Pornsak Pichetshote is a former Vertigo editor, having worked on titles including Seaguy, WE3, and Sweet Tooth, and current comic book writer. Aaron Campbell is a comic book artist, who has worked on titles including Dark Shadows, Green Hornet: Year One, and Uncanny. Together they create Infidel, out now from Image Comics.
Tim: Only two issues into its run, Infidel was optioned for a movie. To top that, your next series will have to be optioned at issue one. Is that doable?
Pornsak: Yeah, yeah. I actually want the next book to be optioned ten words into the thing. So literally you'll be reading the first ten words and your thing will ping that it's been optioned.
Aaron: Without naming names, I was hanging out with a friend the other night. He was like, "The book I've been working on has been optioned but it hasn't been announced yet."
Pornsak: It's a crazy time for comics. There's a lot of that going around. It worked out well for us.
Tim: Infidel has subtle moments of familial camaraderie before diving into horror. Is that contrast necessary to hammer home the horror aspect?
Pornsak: I think so. It has a little something with feeling comfortable and getting to know these people as people. That's where the humor kind of comes from too. They let their guards down around each other and they can be silly. Whatever the case may be. That's why when the horror comes, it hits you that much more. You don't want everything turned up to 11 the whole time because there's no place for you to get scared. Absolutely 100% that's an intentional thing.
Tim: How do you translate horror to a static medium? Movies rely on jump scares, but with comics it's read at your own pace. How do you bring horror to the page?
Aaron: Making the most viscerally unsettling images I possibly can. One of the things that helped a lot with this is that I was experimenting with my technique by combining digital and traditional processes. I was looking a lot to the greats of 1990s Vertigo: Dave McKean and Kent Williams. All those guys that were doing a lot of experimental stuff. I was thinking, "How can I do something that's experimental now?" In sort of the vein they were experimenting. I was like, "Who's combined digital and traditional?" I can't think of examples. I thought it would be interesting if everything that was real was digital and everything that was supernatural was traditional. My idea, or my excuse I always say, is that the boundary that sort of exists, this ephemeral metaphorical boundary, that exists between digital and traditional media is the boundary of hate and racism. All that stuff.
What I think that ended up unintentionally doing was causing an effect like a jump scare and we'd have a big reveal like in issue one, when the lights go out and Aisha's walking down a hallway. She turns the corner and you turn the page. There's the ghost and suddenly it's a different comic all of a sudden. Because it's a different technique altogether. I think a lot of that helped to sort of hyper-realize the ghosts. They're almost more real than the real people are. And I think it's sort of a cerebral shock to go from these two mediums. And it was just a lot of a lot of disturbing reference searches.
Pornsak: I think too there's the thing about like different media will have different strengths. People are terrified of Stephen King novels. I've never heard of someone being so scared they dropped the book. Fear works in different ways depending how the medium works. So much about Infidel was trying to figure out how scares look like in comics. Yes we can control time to a limited degree. In live-action most of your scares come from choreography more than anything else. Our choreography are our page turns. But we get 11 of them an issue because there's only 22 pages. From there, it's trying to find the things that really work in comics.
When I was going over my favorite horror comics, the thing that I kind of realized is that we might not be able to control time as well as live-action media, but we can control space way better. By that, it's what everything Aaron is talking about. Stuff like body horror. Which I don't like in movies because most of the time it feels cheap and it doesn't really work, works really well in comics. We can do it a lot more. The brainpower it takes to animate something between the gutters, we're still doing it. When we see these bizarre shapes, we don't bip out the way do in live-action. We don't see the fakeness of it because we've already imbued it with a certain amount of life. That's what we do in comics. Then it was a matter of finding the specificities like how can we really go crazy with that.
We've talked a lot about how so much of the body horror from this book comes from the body bending but not breaking. It contorts to the point where you expect an explosion of blood but it doesn't. There's that kind of tension it gives you. But there's also this sense of doing scares, because you're used to seeing this thing in live-action, doing things you could never see in a movie. The page that Aaron drew with the enormous face that comes out, you'll never see a movie do that since it'll just look horrible. That was part of the fun too. Finding the things that they just can't do anywhere else and doing them with comics.
Tim: You say they can't do it in a movie and the comic is optioned for a movie.
Pornsak: That's something that I actually love. I told them I'd like to see how they'll pull this off. We set it up specifically so they can't pull this off.
Tim: How does New York City play a role in the story?
Pornsak: Oh god. We both lived in New York. Literally everyone on the book has lived in New York at one point. It's a multi-cultural city. I love New York because you walk down the street and I feel like you're walking in the future. There are three to four languages being spoken at a time. There are six or seven ethnicities. Somehow they all manage to co-exist and not kill each other. That was a big portion of it too. Something that was important to me was a city that was seen as a liberal city. So much of this book I wanted to be about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia in liberal communities. It would be too easy and low-hanging fruit to do like the "Trump-supporter" version of this kind of thing. The world would be a much easier and nicer place if racism and xenophobia fell down party lines and it just doesn't. That's why New York to me was so important. I know so much of Aaron's personal experiences in New York kind of influenced the book as well.
Aaron: Just designing the buildings was based on where I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. It was an old pre-war building that was operated and owned by this old Hungarian woman. Everybody who lived there was a character. Some of them were real weirdos. Some of them just assholes. It's like The Shining. These buildings have this personality. It takes on the personality by melding the unique characters that live in them. When I read about Mr. Fields, I remember the old woman in my building who was like that.
Pornsak: Everyone has an old weirdo in their building. Every single person.
Aaron: I remember always walking past one apartment and you could hear the children playing inside. I never saw those children in two years that I lived there!
Pornsak: There's always that apartment like, "Are they still there?" You kind of expect them to be hauled out on a stretcher at some point. Every building has those kind of people.
Tim: With xenophobia still an unfortunate issue today, do you feel this story is more important than ever?
Pornsak: I think so. I had come up with this story for awhile and it just sat in a drawer. The world was turning into the world. It felt like the themes were so relevant it felt like I needed to get it out there. I thought so. The audience will decide whether it's relevant or not. But I certainly felt so in creating it. Absolutely.
Tim: Pornsak, you come from an editorial background. Was writing always the goal?
Pornsak: Yeah, it's funny. I spent 12 years at DC, starting off as a Vertigo editor, then becoming a television executive. I loved every minute of it. But there was this weird digression from writing. I originally took the job for Karen [Berger]. I thought knowing what it was like on the other side of the desk would help me be a writer. The industry treated me very well and I had a lot of fun doing it that it made it really hard to step away. I finally hit that point where I'd regret it my entire life if I didn't step away and tell my own stories. Working with Aaron is very much a part of that.
Tim: Are the ghosts in Infidel a type of residual haunting, where a traumatic event embeds itself in an object or a location?
Pornsak: I want to be careful how I answer that question. I kind of like the idea that there are 18 different ways to answer that question and you're not quite sure which one it is. I think in 17 different versions of that, you're kind of right?
Aaron: Yeah, yeah.
Pornsak: Know what I mean? But as the author not specifying the math, like the calculus, of the point.
Aaron: I would point out an interesting serendipity that I had while working on it. This does not answer the question. But it is an incredible serendipity. When Pornsak was talking about how the ghosts sort of were in their last moments of their life, the body was bending but not breaking. That was my conceit that the ghosts present themselves is how their bodies looked in that exact final moment when they still had existence right before consciousness shuts down. The body is sort of being twisted by the concussive force of the explosion ripping through the building. It's affecting each ghost creature when they were alive in different ways. What they bring with them to the other side is just the anger and the hate. I found out later that is the myth of the Ifrit in Islamic myth and lore. That's what an Ifrit is. It is the thing that's left from a violent death that then haunts life because it hates life. It gave me chills when I found out. That's so crazy.