In so many ways, Dark Horse Comics’ Dept.H is everything we look for at borg.com. Science fiction, action, adventure, retro, mystery, noir. And it’s all in one comic book series. Writer/artist Matt Kindt has said his series Dept.H was inspired by 1970s G.I. Joes, Fisher Price Adventure People toys, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Jacques Cousteau, and you can feel all of that come through in its first nine issues this year. From the patch on the underwater crew outfits that evokes the classic 1960s/1970s G.I. Joe Adventure Team patch to the SP-350 diving saucer from the famed Calypso in the craft that takes the series lead to the depths of the ocean floor in the opening pages, to the setting and Department H Headquarters based on the ocean floor that screams H.G. Wells, Dept.H is at the top of this year’s comic book series.
Best known for his run on his Mind MGMT series, Eisner Award nominee Kindt wrote and illustrated the story, with coloring supplied by wife Sharlene. The series is an Agatha Christie-inspired closed room case. We meet Mia Hardy, who has been asked to find the mole in the undersea lab, a mole who is believed to have sabotaged the base and murdered her father. Mia has worked with the suspects before, providing the opportunity for the writer to hold back information and share with us bits and pieces when necessary. Who killed Mia’s father? Was it Q, the head of Dept. H security? Her father’s business partner Roger? The frenetic head of research Jerome? Demolition expert Bob? Her childhood friend turned enemy Lily? Her own brother Raj? Or Aaron, the research assistant? Or was it somehow, someone topside?
Readers feel the pressure of undersea operations as Mia is plunged into her own peril, as the facility again is sabotaged before she can work her way though all the suspects. How long can Kindt take us for this suffocating adventure before letting us come up for air? The page design even features a graduated flood gauge at the pages’ right edges that slowly “fills up” with water issue after issue.
Kindt’s clever writing leads you to believe he may have already given us more than enough clues to solve the murder in his panel images and subtext. Kindt’s use of two stories running concurrently in a single panel–one in flashback and one real-time–is simply a brilliant use of the comic book medium.
Matt Kindt’s art style is something of an acquired taste (his style is similar at times to Melinda Gebbie’s work on Lost Girls). For Dept.H it works quite well, making it difficult to contemplate this story told any other way. His quick sketch style while not photo-real makes up for its lack of detail in Kindt’s ability to illustrate action and movement. Sharlene Kindt’s color work is integral to the enjoyment of this series. Both Matt’s cover work and Sharlene’s color composition throughout evoke late artist Sam Petrucci’s original artwork that appeared on the 1960s G.I. Joe action figure boxes. Probably the best single artwork in the series can be found in the inside cover of Issue #8–a mock-up of Hari on the cover of an issue of National Geographic Magazine. Kindt’s greatest feat here is showing that this minimalist style of artistry can make us all believers and even benefit the active reading experience when coupled with great storytelling.
With its excellent pulp noir novel-style cover, low lighting and narration, you might call it the first undersea noir comic book series. It also evokes movies like Abyss, Leviathan, and Sphere, as well as outer space parallels like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, of course, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
A beautiful, addictive, evocative, classic science fiction mystery full of action with a great dose of all things retro, Dept.H tops our list of the very best that comic books have to offer in 2016. If you missed the monthly issues, you can pre-order the first hardcover volume of Dept.H, Pressure, reprinting Issue #1-6, here, and the second volume, After the Flood, here, both from Amazon.com.