Interview with INFIDEL Creators Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell
March 2018 sees the release of the hugely anticipated horror story INFIDEL published by Image Comics. We caught up with creators Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell to discuss love, race, Islamophobia and things that go bump in the night!
GG: Before we talk about your latest project, can you tell us about your backgrounds? How did you guys break into comic books?
Pornsak: I pretty much fell ass-backwards into comics. At the time, I was a writer / filmmaker freelancing on NYC indy film sets with no intention of working a 9-to-5 when I heard about an opening at Vertigo Comics, working as Karen Berger’s assistant editor. I only took the interview so I could say I met Karen, since I was such a big fan of hers and Vertigo. I honestly wasn’t really interested in the job. I just wanted to keep freelancing on film sets and eventually become a writer. But one interview led to an editing test that led to another interview and the next thing you know, I had the job. At the time, I took it because it would have been good for me as a writer to learn what the other side of the development desk was like. Every year in comics I always thought would be my last, since I always figured I’d go back to writing. Comics treated me so well, I ended up staying at DC for 12 years. Seven as a Vertigo editor, and for my last five, I helped create and oversaw DC’s TV department.
Aaron: For me, it was really the story of who you know. Back around 2006 a good friend of mine from college, Robert Randle, was working at Diamond Comics Distributors, and he had developed a good relationship with Mark Smylie; this was in the days when Archaia Studio Press was still independent. Rob had started writing a comic script that Mark showed interest in and asked me to draw. At the time, I was focusing on fantasy book cover illustration and not making a lot of headway in the industry so I said, “what the hell.” As a kid, comic book illustration was all I wanted to do so I figured I could draw this book, fulfill that dream of my youth, and then go back to fantasy illustration. Well, two years later, I finally finished drawing the first issue. I then went to SDCC that year to show off the book and ran into another friend of mine from college, Filip Sablik, who was then working for Top Cow. I showed him the book, he really liked it and introduced me to Nick Barrucci – the president of Dynamite. Three months later, Nick offered me a gig drawing Sherlock Holmes with Leah Moore and John Reppion and I’ve been drawing comics ever since. That original project, unfortunately, has never seen the light of day.
GG: Tell us about INFIDEL.
Pornsak: In a nutshell, INFIDEL follows an American Muslim woman and her multi-racial neighbors who find themselves living in a building haunted by strange creatures that seem to feed on xenophobia. It’s our attempt to update the haunted house story as aggressively as possible, partly by having the world of the book reflect the world we see outside our window. It tackles themes like xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism – these seemingly omnipresent forces in our society while questioning if we understand them well enough to fight them.
GG: How did you come up with the idea…and why?
Pornsak: I came up with the idea of INFIDEL years ago, back when Barack Obama was president, and it was an idea I slowly developed on my off-hours. Back then, the first inspiration was how people were talking about a post-racial society become we had a black president and yet Islamophobia was still rampantly on the rise. It dovetailed with my love of horror movies, and suddenly I found I had one of those ideas that was so simple I couldn’t believe anyone hadn’t done it sooner. As the years passed, and the themes of the book became more and more relevant to the world, I felt like I couldn’t just have the idea collecting cobwebs, I needed to put this book out there.
GG: How was the creative team put together? Have you and Aaron worked together before?
Pornsak: My editor Jose Villarrubia introduced me to Aaron’s work. Jose, of course, is a legendary comic book colorist, working with everyone from Alan Moore to J.H. Williams to Paul Pope. I worked with Jose during my time at Vertigo and he became a dear friend who I loved talking art with, since he had such an encyclopedic knowledge of it. So when I was putting this book together, Jose was one of my first calls, and he suggested coming onboard as editor of the project. Aaron can probably best tell you his history with Jose, but in the beginning, I only knew of Aaron as a fan of his work on The Shadow with Garth Ennis and Uncanny with Andy Diggle. Once I started talking to him, though, I felt so lucky he was available to draw the book. Aaron: For me, it came, seemingly, out of the blue. One day, I received a message on Facebook from Jose asking if I’d be interested in the project. Jose is another one of my college connections. He had begun teaching at the Maryland Institute, College Art (MICA) while I was a student and, though I was never in any of his classes, me and the rest of the comic nerds were well aware of his work and reputation. About a decade after graduating, I reconnected with Jose at the Baltimore Comic Con, and we stayed in contact ever since. So naturally I jumped at this opportunity.
GG: Aaron’s artwork is stunning. Were you looking for a particular art style to bring this horror book to life?
Pornsak: I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that Aaron even exists as an artist. Jose and I knew what we needed with INFIDEL. Since it was a book with a multi-racial cast, we knew we needed someone with a somewhat realistic style, since when you try to do multiple ethnicities in too stylized a manner, those depictions can easily 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, he had to draw scary, which – while there are a lot of artist drawing horror comics – there aren’t a ton who actually draw scary. On top of that, we wanted a professional that we could trust wouldn’t flake out on us. On top of that, he had to not be scooped up by Marvel and DC. So it felt like an almost impossible task. But Aaron fit all those bills and not only that, we both saw eye to eye in terms of horror and the themes of the book. We’re even around the same age, so it’s just amazing that it all lined up.
Aaron: Ah shucks! You’re too kind. I’d just like to add that I’m so thankful Pornsak and Jose were willing to give me a chance on this book. I’ve never actually drawn horror before but I have always wanted to. The horror genre is easily my favorite. But transitioning from pulp and plain clothed detective comics is a tough nut to crack. It can be very difficult to convince editors that you can do more than one thing. I swear, I can draw more than just thick jaws brutes in fedoras and trench coats. What kind of themes does the book explore? Pornsak: One of the things we’re really interested in exploring is the line connecting all types of xenophobia from Islamophobia to racism to institutional bias, especially in intersectional communities. There’s an ongoing conversation about race and racism that’s happening in this country right now, and it’s something I’m very, very interested in. One of the things that makes race, privilege, and racism – both institutional and overt – tricky topics to talk about is because of how little we agree on what it looks like and how it manifests. And if we can’t come to any consensus on that, how do we fight it? What side do you take? Is it even an issue with clearly defined “sides”? That entire line of thinking very much is behind the genesis of INFIDEL.
GG: The main protagonist in the book is a Muslim American woman. Tell us about her character?
Pornsak: Aisha Hasan is a Pakistani-Muslim who was born and raised in New Jersey. While she’s still a practicing Muslim, she’s also engaged to a white non-Muslim single father. That leaves both her and her fiancé trying to figure out which of the traditional beliefs they were raised with makes the most sense in their current situations, and the tensions their choices unearths in both of their families – and the different ways they both deal with it – is something that’s paramount on their minds. And that’s before the creatures pop up… So the title of the book, “Infidel”, is quite emotive in the current climate.
GG: How did you arrive at the title?
Pornsak: If you go way back to its root, the word infidel comes from the Latin infidelis which means, “unfaithful.” Of course, pop culture has us associating that word coming from the mouths of gun-toting religious zealots. The story plays on both contexts, and hopefully, readers will find interesting the different ways the title continues to be relevant as the story progresses – hopefully, more often than not, nowhere in the direction they think it’s going to.
GG: Given the potentially controversial themes running through the book, it maybe forgotten that this is a horror book! What can fans of the horror genre look forward to in this book?
Pornsak: The entire team is trying to update the horror genre as aggressively as possible. We’ve taken the haunted house, which is usually found isolated in the countryside or the suburbs and moved it to an apartment building in New York City. And we wanted the book to represent the many different perspectives we find in New York — White, black, old, young, Pakistani, Indian, Asian, male, female, etc. The family drama we see in the book revolves around inter-faith, mixed background relationships. Also, part of the fun and educational parts of writing this has been realizing the number of things which we take for granted that have now changed. Twenty-somethings don’t really leave TVs on in their room as much as they used to. They usually watch their shows streaming and as a result, it’s only on when they want to pay attention to it. They don’t call each other to hang out; they text. And when was the last time you saw someone physically hold a photograph?
Aaron: I think that a lot of readers are going to assume that this a political book thinly disguised as horror. The thing is, it’s not. This is a true horror book that’s centered around a cast of characters that you are unlikely to have seen in this genre before in quite this way. Horror is ubiquitous. It is no respecter of race or culture or creed. It can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime, and for any reason. Pornsak simply asks the question of what could a supernatural horror story look like for this particular group of people? In this day and age, what would be the most compelling and honest existential threat for these characters? Enter the story without preconception, and I truly believe you be pleasantly and dreadfully surprised! Are there any future plans for “Infidel”, another series or even a TV/Movie adaptation? Pornsak: Right now, we’re trying to keep ourselves focused on this series, but the entire team has talked about what a follow-up sequel or prequel could look like. And a TV / Movie adaptation would always be wonderful, but at the moment, the challenge we’ve set for ourselves is to make a comic that would be better than an TV / movie version could ever be, and we’ll let the audience tell us how well we did.
Infidel is released on March 14, 2018 by Image Comics.