The Infidel Creative Team Walks You Through Their Horror Hit

Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, José Villarrubia & Jeff Powell Break Down the First Eight Pages of the Image Comics Series

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The <i>Infidel</i> Creative Team Walks You Through Their Horror Hit

INFIDELTPB_cvr1_3x2.jpg Earlier this year, ahead of the first issue’s launch, Paste invited Infidel writer Pornsak Pichetshote to conduct an interview with his friend and Skyward writer Joe Henderson. This week, the trade collection of Infidel hits comic-store shelves, and Paste is thrilled to have Pichetshote and the entire creative team providing creator commentary for the story’s first eight pages. The transcript of their chat follows.

Pornsak Pichetshote: This March, artist Aaron Campbell, colorist/editor José Villarrubia, letterer/designer Jeff Powell and I launched Infidel, a five-issue miniseries from Image Comics, the publisher of such powerhouses as The Walking Dead and Saga. Infidel is a horror comic following an American Muslim woman and her multi-racial neighbors who discover they live in a building haunted by mysterious entities fueled by xenophobia. It’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell for years and landing a slot at comics’ premiere publisher for creator-owned books had me literally shrieking with joy.

Over half a year later, Infidel’s garnered some very flattering word of mouth from fellow creators, great reviews, a movie option by Tristar/Sugar23 and—most mind-blowing of all—a spot on NPR’s 100 Favorite Horror Stories alongside classics like Frankenstein and The Shining. To celebrate the trade paperback hitting comic shops September 26th and bookstores October 3rd, the entire team decided it’d be fun to do a creator’s commentary on the book’s opening pages. Think of it as a DVD director’s commentary, except on paper…

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Infidel Interior Art by Aaron Campbell & José Villarrubia
Page One

Pichetshote: It’s funny. I forgot how much this page evolved from the original script. The initial pages when a comics writer and artist start working together are kinda the equivalent of dating…except you’re dating someone you’ve already married. Hmm, so maybe it’s more the equivalent of dating your arranged spouse…? Point is, you’re feeling each other out. How much you can challenge them. How much you should challenge them.

Originally, this page was designed to be a nine-panel grid with art in all the odd panels and floating copy in all the even. I like what Aaron did so much more. Aaron, I just realized that’s something we’ve never actually spoken about. Were there any nerves veering away from the script from the very first page or were you pretty used to it at this stage of your career?

Aaron Campbell: I wouldn’t say there were nerves per se. Over the years I’ve slowly gotten more comfortable injecting my own ideas into the process. A lot of it is just about confidence in my ideas and an earnest belief that the whole creative team should function collectively. That’s why I really like your relationship analogy. A fruitful relationship needs give and take. It needs collaboration. The free flow of ideas has to be a two-way street.

And speaking of feeling each other out, page one is a great example of that. When I veered away from your layout notes in the script it ended up having the effect, unconsciously, of being a tryout for how our working relationship would go. Would you be open to my ideas, or would you be unyielding? Would I be used as a just a hired hand creating a precise visual facsimile of your words? Or would we establish a true creative partnership and thus work toward a greater whole?

Fairly early in my career I was told by an author in no uncertain terms, “Don’t !@#$ with my script.” I didn’t revolt. I didn’t get pissy. But from that moment on, I lost all enthusiasm for the project. It could’ve been a much better book, but ego pushed me into the corner and like anyone who suddenly realizes they are not valued in a relationship, I stopped caring.

So page one, quite appropriately, not only ended up setting the tone for the entire series, but for our partnership as well. Once I realized you value your collaborators, the floodgates of my creativity were released, and I rushed headlong into work unlike anything I’ve ever accomplished.

Pichetshote: The other thing you did here, Aaron, is the design for the coloring effect which I think is super cool. As much as I loved this page in black and white, it leapt to life after you threw that effect in. I think that was the start of rendering the ghosts with some psychedelic color effect, right?

Campbell: I know in the beginning you wanted to cast some doubt on the reality of what was happening. So I was just trying to create some visual language that might help that along. The fragmenting of the color was supposed to suggest the fragmenting of Aisha’s mind. And, yeah, from there, though that particular effect didn’t recur, José was always keen to ramp up the intensity of the color when the ghosts were present. I think it worked too, because I recall quite a few reviewers suggesting that this might all be in her head.

José Villarrubia: I colored pages one, two and three “normally” with atmospheric night colors, and then Aaron asked if he could play with them and add an effect. He returned this fragmented, geometric pattern, which I loved. As editor, I wanted a fresh look for the opening pages of the story, and these jagged shapes did the trick, even though we did not repeat them anywhere else in the book. On page one, I made the gutters black and then added thin white borders to separate each panel. This helped set the mood of the story, since they stop when Aisha wakes up.

Jeff Powell: I decided on the look for the lettering pretty immediately. I knew what I wanted off the bat: something readable and straightforward. I wanted to complement the art and story yet be unobtrusive.

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Infidel Interior Art by Aaron Campbell & José Villarrubia
Pages Two & Three

Campbell: This spread is where my whole conceit for the artistic style of the series came together. José and I had been having a lot of conversations about what the ghosts should look like. José wanted to do something very different and had this vision of something that was almost hyper-real. In a way, the ghosts would be more real than the reality of the story. And then there were Pornsak’s ideas and influences to consider. There was an intensity in the body horror he wanted to achieve. Right at the start, he sent me a copy of [Junji Ito’s] Uzumaki and the body dysmorphia in that series is striking, creepy and just weird.

So I fed that all into the meat grinder of my brain and came up with an idea that would change my direction, not just on this book, but in my career as a whole.

First, I imagined that moment these people died, the sudden violence of it. It all happened so fast there would have only been milliseconds for them to process what was happening to them. And then I thought, What if that’s it? What if the physical reality of that final moment of their existence, as their bodies were being twisted and broken, but consciousness yet remained, was how their spirits projected themselves into the afterlife?

Then, as I thought about José’s idea, I considered my desire for experimentation in my work. I had been working digitally for some time and was missing traditional process.I didn’t want to completely abandon my Cintiq though, and so I came up with the idea of mixing the two media. And it made perfect sense, too. There is an invisible, conceptual wall that is created by racism, fear and hate. It separates those on either side and keeps them separate. That is represented in the series by the opposing media. The living is digital and the dead are traditional, and they only blend through violence.

Pichetshote: I can’t tell you how pleased I was with this spread. With this first panel, the bar was set for everything that happens in the book. I knew Aaron could deliver the horror which was an enormous relief—but also a challenge. Because now we to had keep going one better…

Villarrubia: When I first saw these pages I was also very impressed, particularly after Aaron added the color effects. In terms of the color underneath, I was very conscious to keep the colors subdued: no red glowing eyes (yet), no blood, no bruises or body injuries. I wanted to keep the ghost pristine….

Pichetshote: Also, I’m glad Aaron mentioned how integral José was to design of the creatures. José, with his background as an artist, really added an additional art director role to so many of the book’s visual choices. There’re not many editors in comics who have the expertise to add something on that level and it undoubtedly became integral to the success of the book.

And lastly where credit is due: I LOVE the sound effect that Jeff came up with for the glass hitting the floor. I know it seems like such a minor thing compared to everything else, but that’s the moment I was certain Jeff was the right person for the job. The effect integrates so well with the art, I actually asked Aaron if he drew it or not. And I think even he wasn’t sure when I first asked. In this age of digital lettering, sound effects are so tough to integrate in comics, and as a comics nerd, I get so pumped when it actually does.

Powell: I appreciate it, Pornsak! I tried to integrate the SFX and the art whenever I could.

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Infidel Interior Art by Aaron Campbell & José Villarrubia
Page Four

Pichetshote: I remember the thing I really wanted to make sure we were consistent on was that Aisha’s clothes were the same as on the previous pages—and that she was sleeping on the covers. To really sell that uncertainty of whether it all was a dream or not. And on the list of things I can’t explain: there’s something I find so soothing about the stripes on Aisha’s comforter. It’s not something I asked for, but as soon as I saw it, I was like, yeah, I would definitely sink under that checkered blanket for comfort. Probably my OCD at work.

Campbell: Plaid is soothing. It’s suggestive of cloudy days and hot coffee, soft and sturdy cloth, and probably because of the lumberjacks and highland warriors—strength and security. It’s fortifying. But don’t think for a second I considered any of this when I drew that comforter. That’s just the comforter I have on my bed that I used for reference.

Villarrubia: In the colors of this page, it was important to reinforce the possibility that what we had just seen was a daydream. Notice the panel borders and gutters turning white, a subtle indication that the setting has not changed but the point of view has. I remember we moved the last panel almost off the page to the bottom right, leading the eye directly into the next page.

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Infidel Interior Art by Aaron Campbell & José Villarrubia
Page Five

Campbell: So this was an interesting page, I thought. At first glance, it appears to be doing that classic horror trope of establishing the “perfect family,” and then what destroys them comes from something beyond their agency. But just two pages later, we learn that this is all just an optimistic façade. Everyone here is desperately trying to hold it together. If anything, it feels more like the classic scene of the holidays with the family, everyone trying to put on a brave face, feigning civility and enthusiasm. This is where I realized the body language would have to be absolutely on point in order to tell this story right.

My question to Pornsak, which I don’t know if I ever asked, is why you chose this particular family dynamic? There seems to be clear purpose to how you structured this unit.

Pichetshote: Interestingly, like your choices for the look of the creatures, it all came from the needs and constraints of the story. We tell a lot of story in not a ton of space, which meant the quickest way to show who these people really were is to watch how they handle a problem. But you also need some kind of baseline to compare them against if you really want to get to know them. Those constraints probably contribute the most to the “trying to keep it together” feeling you speak of. From there, it was just having that conflict extend from the book’s themes—the tension that can exist within multi-racial, multi-faith communities.

Villarrubia: This page and the following two are where I set up the “rules” for the coloring of the book. The “normal” scenes are colored almost flat. That is what I prefer to do whenever I can as colorist: let the color and not the rendering speak for itself. Pornsak and Aaron really pushed me hard to color these in warm, analogous colors. They wanted a very “movie” color look for these pages, and that is a hard balance to strike. In this page and the following, I used the window as a flat source of light yellow light, setting up the figures with bits of rim light partially outlining them.

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Infidel Interior Art by Aaron Campbell & José Villarrubia
Page Six

Pichetshote: I love Kris’ body language in panel two. To me, that’s one of those choices that sum up an entire character in a single image. Something every comics writer hopes an artist can pull off and I love how casually it’s almost tossed away here.

There are tons of silent panels throughout Infidel, but panel five of this page is when I really made the decision to lean into them. Just watching how effortlessly Aaron pulled off Aisha’s wordless warmth towards Leslie while still remaining subtle.

Campbell: Body language, perhaps even more so than facial expression, is key to understanding a character’s emotions. It’s integral to establishing empathy with a subject. Without synchronicity in body language, the expression on the face feels more like a mask than real emotion.

So the body language of each character was something I obsessed over at the beginning. It’s how I started to define the contrasting personalities and relationships in the story. Aisha’s warmth and acceptance shows through her face, but her fear and uncertainty is ever present in the tightness of her body language. Chris is jubilant. Everything is exciting. Every moment is worthy of celebration. She’s a child, and like most children, can hardly contain herself at all times.

Villarrubia: As I’ve said before, since I was the editor of the series, I could not edit my own colors and depended on Pornsak and Aaron’s sage suggestions. In this page, Pornsak wisely asked me to give panel one a brighter background to enhance the emotion of the moment. The truth is, that I have always used brightly colored backgrounds for moments of surprise, action and shock. But Pornsak suggested that I use color backgrounds for quiet moments too, and it is now something that I have incorporated into my practice! Thank you, Pornsak!

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Infidel Interior Art by Aaron Campbell & José Villarrubia
Page Seven

Campbell: In this one page, we establish the true and entire relationship amongst these characters. In just five panels, mind you! It’s kind of brilliant.

We learn Aisha does not like to rock the boat and would rather retreat into herself than upset that balance. How can she tell Leslie she only eats halal? Leslie means well, after all. Everything is so tenuous right now that Aisha’s anxiety needs to be palpable. We learn Leslie is well-meaning yet oblivious. It suggests the kind of self-absorption common to overbearing parents which is immediately reinforced by Tom’s sudden arrival and explosive resentment. Tom has suffered his mother’s passive-aggression his whole life, and it colors every interaction they have. Whether Leslie forgot that pork was haram or not, Tom will always read sinister intent into her every action. So is Leslie really sorry? Or is this a game she plays? And Tom—the overbearing, overprotective, partner. You get a sense right away that he has to have everything his way. He knows what’s best. He is his mother’s son. What a challenge it was trying to express all that in five panels.

Villarrubia: I love how Aaron did not draw a background on panel five. It caps the sequence nicely. It is an effect popularized in the 1970’s by Italian artists like Toppi and Dino Battaglia, and that you often saw in the Warren Horror magazines by artists inspired by them. In American comics, it is not so common, but it can work wonderfully. Aisha’s acting in this page is outstanding.

Pichetshote: When you get pages like this back, all you can do is smile. Good acting is crucial to sequential art and yet might be one of the aspects least celebrated.

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Infidel Interior Art by Aaron Campbell & José Villarrubia
Page Eight

Pichetshote: What I love about this page is that it’s not even an establishing shot, but anyone who’s lived there is like, “Oh yeah, this all definitely takes place in New York.” One of those subtle things you get from an artist who’s lived there too. Also, I don’t know whose decision it was (Aaron, was it you?), but I love how in panel two, whoever-it-was who put the phone number on that sign was smart enough to make it a 555 number. I actually only just noticed that now.

Campbell: Ha! Yeah, that was my doing. Do you remember on old TV shows when they used to use “klondike” instead of 555? That would’ve been a funny little joke if the number was 212-klondike-4937. Maybe, next time.

But yeah, New York is in a constant state of decay and repair like an old 1970 Cadillac Deville held together with piecemeal parts from every kind of car you can imagine, some new and beautiful…and then just duct tape to keep the oil in the pan. And you know there’s a dead rat in there somewhere but good luck finding it.

Powell: Yeah, those top two panels…I feel like I’ve walked past that building a million times. A general lettering rule of thumb is that, if you have two characters talking and looking directly at each other, you try not to break their eye-sight with their word balloons if you can help it. I held true to that in panel one but not panel two since Tom has his back turned, thus no eye contact. I also wanted to maintain the idea that Aisha cuts off Tom by keeping their balloons closer.

Villarrubia: There is a subtle shift in the coloring on this page. The palette turns cooler. I also made the street a lot less colorful than it would be in a typical NY street, more “pastel,” so it does not become distracting. That sets up nicely the contrasting crimson background on panel three. The only other thing I did here that I normally don’t is adding a black-to-greasy gradient behind Leslie on the last panel, to enhance the feeling of suspense.

Pichetshote: These first eight pages are actually part of the 16-page pitch we sent Image to see if they wanted to publish the book. We actually reproduce that entire 16-page pitch in the Infidel trade paperback. There’s a wealth of comic script samples and excerpts available on- and offline, but when we were putting the book together, none of us could think of a pitch for a book with a fully assembled art team that we could use as an example. We ended up asking friends and coming up with our own riff. When it was time to put the Infidel trade together, we thought it’d be cool to include our pitch, so other potential creators could avoid our hassle. Just a parting plug as we wrap up our commentary! I’ll get the hang on this promotion game yet…

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