Graphic Novel Review: Home Sick Pilots Volume 1

Lately I have found myself devouring Gothic literature and haunted house stories, out of a love for the genre and the atmosphere, but also consistently finding myself disappointed. This particular genre is filled with so many tired tropes and common motifs, that eventually, all stories start to seem redundant, like an endless cookie cutter copying the plot from Jane Eyre and The Haunting at Hill House and other mainstays. A young woman with a traumatic past moves into a spooky old house and there are ghosts and sometimes they are evil and sometimes they help heal and sometimes there are unresolved tensions with the supernatural, you’re never sure if it’s the ghost or the trauma. There’s a mysterious brooding man about, there’s fog, there’s a downtrodden countryside in the middle of nowhere. Blah blah blah.

“Home Sick Pilots” breaks that mold in a surprising, refreshing way, splattered with ectoplasm and teenage angst. This graphic novel published by Image Comics is brought to us by writer Dan Watters and artist Caspar Wijngaard. It tells the story of the Home Sick Pilots, which was the brainchild of foster child Ami, a troubled kid who wound up in the foster system after her mother died. She feels lost, unwanted, unmoored, until she meets disaffected stoners Rip and Buzz, who have a begrudging appreciation for her love of the Ramones and bring her in their orbit. With her in the picture, their band becomes something special, the three of them against the world.

One night they go to see a lame band called the Nuclear Bastards. Then Ami gets it in her head to host a gig at the infamous Old James House, said to be so haunted that it trapped the last person who visited it and they were never seen since. That leads them down a dark and twisted path that is part redemption arc with a flavor of Stockholm Syndrome, taking the haunted house trope and morphing it into a superhero thriller with X-Files spice. 

I am so tempted to give spoilers, but man, that ending is something else. It just keeps taking you down corridors you don’t expect. The lost, traumatized girl becomes a badass piloting her own destiny, but she still wants the band back together, the thread that binds her back to a reality that she thought she wanted to leave behind forever, despite reality turning its back on her.

The art was really well done, complete with an interesting technique when the scenes segued into new chapters; taking a completely black background, interspersing the absolute negative space with black-on-white thought bubbles exploring Ami’s successive psychological transformations. It had a wonderful dark, moody vibe throughout. 

Loved this book so much that I already pre-ordered Volume 2, and I hardly ever continue on in a series – too many good books out there to stick with one author or creative team. But I wanted more of this universe; it sunk its spectral teeth into me and pulled me along for the ride.

Graphic Novel Review: Dreaming Eagles, published by AfterShock Comics

“Dreaming Eagles,” written by Gareth Ennis, art by Simon Coleby, published by AfterShock Comics, is historical fiction that tells of the drama, trials and adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Corps – men who fought both the Nazis in World War II, and discrimination at home. It tells their stories through the eyes of one of their own, veteran Reggie Atkinson, who opens up to his son Lee after a father worries for his son fighting his own battles in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. 

Overcoming his initial reluctance to talk about his wartime experiences, Reggie soon sees it as a chance to connect with his son about shared pain and hope for a better future. Over beers, Reggie spills it all, telling the tale chronologically of his time in the squadron through several years of war. The story is slow paced without a traditional narrative arc, but that suits the meandering thrust of the story, a father talking to his son on a warm evening on their porch. And at times the writing gets too caught up in the technical engineering specifications of the aircraft; sometimes this brings history to life, and sometimes it gets a bit dry. Those were my only criticisms, however; overall I really enjoyed this book. 

The writing was good, the art was strong, and the story did a great job of personalizing a pivotal historical time that needs more intimate attention than history textbooks can give. The graphic novel is the perfect medium for this. The book is at its best when it gets into character development and the captivating cast of characters that made up the squadron. I really got a feel for the time period and both the casual and overt bigotry that these men faced daily.

Even after they proved themselves, flew more missions and made more kills than their white commanders predicted, and came home decorated soldiers, they still had to keep proving themselves. But something changed after the war, after they saw how their courage and dedication kept them alive. They had fought, despite the hate, for an America that they believed was better than what Nazi Germany had to offer; but they also believed America could be better than what it gave them, if only it let herself, if only it acknowledged it could be better.

This is a beautiful book, and I felt like I was having a conversation with Reggie right there on the porch with him – the joy and the pain felt so warm and so real. Published in 2016, this story is just as prescient now as ever, and just as important to be heard. 

Graphic Novel Review: Lonely Receiver by AfterShock Comics

“Lonely Receiver,” written by Zac Thompson and illustrated by Jen Hickman, published by AfterShock Comics, simply blew me away. It’s exactly the perfect horror breakup story for our times, a modern, edgy sparkplug of bizarro in a storytelling format uniquely suited to comics. 

The story follows Catrin Vander, a lonely video producer whose job is to scour social media feeds for mentions of fossil fuels and other unmentionables and flag them for censorship. After a devastating breakup, Catrin can’t face being single again, so she buys an Artificial Intelligence partner instead; think a combination of your smart fitness watch and your phone, with haptic nerves, melded to your brain. Her new wife, Rhion, is made to order, a life partner who meets Catrin’s every needs and desires. But Catrin is broken, using her partners to fill gaps within herself, and Rhion isn’t the image of perfection that Catrin had fashioned her to be. Rhion inexplicably leaves one day, but the bio-engineered interface that connects her to Catrin is forever linked with her way of interfacing with the outside world, plunging her into darkness and desperation.

Thus, Catrin is finally, truly alone, and begins a steady, haunting spiral into madness, escapism and obsession, chasing after haptic ghosts until she loses herself. Catrin descends into the recesses of her trauma until she inherits the visage of the one that she lost, a receiver, a machine with a human costume.

The writing in this story is wonderful, a mix of code, erotic verse, stanza and literary powerhouse. The mixed-media storytelling weaves in the profound, tactile experience of mental illness and confronting one’s past trauma amid loud, bold colors and fragmented dialogue. Throughout much of the story, Catrin is shown naked, vulnerable, as she loses her flesh to the lust that she feared, the inherent loneliness and jealousy that separated her from her love. 

This is beautiful, evocative, psychological horror, with a flush of sexiness, a whispered scream of abuse and the continuous thread of twisted romance. The cast is small, almost a character study into the mind and obsessions of Catrin, so that the reader is in turn immersed in her horror, her mental illness, her trauma, as she is turned inside out and devoured by the machine world, made more her and less her, until she, too, is forgotten, hardly recognizable. 

Highly recommend. 

“Modern life has forced us to exist in pieces. Our society is predicated on pretending to be okay. We’re terrified of telling people how we actually feel. And if someone asks you how you feel, you’re only supposed to respond with ‘great.’

“Well, what you’re about to read, is an account of all the times when I wasn’t okay. Where I was pretty fucking far from great.

“But I’m here. Alive and better for it. Terrified to share Catrin’s story.” —Lonely Receiver

Graphic Novel Review: Adler by Titan Comics

“Adler” by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey, published by Titan Comics, promised a League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen from science and history, and on that front, it delivered. It had me at that premise, so I can’t fault it for expecting any less. 

But this book belongs to a new genre that I would call historical fiction, but reimagining history as if sexism and racism were not barriers. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see more representation and badass women doing badass things, as a woman comics fan in an industry dominated by badass men who get to have all the fun. On the other hand, I think rewriting history to be more inclusive can have an adverse effect on women – people can then weaponize it to argue that sexism never existed.

However, since this is a comic book, and thus prone to bombastic retellings because that’s expected of the genre, I am willing to give it license to go there, and just call it historical fantasy. As Adler says, “To be a woman is to be at war, Jane.” Best line of the whole book.

The protagonist of this story is Irene Adler, a minor character in the Sherlock Holmes universe who now gets top billing. Jane Eyre, who was an ambulance driver in the Boer Wars in South Africa, comes to London looking for work and a place to live. She’s introduced to the irrepressible Irene Adler and her London, a city at war with brutal crime gangs. First it’s Moriarty, who is easily dispatched, followed by, naturally, Ayesha, a barbarian queen come to take her revenge on the British Empire. 

The art was decent, some interesting plays with light and shadow to follow the arc of the narrative drama, but I found the plot somewhat scattered. For example, orphan Annie’s mission at the beginning of the book is to deliver special papers to Irene Adler; for starting off strong, this plot bunny falls by the wayside, and we never really hear about the papers. I suppose that’s coming in Book Two. Also, the villains meet with far too easy ends; the stakes just didn’t seem high enough.

Bottom line was, I think this story was just trying to do too much with too many famous people from history. It was the point, but it didn’t quite work for me; it felt like a gimmick. I would have liked it better if it was just Irene and Jane teaming up to fight crime and then having a little romance. They were the strongest characters in the book for me and I wanted more of them together. But, I suppose that is just not bombastic enough. 


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Graphic Novel Review: The Vain

I was drawn in by the drop-dead gorgeous cover art and the rest of the book did not disappoint. “The Vain,” published by Oni Press, is a wonderful noir thriller about a gang of vampires and the FBI agent who spends a lifetime chasing ghosts. 

The gang calls themselves “The Vain,” a crew of incredibly stylish, of course, vampires whom we first meet in a bank robbery in Chicago in 1941. But it’s not just any bank – it’s a blood bank. FBI Agent Felix Franklin, a fresh recruit desperate to prove himself, thinks this is his big break. The coincidences are too many to overlook.

Through the years, the gang of four works undercover for the FBI in the fight against the Nazis, surfaces again in Communist Cuba, and turns into a cult of spiritualists in the 60s cheating drug addicts out of their blood with promises of an endless life without pain. They steal blood, lay low for awhile, and manage another heist. A beautiful vampire called Lost is their ringleader. 

From his first run-in with them, Felix becomes obsessed. But of course, no one believes him. He loses his family, he’s institutionalized, he’s reinstated again at the FBI, but he becomes a laughingstock. That part is something that’s often missing from vampire stories; what happens to the people who see them, in a world that thinks they are a fairy tale? 

I am not usually a vampire fan; I am not an easy sell for these kinds of stories. You have to bring something original and different in order to entice me. I enjoyed the historical arc of the narrative, the focus on the 1940s. The art was vivid, realistic and quite wonderful throughout the book. The storyline was fun and fast-paced. The Vain became sympathetic villains, in the end, and I wanted this story to be a series instead of just a five-issue book. This was Bonnie and Clyde if Bonnie and Clyde were a badass, hot lesbian vampire couple robbing blood banks throughout history.

I also appreciated the foil with Felix, a do-gooder type driven to the brink of madness in his hunt for revenge.

All in all, a fun story, and a work of art. I will be keeping this one on my shelf for a long time. 


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Graphic Novel Review: Pirouette by Black Mask Studios, LLC

“Pirouette,” published by Black Mask Studios, LLC, is an understated little gem of a book about a girl named Pirouette and the two-faced clowns who raise her in a shabby old-timey circus. Clowns and circuses are fertile ground for fright, as well as beautiful art. 

This was a lovely book, light on story and heavy on art. The art was done in very dark tones, with some simply gorgeous character work by artist Carlos Granda. This kind of horror is not the kind of in-your-face body horror with cheap scare tactics. In fact, most of the violence happens “off-screen,” as it were, leaving the darkest scenes to the reader’s imagination. 

This is, instead, slow-burn psychological horror; I wasn’t exactly scared per se, but it did a good job of building a sinister whiff of desperation. Pirouette always thought she was abandoned at the circus as a baby and the circus life, with the abusive clowns who look after her, was her own personal hell that she’d be trapped in forever. Until one day, when the traveling circus arrives in the town of Lima, Ohio, a clown tells her a tale about her parents, and she goes on a wild goose chase, chasing after a strand of hope for some reason from clowns who have lied to her all her life. 

But in a twist, Pirouette’s dreams of a better life, a comfortable suburban life with a family who cares for her, are a fragile veneer; she knows the circus life is hers, and she has to make it work for her in the end. 

I liked this book because sometimes the scariest moments aren’t when the monsters attack you, but living with the monsters inside our head, instead. This is quiet horror, my favorite kind; a comforting kind of creep factor. This was an enjoyable little ride down the dark side of the circus. 

Graphic Novel Review: Odessa by Jonathan Hill

I haven’t blogged in so long! I haven’t been writing much so I don’t have much to report on my writing process. I plan to change up my reviews to only review graphic novels and indie books on this blog, and quick recaps of all books on my Goodreads. I am trying to read more comics so get ready for more comic book reviews! Without further ado…

“Odessa,” written and drawn by Jonathan Hill, published by Oni Press, is a lovely book. An epic, but understated; a heartwarming family story, except in a dark, dystopian setting. Comic books are usually produced by teams and this is a remarkable achievement by just one writer/artist. 

But, I almost DNF’ed it at first, so I am glad I stuck it through. This is not the kind of story that is packed with action and high stakes at the beginning. It is quite slow paced to start and then it is a slow burn mystery quest story as it unfolds. Eight years ago an earthquake, the Big One, hit the Cascadia fault line, wreaking disaster. Now America is a land pocked by bloodthirsty street gangs and strange new plants and animals, like jinx root, which heals injuries but also turns humans into cannibalistic creatures. 

With the backdrop of this landscape comes Ginny and her family – her two bratty younger brothers, Wes and Harry, and their distant but loving father. They’ve lived without their mother for years, so Ginny becomes the mother figure for the boys, whether she likes it or not. But one day on her seventeenth birthday, a mysterious package arrives from her mother, and Ginny is consumed by an obsession that she is alive. Driven by this urge, she embarks on a journey across the hellscape of the dystopian frontier on an impossible journey to find her mother. 

But Wes and Harry, unknown to her, tag along, and soon they are one family on a strange trip, full of adventure and bonding moments. This is book one of a series, and it certainly doesn’t end where you think it might, but I won’t give any spoilers. 

The art is interesting, it’s done in a two-tone style with a predominantly pink theme. It’s charmingly simple. The storytelling is stronger than the art, but the art drives the story, too. I liked the pink element because it was symbolic of the heart of the story being a family tale, and it was a nice contrast to the dark, dystopian wasteland. Even as violent gangs kidnapped and murdered people, the pink tones were a soothing contrast and made the reader focus on the family story, instead.

All in all, this is a lovely book. It’s quite long, so get ready to dig in, but it’s worth the journey. 

Graphic Novel Review: Sweet Heart by Action Lab Comics

My graphic novel pick this week is “Sweet Heart,” published by Action Lab Comics, written by Dillon Gilbertson, art by Francesco Iaquinta.

This is the kind of horror I live for. The kind of horror in which yes, there are monsters, but the scariest part is what humans are capable of – the complacency, the fear, the sacrifice.

Ellicott City, Maryland, is a town infested by monsters. The town has grown to accept the monsters. They don’t deny their existence, but they have learned it is futile to fight back, so they aim for survival, instead.

Everyone has their own private monster, a stringer or a bruiser. They’re after glucose, and they’re willing to wait a long time for this tastiest of snacks. The incorporation of the mythology into the reality of the town was very well done; they’re even part of the high school curriculum.

The story follows one family, first the story of Ben and his mother, both marked by monsters – “First Contact.” Ben has a daughter, Madison. Ben gave up, like the rest of the town, and resigned himself to his fate; but Maddie has never stopped fighting, never stopped believing. She doesn’t want to die the same way her father did.

I loved this story because it hit all of my favorites: slow-burn psychological horror with a dash of science to explain the magic of the supernatural, strong characters, a dark, atmospheric flavor, and small-town suspense.

What was most intriguing to me about this story was that Maddie’s biggest fight was not with the monsters, but with the townspeople themselves, and her own family. They loved her, but they also wanted to live, and they chose the path of least resistance to survival. The balance of that tension was brilliantly done. I felt the love of Maddie’s mother and grandmother, their fierce protectiveness, even as she had to persuade them of a better way to live. To me, that is superhero calibre.

The art, colors and lettering were all also gorgeously done, building the dark atmosphere and suspense well.

Highly recommend this book.

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