Matt and Sharlene Kindt Go Below the Surface of ‘Dept H’ at Dark Horse [Interview]
Following the end of his widely acclaimed Dark Horse series Mind MGMT, creator Matt Kindt decided to try something completely different for his next project --- a claustrophobic thriller set in 'real time'. Each issue of the upcoming Dept H is set during a 24-hour period in an underwater science lab that is slowly flooding. As the series moves on, time quickly runs out for the people inside as they try to work out who sabotaged the base --- and try to stay alive.
A spy series that starts as a murder mystery and quickly tightens into a tense race against time, the series sees Matt Kindt joined by his wife, watercolor artist Sharlene Kindt, on colors. Having worked on sections of MIND MGMT, this new series marks her first ongoing comics work for a major publisher. To explore the depths of Dept H further, ComicsAlliance spoke to both Matt and Sharlene Kindt about their work. We also have an exclusive reveal of their cover for issue #3.
ComicsAlliance: Dept. H seems to be a cleaner, simpler style of story than your previous work at Dark Horse, Mind MGMT. When did you first start putting the concept of the story together?
Matt Kindt: I’ve had this idea kicking around for a couple of years. I was so deep in Mind MGMT the last three years and the nature of that series really spurred a lot of ideas. The sprawling nature of Mind MGMT allowed me to go down a lot of crazy paths, and Dept. H was one of those tangent ideas I had that just didn’t fit in. It seemed like something bigger than a single story arc. So I started fleshing it out the last couple of years as I worked on Mind MGMT. By the time I’d finished that series, I’d poured so much of myself into it, that honestly I was a little burned out.
But Dept. H had a unique feel to it that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The unique location (six miles deep in the ocean) and a murder mystery with a murder victim who happened to be the smartest man on earth. All of that became a fun kind of thought experiment. How could I tell that story? And more importantly, how could I tell it in a way that was unique to comics?
That’s the thing that always excites me – as much as a plot or characters – what can I do with the medium of comics to justify – not the medium – but justify the existence of my story in this amazing medium.
I’m also kind of reacting to Mind MGMT – as the project that comes after it – I wanted to do something that was really laser-focused. Something that starts at point A and ends at point B. This series is consciously paced with nothing but forward momentum. It’s a tricky thing to pace out a monthly book that way and sustain that momentum – but it’s the tricky stuff that keeps me interested in comics!
CA: So you were you particularly looking to make a book that would allow you to express a different writing style to your last series?
MK: For sure. I structured Mind MGMT in such a way that it gave me complete creative freedom to pretty much tell any story and tell it in any way I wanted depending on the mood I was in. Which is a fantastic working environment to make for yourself. But after a while (and even within the larger context of Mind MGMT) I like having artificial rules.
Sometimes they’ll be subtle rules like no captions, or no hard scene changes. Or telling a story using only thought balloons. That’s a weird sort of thought process which was really born out of going to school.
Literally, since I was in high school I would take every writing assignment or art project and try to figure out a way to complete all the objectives that the teacher or professor listed, but do it in a way where I could make comics. The real challenge sometimes was with teachers that didn’t like comics or kind of looked down on them – and figure out way to use comics/sequential art without them realizing you’re doing it. It sort of forces you to play with form and how you present a visual narrative in ways you haven’t thought of before.
So I think in a lot of ways, growing up in a different era where comics weren’t as accepted, helped me think about them more than I would have – or it might have just warped the way in which I think about ‘em!
CA: So where did you start with the story? Did you have the central location in mind first, the characters, or the premise?
MK: I really love underwater adventure. I had a ton of these Adventure People toys when I was a kid and I’d spend hours in the bathtub playing with these things. Mini submarines and divers and boats. So as early as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with the ocean and water and the amazing effort it takes to survive in and below the water’s surface. So the kernel of the idea just came from me loving all the equipment and the tropes and aesthetic of deep sea adventure. Everything else came from there.
I love genre fiction and I’ve done all my favorites at this point – but I haven’t done a straight-up murder mystery. So in a way those two elements just came together for me at the right time. Underwater, deep-sea murder mystery. What’s not to love?!
CA: Having each issue be set during one 24-hour period means you must have a skeleton already sketched out --- but do you intend to have this series fully planned out, or would you rather have things be wide open, and ready to change at any point?
MK: Most of it is figured out. All of the big moments and key story beats. I’ve been doing that since I started comics – whether it’s an eight-page short story or a three-hundred page graphic novel or two years of monthly comics, I always start out with a broad outline with big sign posts along the way of moments I need to hit. Writing is really a lot like drawing. You determine the general size of your drawing (issue/page count), then start loosely sketching in the outline and slowly you tighten up the drawing and then you finish it off with ink and color – which in the case of writing, is the script.
So I have a rough sketch of the entire series and the scripts are just me tightening up the drawing and adding detail. With Mind MGMT, it was such a long project that working like this was great – I wasn’t the same person I was three years ago so having a flexible outline that could change with me, was amazing. But with Dept. H there is a real murder mystery here so the flexibility is a little less...flexible. I have to be consciously fair to the reader and present everything so the reveals and mystery don’t feel like a cheat at the end. So in that way, this series is a lot less flexible. But there’s always room to add little character moments and improvise dialogue and scenes as I go along.
CA: In interviews, you’ve said that the lead, Mia, shares some of your own fears, including that of being underwater. How personal is the series for you?
MK: I’m definitely tapping into some deep-seated fears and thoughts that I’ve carried around my entire life. I love snorkeling, but every time I get out in the water I begin hyperventilating. It takes all my strength of will to just trust that breathing tube – and eventually I can do it. But it’s a struggle. I can’t imagine the amount of faith it would take to go as deep as these characters go in the comic. The pressure of the water and the complete helplessness you face as you rely on the equipment around you to survive is... well, it would freak me out. I’m very happy to sit at my desk and write this stuff!
That said, everything I write is uncomfortably personal to me. Every character and moment comes from somewhere real. The relationships and problems the characters face. All of that is from my life in some way. I think a lot of what writing is about is empathy. I’m constantly imagining everyone I meet and read about and running their lives through my head and trying to understand what it’s like to be them. Writing is really just an extension of that.
So I’d say honestly the characters in my books aren’t some fantastic creation I’ve made – but more just me literally stealing a person’s circumstance and thought process and transplanting it into a crazy comic book plot.
CA: What does Sharlene’s work bring to the book for you? What does having watercolors over your work change about the tone of the series?
MK: We talked about this a lot. Before we started – it wasn’t just some kind of gimmick or creative partnership of convenience. What’s funny is we both have been water coloring for years. She actually taught me back in college, years ago. But I was terrible with color. I was afraid of it. I only wanted to do black and white comics. And eventually I started feeling more comfortable with adding limited color to my work and then eventually just going full blown painted color. But I think I still have a kind of reticence with my application of color --- which is why Sharlene’s stuff is so great.
She doesn’t have this deep-seated fear of color that I’ve got in my subconscious. She loves it – her stuff is so bright and bold in comparison to what I do. It scares me – ha! But that’s why I think this project in particular is perfect for her. It’s got such a huge contrast in color and story. There’s the interiors and the dark blacks of the deep sea base but when they go out into the water, the color just blows up – there’s fish and all kinds of crazy aquatic life and all of it is so vibrant and insane looking. To get that contrast you need someone who’s not afraid to throw the color around.
CA: Sharlene, you worked on parts of Mind MGMT with Matt, but what decided you on the idea of going full-time on Dept. H?
Sharlene Kindt: When Matt asked me to color Dept. H, I was working as a freelance graphic designer/stylist. I was wanting to get away from working for clients, and start working for myself --- so when he asked me, I was really ready and excited for a new challenge.
CA: How’ve you found working together on the series? How do you work as a team?
SK: It's really great working with Matt. He is easygoing and wants to do the best job possible. He knows my style so well, and I love how much he trusts me with watercoloring his inks. Handing over a page you worked hard on and trusting that someone will enhance the page versus ruining it… that takes a lot of trust. He works at a studio out of the house, and my studio is in our home. I only see the pencils when the editor, Daniel, sees them.
After Matt inks the pages, we have a meeting and talk about color. We go over every page. He tells me if something needs to be a specific color, like "Mia's diving suit needs to be yellow", then we talk about the feel of the story, and how color can enhance it --- "Dramatic streaks of light would be great here." "Oh, yes!"
It's a true collaboration.
MK: And we’ve been married for 19 years --- so working on comics in a lot of ways isn’t really introducing something strange or new into our lives --- we’ve been working together for a long time on living and working and having an amazing daughter and balancing all the stuff that life has to offer. So in a way, this is just a little microcosm of all of our experience together so far.
And I’m really excited to see her starting to be more directly involved. I can honestly say, none of the work I’ve done would be even close to what it is without her daily input and encouragement. There’s nothing better than having an intelligent and informed set of eyes to show your work to when you’re doubting everything you’ve done and will ever do. She gets it. She’s every bit the artist that I’ll ever be so I’ve leaned on her for a long time. One of the rarest, but most important things you can have as an artist is a person that will give you honest feedback.
She always gives it to me straight, and it’s an informed opinion. This is how it usually goes:
Me: What do you think?
Her: Well, it’s good but (fill in the blank here with super-honest criticism)
Me: (I get mad.)
Me: (The next day I look at whatever it was and realize she’s right.)
Which seems like I’m kidding a little bit – but I’m not. I’ve done that so many times that now I’ve just learned to take the criticism without comment. Sit on it a day or two and then come back to it and look at my stuff with new eyes. Taking criticism is a learned skill for sure, but it’s invaluable. I think you become resistant to criticism or notes because you pour so much time and effort and love into this stuff and then when you’re told that it needs just a little more work... it’s an exhausting thought.
The idea of putting in those extra hours to make it perfect – it seems like too much. But that little extra makes all the difference.
I think it can be a cliché sometimes with a supportive spouse that encourages, etc. But Sharlene is way more than that. She’s been critical to pushing me to make things better and fight the lazy creator inside me since I started doing comics.
CA: Do you work at all with Matt on the narrative aspect of the book, Sharlene?
SK: Matt will sometimes run ideas past me, but mostly the only narrative I collaborate on is how the color tells the story. The hard part of working on a book with Matt is that I am also a huge fan of Matt. I want to read the story, spoilerr-free, like any other fan. As I color the pages, it's really interesting to see how the story in my head (sans copy/dialogue) compares to the complete story with copy/dialogue.
CA: What kind of tone do you want to bring to the book? As colorist, what’s your goal for the story?
SK: As the colorist, I just want to enhance the story that Matt is telling. If the scene takes place in deep, dark water, I want the reader to feel like they are not taking in enough air… like they want to pause to take a deep breath. I want the reader to be "submerged" in the story.
CA: What are your artistic influences on the title? Do you have specific reference you’re working from, at all?
SK: I am not using any specific reference for Dept. H, but looking at the natural world is an inspiration. The colors and textures are amazing when you take the time to really look. As a child, my dad taught me to really look at and appreciate nature. When we hiked through the woods, he would always point out things that most people wouldn't notice, like bird calls, animal tracks, and how the bark on trees differ.
As far as artists who inspire me? I love Chesley Bonestell, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (especially his oil pastel drawings), and Balthus.
CA: In turn, Matt --- how are you approaching the book as artist? Will this be similar in style to Mind MGMT, or are you looking to move and shift your storytelling in particular ways?
MK: I can only bend my art so much. I’m definitely trying out some new techniques and ways of working. I’m going for a little cleaner look – trying a smoother paper to keep the art a little crisper. And I’m definitely employing a lot more solid blacks. I think the contrast with solid black and then Sharlene’s bursts of color are what’s really been fun for us to play with.
CA: You’ve worked for several publishers over the years, as writer and artist - yet your most personal projects are at Dark Horse. What is it about the publisher which resonates for you, and makes you want to work with them?
MK: Mike Richardson has been a huge champion of my work since I can remember – back when my first book with Dark Horse happened – 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man. There’s never been any kind of creative interference – everything I’ve always gotten from Mike and my amazing editors is “what can we do to help you make it better?”
I honestly feel like the most fortunate creator on the planet. I love everyone I’m working with. Any time someone calls me on the phone to talk, I’m excited to pick it up. We’re cooking up fun stories and comics and figuring out how to make them even better. What more could you ask for?
Issue #1 of Dept. H will be published by Dark Horse on the 27th April --- and all six volumes of Mind MGMT are out now in trade.