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It’s been a big week for Infidel.
On Wednesday, news broke that Michael Sugar and TriStar will adapt the new Image Comics series for the big screen — a deal that arrived before the third issue of the series even hit stores. The five-issue horror story centers on Aisha, an American Muslim whose mixed-race family and friends live in a building that appears to be haunted — although not everyone’s aware of it.
Infidel launched in March, and sees the writing debut of Pornsak Pichetshote, former editor of DC Entertainment’s Vertigo imprint. The series is illustrated by Aaron Campbell, whose work has appeared in Dynamite Entertainment’s Sherlock Holmes and The Shadow comics, as well as DC’s House of Mystery.
Shortly after the movie deal broke, Heat Vision spoke with Pichetshote, Campbell and colorist/editor Jose Villarrubia about the series, and what the property’s big-screen future means for them as the series heads into its final three issues. The third issue of Infidel will be released in comic book stories and digitally May 16 (preview pages by Campbell and Villarrubia from the issue accompany the interview below).
Infidel feels very much like a horror story that could only be told now: it’s as much about race relations in the U.S. as it is about the haunted house aspect of the story. Horror has always been on some level about society’s very real fears, but it feels like race has been one that’s always been examined under layers of metaphor and disguise up until, maybe, Get Out last year. Does this feel like unexplored space to you? And if so, were there nerves about being some of the first to explore it?
Pornsak Pichetshote: So many nerves. All the nerves. There were two central conceits that Infidel plays off of. As you noticed, it very consciously wants to explore the cultural moment we’re in right now. We’re coming at a time where America as a culture wants to talk about issues of race and gender that it previous hasn’t, and one of the things we’re quickly finding as a society is that we haven’t developed the vocabulary to talk about those issues, because we haven’t been encouraged to talk about it. I know I certainly hold my breath when people I admire talk about an experience outside their race and gender now, because I’ve gotten more used to people getting it wrong than getting it right.
So that, in my opinion, is the world outside my window, where things like racism and xenophobia unequivocally exist, and while we can all agree it’s insidious, we can’t necessarily agree with what it looks like. And if we can’t agree on that, how do we fight it? So, the idea with Infidel was to acknowledge that world and plop something as familiar as a haunted house story on top of it, and see how it makes something familiar different.
Then, I wanted a story that looked like the world outside my window. That looked like me and my closest friends. A group of people of different ethnicities and faiths where our life decisions are informed by our backgrounds and not incidental to them. But to tell a story that seeks to cover a multitude of ethnic perspectives while striving to be accurate to them and not exploitative is a terrifying task. Especially on a topic that’s steeped with so much uncertainty and confusion. So yeah, every aspect of writing this book scares me.
Aaron Campbell: I definitely feel that this has gone unexplored, especially in the ghost genre. Ghost stories have always existed as a proxy for our own existential fears about life and all its unknowable qualities. Ghosts themselves are irrational actors. They are the residue of a broken or tormented life and so life itself become the focus of their rage. This is, in essence, how bigotry and xenophobia find their genesis. A person struggles with life and looks outward for the source. They do not have the capability or desire to take ownership over their own failures and shortcomings and so they point the finger where it is easiest — the other. The ghost is the perfect template for these ideas. Frankly, I’m astonished it’s never been done before.
It’s a cliche to ask where the story came from, and I feel as if Pornsak’s text piece from the second issue actually answers the question to some extent when he talks about his mother’s warnings about his living in the U.S. But, all that said, how did the series get started? I feel like all of you have backgrounds in comic book horror, or at least suspense, before now, but how did you all come together to work on this book?
Pichetshote: I’ve been friends with Jose Villarrubia since my time as an editor at Vertigo, and from that time, my favorite game to play with him whenever I got a new book greenlit was to pick his brain on who the best artist could be. Because, as one of the most respected colorists in the medium, Jose has a vocabulary of comic book artists that’s almost singular in this industry. Plus, so much of doing this book was getting the excuse to call old friends again, because it had been a while since I’d been in the trenches making comics.
From there, Jose mentioned he wanted to edit it, and I loved the idea that me as an ex-editor and Jose as a colorist both stretching our legs to do something we’re not normally associated with, so saying yes to Jose was kind of a no-brainer. Jose then brought Aaron on board, since Jose used to teach at the school Aaron attended. From there, Jeff Powell was a designer I had my eye on and wanted to work with for ages, so then we added him to the team.
By the way, to say “Jose brought Aaron on board” is to undersell Aaron’s contribution by a long shot. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that Aaron even exists as an artist. Jose and I knew we needed someone with a somewhat realistic style to handle the book’s multi-racial cast, 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 artists 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 ticked all those boxes and, in addition, we both saw eye to eye in terms of horror and the themes of the book. It’s one of those amazing comics synergies that you hear about, but it’s still nothing short of amazing when it happens to you.
Jose Villarrubia: Pornsak had the idea of Infidel for years. When he decided to turn it into a comics mini-series, to later be collected as a graphic novel, he contacted me and told me all about it. I thought it sounded terribly exciting. Pornsak had been my editor at Vertigo for some of my favorite projects: Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth, Crossing Midnight and the graphic novel Aaron and Ahmed, A Love Story, which dealt with the causes of terrorism. We had become good friends and I told him that I would love the opportunity to be an editor, particularly for a very interesting project like Infidel. Pornsak agreed and we got to work right away, discussing the plot, characters, title of the series, etc…
One major point that Pornsak entrusted me was to find the right artists for the series. After much consideration, I proposed Aaron, whom I have known for a couple decades, and whose style I felt would be ideal for the series. And Pornsak suggested Jeff Powell to be our designer, letterer and de facto production manager. After that the team was set and we all got to work together.
Something that struck me about the first two issues is how much the art informs the reader in really subtle ways — not just the character acting, but also in the pacing of scenes and panel placement. Along those same lines, the coloring feels central to the tone of each scene. It’s a comic where the visuals are doing so much work, almost invisibly. How did you get there? What’s the give-and-take of the team like, and what kind of communication happens between the team when working on each issue?
Villarrubia: This is how the creative process for Infidel has been: first Pornsak discusses the plot for each issue with me and I give him honest feedback and suggestions. Then we do this again with the different versions of the script. When it is ready, Aaron pitches in and sometimes makes suggestions. Then he draws the layouts and Pornsak and I give him notes. When they are ready he draws the pages, which then I color, following Pornsak’s and Aaron’s directions. When I am done, they give me feedback on the colors — I told Pornsak from the beginning, I cannot edit my own colors. After I make my color adjustments, Jeff letters each issue, and then we all do small final tweaks… It sounds complicated, but it actually has been very a very smooth process. In terms of letting the art telling the story, the credit goes to Pornsak, who knows perfectly when to use text and how much, and to Aaron, who is a consummate storyteller. A common mistake in comics is redundancy: the text repeating what is in the drawing. Because of my partners’ years of experience, it has not happened even once in the series.
Campbell: Infidel has become a true collaboration. We’ve kind of gotten to the point where the scripts evolve through our process. Once Pornsak sends the script I start conceptualizing the visuals and often come up with ideas that suggest new story elements. I take those ideas to Pornsak and Jose and we end up having these incredibly dense discussions about the story. And, next thing we know, Pornsak has adjusted the script accordingly. So, at the end of the day, this project has become the most rewarding thing I’ve ever worked on because of the feeling of ownership and investment.
Villarrubia: Regarding the colors, Pornsak and Aaron asked me very specifically for desaturated, “realistic” palettes in the everyday scenes, and some experimentation in the ghosts’ scenes. I have been very conscious of keeping the color as an element supporting the art, and not “showing off” or distracting. The most important aspect of not just the script, but also the art and color is to serve the story and do it justice.
Actually, I want to get back to the pacing for a second; there’s such a wonderfully slow, deliberate build to the first two issues — a creeping sense of dread that just gets worse and worse. Infidel is clearly a finite story, but does that impact the way you structure each issue? Is there a sense of, “We have to have this big scene here, so that the reader gets their money’s worth”?
Pichetshote: It’s less having to get this big scene here, and more, since we do know what the entire story is, how do we split it up, so that each issue has the right balance of horror, suspense and conversations about race and religion that the reader is plopping down their hard-earned money for? Also, how do we continually escalate the dread in a way that will be surprising each month, but doesn’t crowd the character moments? After you figure that out, the pacing actually comes pretty naturally from there.
One of the things the series does particularly well is play with the audience’s expectations. There’s a logline for the book, but it’s something not explicitly addressed in the story within the first two issues. Is this simply part of the horror genre for you as creators, or was the idea that neither Aisha nor the reader really knows what’s happening something very deliberate on your behalf, to amplify the unease?
Pichetshote: It’s definitely very deliberate. One of the key tools in horror is uncertainty. What humans do to comfort ourselves is surround ourselves with facts. It provides a platform on which to place a surer footing. Take that away, and we’re off balance, and that’s always the best time to scare someone. Also, one of the things we’ve been very happy to find is how much people are paying attention to all the little details of the book, and we think that’s very much a result of first connecting with the characters and then looking for answers that we present in the work even if none of our characters ever verbalize them.
So, having the audience just as uncertain as Aisha about what’s really happening helps you empathize with her experience. One of my favorite horror movies, for example, is The Shining. People still debate what exactly happened in that movie even while people almost universally at this point, it’s one of the scariest movies of all time. Those two facts aren’t coincidental.
Campbell: I think Pornsak summed it up perfectly.
I’m curious about what the movie announcement means for you. The series is still in process, not even half-over, and hopefully the news will draw more attention to it. Does the knowledge that the story you’re creating will be adapted to another medium make you reconsider what you’ve already created? In your statement, you described the deal as “enormously flattering,” but is there also a sense of validation in knowing that it’s caused such a reaction— or excitement, perhaps, to see people’s reactions as the story continues to twist and turn?
Villarrubia: The knowledge that the story we created will be adapted doesn’t change anything about what we are doing. We are finishing issue five right now, and we are completing it in the way that was originally planned. I am personally very flattered that this book has attracted both uniformly excellent reviews and Hollywood attention, particularly being my first time editing a project.
Pichetshote: I very sincerely meant what we said in our press release: It’s enormously flattering to find that other people find that something created from your very personal fears and anxieties might have a bigger audience. And that they want to help it find that audience. And I’m kind of in awe of the sheer talent of the people who are looking to do it. So, I really don’t want to come across as too cool for school, because I’m a very big fan of Michael Sugar, Sugar23 and Tri-Star.
Campbell: Personally, I see this as kind of the ultimate validation. Michael Sugar had such confidence in the book that he snatched it up with only two issues out! That’s astonishing to me. It tells me that we have actually created something of real value and no matter what comes from this option in my opinion this is proof that the source material will always stand on its own merits. But I’ll tell you, I am positive that Michael Sugar is going to make something absolutely amazing.
Pichetshote: That said, when I was writing the book, I didn’t dream for it to be as good as all these great movies in the multiplex. I dreamed for it to be as good as all these great novels on my shelf – and that includes the graphic novels. Because comics are literature. Some have this perception that getting a film or TV option legitimizes a comic book, and I respectfully really don’t agree with that. There’s always a sense of validation when people like your work, and you’re right, hopefully, the extra attention brings more people to the comic, but I feel more validation hearing from the people who are moved by the book of how it resonates with their own experiences in interracial dating. Or through the Muslims who feel like we got the little details right. Or the jaded comics professionals who actually find the book scary. And yeah, every single one of those comments lights me up in a way I can’t describe.
I guess what I’m saying is, I love comics. I really, really do, and I personally get the most validation from the people who read them or make them. I’m honored whenever people tell us they enjoy reading the book or think we’re making good comics. And on the flip side, it makes me terrified of letting them down. So, I love seeing and hearing people’s reactions, and while I can’t wait to see what they do with it as a movie, I want the comic to blow it out of the water. [Laughs]
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