Break from the Bat #11: Dept. H Vol. 1: Pressure review

Welcome back to Break from the Bat, our monthly look at what’s happening in the wide world of comics outside of Gotham. I had a tough time picking a book to feature this month, because there were two that I really loved. So while it doesn’t get the place of honor, be sure to read my comments on Supergirl: Being Super further down, and check it out for yourself if you haven’t—it really is spectacular.

Art by Matt Kindt

Who killed the smartest man on Earth? The “smartest man,” in this case, would be the father of scientist and explorer Mia Hardy. Sent to investigate his murder, Mia must travel to the deep-sea habitat that was his home and encounter both friends and family with whom she has had limited contact for some time. As the faces of her past dredge up the experiences they shared, the situation at Dept. H takes an increasingly sinister tone, and Mia must contend with a hostile ocean environment and a hidden hostile inhabitant of the underwater station all at once.

Immerse yourself

Dept. H is written and drawn by Matt Kindt, with gorgeous watercolors by Sharlene Kindt and letters by Marie Enger. Together, the three manage to create a pace and an aesthetic that effectively builds the feeling of gnawing anxiety expected of someone trapped in a habitat at the bottom of the deep sea: a feeling that swells at the sight of exquisite terrors and simmers with unease when the plot slows to examine contentious human interactions.

Mia’s narration both verbally and visually stretches tension over panels and time. A scientist like her father before her, she possesses an inner voice that is clinical and procedural, a chain of evidence leading us further and further into the abyss of Dept. H. She is frank, but patient. That voice remains calm and methodical even during moments of great strain, and this (apparent) serenity makes these moments all the more unnerving—the dissonance between the gravity of her situation and her demeanor is maddening.

At the same time, Mia’s rigidity commands respect and generates empathy. Her quest for truth, and her refusal to let social or family awkwardness drive her away from it makes her the clear hero; willing to sacrifice comfort for the sake of getting justice for her father, Mia possesses the integrity and sacrificial love that society celebrates in its champions.

The narrative context undermines her sense of control, however, teeming with complex relationships: dormant love affairs, fractured brother and sisterhood, and wounded friendships. On the face of it, these fissures and strains may seem like inoculations against judgment-clouding personal biases; however, crisis makes mincemeat of grudges, and Mia’s heart of stone is quickly made flesh once her brother Raj finds himself in danger.

Beautiful and terrible

The visual language of Dept. H consists in sketchy, detail-light minimalism with remarkable expressiveness. Characters speak volumes through eyes and posture, and Matt Kindt’s abstractions often play out in the imagination as more of an enhanced realism. Sharlene Kindt’s watercolors bathe the book in mood and atmosphere, pages and panels  featuring dominant background colors—signposts for the emotional and narrative beats of the story. Mia’s past jettisons any chromatic warmth, leaving pictures as chilly and bleak as the cold vacuum of space that she and her family left long ago. Though mingled with darkness, her present holds a near-monopoly on color, as though she would reclaim the riches of her life amidst the peril before her.

Above the literary symbolism, Dept. H remains both visually and narratively compelling. The Kindts’ underwater world is at times lovely, at others terrifying, but always satisfying. Mia’s investigation and procedural narration build thrilling tension and suspense. As either a deeply-moving, symbolically-rich character study, or an immersive murder mystery in an exotic undersea world, this book earns not only a prominent spot on the bookshelf, but an enduring place in the imagination.

SCORE: 9/10

That wraps up my look at Dept. H. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up at your local shop or on Amazon. It’s worth whatever they’re asking for it, and I expect you’ll get years of enjoyment from it.

As usual, you’ll find our thoughts on a few more choice books below. Take a look, and when you’re done, head to the comments and tell us what you’ve been reading lately. And if you’d like to see something featured in a future installment of Break from the Bat, let us know that, too.

Supergirl: Being Super #1

Art by Joëlle Jones and Kelly Fitzpatrick

A masterclass in organic dialogue and character work, Being Super places Kara in the rural, Smallville-esque town of Midvale, and focuses on her friends-and-family relationships more than on her extraordinary abilities. As expected, danger forces her emergence, but the book never implies that “being super” is as narrow as “being super-powered.” The artwork is nearly as stellar as the writing, with just a few odd warts (pimples?) here and there. I’m excited to see how Tamaki, Jones, and co. further develop Kara as her powers take on a larger role in her life.

– Brian

The Deep (Boom)

Art by James Brouwer

Tom Taylor and James Brouwer’s comic book, a follow up to their UK book of the same name, as well as an animated series, is delightful all-ages fare. In the well-tested tradition of The Swiss Family Robinson, the Nektons are a deep-sea adventuring family who have a fancy submarine–not nearly as cool as the Nautilus, but most definitely higher tech. In this first issue, we get an exciting call to action as a literal sea monster may be lurking off the coast of Greenland. The Nektons are primed to investigate!

Brouwer’s art is both lush in its rich tones, but likewise spare. I prefer a little more detail, particularly in the environments, but one can understand big swaths of dark blue in an comic about the depths of the ocean. The diverse cast is mostly delightful, though I wish the mother and daughter looked more like mother and daughter instead of sisters and that the brother-sister dynamic wasn’t so predictable. The inclusion of the dumb pet fish Jeffrey is definitely also a plus.

Taylor’s writing is bright as always and the book is heavy on character development at this stage, but there’s enough action to keep the story moving as well. While I appreciate complex tightly-plotted stories, it’s sometimes nice to have something simpler and breathy as this is.

– Elena

Justice League of America: The Atom Rebirth #1

Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Marcelo Maiolo

Justice League of America: The Atom Rebirth #1 is a pleasantly enjoyable story that reminds me of your standard “coming of age” tale. Part of me was a little upset that Ray Palmer wouldn’t be the focus of this issue (and more importantly, the man in the Atom suit for JLA), but as I read the issue, I found myself growing to like Ryan Choi with each scene.
If you’re expecting a single story, then you might be surprised to find that this issue spans over the course of a few years, capturing Ryan’s journey from Hong Kong to the states as he begins school, becomes one of Ray’s top students, peer, and eventual partner, before ending exactly where DC Universe Rebirth #1 left off: Ray contacting Ryan for help after discovering a disturbance in time. Is it time for JLA yet?

– Josh

Justice League of America: Vixen Rebirth #1

Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Marcelo Maiolo

The moment I opened this issue, I rolled my eyes. Mari is famous and on a talk show… great. Then I remembered that Mari is a model, and this is true to her character’s history. In fact, nearly this entire issue is an true and honest portrayal of what we know to be Mari’s story, with minor alterations. One of the questions I had going into this, would be whether or not Mari’s story would touch back to her feature in Black Canary. Thankfully, it doesn’t.
Instead, this is a full-on origin story. We get to see Mari’s priorities as a person, what she’s passionate about, and what drives her. Her heritage is also front and center as she uses the Tantu Totem for the first time to save a girl who fell through the cracks of one of her charitable programs. If this issue did anything, it made me super excited to see Mari in Justice League of America! She’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, and I’m willing to bet she’ll be a fan favorite with Lobo.

– Josh

Love is Love

Art by Rafael Albuquerque

I’m not certain what I expected from Love is Love. I knew that it would be an anthology comic featuring short stories, and that the proceeds would be donated to help families of the victims from last year’s Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting… but as for the stories themselves, I wasn’t sure.

As a gay man, I was curious and nervous at the same time. As for as my lifestyle is concerned, I live with a quiet confidence. I’m not in your face with my sexuality. I don’t necessarily fall into “gay” stereotypes. I don’t even push the “gay agenda.” I basically let my actions speak for me rather than taking verbal arguments or stances… And then I feared that this anthology might be too preachy. While the gay community, or friends of the gay community, might be open to this, a preachy comic might turn away those who may not consider themselves part of either of those groups.

So I finished my responsibilities for the website, then sat down to read Love is Love… And I was completely and utterly moved. The anthology consisted of dozens of one to four page stories. The stories were vast and different. I laughed, cried, and felt sympathy as I read stories about people’s personal experiences of coming to terms with being gay, coming out, how they felt after the massacre (whether they are gay or straight), the meaning of love and love from their spouse (gay or straight), or even the extent of love within the confines of a simple friendship.
This is more than a “gay” anthology, it’s a collection of human moments. The book blew away my expectations, and after taking a moment to myself once completing the anthology, I immediately wrote Marc Andreyko (who birthed this project) and shared:

“I just read Love Is Love. Thank you! Sincerely. Deeply. It’s beautiful! If I were still in LA, I would find you and hug you because this book will save lives if it reaches the right people.

As a gay man who grew up in East Texas, I WISH I would have had something like this to pick up and read when I was a teenager. I wouldn’t have felt so alone. I wouldnt have felt like a freak. What you’ve organized is incredible, and you should be proud… Send my thanks to all who contributed. This is powerful and inspiring. You created magic, sir.”

– Josh

Mega Princess (Boom)

Art by Brianne Drouhard and M. Victoria Robado

Imagine I Hate Fairyland’s Gertrude, only without the cussing, obscene gestures, and brutality, and you’ll have a sense of what to expect from Mega Princess’s title character, Princess Maxine. While this book likely aims at a young audience, its sass might be upsetting for some parents, and the humor intended in the delightfully snippy relationship between Maxine and her jerk-pony Justine probably won’t land as well with kids as it does with adults anyway.

As with Fairlyand, the appeal lies in the zaniness. There’s a story, but the plot isn’t the main draw. Maxine and Justine provide constant hilarity, and the cartoony displeasure on their faces only increases the payoff. Pick this up for a fun trip worth a few reads, and maybe give it to your slightly older kids after you’ve had a look yourself.

– Brian