Mr. Vertigo Reviews 62: Dept. H Volume 1 – Pressure; Red Thorn Vol. 1 – Glasgow Kiss; This Damned Band

Dept. H Volume 1: Pressure
Matt Kindt, story and art; Sharlene Kindt, colors
Dark Horse Books, 2017

Matt Kindt’s latest ongoing series is an undersea sci-fi murder mystery–but there is also flashback material set in deep space. Not many stories employ both settings. Mia is a special investigator sent to solve her father’s murder in the deep-sea research station he founded, Dept. H of the government organization USEAR (Underwater Science Exploration and Research). The organization is convinced that there is a mole in the station, and that the murder was also an act of sabotage.

So Mia’s instructions are to treat everyone as a suspect. That task is complicated by the fact that the crew includes her old friend Lily (now estranged) and her brother Raj (with whom she has a complicated history). The rest of the crew are a strange bunch, and some of them make no secret that she’s not welcome. Clearly the investigation was never going to be easy. But then things start to go wrong at the station.

The comm antenna goes down, cutting communications with the surface. When she and Raj go to investigate, they run afoul of a giant sea creature, and Raj appears to be lost. Mia returns to the station for help, only to discover that Head of Research Jerome has become completely unhinged and has begun to flood the entire facility. The crew must scramble to stabilize things enough to prepare for evacuation. As the arc ends Mia confronts her dad’s partner Roger, convinced that he has answers.

Kindt’s storytelling skills are on full display here. He juggles background material (family history, including the aborted space exploration mission, and Mia’s relationships to several of the characters) with the ongoing narrative without interrupting the ever-accelerating pace of Mia’s investigation. Like any great thriller, she gains information even as the situation becomes increasingly desperate. I can think of few recent comics that have made me so anxious to read the next installment.

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Red Thorn Vol. 1: Glasgow Kiss
David Baillie, writer; Meghan Hetrick, artist
Vertigo Comics, 2016

Gifted American artist Isla Mackintosh is a Scot at heart. Both of her parents were born in Glasgow, and 25 years ago her older sister Lauren vanished during a visit. So visiting Glasgow for the first time feels like a homecoming to her. She has a mission: following in her sister’s footsteps, hoping to discover the truth behind her disappearance. She knows there is something unexplained–possibly supernatural–about her family. She herself saw the bizarre power of her drawings when an evil female spirit she had been sketching manifested herself at her high school. It made enough of an impression that she stopped drawing people.

But she can’t stop drawing a mysterious figure. And when a fish monster delivers her sister’s notebook to her, she discovers that Lauren had been sketching the same figure. Traveling to a place called Redcap Keep–the place her sister had disappeared–she finally meets the demigod Thorn, who her drawings had released after 1600 years of imprisonment. This happens in the first chapter, and the next five are about Isla gradually discovering just how large the stakes are, and the importance of her role. A conflict between ancient gods has commenced, and the fate of humanity is at stake.

Isla already knew that her drawings had power. But she finds that her drawings (and the maps of a young Moroccan mute) can actually alter reality. So much that she can actually change the past: always a slippery slope for storytellers. The seventh issue in this collection is a kind of epilogue to the “Glasgow Kiss” arc (illustrated by guest artist Steve Pugh). It reveals what happened to Lauren, tying her fate to Isla’s storyline at the same time.

Baillie’s dialog is full of references to Scottish speech, which I have mixed feelings about. Sometimes it’s hard to establish a sense of place without accents or local slang, but I have visited Scotland, and am not entirely convinced. Hetrick’s art is very much in Vertigo style. So the story can reasonably be described as a big supernatural story in the Vertigo tradition. I look forward to reading the conclusion in Vol. 2.

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This Damned Band
Paul Cornell, script; Tony Parker, art; Lovern Kindzierski, colors
Dark Horse Books, 2016

Compiles Cornell and Parker’s six issue miniseries about the rock band Motherfather that uses Satanism as a marketing ploy…or so they think. Things suddenly get real when Satan himself shows up in their dressing room, an event which everyone involved remembers differently (the lead guitarist persists in visualizing Satan as Santa Claus). But that’s not the worst of it. Everything suddenly goes to hell: tensions in the band threaten to break it up; relationships crumble; groupies go missing; French gangsters show up to collect drug money at gunpoint; and the group’s longtime producer and recording engineer are discovered dead by hanging.

It turns out someone close to the band has been in league with Lucifer all along. That surprise reveal is followed by chaos at the last big concert of the tour–and then a different deal with the devil is struck.The whole story is told from the perspective of a documentary film crew, which recalls the approach taken in the 2000 film “Almost Famous.” There’s no journalist here, but the groupies and the one married band member are both similar. The setting is the 1970s: the look of the band probably takes inspiration from both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (obvious occult marketing connection there), and there’s gang violence on audience members at the concert that directly mirrors the famous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.

None of which detracts from the distinct characters created for this story. Parker has a classic illustration style, especially well suited to facial expressions. In fact the characters sometimes seem to be mugging for the camera a bit, which suits the dark comedy atmosphere. He has fun doing the “artist’s impression” of some scenes where the cameras weren’t present–in an exaggerated simple cartoon style.

It’s a fun series, especially recommend to fans of the film “This Is Spinal Tap.” It’s darker than that, but almost as funny in spots. The back matter includes some great faux-history: a discography (with album covers and interview excerpts); a coupon for a Motherfather t-shirt; and best of all, a Pete Frame-style rock family tree of the band and its predecessors.

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