Discussing The Elusive Horror Of Infidel With Pornsak Pichetshote

by Hannah Means Shannon

There’s been plenty of well-deserved buzz building for upcoming Image Comics title Infidel, written by former Vertigo Editor and writer Pornsak Pichetshote, illustrated by Aaron Campbell, and colored by Jose Villarubia, with letters and designs by Jeff Powell.
The series is a horror tale that takes quite a different tack than most by telescoping racial and religious tensions quite openly, in fact it’s a mainstay of the plot, and also by making this very much a story set in the “here and now” as a 21st century-set New York narrative. Horrific influences begin to exert themselves over the people in a specific apartment building, and their energy seems to be drawn from and fueled by xenophobia. A young Muslim-American is our central character, but a large cast will likely be inherent in a story about the effect of an apartment building on people from various walks of life.
We got a chance to hear from writer Pichetshote back at New York Comic Con 2017 courtesy of Image Comics, but this week, we had an opportunity to speak to him again with the excitement of imminent release for the series building towards March 14th, 2018.

HMS: When you approach the supernatural in Infidel, are you drawing on a kind of build-up of negative energy in a place becoming malevolent, or more of a kind of negative “time loop” experience for tenants, or full-on autonomous, conscious evil entities at work? What influenced your choices there?
Pornsak Pichetshote: That’s a great question, but also one I want to answer very carefully, since that great question fuels some of the mystery which the series doesn’t resolve until the final issue. What I will say is Infidel is all about the people—our Pakistani-American Muslim protagonist and her multi-racial neighbors—living in this building seemingly haunted by creatures driven by xenophobia. And it’s also true that there’s a long history of “revenge” ghost stories—whether we’re talking old EC’s Tales from the Crypt eight-pagers or movies like The Grudge to name just a tiny range, where ghosts seem to act as extreme, unresolved emotions. We are definitely playing into that tradition in Infidel while also adding our own unique spin to it. I know that’s a maddeningly vague answer, but I think part of the fun of the book will be figuring out what the “rules” of the creatures are all the way to the end.

HMS: What are the advantages and/or challenges of making a specific location so key to the plot of a story? Does it become a way of intensifying things, “bottling” the plot?
PP: Honestly, for me as a comic book writer, I see the challenges way more clearly than the advantages. The joy of writing a comic is the limitless canvas you can work with, with the limit being only whatever your artist can’t draw, and Aaron Campbell can draw anything. So, you run the risk of boring your audience with the same backgrounds again and again by setting it in such a claustrophobic space, and that’s one of the very real concerns we’re constantly trying to fight in this book. Our main weapon against it is Aaron Campbell. His characters are so three-dimensional, so lived-in, and their acting so compelling that you focus on them rather than the setting, which is just pure great storytelling at work. Then, the other advantage we have are our creatures themselves, as we explore the terrifying and supernatural ways they evolve through the course of the book. When the creatures pop up, that’s when we get to the take advantage of the limitless possibilities of comics again.
As for the advantages, the hope is that locking the setting to one place intensifies the tension, “bottling it,” like you say (a term I really like and will now end up stealing :)). Again, the only thing that really makes that possible, though, is Aaron’s art and the lengths he goes to for naturalism. Part of what he did in the development of the series was construct a 3-D model of the building, so he has intimate knowledge of rooms I have no idea about and that we may never see. But all of that attention to detail helps ground the reader, and I do think having the whole thing set in one primary place makes it easier to commit for an artist to commit to that kind of preparation.

HMS: What was your thinking surrounding writing a central female character as Muslim-American woman? Did you need to find a middle ground between writing a character who Muslim-Americans will identify with and non-Muslim Americans can learn to understand better? Or was this more a situation of simply having wider representation in a main character?
PP: Honestly, it all had to do with what I wanted to explore. I wanted to tell a story about xenophobia and racism, and it felt like if I wanted to really explore those issues in this time in history, it made sense to have a protagonist that was feeling the heaviest, most varied brunt of it, and to me, that’s a brown Muslim woman. And while the fact that experience hadn’t been explored in a lot in fiction did make the character more appealing to me, once I made that decision, the responsibility to get the character right kicked in. And it kicked in hard. And that involved talking to a lot of friends as well as making some new ones who could help me use my experiences as an Asian-American man to help me empathize with a South Asian Muslim woman. And then finding the version of the character that based on my life and those of my friends, I can truly say with authority, OK, I know this character inside and out. And then after all that work, it’s praying I didn’t screw up. I can’t emphasize enough how integral praying I didn’t screw up is to this process.

HMS: Xenophobia seems to operate in so many levels of degree, and in so many modes of expression, but in writing a story like this one, what basic elements did you find in common across the board that makes it recognizable as essentially the same, pernicious force at work?
PP: What’s funny about this question is that, to me, your question is also your answer. You’re 100% right. Xenophobia does seem to operate and exhibit itself in so many different ways, and part of what the book is about is how hard it is for different people to agree on what xenophobia looks like, and how it can look so different in different contexts despite our best intentions. If racism looks so different depending on who’s looking at it, how do you fight it? Especially if people can’t agree when and where it’s happening? When they don’t even feel comfortable talking about it? That idea is something we’re very much interested in exploring in the book.

HMS: Can you share a few highlights with us about what excites you the most in Aaron Campbell, Jose Villarrubia, and Jeff Powell’s work on Infidel?
PP: God, where do I start with all three of them? I could write a book about all the things that excite me about working with Aaron Campbell alone—his characters’ acting, his ability to draw scary, his love of formal experimentation. So instead of writing a novel about that, let me talk about what I think all three have in common that I find exciting:  Aaron, Jose, and Jeff are all amazing artists in their own rights, with their own unique voices and aesthetics, but all four of us are storytellers first. The first rule of story is story rules, and it’s a mantra the whole team lives and dies by. Every single one of us want this book to look as amazing as possible (and having just signed off on the first issue going to printer, I cannot get over how gorgeous every page all the way down to the design pages look), but every single one of us will instantly kill our darlings if it threatens to jeopardize the first rule of story.
As an editor, I’ve worked on a lot of comics, and you don’t always get that in a team as much as you’d like. Because every book is made up of a team of freelancers, it’s very tempting for each person to try and protect their turf and make sure their part shines, so I think one of the reasons I feel so lucky to be part of this team is that all of our priorities is telling this story first.
Thanks very much to Pornsak Pichetshote for joining us and speaking so candidly about this fascinating new comic!
Check out an early look at covers for Infidel #2, with a main cover by Jose Villarubia and a variant cover by David Mack below!
Infidel #1 will arrive in comic shops from Image Comics on March 14th, 2018, and reaches Final Order Cut-Off (FOC) on Monday, February 19th, 2018, so get your orders in with your local comic shop!

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