NYCC 2018: Pornsak Pichetshote & Aaron Campbell Discuss The Intricacies Of Infidel

by Brendan M. Allen

[*This interview took place at New York Comic Con 2018 this past weekend!]

Brendan Allen: Hey guys. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy New York Comic Con schedule to chat with us. Let’s start in the obvious place. Where did Infidel come from?

Pornsak Pichetshote: Honestly, the idea for Infidel came eight, nine years ago at this point. It was after Obama’s first year in office. Everyone was talking about how we had licked racism because we had a black president, and meanwhile Islamophobia was still rampant and on the rise. So I wanted to do something that played into and connected those two dots, and in the process have it be a conversation racism today and how those things connect. And, what ended up happening was, I was was working at DC Comics at the time, and DC kind of had a lock on what I was doing. This idea sort of sat in a drawer for a while until the time where I left DC, and I remembered that it was there and the world was becoming the world that it is now. It made me realize that I didn’t just want this sitting in a drawer. I decided to break it out and have it become a comic. That’s when I called my friends up, and they introduced me to some new friends, and that just got the ball rolling.

BA: In one of my reviews, I described Infidel as “viewing xenophobia through horror tinted lenses.” I know this phrase gets used a lot, that “horror is a potent vehicle for satire and social commentary,” but why do you think that is? What makes horror such an effective tool?

PP: I think horror gives you the opportunity to talk about the taboo, in general. And so, that’s where it kind of lives, you know, it punches the hardest. So, because of that, it makes it very logical to talk about social issues, and use it for satirical purposes. Primarily because the genre kind of lends itself there anyway. Its job is to try to find those things that make you feel uncomfortable. Right now, there’s a lot of political and social stuff to make you feel uncomfortable.

Aaron Campbell: For me, I think what makes horror such a potent vehicle for connection is that, unlike other genres, there’s such a latitude on what you’re allowed to do, and what you’re allowed to say. You can go into incredibly dark and dense territory with complete abandon, and not be subjected to the kind of criticism vertically that you’d find in, like, drama or comedy. Because it takes you out. Basically, it’s taking this terror, this horror, and it’s presenting it in a lens where we can all agree as a community that this is horrifying. This is awful, and we can understand that. It immediately makes us begin to empathize with our protagonist, and empathize with their plight and the struggles that they’re going through, when we can just go into just the darkest, darkest place. Look at Hereditary. Look at Get Out. Those kind of stories? Well, I can’t even understand how you could do Hereditary in any other genre, but Get Out especially, there’s this dark kind of comedic thread through it which I don’t think would have nearly the impact it had if they had tried to do it in any other genre. It would become farce if you tried to tell that story as a comedy, and then it would be considered insensitive. But, in horror, what would otherwise be considered farce becomes something real. Something you can connect with.

BA: New York City is iconic for American diversity, with over 200 individual languages spoken and 40% of the population born outside the US. Why was it so important for Infidel to take place here, versus a place like Mesa, AZ, one of the most homogenous communities in America?

PP: I couldn’t even imagine it taking place anywhere other than New York City. You know, I’m a New Yorker. I lived here for twelve years, and when I walk the streets of New York, I think I’m walking in the future. Like, there are three languages on every block. There are people of every color and complexion, and every ethnic group sort of standing around. The story that takes place in Arizona, in a homogenous community, is flatter. It doesn’t get into the complexities that you’re surrounded by when people of different ethnicities and race and faiths come together. New York is more cosmopolitan, but also has a reputation for being more liberal. So much of what I think the book tries to do is to talk about what racism looks like, even in liberal communities. The less interesting version, which I had no interest in writing, takes place in a right wing community, because we know where people stand on these issues. It was much more interesting in a place where, even though people of different faiths and race are butting up against each other all the time, there are prejudices, and [we can see] how easily or not easily they can be manipulated and turned against one another. That was really interesting and important to me.

AC: For me, New York is… There’s an inherent kind of oppressiveness that is easily expressed because of the verticality of the city, the overwhelming throng of humanity that is ever-present. I think I was describing it recently like we have this brilliant shining city built on lower and lower levels of decay. You know, until you get down into the sublevels of the city and it’s just this rat infested, rusting hellscape. I think I described it as a 1970 Buick Skylark, or one of those big Buicks, or a Cadillac where slowly parts have been replaced, over years and years and years, just trying to keep it going. On the outside, there are parts, like the hood is from a Ferrari, the fender is from a minivan, and on the outside, there’s incredibly eclectic collection of parts keeping it all together. But underneath, the undercarriage is all rusted out by salt, the pipes are leaking, there’s a rat dead in the radiator… So, that in itself becomes a character, where anywhere else, outside of a large city like this metropolis, the place is what it is. It’s a lot more difficult to do this kind of story, where environment is so integral to the feelings of depression and anxiety, than with a big open place. Does that make sense?

BA: Absolutely. You also just described one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, by the way (One Piece at a Time, 1976). Now, about the artwork specifically, I’ve referenced Ben Templesmith and Dave McKean when describing the aesthetic of Infidel. There’s this awesome dichotomy between the physical and metaphysical elements. How did you land on the art style for this book?

AC: I mean, it was a long process of sort of conceptualizing the story and what Pornsak and what Jose (Villarrubia) wanted, what they had in their heads. And so, it was really about figuring out who the ghosts were first, how they came to be what they are now, and then kind of reverse engineering them. In addition, I had been thinking for a while about this desire to do more experimentation in my work, and to bring in more traditional processes into my work. I had been working almost completely digitally for years at that point. So I was thinking, how can I do this in a way that will allow me to get the best of digital, but still allow me to play around with media and process and technique? In a way that kind of hearkens back to the 90’s heyday of Vertigo artists like Dave McKean and John J. Muth, and the way they would experiment. I was like, “This is horror, I can kind of go off the deep end with this.” It really came down to figuring out how to meld the two. I came up with the idea that everything that is real would be digital, and everything supernatural would be traditional, and that boundary line that exists between them is the sort of imaginary boundary that is created by racism, and xenophobia, and hate, and anger, and all that kind of stuff. All of those ephemeral things that kind of keep people separate. They keep people from empathizing with each other. It’s this wall that’s arbitrary that doesn’t really exist, but it’s there psychologically.

With that in mind, I started thinking about the ghosts and what they might seem like, and Pornsak sent me a copy of Uzumaki ,and he had a lot of ideas about this kind of twisted body horror he wanted to see in the book. That kind of gave me the idea of twisting the ghosts in such a way where it’s almost as if you’re seeing them at the exact moment before they die. Like, that infinitesimally small space in time, as this concussive force is ripping through a building, twisting their forms. Their bones are right at the point of breaking, or they’ve even begun to snap, under the muscle, but they have yet to completely rupture all the vessels, and break the skull, and collapse the lungs. The consciousness is still persisting and then boom, they blink out, and that’s what floats off into the night. So, that’s the inception point. From there, it was just like, “Okay, so that worked for that one, now let’s talk about this other ghost.” In addition to that, how can we visually express the aspects of their character that linger into the afterlife? Which is basically just their hate, their rage, and their anger. All of the ghosts have different forms they take, representative of who they were in life and what they carried with them.

BA: I touched on this a little bit earlier with Aaron down in Artist’s Alley, but Pornsak, you and I haven’t talked about this yet. There’s obviously a line you have to tread very carefully with issues surrounding privilege, bias, and racism. The imagery and script have to accurately depict races and religions in ways that are instantly recognizable and obvious, without playing into stereotypes. How’d you find that balance?

PP: You know, it was tough, honestly, which it was great having an editor. One of the challenges I definitely found was you had to drill deep into specificity. Specificity about how people felt about issues. If you drill too deep, it would get dated too quickly. Probably the best bellwether for that was in the first issue with the news program and having the conservative and the liberal commentators. And the problem with talking heads on a news program, it sounds like satire. It’s so over the top. It’s so broad. So you can’t do that faithfully, but you do have to drill down a little bit to find that middle ground. Get to the idea of a specific issue, just deep enough that it feels real, but not so deep it’ll be dated in a month. And now that I’m finished writing it, I’ve found the best shorthand for that, to find a side that works for you, is to just Google whatever topic that is, interracial marriage or whatever, then Google Breitbart and go to the comments section. Pick through a menu of comments until you find the one that has the appropriate intelligence you want. I wish I had known that when I started. It would have made my life so much easier.

AC: Then go have a long, long dreadful shower. Go cry. Weep in the corner of the shower on the floor.

PP: Then you add a bookmark and you only access it when it’s time to write the actual dialogue. But you know it’s there. It’s like, “All right, somewhere in here is what I’m looking for.”

AC: Visually, it’s about doing the research properly. There’s a moment where Aisha is praying in her room, you know, on her prayer rug. Someone might decide to go, “Oh, this is what Muslims do.” You’ve seen it a thousand times. They kneel down and they go like this (lifts arms and spreads hands), and they do it five times and whatever. Use that. That image we all have. But there’s subtlety and there’s ritual in every act, especially in religion and structured faiths, like Islam. So, there are motions, there are movements, things that are said and done in those rituals that are incredibly important to the culture, and to the individual, and to the people who are going to be reading the book who come from that culture. You have to be sure that you show those little bits of moments. The thing with the Muslim prayer beads is that there’s a very specific way you’re supposed to hold them. It’s not a rosary. You don’t interact with it the same way you do with the Catholic rosary. All of that stuff is important and it doesn’t take a lot of time to figure that stuff out. It only takes a conscious effort on my part to be accurate and representative of that. You just take a few moments to do it properly. Do the research correctly. Talk to someone who actually does it, which can be difficult. I live in Albuquerque, NM, and the Muslim population is very small, but you do as much as you can. Be as faithful as possible. So far, I think we got it right.

BA: The last thing we should probably ask is, what’s next? Is there a sequel in the works or a spiritual successor?

PP: I have the faint glimmers of what a sequel could look like. I think it’ll be a while before I’m ready, before the stars align. As far as a spiritual successor, I feel like whatever I write next will be in line with a lot of the themes that appeared here. Having said that, I can only be tantalizingly vague. I’m working on something now that I’ve signed an NDA on, so I can’t talk about it. And the next book is way too early to talk about.

AC: For me, because of the collaborative nature of the process, as it started to go along and how much input I began to have in terms of story and we became a cohesive team and a unit, it gave me the confidence that maybe I can start telling my own stories. I am starting to work on some of my own creator owned projects, in very early stages. Beyond that, everything else is sort of nebulous right now, of course nothing I can talk about. The only thing I really can talk about is the podcast. The podcast is something I just launched. It’s tangentially related to comics because we have started bringing comics guests onto the show, but it’s all about Dungeons and Dragons and role playing games. It’s called Adventure Hook (and can be found here). Basically every episode, we take a basic one sentence log line of a story and spend an hour and a half trying to turn it into a full game, a full story that can be played. We have eleven episodes out, and our first guest is going to be Tim Seeley, for our Halloween episode. We’re excited about that, but yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see what else comes up comics-wise.

BA: All right, fellas. Thank you again so much for taking time the time out of your Con schedules to talk with us.

Brendan M. Allen

Brendan Allen has probably had more jobs than you would reasonably believe. Dog trainer? He’s done it. Flooring contractor? You bet! EMT? Army NBC specialist? Road dog for a Celtic rock band? Yes, yes, and och aye! Now he reads comics and writes about them. It's a rough gig. You can follow Brendan on Twitter @SaintAmish where he mostly tweets about comic books and cystic fibrosis awareness.

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