Best New Graphic Novel: Home Sick Pilots Vol. 1 – Teenage Haunts
In order to appropriately review the first volume of Home Sick Pilots, I’m left with no choice (none!) but to rank my favorite punk albums of 1994 in homage to the July ’94 punk scene where the story of Ami, Rip, Buzz and company begins!
Home Sick Pilots: Teenage Haunts collects the first five issues of the Image Comics book from:
Writer: Dan Watters
Artist: Caspar Wijngaard
Letterer: Aditya Bidikar
Designer: Tom Muller
* Spoilers For the book Follow! *
And it’s one of my favorite comics of 2021! Below you’ll find out why, as well as some killer soundtrack selections! Honorable mentions go to Hole’s Live Through This, Lagwagon’s Trashed, Unwound’s New Plastic Ideas, and Golem and the Claymen, a fictional band from Watter and Wijngaard’s “Limbo” that I spent several minutes trying to locate on Youtube, Spotify, and Bandcamp. Albums aren’t listed in order of favorite (#10 here is probably my actual favorite)!
1) NOFX – Punk in Drublic
That’s me inside your head!” ~ Linoleum
Home Sick Pilots begins with the spectacle of lead character Ami balancing the ghosts of a haunted house, raise up like a Kaiju mech suit, and going to battle. As the first issue opens, though, we don’t really know *any of this* and the story is about getting us to this point, flashing back a few weeks earlier, and giving us the scene setting that makes this moment matter.
We meet Ami, Rip and Buzz, the Home Sick Pilots, at the concert of a rival punk band, the Nuclear Bastards, described sonically as “derivative thrash shit.” I honestly really like the simplicity of rival punk rock gangs, of Rip insulting the Bastard’s lead singer Robbie, and quickly escalating things to a fist fight. This isn’t *really* that book though; there’s no “School of Rock” or biopic build to a Battle of the Bands. Instead, it’s all geographical and attitudinal scene setting to drive to the supernatural mystery at the heart of the story.
In that vein, we only ever see the titular Pilots play music together *once.* It’s easily the happiest we see any of the trio. I love that connection of being in a band, of sucking, of no one in the crowd paying attention, and of not really caring! That to me very much speaks to the spirit of punk rock, making a coordinated racket on stage with your friends, kicking the hell out of the amps, and doing it on your terms for yourself.
I like to imagine, too, that the Pilots here would very much sound like SoCal punk rockers NOFX, whose snotty punk pop influences so much of the decade and what we associate with the 90’s punk rock sound. There’s real “Our band could be your life” energy to Fat Mike and NOFX, and I have to imagine so many teen punks band from the era would have emulated them heavily.
The opening moments of the band getting together are sweet, too. “Hey New Girl, the Ramones Suck!” is a movie-made introduction, and Ami tries to impress Buzz and Rip by walking across a wire between rooftops before falling. The trio of semi-outcasts and orphans immediately connects over punk and form the Pilots, a blaze of righteous punk glory until the night they all walked into the Old James House.
2) Rancid – Let’s Go
When I got the music, I got a place to go” ~ Radio
Before the story beats and focus of Home Sick Pilots comes into view, it’s the design (X-Men secret weapon Tom Muller is credited!) and style of the work that gets you in the club doors. Artist Caspar Wijngaard’s lines and colors are beautiful, vibrant hot-white pinks surging out out of a black mansion, glowing ghosts on a dark red background.
My introduction to Wijngaard’s work was the structural meta commentary of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt with writer Kieron Gillen, and naturally there’s significantly less of that craft-criticism on display in Home Sick Pilots. Nonetheless, there’s still stylistic brilliance to enjoy, such as Wijngaard’s ability to capture a full page haunted house break in, and room by room walk through in two pages. I love, too, how the character movement combined with Bidikar’s letters takes you from top left in the attic down an around the house in a Z, with the various rooms of the house defining your typical comics panel borders.
Beyond Peter Cannon, there’s a Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie influence, or at least my own personal reference point, through tonal look, feel and subject matter of works like Phonogram and Wicked + Divine. The centrality of mid 90’s punk rock makes Phonogram an obvious touchstone, but it’s also spiritually similar, although Home Sick Pilots is less obviously centered on the supernatural power of music.
The neon shine of the work is balanced by frequent use of all-black faded pages with limited white text, poetically floating through space to replicate Ami’s thoughts internal thoughts post Old James House. Just like Rancid was one album away from their massive breakout on 94’s “Let’s Go,” every piece of Home Sick Pilots feels like a creative unit to break out into peak commercial success.
3) Jawbox – For Your Own Special Sweetheart
Nothing better than a look at what I shouldn’t see” ~ Motorist
With ’94’s “For Your Own Special Sweatheart,” critically acclaimed indie punk rockers Jawbox made the most controversial of moves in the 90s: They sold out to a major label! Fears ran rampant that the band would lose their distinct, uncompromising blend of post-hardcore punk and indie rock. Instead, Jawbox dropped what may be the best album of their career, one that completely and wholly remains true to their sound.
If you’re familiar with Dan Watters past works such as Lucifer or Coffin Bound, there’s a heaviness and challenge to Watters writing that can be intimidating. These are smart structurally difficult comics that often require a second pass, and that can either lead to immense critical acclaim, or turn off readers looking for a quick comics high. Part of the appeal of Home Sick Pilots is that – by Watters own definition – it’s the creative unit’s attempt at a “pop” comic. It is meant to go down easier, and for me, it’s a huge part of the appeal of Home Sick Pilots.
Don’t confuse “easier” for lack of substance, though. Yes, Home Sick Pilots comes to play on a “Major Label,” but it’s still full of the tricks and idiosyncrasies the creators are known for. Watters and Wijngaard are masters of pacing here, setting up the early issues with the feeling of what the book’s going to be, but then casually upending those expectations. Issue one sets the stage for a grand Home Sick Pilots vs Nuclear Bastards enmity, but the Bastards are wiped out by the old James House by mid issue. Issue #2 ends with Ami on a mission to destroy haunted horcruxes, only to find in the introduction to issue 3 that she’s “found a bunch of these now” off screen (even an action figure)!
Frankly, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the Haunted Kaiju hook of the book would display differently than the most obvious expectations. That’s exactly what Watters and Wijngaard do on their previous collaboration, the surreal neonoir of 2016’s deeply underrated Limbo.
4) Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible
She is suffering
You exist within her shadow” ~ She is suffering
1994 is famously a year where rock god personal trauma overshadows and defines the legacy of the music, namely with the April ’94 suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. The Manic Street Preachers are no exception, with the late ’94 disappearance of Richey James (Richey Edwards). The search for the band’s primary lyricist has been the source of drama and intrigue since (he was declared dead in absentia in 2008).
After the embarrassment of her past once more resurfacing, and learning her classmates have spread a rumor that she killed her mother, Ami manages a similar vanishing act by visiting the Old James House on her own. Indeed, early on we hear ““Who’d care if I f***ing vanished.” Quickly, the rumors of the house prove true, and she becomes part of this haunted fixture, going on a series of ghost collection duties to make the place whole.
We learn more about Ami’s trauma through her ghostcapades, seeking missing haunted items. As Ami says, “I just want to help the house because I’ve been there. Broken.” Ami’s first retrieval mission is a haunted horseshoe, that grants infinite luck to a woman, but sucks meaning from her life. Ami resonates with feeling nothing, and tries to talk Horseshoe literally off the ledge. And the key thing for Ami here is that she has people/friends now who are going through problems of their own, which gives her a sense of community and purpose. Nonetheless, sharing this information doesn’t work. Horseshoe still falls.
Ami also feels this tremendous guilt for her trauma. “You’re going to get [your friends] killed because you can’t handle the trauma. Again.” It’s a weight that pulls Ami deeper and deeper into the depths of her vanishing act. Even as bandmate Buzz keeps looking for Ami after her disappearance, the desire to fade away retains an icy grip.
5) Bad Religion – Stranger Than Fiction
Better off dead, yeah, better than this
Take it away, cause there’s nothing to miss” ~ Better Off Dead
I have a confession to make: until this very essay, I’ve confused Bad Religion with Bad Company all my damn adult life. As such, I’ve also discounted Bad Religion as not particularly worth paying attention to (aside from the goofy hip thrusts of Feel Like Makin Love), which has definitely been a mistake! As it turns out, Bad Religion is an absolutely essential keystone in the history of punk rock, with over a decade’s strong resume entering 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction. There are better Bad Religion albums, but Stranger Than Fiction works hard to say “This is punk.”
The ethos of punk defines the culture, ethos and characters we meet in Home Sick Pilots. “We should throw a gig in the house that kills people,” is basically an album title. Of all the real world bands mentioned in the comic – Fugazi, Rancid, Nine Inch Nails, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Pharcyde – Bad Religion is the only concert we see, if only for a moment. Issue three introduces the “Street Punks” of Santa Manos, the ones “who think it’s still 1982 rather than 1994” and have adopted a faux Sex Pistols English punk… again, on the streets of Southern California. Buzz flashes back to an interaction with a street punk (“Oi, Oi!”) who says “I f***in’ hate music. All of it. That’s why I listen to Punk. ‘cos it’s ‘orrible.” So. Punk.
The book opens with skaters bailing on a punk show set in a recently abandoned bowling alley, and with Rip literally kicking the cops on the way out. There’s a punk ethos of the one right version of “cool” inherent in nearly everyone we meet, looking down on all things grunge (or worse, posers) and plenty of approval craving even though none of these characters would ever admit that.
In terms of displaying the music, Home Sick Pilots is less focused on the visuals of sound – like, say, Chasin’ the Bird or Blue in Green – but I love how Aditya Bidikar’s letters for the last Nuclear Bastards show denotes the singer’s words as “(some shitty derivative thrash shit).”
6) Lync – These Are Not Fall Colors
Bombs go when people you don’t know say:
We will come to your house and burn it down” ~ Silverspoon Glasses
What’s more punk than busting in and burning out with a single album? Sure, sonically These Are Not Fall Colors is more recognizably indie rock, but if we’re going to play by Home Sick Pilots rules with the likes of Sonic Youth and the Pixies references, it fits. These Are Not Fall Colors is an incredible record, the type of rock that constantly feels on the verge of falling apart, of unraveling, but ultimately full of beauty.
Ami’s journey on conquering her own trauma is challenged constantly throughout the series. Early on, NFB singer Robbie taunts her, “That’s Amida with her broken f***ing brain, who killed her mom when she lost her shit over a doll’s house.” Ami carries this haunted past with her, a shadow of trauma that follows her, with her mom’s death, and teenage rumors that somehow she was involved. We never actually learn the specifics of the history either, just rumors and impact, and the implication that there’s enough of a kernel of truth to these suspicions that Ami is so thoroughly impacted.
The Haunted House, Old James, is trying to convince Ami they are both truly alone. Ami finds community in the Home Sick Pilots, and for moments, you can feel how the shared community of the stage will pull her through. But it’s not to be. Rip destroys Ami’s notions of community in issue 5: “You are f***ing crazy, Ami. they were right about you.”
This is the final break for Ami, wrecked to the point of letting ghost-hunting agency TFT take herself, Buzz and the house full of ghosts into the ocean after their issue 5 throwdown. I’m hoping that Buzz’s sustained friendship through all this is enough to remind Ami she’s not alone.
7) Offspring – Smash
I think I’m being followed, I look around
It’s only my shadow creepin’ on the ground” ~ Gotta Get Away
There’s unquestionably a trend in comics right now riding a wave of Kaiju, Sentai and Tokusatsu influences. Recent examples include Ultramega, Radiant Black, Marvel’s Ultraman, and in film, we have Godzilla vs. Kong on HBO Max. With it’s walking mansion and giant ghost monster fights, Home Sick Pilots can play in this trend, while simultaneously carve out its own unique space.
There’s a danger in chasing trends that artists can easily lose themselves. Offspring’s massively successful Smash – still the only album here that I’ve gotten in trouble at school for singing along too loudly – certainly felt these claims, labeling the album “poser punk,” or called out for ripping off Nirvana’s grunge success with “Gotta Get Away.”
I don’t feel this with Home Sick Pilots, where the shared category feels more like the byproduct of being tapped into the same cultural moment more than it does an obvious salesmanship. Unique differences are clear; Issue three ends with one of my favorite things in comics, the pride of Watchmen and now the X-Men: data page back matter! The “Big Witch Files” find a paranormal investigative agency considering the haunted lamp Ami mentions, showing people their deaths in their shadows. The agency mentions “the militaristic opportunities such a device could afford,” suggesting a strong governmental position.
Likewise, Wijngaard really gets to shine with the manifestation of these ghosts that are superhero by way of monster manga. He has a really ability to make “ghosts” glow off the page, especially in the final two issues when he get to let loose with ghosts vs old videotape monsters.
8) L7 – Hungry for Stink
Am I alive, or am I dead?” ~ Questioning My Sanity
In punk, you can’t be afraid of mess, to scream and get dirty. In Home Sick Pilots, Watters and team aren’t afraid to lean into trauma, into not finding easy answers out. The first volume isn’t built towards easy happy endings because life’s a mess, and this reflects that.
In issue 5, it’s revealed that Meg, one of the presumed dead Nuclear Bastards, survives the James House, and has heard Ami helping the house. Meg hates the house, and wants to help the semi governmental ghost hunters and the creepy Video Tape (TFT) find and destroy it.
The final issue ends 3 months later with Meg working with the mystery ghost hunters, and set to pilot the “Nuclear Bastard, America’s first walking ghost-powered weapon.”
9) Screeching Weasel – How to make enemies and irritate people
Everything she touches turns to shit” ~ Kathy isn’t Right
// Original influential. Mad at everyone. Agorophobia? Supposed to be last album? Limbo as underrated, starter, setting stage for this.
Much like NOFX, Chicago’s Screeching Weasel is high on the list of pop-punk progenitors who would look on as Blink-182 and the like softened the edges of their style and became some of the biggest pop stars of the late 90’s and early aughts. Would you rather be the influencer or the influenced?
As a writer, a lot of Watters’ works are influenced by art and artists from non-comics mediums: music in Limbo and Home Sick Pilots, Blake and Goya in Lucifer, painting and Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Everything Else. These influences affect the themes he works with, and the storytelling choices he makes, but they don’t define them.
The punk rock setting and culture of Home Sick Pilots is a narrative hook for music loving readers like myself, but this book quickly and successfully expands well beyond that framework. The continuation of Home Sick Pilots may play with the “rival bands” angle to an almost hidden degree, as ghost powered weapons enter the picture. And that’s a good, exciting thing, as the series has the potential to warp into something unexpected and consistently engaging.
10) Green Day – Dookie
And I stepped in line
To walk amongst the dead” ~ Burnout
Dookie is easily the biggest album on the list, and it’s been one of my favorite albums since I was 13. For my money, Dookie is Green Day’s borderline perfect pop album, a pure distillation of 90’s power pop that transformed the band from insiders-only to superstars.
As I’ve mentioned there’s a lightness, an ease to Home Sick Pilots not present in denser, darker works like Coffin Bound, but I still benefited greatly from re-exploring the first five issues as one cohesive unit after reading in single issues upon release. Watters, Wijngaard, and Bidikar are good at pop, it turns out! We’re seeing this elsewhere in Watters writing career, as he finds ways to make DC’s Superman fresh in books like Future State: Superman and Wonder Woman.
Nonetheless, this isn’t the group’s perfect pop album yet; but that potential is there as the run continues. I actually quite like the idea of this world extending well beyond Ami, Buzz, Rip and SoCal. There’s a large template here, of haunted Kaiju, mystery ghost hunters, and antiquated forms of media turned supernatural menace.
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