Following horror traditions established by Stephen King and Clive Barker, as well as the writing philosophies of Vertigo Comics’ early creative heyday as DC Comics’ creator-owned and mature-readers imprint, comic writer Dan Watters has found his niche melding the two.
“Home Sick Pilots,” the London-based writer’s recently wrapped Image Comics series with frequent collaborator Caspar Wijngaard, represents the convergence of influences into a story that combines the macabre with the badass.
The series, which wrapped its 15-issue run on June 22, told the story of a ‘90s punk band investigating a haunted house that, through the course of the series, reveals itself to be more than just a creepy house.
Described by both critics and the creators as “Power Rangers meets The Shining,” the series explored themes traditionally found in horror stories and melded them with a coming-of-age slant and a more traditional, action-packed superhero story.
One of the central themes of “Home Sick Pilots,” as well as Watters’ other work, is haunting, he explained.
“I think the actual concept behind it is a very human thing, being haunted by this and that and even by the past,” he explained. “I kind of feel nostalgia is a form of that, so doing the sort of early ‘90s punk thing is definitely an attempt to delve into that a bit.”
More than just the possession of a haunted house, he wanted to use the haunted house as a metaphor to explain and rationalize the minutiae of trauma so many go through and the lasting impact it has on a person’s psyche.
“A lot of these things I was seeing felt like they were about conquering your trauma and defeating it, and if you face it, you no longer have to deal with it anymore, which isn’t how it works in my experience,” Watters explained. “You can confront something you can start to see the shape of it but it’s still with you. And we were talking about that idea and that led us to the idea that a haunted house, if you try to leave the haunted house, more likely it will just come with you.”
And for him, it was a foregone conclusion that a haunted house, as well as being a vessel for exploring mental health, was also a sort of mecha that would be at home in “Gundam” or “Pacific Rim.”
“It very physically comes with you, so it’s the haunted house that literally gets up and walks,” Watters said. “It wasn’t too much of a hop skip and jump to a haunted houses as a mecha. And once we had that idea, we knew we had to make it. It sounds like so much fun so and it has been.”
According to Watters, “Home Sick Pilots” itself began life as a quasi-sequel to the duo’s previous independent project, “Limbo,” another story heavily inspired by the concept of haunting and the horror therein.
“(The sequel to) ‘Limbo’ was going to feature these three punk street kids,” he explained. “Once Casper designed them, we started talking about how these don’t feel like they’re necessarily part of ‘Limbo’ but they have their own character and that’s what turned into ‘Home Sick Pilots.’ So rather than doing a five issue ‘Limbo’ follow up we ended up doing a totally different book about a haunted house that walks and punches people.”
Where Watters used his childhood experience with punk bands like the Ramones to influence “Home Sick Pilots,” 2015’s “Limbo,” was told through the lens of the VHS and cassette tapes he remembered fondly, especially the taboo horror tapes his strict parents kept him from at video rental stores.
“I was always really fascinated in films, particularly horror films,” he said. “Going to our local VHS rental store, I’d go in and browse the horror section constantly as a really little kid, so I had all of those VHS tapes’ covers and blurbs memorized. Most of them were really bad films that I’ve seen since, but the cover art and the blurbs promised these horrendous things.”
While his parents may have kept him from campy Jeffrey Combs movies like “The Dentist” that had little more than cheap scares, Watters describes much more unfettered access to the mysterious world of Vertigo Comics thanks to out-of-order paperback collections at his local library.
His current work, he describes, is heavily influenced by his time spent poring over random volumes from the likes of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman,” Alan Moore’s “Saga of the Swamp Thing” and Grant Morrison’s “Doom Patrol.”
“I’m worried we’ve gotten away from that a little bit, just diving into stuff and just reading it out-of-order and having a sort of weird time with it,” he said. “And Vertigo was such a good place to do that because there was so many sort of weird things going on in those days, where you would never quite sure if something was a reference to some book from 20 years ago, or if it was something that someone on acid come up without the head.”
The current crop of comic creators, like Watters’ contemporaries Ram V and James Tynion IV, also cite the likes of Gaiman, Moore and Morrison, as well as countless other stories written during Vertigo’s apex of creativity in the ‘90s.
Adorning his office’s walls in art of the character from past collaborators, Swamp Thing is a character Watters has held a particular affinity toward since his days reading in the library. He cites Moore’s run and the current series written by V among his favorite takes on the character created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in 1971.
One of the most influential works for Watters ended up being Morrison’s “Doom Patrol,” which combined superheroes and psychological horror and drama in much the same way Watters would come to do in “Home Sick Pilots,” as well as broadening the readers horizons with new ideas otherwise completely foreign to them.
“Like I think there’s a whole lot of people who are introduced, including myself, to the concept of Dada through the Brotherhood of Dada (in “Doom Patrol”). This is an amazing concept if you’re 15 or 16 reading this stuff and say ‘I’m gonna go check that out,’” he said.
But Morrison’s work on “Doom Patrol,” a superhero team that languished in obscurity for decades, served as catalyst for Watters’ at DC Comics doing much the same thing: retrofitting antiquated superhero concepts into new and interesting genres.
“I think that everyone who works in comics now, or at least in my generation of comics, is coming to it from, like that was the thing that we loved about it in the first place,” he said. “Working in the superhero space, there are all of these rich histories that have its own weight, but they’re all these concepts still to be twisted a little bit just to see what happens if we break this a little bit and taking this or that direction.”
Watters’ sophomore outing at DC, 2021’s “Arkham City: The Order of the World” with artist Dani, is as close to a spiritual successor to early Vertigo that Watters has written. The comic, which borrows a name and little else from the 2011 video game, is a psychological horror that asks a horrifying question: what if Arkham Asylum’s inmates walked among the people of Gotham?
One of the inmates, the Ten-Eyed Man, is a reimagining of a silver age supervillain, ala “Doom Patrol.” The original Ten-Eyed Man was a blind Batman adversary from the ‘70s wearing a silly costume with ten eyes printed upon it that could see different things.
Watters felt there was more than enough here to turn the Ten-Eyed Man into a horrific sight with optic nerves placed on his fingers, accompanied by a spangly design courtesy of Dani.
“What makes something like the Ten-Eyed Man work is it’s such an intrinsically unnerving figure,” he said. “He sort of exists in this uncanny long space where It seems as though he knows things more than other people do and doesn’t understand other things. I think that’s kind of always my approach it to look at the character and see what we can dial up and what’s in them already that’s interesting.”
This pattern of mining ideas for their untapped potential first started with Watters’ work on “Lucifer” with artist Max Fiumara, part of DC’s 2018 initiative to revive former Vertigo titles, dubbed Sandman Universe.
Originally a spin-off of Gaiman’s “The Sandman” written from 2000 to 2006 by Mike Carey, “Lucifer” was originally a philosophical story about free will and predestination. Watters’ instinct, like with the Ten-Eyed Man in “Arkham City,” was to dive into the horror of the character he first encountered years earlier.
“I don’t really think of myself as a horror writer,” he said. “It just ends up being something that comes naturally. I think things that are uncomfortable and things that touch a nerve are worth talking about and capturing in art.”
His latest series, “Sword of Azrael” with artist Nikola Čižmešija, spins out of “Arkham City” and the anthology “Batman: Urban Legends.” His newest reinvention of one-note or obscure characters releases its first issue on Aug. 2.
Azrael, created in 1992 by Denny O’Neil, Joe Quesada and Peter Milligan as part of the infamous “Knightfall” storyline, is remembered as the Spawn-esque Batman replacement with sharp edges and a religious overtone. In the decades that followed, the character was fleshed out to be a radical member of the religious Order of St. Dumas. It was here that Watters felt the most interesting stories were yet to be told.
“There’s this interesting element to Azrael where he has this system in his mind that basically tells him that he is the angel of death,” he explained. “It leads him into this cycle of not wanting to be violent, being violent and coming back out of it in this addict behavior. I also just think he’s cool as hell. He’s angry Catholic Moon Knight with a flaming sword.”
Reflecting on Azrael, Watters shifted to his love for Kaine, the deformed clone of Spider-Man. He explained that, if he were to ever sink his teeth into the Marvel Universe, he wouldn’t mind taking a shot at deconstructing the edgy copycat of Marvel’s flagship in much the same way he did with DC’s.
“Frankenstein’s monster Peter Parker is a very interesting idea,” he said. “That would be a really cool thing to treat in that way.”
Watters’ bread and butter is finding interesting new, often horrific, perspectives on stories that may have been told before. With “Home Sick Pilots” coming to an end and “Sword of Azrael” nearing the completion of its six-issue run, he’s just waiting for the right character and angle to come along to inspire his next story.
“I’m always interested in trying to find out who a character is and delving into it,” he explained. “It always starts with a spark and it has to be something you get excited about and that can either lead you to plug it into something less interesting or just keep digging down into it, which is what I was trying to do and hopefully not get too lost in the weeds.”