NEW COMICS: Dept.H #1 & 2 and House of Penance #1 & 2

We’re into two new series from Dark Horse this week, Dept.H and House of Penance. Though the narratives take place in wildly different settings–at the bottom of the ocean and a madhouse–they’re equally compelling mysteries that leave us anxiously awaiting their next issues.

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Dept.H (written and drawn by Matt Kindt) is a classic murder mystery who-dunnit that takes place seven miles below the surface of the ocean. Mia is a special investigator hired to look into a death at USEAR, Underwater Science Exploration and Research. Her father is the victim, and the suspects are a ragtag group of scientists and engineers that even includes her brother Raj. Everyone involved in USEAR is ready to write the tragedy off as an accident, but Mia suspects foul play. That she treats everyone as a suspect, further alienates her in this volatile setting.

The narrative’s mystery is enough to keep readers hooked, but the unique setting–with its potential for so many things to go wrong and all the surrounding “alien” inhabitants–should have readers lingering over every panel. In his introduction tot he series, Kindt points out that every issue is one day in the life of the main character and that there are “small details in every issue that will lead you to the answers.” This is the kind of storytelling that rewards close, repetitive, and monthly reading. It also benefits from a beautiful watercolor aesthetic with fantastically drawn creatures and the mechanics of undersea life.

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I mean just look at the cover of the first issue of House of Penance! It’s classic Dark Horse and hints at all the gory, nightmarish events we’ve come to expect from many of their most popular series. This is the kind of story that I love…taking a bizarre, real place or event and mining it for its supernatural possibilities. House of Penance plays with the Winchester House, which, in reality, is “an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship–marvelous, baffling, and eerily eccentric, to say the least.” In House of Penance it’s something of a supernatural prison in which Sarah Winchester mourns the untimely deaths of her husband and daughter and hires teams of workers–many of them hardened criminals–that remodel the house around the clock. Sarah is also plagued by grotesque visions, which only intensify with the arrival of the mysterious Warren Peck, who brings nightmares of his own.

Even as Sarah seems to be atoning for all the destruction that the family business breeds, violence bathes almost every page of House of Penance. Mysteries about in Peter J. Tomasi’s rich storytelling, which is made even more engrossing (pun intended) by Ian Bertram’s haunting artwork. I’m really intrigued by the intersections of grief, shame, absolution, penance, and sin, and it’ll be interesting to see how they all play out in future issues.