The elevator pitch for new Image Comics series Infidel is “Get Out with Muslims,” but that description is really selling the series’ complexity short by a large margin. In Infidel, the creative team of writer Pornsak Pichetshote (best known as a longtime Vertigo editor), artist Aaron Campbell (James Bond and The Shadow at Dynamite), colorist/editor José Villarrubia (who has worked on basically everything) and letterer/designer Jeff Powell are exploring something beyond how Muslim Americans are seen in this country. They’re exploring how we talk about issues of race and bias, and more importantly, how we misunderstand one another and how our inability to communicate slows social progress.
As for the Get Out comparisons, they’re not all bad. “I was [a fan of the movie],” Pichetshote said, laughing. “It’s funny, because I had the story for Infidel for so long -- it’s one of those ideas that I figured somebody would do sooner or later, so when I saw Get Out I figured somebody beat me to it! But in a weird way, there’s a benefit to going second. It provided a way to talk to people about Infidel, even though what we do is very different.”
Campbell agreed, saying, “[It’s] almost proof of concept. It’s proof of genre really, because it’s kind of a brand new genre: topical horror.” Villarrubia particularly appreciated Get Out, calling it “flawless” and saying that it marked “a revival of psychological terror, and that the torture porn trend in film horror had mercifully passed. Get Out led me to catch up with other recent horror films with topical themes like The Babadook and It Follows.”
But despite the comparables, all three made it clear that they have their own story to tell. Infidel focuses on a Muslim-American woman named Aisha living with her white boyfriend Tom, his mother, and his daughter in a haunted apartment building -- haunted by ghosts with their own horrific tragedy that fuels their rage. The effects of that haunting ultimately push all the characters to confront how they perceive each other and, more importantly, how they are trapped by those perceptions.
“Much of this book is about xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism, [but] Aaron and I talked a lot about this: there is, especially with race, a hunger for a conversation, but we haven’t had it for so long that we haven’t really developed the language for it,” Pichetshote explained. “It’s been an interesting thing to watch, how when we talk about race, there’s like a little timer in our head and we’re just waiting for somebody to fuck up. It shows how much we haven’t developed this vocabulary to talk about something so integral, especially when you tell a story and you talk about mixed communities and people interacting. So much of the conversation in Infidel comes from the idea that we’re still kind of bumbling in the dark for how to do that, which is interesting because so many people, and certainly the characters in the book, are really grappling with this. One of the impetus behind the book [is] to start a conversation and have that conversation inform the story.”
“You can go into a conversation with the best intentions,” Campbell added, “and not realize you’re bringing bias that might negatively impact the person you’re talking to. In the fourth issue, that issue -- implicit bias -- becomes [really] important. Pornsak is attacking this subject from almost every angle you can imagine.”
Implicit bias became such a strong theme that it informed the creative collaboration as well as the story. Pichetshote told CBR, “I love working with Aaron [and Jose], because we really are a team and all weigh in on where the story is going. It was really important for me to write this without awareness of my own bias and then let Jose and Aaron check me on that. Like in issue #3, after I wrote the first draft, Jose came back and kind of checked me. It’s been a really great experience.”
To inform the conversations, the creators worked hard to ensure that their relationships reflect a diverse range of outlooks and behaviors. While Aisha gives people the benefit of the doubt, her Muslim best friend Medina is less forgiving of perceived slights. Boyfriend Tom steamrolls over Aisha’s budding friendship with his mother, taking an angry and aggressively protective stance toward the slightest disrespect. A suspicious neighbor is weighed down by a past experience that fills her with terror. The effect creates a complex sounding board for the way Aisha interacts with her community -- showing acceptance, senseless paranoia, and justified fear.
“We have this tendency to think about xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, whatever it is, as this black and white monolith,” Pichetshote said. “But when we started this book, neo-Nazis were still the fringe. [Getting] into the areas of implicit bias, rather than explicit xenophobia and racism, is more interesting to me -- the degree to which all of us hold these things despite our best intentions. These things exist in people we call friends, and we want to explore that and interrogate that. Having the best intentions can lead you to [bad places]."
Expanding on those best intentions, Campbell explained, “When Tom is absent, Leslie and Aisha actually function quite well together, even though there’s a wall between them. Aisha has the type of humanity that enables her to bypass that and connect with Leslie. But then Tom comes around brings with him all of the emotional and societal baggage of being with somebody who is representative of a completely different culture. He inserts himself as a sort of apologist and makes everything worse. He’s the one that ratchets up the tension in the house, because he is so desperate for these two women to love each other and be able to exist together that he does the exact opposite. It’s indicative of what’s happening now with the inability to come together for so many people. You create these walls where you say this behavior is not acceptable and if you do this behavior for any reason whatsoever, that ends the debate completely and I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
“As the ‘right thing’ evolves over time, people harm one another even with the best of intentions,” Pichetshote said. “If the same comment is said to me now, as compared to years ago, do I push back against it now? Am I being too sensitive to it? Am I hurting a global conversation? It all goes back to this confusion -- we’re so not used to thinking about it.”
Campbell expanded on the moving goalposts of acceptable social standards with a pop culture comparative. “I’ve been rewatching Friends recently and I can’t help but watch it through the lens of right now and think how the show, with this scripts, would never get made right now. It just wouldn’t happen. There’s so much that at the time was considered very progressive, very open, accepting and inclusive, which now would be considered offensive, topics that aren’t allowed in just twenty years from the beginning of that show.”
The creators worked hard to ensure that while Infidel draws on divisions in modern America to create its emotional resonance and terrifying underbelly, it never ever loses sight of being a horror story. Infidel is a ghost story, a haunted house story really, with truly unsettling designs and fonts to carry across the spectres’ deathly wails and undying rage.