New To You Comics: ‘Infidel’ TP by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell
by Brendan M. Allen
New comics are back! Sort of. New comics are on their way back, anyway.
When COVID-19 brought the comics industry to a screeching halt, my colleague Tony Thornley and I decided to dive deep into our longboxes and collections to bring you a Comicon feature we call ‘New To You Comics’. The industry is finally starting to pick back up, but we had so much fun with this thing, we decided to keep going.
Tony and I have very different tastes in comics. He tends to drift toward the superhero and sci-fi genres, and I pretty much stick to horror, noir, and thrillers. Sometimes our paths cross, but we, like most readers, tend to stay in our lanes.
The challenge here is for me to introduce Tony to some titles he probably missed on first pass, and for Tony to hit me with some of the stuff he really likes that I haven’t read. All of the titles we will discuss will be brand new to one of us, and all are available on digital platforms. You should be able to access every one of these books, even if your local shop is still closed or out of stock.
Brendan Allen: All right. I told you a little about Infidel already. Basically, we get Aisha, a practicing Muslim, who’s in an interracial, interfaith engagement. The guy comes with a daughter from his previous marriage, and circumstances force them to live with his casually racist ma, in a tiny apartment. The neighbors are also overtly racist.
That’d be enough, yeah? Nope. The place is also probably haunted. (Definitely haunted.)
I know we say it a lot, that horror is a potent vehicle for satire, but there’s a reason. Infidel takes a crack at xenophobia, privilege, racism, and neo-racism through horror tinted lenses, and it makes for a very powerful, accessible, and timely story.
What did you think of the premise?
Tony Thornley: Oh my gosh man, you’re really trying to give me nightmares with these picks of yours. So I’ve got to say “DAMN” in at least three different ways and meanings.
Brendan: Now, I know I’ve got a leg up here, because I got to sit down with Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell back at New York Comic Con 2018 and kick this thing around a bit, but there are a lot of slick little tricks these gentlemen pulled out here. (That interview can be found here.)
First, the setting is dead brilliant. NYC boasts one of the most diverse populations in the world, with over 200 different languages spoken, and almost half the population born outside the US. The city itself is a character in this piece.
Pornsak Pichetshote pointed out that they chose NYC because, while there are people of different races, religions, and backgrounds interacting with each other all the time, there are significant prejudices in play between all the different groups. It’s clear to see how easily all that ingrained animosity can be manipulated into conflict.
Tony: I liked that too. I’m not 100% that the story explicitly says it is in New York, but Pichetshote makes it clear from context. It’s the diversity of the people, the feel of the community, stuff like that. It’s not like the cliche of “the city’s another character in the story!” but it’s more like it’s just such a clearly defined setting that you know where it’s happening, and it can’t really happen anywhere else.
Brendan: Right. It’s a perfect setting, for so many reasons. On the art side, Aaron Campbell made some really good points about the physical nature of the city. Visually, NYC is oppressive. Starting from the top and working down, there’s this brilliantly shining city, progressively built over lower and lower levels of decay, until you get down into the sublevels, where it’s a rat infested, rusting hellscape.
So, the cultural elements are all there and easily accessible, but the city itself works allegorically for the bright, shiny, privileged existence built on level after level of misery and decay.
Tony: Definitely. Campbell makes it clear that the city exists, but the only time we see it at the forefront of the story is in the hospital. Eighty percent of the story takes place in the grungy decayed, barely gentrified-but-not-really side of New York. And that’s entirely from his depiction of it. None of that is textual, and that’s just one example of how good Campbell is here.
Brendan: Another thing I noticed is how well this story works as an allegory for privilege. If you pay attention, you’ll notice an inverse relationship between the players’ level of privilege and their ability to interact with the presence, the ghosts, demons, whatever you want to call them. There are the characters that are very clearly living outside what one might call The American Dream, heavily discriminated against and misunderstood, who have very clear visions and who are actually, in some cases, able to physically interact with the ghosts.
Then, there are the folks who kind of float between circles. The people with ethnic backgrounds who have sort of, for lack of a better term, assimilated into the status quo. Accepted, but still not quite seen as equal. They see more, but still don’t have the whole picture.
And then there are those white cis characters, who are completely oblivious to anything that’s taking place on any supernatural level in the story. They see the violence, and the aftermath, but have zero clue what’s actually happening.
Tony: So I’ve been thinking a lot about this. You know how big of an X-Men fan I am. There is a lot of allegory in X-Men. Mutants are a minority. They’ve had to fight for their civil rights. They had a disease that only affected them and devastated their community. Even the current status quo with mutants living on Krakoa feels a lot like Israel.
The problem with making that allegory explicit is that it’s not perfect. A big part of that is a superhero punch-em-up. Yes, you can draw parallels between mutants and the LGBT community or Krakoa and Israel, but the allegory is flawed and imperfect at best.
Not so here. Pichetshote and Campbell are able to pull off one of the best allegorical depictions that I’ve ever seen in a piece of popular culture. The demons only affect those in some sort of minority, and it doesn’t just explain who the ghosts/demons are showing up to, it makes them a terrifying threat, because you never know exactly who will be haunted and who won’t.
Brendan: I think I described the art of Infidel as kind of a Ben Templesmith meets Dave McKean aesthetic. Aaron Campbell uses mixed media in a way that’s really intense. Sort of gritty, hyper-realistic, dirty. The creatures have an intentionally different vibe than the tangible world. Campbell went with his usual digital methods for the “real” world elements, and then the supernatural pieces are done with traditional pencils.
Tony: His work in general is really fantastic. It stands out with a style you don’t see often. McKean is a really good comparison for anyone you’re trying to get on board. It’s gorgeous, but it’s not pretty if that makes sense?
Brendan: And you see, what, five different ghosts? Six? Every one of those things has a backstory. Each had a distinct life and each met their individual demise in a very specific way. Aaron Campbell worked all that out, who these disgusting humans were, what they stood for and against. Then he crushed and twisted them into the spectres you see on these pages.
Tony: Exactly. And to see them in flashback right before their deaths (which has another cool artistic shift), you can sort of tell which one is which. They all have their own personalities and the worse they were in life, the more twisted and demonic they are in death. It’s GREAT symbolism of the evil in their souls.
Brendan: I am a big fan of this book. On the surface, as a horror story, Infidel is creepy as hell. As an allegory for societal privilege, xenophobia, and awareness, it’s dead brilliant. It makes me uncomfortable on several levels, and that is EXACTLY what it is intended to do. Privilege is an incredibly abstract concept to try to explain to the privileged.
I know I mentioned this in at least one of the reviews of the floppies, but it bears repeating. I saw a motivational speaker a long time ago, when I was maybe a sophomore in high school. The dude called up a volunteer and placed a small boulder in their hands.
“Consider this rock,” he said. “We can have a great many discussions about the attractiveness or ugliness of this rock. We can talk about the processes that formed this rock and what elements it is composed of. We can talk about the shape, the weight, the color, the smoothness and roughness of this rock. But, at the end of the day, we must agree, here is a rock.”
And there it is. This is why this book exists. Infidel takes pure, blind hatred and puts it on display. Gives it a face. Perceptions and biases are clearly exposed. And it all starts with, “Hey, let’s look at some horrific scenarios here, and see how people with different experiences and levels of social privilege reconcile what they’re seeing. Do what you want with the information, but let’s at least agree this is a thing.
Hold this boulder.
Tony: It does what good stories should do. It entertains, while making us uncomfortable. And not just in the sense that you’re crawling in your skin because it’s creepy. It makes the reader look inwardly and go “do I have these biases? Would I be this twisted monster too?”
It’s a hard read, but this isn’t like some of the other books you recommended, where I went “It’s good but I don’t know if I can say I liked it.” I genuinely enjoyed reading it, and the insight it has is something I needed. It was probably the best read we’ve had so far.
Brendan: All right, what’s up next in your queue?
Tony: We’re finally going to dive into stories featuring my favorite character! We’re going to take a look at Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s Spider-Men!
Infidel TP, Image Comics, Image Comics, released 26 September 2018. Written by Pornsak Pichetshote, art by Aaron Campbell, color by Jose Villarrubia, letters by Jeff Powell.
We’d like to ask, on behalf of our friends and colleagues that own and are employed by comic shops, that you first try to get these books at your local shop. This is a very uncertain time for owners, employees, and their families. Show some love for your community and friends by buying from your regular shop when possible and safe.
If your local comic store is temporarily closed, not offering safe curbside pick up or mail order, or is out of stock on this title, you can find a digital copy on Comixology Unlimited right here ($10.49 if you don’t have the service). TFAW has physical copies right here for $10.49 plus shipping, and Midtown Comics has copies right here for $14.44.