December 9, 2020

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Re-Calibrate the Ghosts with Home Sick Pilots 1



I get nostalgic easily, and when I find myself encountering media that taps into my nostalgic inclinations, I tend to immerse myself in whatever world that creation conjures. Such is the case for the debut issue of b that immediately teleported me back to the mid-90s and my own fleeting days of teenage punk rock. Watters, Wijngaard, and Bidikar combine for a punky horror debut issue with the throwback feel of a spirited adventure story. 

Home Sick Pilots opens with an ominous reflective narration. A house is coming alive? A person might be morphing into a house? A house might be transforming into a person? We don’t quite know at this stage, but none of it seems good. But we need to understand what led to that event, and we discover the trail begins at a punk show featuring the Nuclear Bastards, or as one of our protagonists Ami would put it, the Nuclear Fucking Bastards. What follows is a quick blend of exposition and rising action as Watters and the team weave plot and character development together. This debut issue feels well-paced, and there is a deliberate frenetic tone that seems to underline the main story, a need for things to happen, like the speed of a great punk song.


I have a high standard for books that try to connect to music or a particular subculture I love. Maybe it’s a bit pretentious, but I find myself frustrated if they don’t “get it right,” as if some creative misstep - over even just a different interpretation - is a personal affront to me. I know. I think typing that provides some cathartic analysis of my own self-seriousness, but still. 

On top of having high standards for authenticity, comics that try to capture music often have a hard road in front of them. Love and Rockets is, of course, a book that offers a genuine documentation of punk scenes, and a book that is very much a spiritual successor, this year’s My Riot (that I reviewed here, btw), succeeded especially because of its authenticity of both narrative and art. But perhaps the best music comics come from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McElvie. Phonogram is a good candidate for the gold standard of music comics, and Wicked and Divine is certainly no slouch, perhaps even exceeding the former in some of the ways McElvie and Wilson are able to make pages appear sonic. Along the same lines, a book that succeeds in authentically emulating the tone and style of an era is Paper Girls. Chiang’s character designs, also colored by Matt Wilson, captures not only the feel of the late eighties but also modern contrasts as the girls journey to contemporary times. 


Caspar Wijngaard, who both draws and colors Home Sick Pilots, appropriately channels McKelvie, Chiang, and Wilson by using a style that feels very fluid in its construction. His lines are clean and his panels are uncluttered, but his color work blends and bleeds for some beautiful contrasts. He captures the style of mid-90s punk fashion by sticking to the basics. We’re not in the era of ostentatious punk fashion, but instead, the minimalism of hoodies and skate shoes, adorned with the occasional chain wallet or Ami's perfectly subtle upside-down cross earrings. After my first read, I felt the stylings were a little streamlined, possibly reflecting a bit of modernization. And maybe that’s true to some degree, but the more I examined his character designs, the less apparent it became. More than anything else, though, his colors work to exemplify the tone of the series. He captures the lighting of a punk show at a bowling alley and the creepiness of the infamous James house. Wijngaard’s best sequence in this book is a beautiful two-page dollhouse spread that sets the stage for the horror reveal of the issue, tying events back to Ami's narration that opens the issue.

Watters brings a specific kind of authority to the book. If you’re curious as to his credentials, scroll through his Twitter feed for a particularly punk rock picture from his youth. Because of this authority, he manages the punk and hardcore references while integrating them directly with the story. Watters captures the essence of mid 90s punk and the kind of syncretic scene that existed. There was no one sound or style. You could go to a show and hear hardcore, emo, traditional punk, something that bordered on metal, crust, ska, and pop-punk all within the span of an hour or so. Nothing he does feels forced; his dialogue is natural, honestly some of the best-flowing that he’s produced. To be fair, Home Sick Pilots has a more realistic feel than most of his books. Yes, there might be a demon house, but it’s ostensibly set in the real world, and real-world inhabitants would probably notice said demon house. I mean, there are no Princes of Darkness, or strippers ripping off their own skin. I mean, not yet at least.

It’s important for a book like this to avoid overwhelming the reader with references. I think that’s what makes it authentic; frankly, I think that concept is what makes producing readable books set in the not-too-distant-past difficult. In such books, writers often bludgeon readers over the head with references and overt name-checking to the point that it overwhelms the script. Get it? These kids like punk rock. It's the 90s. I never felt that urgency in Home Sick Pilots. No, it felt natural. Watters created three punk rock kids, united both by their band (they share their name with the title of the series) and their status as foster home kids. These are important qualities. Watters isn't merely tossing out punk references to fill in the space between plot points. The reader understands their bond from the first few pages, and it makes their devotion to one another that much more apparent. Understanding punk rock helps to understand not only who these kids are, but why they share a vital connection. All of that helps to drive Watters' narrative. This isn’t a book about music or necessarily punk rock after all. It’s a book about punk rock kids who confront something insanely supernatural. Punk rock is essentially the ordering presence for the book. It’s the kids’ mode of communication, their vocabulary, their world view, their reference points. So, jokes about sneaking beer into a Fugazi show resonate for the reader, but it also helps to define who these kids are.

Watters, Wijngaard, and Bidikar (who I think is the only letterer trusted with lettering completely black pages with increasing regularity) combine for a strong debut issue that channels the energy of youth into a trippy horror narrative with dangling plot threads that amp up the curiosity for issue two.

Home Sick Pilots
Written by Dan Watters
Illustrated by Caspar Wijngaard
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar
Designed by Tom Muller
Published by Image Comics