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Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit 'Infidel'

Comic Books

Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit ‘Infidel’

Creators Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell talk what went into their smash hit ‘Infidel’ at SDCC.

It was an average San Diego morning at the Hilton Plaza restaurant in July. Members of the 501st Legion were assembling for some sort of parade. San Diego Comic Con badge holders were grabbing a quick meal before heading into the crowded convention center for a Saturday full of geek heaven. There sat two guys, both calmly enjoying the morning, comparing their schedules for the remainder of the weekend. The crowds around were oblivious to the fact that these two were none other than Aaron Campbell and Pornsak Pichetshote, creators of the breakout horror comic hit Infidel, a comic that got picked up for a feature film by Tri-Star Pictures after just two issues.

Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit 'Infidel'

The cover for the trade paperback, out Wednesday.

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“Pornsak called and said ‘We just won the lottery, man,'” recalled artist Aaron Campbell as writer Pornsak Pichetshote finished up his breakfast. “For me it was just very difficult to process, but what I say to people is ultimately what it says is there is real value in what we created here. Whether or not the film gets made, or whether or not it stays faithful to the source material, it will ultimately drive people to the book — the option alone tells people that people of high standing and high talent have confidence in this story”

That confidence is certainly deserved, as Infidel released on a monthly basis to stellar reviews from critics and plenty of buzz from readers on social media. With the trade paperback out this Wednesday and Halloween right around the corner, there’s no better time to experience one of the best horror comics in recent memory, whether you’re a first time reader or revisiting the series after its initial run.

Make no mistake, this is a genuinely scary book. Not only do Pichetshote and Campbell present a tremendously suffocating atmosphere throughout the series, they provide genuine jump scares despite being beholden to the comic book medium without sound and a tenuous grasp of timing. Yet in Infidel, readers often turn the page to be shocked by a horrendous, grotesque creature screeching at them.

Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit 'Infidel'

“In comics we can’t control time. We can control space, but we can’t control time. The only time we can control time is at a page turn,” said Pichetshote. “But if you’re doing a comic for Marvel or DC, you don’t control your page turn because you don’t know where the ads fall- that’s the great thing about Image, you know if they’re are even going to be ads and where they’re going to fall, you just have complete control over everything. So therefore you can be very specific.”

“I think another thing that was important in establishing those jump-scares is that I don’t think we were even consciously doing it,” Campbell said. “I don’t think we were thinking to ourselves ‘oh yeah this is gonna get ’em. They’re gonna turn that page and  then ahhh- they’re scared,’ but what we were conscious of was this idea of the reveal that we were trying to make sure was very well staged.”

Like many of the best things in life, the genuinely surprising scares within Infidel were basically an accident, happening during an initial review of the first issue. Pichetshote explained, in detail:

“When I wrote issue one, there was a scare there, the first full splash of where ghost pops up, and I remember when I wrote that it was on a right hand page. It wasn’t on a page turn because when I wrote it, it didn’t think it would be that much of a jump when you got there. To me the jump was what happened to the ghost afterwords. Then Aaron drew it and I thought ‘oh my god why is this not a page turn page?!’ So we actually went in and added a title page on page five to offset all that.”

Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit 'Infidel'

It’s not simply a mastery of page placement and timing that makes Infidel such an exquisite comic endeavor — it’s the incredibly horrific, twisted, and unsettling ghosts that haunt the characters throughout the series. These creatures may be otherworldly, but they’re not unrecognizable. In fact, it’s the extremely familiar emotional range they display that adds to how frightening they are.

Campbell explains that he, Pichetshote, and colorist/editor Jose Villarrubia had “this idea of what makes compelling body horror — the ability to twist the body without breaking it, without going to that place of gore.” Gore, as Campbell points out, is routinely used so extensively in slasher films and other horror stories that it quickly becomes more comical and less unnerving — excessive gore removes the humanity from the story. This was a trope Campbell was hellbent on avoiding.

“I was thinking how can I do this in away that these ghosts still feel human but completely other as well,” Campbell said. “So the idea I ended up landing on was that they present themselves sorta exactly how they looked at the exact final moment they were alive.”

Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit 'Infidel'

The result? Haunting renditions of ghosts trapped in moments of excruciating pain with no release. These apparitions were sent to their untimely end by a massive explosion in a calm New York apartment, meaning they were trapped in the agonizing moments after the blast.

Campbell said it best, having explained how the concussive force of the explosions “twists their body to the breaking point with limbs turning in on themselves, yet still in a mode of consciousness, then suddenly right as the body breaks it ends- and I cut it off right there. Where they don’t get the sweet sweet release of the break, they’re always in this state of high tension.”

With that extreme physical pain comes the mental anguish, which for these spirits, was channeled through angry, xenophobic energy. These were middle class New Yorkers who, at the time of their deaths, believed they were victims of an Islamic terrorist attack, leaving their final moments shrouded in racist vile.

As the story progresses, readers find out more and more members of this haunted apartment building engage in racist tendencies, with some even spouting truly horrific things. However, where Infidel differs from other books is the way in which the spectrum of racism is presented. There are characters on one side who are overtly-protective and too afraid of coming off insensitive, characters in the middle who are inquisitive of their own privilege and prejudice, and those who spew downright horrible shit.

Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit 'Infidel'

“It’s one thing we wanted to throw out there with this book. If you aren’t having that conversation [of what racism is and whether you are engaging in racist behavior] with your self or other people, then how much of the problem are you?”

Writing those middle ground characters made the book more accessible, allowing more people to see themselves in the characters within the book. Crafting the characters on the problematic side of the spectrum, however, proved a challenge for Pichetshote. He set aside entire days with the hopes of adequately researching and understanding the machinations of a bigotted mind in the hopes of presenting them more genuinely.

“The problem with a lot of that speech is that it’s so over the top — if you try to represent it accurately or you try a concise representation of it, it feels like parody. And you don’t want to do that,” said Pichetshote. “So I had to drill deep into it so I could see the logic behind it, whether I agree with it or not, but not go so deep that it became so topical it was out of date.”

Luckily for Pichetshote, he discovered a shortcut for writing racism for whatever his next project may be should he need it. “If you want a character to be racist about a topic, find the Breitbart article about that topic then go to the comments section, and you’ll get everything you need, you can pick and choose which version you want,” Pichetshote joked amidst the crowded Hilton Plaza restaurant breakfast crowd.

Body horror and xenophobia: crafting the breakout hit 'Infidel'

What that next project will be, for either creator, no one knows… well, except both the creators. Both assure they’re working on new titles, but neither can divulge any specifics just yet. Both hinted that they were working on unannounced projects but were obligated to keep those under wraps until the proper to time to make announcements arose.

Campbell, however, is excited to work on more creator-owned series with the breakout success of Infidel, his first creator owned title. While Campbell may not return to a creator-owned series immediately, his experience with Infidel has him excited to create more stories of his own and continue crafting tales in the horror genre.

As for an Infidel sequel, fans shouldn’t hold their breath, but they shouldn’t necessarily exhale either. There’s no guarantee this ghost story is over.

“I have the shreds, the faint whispers of what sequel could look like,” said Pichetshote. “But I’ll be honest I don’t know how quickly I’d get to it because so much of Infidel was my perspective and feelings on the world, so either the world would have to change a lot or I would have to change a lot. I don’t see myself changing a lot any time soon and I think if the world changes more, well then, comics will be the least thing we’re concerned about.”

Whether or not Infidel lives on through a sequel or stays cemented as a standalone frightfest, one thing is for certain: this is one of the more compelling and haunting comic books ever created. The series even caught the attention of NPR, landing on their list of the 100 Best Horror Stories alongside all-time classics like Frankenstein and The Tell Tale Heart. If you made the mistake of missing this series when it was a monthly comic, give yourself an early Halloween gift and pick up the trade paperback, out this Wednesday.

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