders and fade into the page. This conveys large scale environments with small scale emotional images. In the top panel of this page, the reader understands the sea to go on forever beyond the bottom right corner where it fades out. The page backgrounds are designed to look washed out or water-logged in contrast to normal blank white pages in a more conventional comic. This allows for the grays of both the ocean and the clouds in the top panel to blend into the background. The pages of back matter in each single issue are even more faded, feeling like they’ve been found among an inevitable wreckage. The water-logged pages give the book a unique look and character, where each issue feels soaked through.

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The page above also shows the coloring establishing setting, putting the reader firmly in Mia’s past. In the first few issues, the past is depicted in grays, blues and black and white; in contrast, the present (above and below the sea) is depicted in a much wider range of color, often focusing on red and brighter colors.  The past is cold while the present is warm, as Mia feels a sense of possibility surrounding her mission and the base itself. The coloring then shifts as the base floods and darkens, drastically changing the mood.

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Starting around issue 7, the subtle coloring shift becomes more noticeable. The base is flooding and the present underwater is filled with greens, grays, and black. The past gets progressively more colorful as the present loses color. This is most easily noticeable in Mia and Roger’s storyline in the last few issues, trapped in an isolated setting with water rising rapidly, but it holds true for the other characters as well, like the growing darkness surrounding Lily and Q. This shift builds dread while connecting the reader to Mia’s internal state wordlessly. There’s a surreal horror to being attacked underwater, under siege and surrounded by mysterious human and natural forces, and the Kindts evoke this completely in the coloring.

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This full page spread on issue 9 perfectly encapsulates the shift. Mia experiences a flash of memory from her childhood, which stops her from coming up for air. This page is a shock to the system. The elements of her past appear in vibrant colors towards the bottom of the page, while the present reality above appears much more muted. The past is also more clearly defined on the level of ink and pencils, with Roger’s body above the water loosely defined and almost faceless. This emulates Mia’s view from below the water, while providing another instance of surreal horror. Mia grasping for air underwater takes one or two seconds in real time, but feels like an eternity for her as she struggles for breath. Similarly, this page’s detailed montage forces the reader to stop and think. The reader feels Mia’s confusion and pain along with her as they stop and parse the various elements. This also brings the central coloring trick or shift to the focus. If the reader somehow hasn’t caught on by now, this will force them to realize what’s happening.

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In issue 10, the majority of the issue is spent in a full-color flashback, with occasional flashes to the dark, present reality. The present feels hopeless now and the characters retreat into the colorful certainty of the past. Both the present and the past storylines are morbid but the past feels safer, completed and behind Mia. The past also feels increasingly hopeful as the present base becomes increasingly more claustrophobic. Mia mourns for the air and freedom above ground and this comes out in the coloring. Even bad news about the past storyline is delivered in the present panels. This divorces the past from its actual conflicted reality. Going further, even the narration boxes in the past are another source of color (top-left of this page – yellow). While the narration boxes stay the same in both the past and present throughout the series, there are no narration boxes in the present in issue 10, showing the extreme color and mood contrasts on a minute level. The future only looks bleaker and bleaker for Mia and the reader as the series continues.

Along with the coloring on the page, Matt Kindt uses the sides of pages to mark the passage of time and growing danger. The vertical edge of most pages feature 24 little horizontal rectangles. These alternate between the left and right sides to frame the pages. During issue 1, the lowermost box is filled in blue with the marker DEPTH 1.x, with x being the page number of the issue. In issue 2, the first two boxes are filled, DEPTH 2.x, etc. This is a perfect subtle tool that works to structure the series mathematically while also generating a gut emotional response. These mark out the depth of the water as it slowly floods the base. This is the most clear recognition of the title’s play on words – referring to both the mysterious Dept. H and more than one kind of depth. In the hands of lesser artists, it would seem cheep and self-congratulatory to call their own story “deep” and call attention to its “depth”, but the Kindts perfectly weave the idea of depth into Dept. H on multiple levels.

Matt Kindt has said he sees the main story of the series unfolding over 24 hours in the base, and separately said he plans for the book to run about two years. These markings then clearly partition the story between issues, with 24 boxes and 24 presumable issues, while also serving the story purpose of marking the invading water’s depth. I honestly didn’t notice these markings at all the first 3 or 4 issues. Matt Kindt brilliantly allows for the empty boxes to be filled by the art on the page, keeping this sidebar in the background. This creates a very slow but constant building sensation, with this sidebar being another genius design element. This adds to the series’ unique character and fits perfectly with the water-logged pages.

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In this page from the end of issue 1, the sidebar blends into the art in the panels on the top and bottom, causing the reader to not focus on it. The bottom blue rectangle does stand out, but it’s small enough to be easily ignored. If the reader does notice it at this early point, it seems primarily here to indicate the page number. Over the course of reading the series, I slowly began to notice and focus on the side markings more and more. In recent issues they add a real constant sense of pressure. Movies and TV shows sometimes use real-time countdown clocks to heighten the drama and this is a perfect way of similarly marking out time using the form of the comic.

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In contrast, in the penultimate page from issue 10 here, the markings cannot be ignored. They still blend in with the top panel, but they are high enough to be prominent on any page. With the boxes only increasing as the series continues, these are a small way of adding even more hopelessness and horror. As time passes, the base seems only able to become increasingly flooded and dangerous, and the reader feels Mia’s conflicted desire to abandon her project. I’m sure there’s also an allegory for global warming to be argued for here, with a constant sense of impending natural doom, as nature fights back against humanity’s attempt to control and mine it.

In the letters pages, Matt Kindt has mentioned his fear of being underwater. This primal fear drives the book for me, but other conflicts are equally central. My perspective on the series primarily focuses on Mia as an ignorant outsider and the base as a struggling monolith, without mentioning the complex system of relationships around her. The series also plays with depth and temporality of character on these larger levels as part of murder mystery, espionage, and even family plots. The larger plots will likely seem more important looking back at the series with a full understanding, but the water level presents an immediate danger unlike the other two plots. Despite the series’ growing darkness, it is always a joy to read and a fascinating book from every angle.

Now I have to go pick up MIND MGMT, and I’d urge everyone to look into Matt and Sharlene Kindt’s work. One collected volume is out of Dept. H currently but this book is so thrilling I’d have a difficult time following it in trades. I’ll be back next week with something else, which right now is a surprise to both me and you.

Weekly essays should come out on Tuesday evenings in the future. Like Gutter Space on Facebook and follow me on Twitter for more updates and information.

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