The Oscar-nominated film Get Out redefined what a horror movie could be for Americans faced with everyday racial profiling, and now Image’s Infidel tackles the haunts of xenophobia in an American Muslim family.
Newsarama spoke to Infidel's co-creators, former DC/Vertigo editor Pornsak Pichetshote and artist Aaron Campbell, about crafting this contemporary horror story and the harsh realities that some Americans face and if the book itself is a political statement.
Newsarama: Pornsak, Aaron, let's talk about the family dynamic here in Infidel. You have Aisha, her husband, and their daughter, as well as her mother-in-law, but there's tension in air from the start. Can you talk about why?
Pornsak Pichetshote: Our protagonist Aisha Hasan is an American Muslim engaged to a white non-Muslim single father, and if you know anything about Islam, you’ll know that’s not necessarily a traditional stance, making Aisha like many of the people I know, someone trying to figure out their own relationship with the religion they were raised with and how she wants to define its role in her life – and all the doubts that come with that. She’s in love with a man named Tom who completely respects her decisions and her faith.
The problem is they’ve also just moved in with Tom’s mother (for reasons that become clearer as the series progresses). Unfortunately, Tom’s mother has a history of being islamophobic, although she now claims to have turned a new leaf. Tom doesn’t think that’s possible - that racism doesn’t just fade away - seeing it all as a ploy for his mother to have contact with her granddaughter who Tom otherwise wouldn’t let her near. Aisha, though, wants to believe it’s possible. And both Aisha and Tom will discover different reasons to believe why the other might be wrong, making things tense enough before all the scary starts…
Aaron Campbell: I think what rings so true about the family dynamic that Pornsak has established is exactly this tension. I know it firsthand. The fear that older generations in your family might not approve of the person your with is a pit I’ve fallen into. In high school I was told not to bring up my girlfriend’s Catholic background to my very rotestant grandmother. I’m from southern farm country and I remember worrying about how my extended family would treat my Mexican-American fiancé. In my case, these fears, like Tom’s, were founded on presumption and ultimately baseless.
Aisha on the other hand, just by her faith, is a target for so many and I think someone like that needs to believe that there is common ground available between everyone. Otherwise how could she feel safe even leave her apartment? Of course, what do you do when those who despise you share your space and can do as they please without consequence? Like the violent dead.
Nrama: It starts off pretty normal but Aisha is having some difficulties with reality. What is going on with her?
Pichetshote: The whole team is committed to updating the classic haunted house story, so a lot of what you’ll see are some classic horror tropes with a lot of twists along the way that will hopefully make you see everything in a new light.
As for what’s going on with Aisha, that’s what she’s trying to figure out. What’s undeniable is she’s begun seeing these gruesome creatures in her home that seem to be singling her out and attacking her. She also happens to be living in a building that’s seemingly the site of a terrorist bombing (and we’ll get into the reasons why people believe that as the series progresses). So with those two facts, it’s tempting to connect the dots and believe the two are connected.
But even for a person who’s watched a ton of horror movies, how far do things have to get before you start telling people the place is haunted? Especially when things are already so tense as it is? So depending on how you look at it: Aisha’s either going crazy or she’s having a very sane reaction to the fact that her home is going crazy.
Campbell: This is where I think the intricacy of the story really shines. Aisha only wants to establish a real connection of love and trust with her future mother-in-law, but a hateful few have other plans. They will use their insidious influence to crush her spirit and pervert her intent. The hateful use hate to marginalize and diminish.
Nrama: What kind of style did you guys want from a horror story like Infidel? Personally reminded me of early Swamp Thing and Sandman Mystery Theatre, especially with the palette.
Pichetshote: First of all, mentioning us in the same conversation as those two books is the greatest compliment I could ask, so thank you. I don’t think there’s any part of American horror comics that doesn’t share some of its DNA with old EC comics and Alan Moore/Steve Bissette/Rick Veitch/John Totleben Swamp Thing. The “American Gothic “storyline in Swamp Thing was definitely a huge influence on this book. Meanwhile, Sandman Mystery Theatre probably had one of the most naturalistic relationships at its core.
The two pillars this story is built on is “real” and “scary,” and that extends to the art. Since the book has a multi-racial cast, our editor Jose Villarrubia and I knew we needed an artist with a somewhat realistic style, because when you try to do multiple ethnicities in too stylized a manner, those depictions can run to the offensive side of the gamut if you’re not careful. And yet, Jose and I both like a little expressionism to our art, so we knew we wouldn’t like someone rigidly photorealistic.
On top of that, this theoretical artist had to draw scary, which - while there are a lot of artist drawing horror comics - there aren’t a ton who actually draw scary. And then on top of that, we needed a professional that wouldn’t flake out on us. And oh yeah, he also had to not be scooped up by Marvel and DC. I honestly can’t believe an artist like Aaron even exists, much less was available.
Campbell: Geeze. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “Ah Shucks, thanks” to compliments during this project, but I have to say it again to Pornsak for that glowing back pat. For me horror is all about the balance between clarity and ambiguity.
And for that my influences are what I consider the overlords of 1990’s comics - Kent Williams, Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, George Pratt, and Jon J. Muth. And then there is my old department chair from grad school, Marshall Arisman. Marshall is not only the greatest storyteller I’ve ever known but the pre-imminent master of illustrative horror. He was an early adviser on the film Jacob’s Ladder and he told me what he told them. True horror is in the imagining. It’s what you don’t see as much as what you do. And I’ve kept that in my back pocket ever since just waiting for the chance to pull it out.
Nrama: Pornsak, some people might not remember your stint at Vertigo as an editor, then DC television, why did you feel this would make a better Image book?
Pichetshote: Between Vertigo and DC TV, I was at DC Comics for over a decade, so they really are family to me, and Mark Doyle might be one of my best friends in the industry, so I can’t wait to see what he’s got cooking for the new Vertigo. So when it comes to why Image for this particular book, probably the biggest reason was getting to work with Jose Villarrubia as an editor. Jose was the first people to jump at the idea of this book and immediately offered to edit it. We’ve been friends since my time at Vertigo and such an enormous creative talent who I’ve really grown to trust. I knew he’s harbored editing ambitions for the longest time, so the idea that I’d be the first person to profit from his talents on his first book as editor and my first book as writer was something I couldn’t resist.
Since this book had an editor before it even had an artist, Image made the most sense and was our first choice. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re putting out my favorite books, so it’s literally pinch-me-I’m-dreaming thrilling to be in that company. And that’s ignoring all the freedom Image allows its creators to have.
For example, I cannot tell you the singular nerdy joy it is to not have to run any ads in our book. Not only that, at other companies, you get a set page count, and if you go over it by a single page, you have to pay it back the next issue. At Image, we have the freedom to make each issue as long as it needs to be. The first issue, as a matter of fact, is 27 pages. In TV terms, that’s the difference between network and cable, and you really get the freedom to let the story move under its own terms. So I suppose what makes it an Image book is that they provide the most freedom to tell the story.
Nrama: In this current political climate, what scares you guys the most?
Pichetshote: Honestly, the headlines coming out of this administration both terrify me and break my heart, and it’s hard to talk about political issues like immigration or Dreamers without just parroting things people much smarter and more informed than I am. But when it comes down to it, right now what inspires me most is the empathy people are showing to any suffering they’re not directly connected to, and what terrifies me most is the apathy other people seem to be capable of.
The funny thing about Infidel is, even though it plays off the political climate, I’ll be curious if people consider it a political story. Personally, I never find political messaging masquerading as a story effective or interesting. What we’re trying to do is - as honestly as we can - tell a legit scare-your-pants-off horror story in a world that has become highly politicized whether or not the people living in it want it to be or not.
Campbell: White Supremacy and the rise of neo-fascism. The end.
Nrama: You guys met through your editor Jose Villarrubia, who is a great colorist in his own right, and first-time collaborations can be a crapshoot. How do you both feel this went?
Pichetshote: I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that Aaron even exists as an artist. I already talked about the ridiculous list of things we needed the art to accomplish in order to work, so I already considered myself lucky finding an artist to accomplish that. But Aaron is so much more. Because of the rigid way credit is attributed in comics, I get the writer slot and Aaron, the artist, but the truth is his contributions go way past the book’s look. Aaron’s a collaborator in the truest sense of the word: suggesting elements to enrich the story, helping spot holes in the narrative, and adding dimension to all my dialogue by giving these characters some of the best damn acting in comics.
Campbell: How fortunate am I. I’ve wanted to work with Jose for years. He’s the most prolific colorists in comics, literally, and one of the all time greats. Then add to that, he was a professor at the Maryland Institute, College of Art when I was a student. And Pornsak and I just clicked the moment we talked the first time. We have an incredibly similar vision for the types of stories we want to tell - intricate, diverse, terrifying. I couldn’t be happier with this collaboration. It’s the best work of my career.
Nrama: With your TV connections, could you see Infidel crossover to a different medium or did you write it specifically for the page?
Pichetshote: Of course, a TV/movie adaptation would always be wonderful, but really, I’ve read and been pitched so many comics that are just storyboards for something for another medium, that I desperately don’t want Infidel to be that. Everyone here is doing everything we can to make the comic work as pure comics. And the challenge we’ve set for ourselves is to make a comic that would be better than any TV/movie version could ever be.
It certainly helps that scares in comics are so different from scares in any other medium that you really can’t treat it the same way at all. If you want the horror to work, you almost have to throw away the idea of the story existing in any other medium and I’m more than happy to. My main goal with Infidel is to really, really make a comic that won’t look embarrassing standing side-by-side with all the other amazing books I worked on as a Vertigo editor.