A horror comic for the Trump era: Author of "Infidel" on what's scary right now

Comics writer Pornsak Pichetshote on his award-winning graphic novel "Infidel," a haunted-house story about bigotry

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 27, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)

Art from Infidel #1 (of 5) (Image Comics)
Art from Infidel #1 (of 5) (Image Comics)

America under Donald Trump has witnessed an almost unprecedented increase in hate crimes and other right-wing political violence against Muslims, Jews, nonwhites and other groups. The incidents number in the thousands. The FBI, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations have extensively documented this nationwide pattern as well as a corresponding growth in hate groups inspired by Trump and the permissive environment for right-wing violence he and his supporters have generated.

In the most spectacular examples, Trumpism has spawned the Charlottesville riots of August 2017 as well as lethal terrorist attacks against the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego. The Nazi who killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, also claimed Donald Trump as an inspirational symbol of renewed "white power."

America has been haunted by racism and bigotry for centuries. This is the literal premise of Pornsak Pichetshote's acclaimed 2018 graphic novel "Infidel," which has recently been optioned for a Hollywood movie version. NPR also named "Infidel" as one of the 100 best horror stories of all time and one of the best books of 2018.

Pornsak Pichetshote was an editor at DC Comics' Vertigo imprint where he worked on such acclaimed series as "The Sandman," "Swamp Thing," "Sweet Tooth" and "WE3." His various projects at Vertigo have been nominated for dozens of Eisner awards, the most prestigious prize in the comic book industry. Pichetshote was also an executive at DC Entertainment where he began and supervised the TV department.

How did Pichetshote craft an effective horror story when reality as it actually exists under Donald Trump is terrifying for Muslims, nonwhites, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and other groups? Does the artist have a special obligation to the truth in a time of political crisis? Are graphic novels and comic books better suited in some ways for the horror genre than other mediums? Why is America still unable to define a common understanding of racism, and the harm that it does to individuals and society?

I recently had a conversation with Pichetshote about these issues and his career. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length, as usual — and contains major plot spoilers about "Infidel." You have been warned.

There are any number of ways a writer could craft a haunted house story about racism and bigotry. There are likely many versions of that story being written right now, given the success of Jordan Peele's "Us"and "Get Out." And let's be honest — most of them won't be good. "Infidel" is very special. How did you take such a simple premise and follow through on it in a way that is different and smart?

I had really good partners. I always said there were 300 ways this book could go wrong, and only one way that this book could go right. So I was really careful with who I chose to work with and did whatever I could to get that opportunity.

I first thought of "Infidel" a year after Obama was in office. Some people were thinking that if America had a black president that meant racism was defeated.  Meanwhile, xenophobia was on a rampant rise.

Much of the impetus of the story was the idea of linking Islamophobia with racism. The original outline just kind of sat in a drawer. I would eventually come back to it and the world would become what it is now with Donald Trump. I knew it would just kill me if it stayed in a drawer, based on everything that was happening in the world. But the way that things worked out, my idea for a comic actually turned out into a TV pilot. But I still had the idea that became "Infidel." It is horror. But horror as a comic book works differently than as a horror movie. I had to write something that was a great fit for the medium, that was uniquely comics.

How do I keep it relevant for the immediate now? And how do I keep it something that feels like it still has something to say three or five years from now? Most importantly, I wanted "Infidel" to be honest. Once I had the story, it was meant to reflect this age of Trumpism and to encourage conversations about race and justice and society that we are not having in a substantial and meaningful way.

When you're honest in your art it should challenge and disturb you.

Writing "Infidel" was so stressful. In every issue I made a creative choice to make that really scared me. I was not sure if the audience would go along with me. This is a lesson for me. Going into future projects, if I don't feel that scared and stressed out, maybe I'm not pushing things as much as I could.

We have to write through our fears. If you feel like you're scared with something, write through it in the hopes that maybe the reason why you're scared is because there's a truth in that art, that writing, that you do not feel comfortable with.

For me, it was a book about people of different experiences, different ethnicities and different backgrounds and how that all shaped their decisions in the story. I had to figure out a perspective that would honesty capture that. And when you are writing about race and politics there is this fear of holding an unpopular opinion. How will people react? For example — and this is a spoiler for "Infidel" and how it ends — the fact that Medina dies in the end, who's a black woman, was a scary choice for me to make. But it felt, based on the events that happened, to be the most honest thing. To do anything less would be wrong.

It's probably harder to talk about how you write honestly than to talk about how you write dishonestly. You know when you're writing dishonestly. You know when you're making a decision based on fear, based on ambition, based on self-promotion. You feel that in your bones as a writer.

What emotional response do you want the readers of "Infidel" to have?

I hope that readers talk with one another about "Infidel" and the issues of racism, Islamophobia and community that animate the story. If "Infidel" makes you think of something that happened in your life and get some perspective or insight, then that is great. We need to keep this conversation going and it doesn't have to be using the language of the book.

"Infidel" is a horror piece. As such, the biggest emotional response I want  is to scare and disturb you. It would be nice if, by the end of the story, you as a reader felt a little bit of hope after everything that happens in "Infidel."

How do you craft an effective horror story in a time that actually feels horrific for black and brown folks, for Muslims, for gays and lesbians, women, and all the other people he and his supporters have targeted for abuse? Trump's regime has put babies and other children in concentration camps. Real life is pretty scary on its own without phantasmagorical ghouls.

When you put it that way, it all sounds like a paralyzing, daunting venture. I wanted to tell a horror story first. I wanted to scare the readers. I had to ask myself, what scares me?  And as you say, there is a lot in the world that scares me right now. That fear filled up the shape of the haunted house horror story that is "Infidel."

How do I then tell this story in a way that is not disrespectful to the pain that people are feeling right now? There were moments where me and my co-creators had to ask ourselves, do we mention Sept. 11?  We were sparse with those details, because it did feel exploitative. If I had started from the political ambition of the book, "Infidel" would have dead-ended very quickly.

"Infidel" is a story about people and how their situations have become politicized. I don't know if I consider this book political per se.

In America's public discourse there are these tired refrains such as "talking about race is difficult" or "we need to have a national conversation about racism." Help me understand this, because it is all pretty clear to me: What is so difficult or confusing about racism?

When I talk about there being confusion about race, I'm calling attention to how there is a clear line where most of us know that certain examples of racism are bad. For example, hate crimes. On the other hand, what about ”microaggressions" or "privilege"?  As a society it seems at times like we cannot come to a conclusion about what racism really is or not.

As a writer this is exciting for me to explore, this idea about a society that can't seem to agree what is racist but knows that racism is a problem. And in the course of "Infidel" the characters realize that this problem will kill them if they can't figure out what it really is.

Does the artist have a special obligation to tell the truth during troubled times?

My next book is very much about that. Forget about artists. As people of color, what is our responsibility to other people of color? To society in general? In the troubled times that we are living in — not even writers, as people — it seems as if our survival as a species and as a culture will probably be dependent on us learning new modes of empathy. This moment is also very dangerous for what could go even more wrong.

As writers our responsibility as human beings is to support empathy. As a writer, the only way that empathy can be sincere is through honest effort. If you lack honesty, then people can see through that rather quickly.

How did you make the decision to show the monster in "Infidel"?

Because comics are a visual medium, there was never a decision to not show the monster. That is one of the reasons why "Infidel" leans into body horror as much as it does. Comics do a lot of things really well and better than other mediums. In some ways, live action can do horror better than comics. They have a lot of the tools that comics do not have, sound being one of them. Human actors also make it easier to empathize  with what is happening to them.

As I was working on this book I read through all of my favorite horror comics. One of the things I realized is that body horror in comics actually works better than in live action. Part of it has to do with how, when we read a comic book, we are creating animation and movement in our minds. Live action on a screen cannot reproduce that sensation.

Monsters in TV or film are very difficult to do right because more often than not we can see the defects in the costumes, makeup and other effects. In comics you don't have that worry. We can draw anything we want. We also changed how the monster in "Infidel" looked in different circumstances, based upon how hate can grow stronger, and the monsters got more exaggerated and grotesque. This represents that journey, a line between where we can start off innocent and then end up being horrible based on our emotions and behavior.

Given your success with "Infidel," your other projects and career more generally, do you still get scared of failure?

It's terrifying. Because no success in the world can inure you from misspeaking about personal topics such as race or religion. We see that every day when a very successful person says something really stupid.

The worst version of success is the success where everyone agrees with you because they have to. And then you say something to people who are not paid to tell you that you are right all the time. Then there is a mirror turned back on you and you realize how horrible and how wrong that you are.

And thank you for saying I am successful, as there are days when I am not sure I am.

What does "success" mean to you?

I've been thinking about that a great deal lately. Talking to other writers and people more successful than me, I realized that everyone seems to have their own ghost that's chasing them — this one thing that they have not done. I find that fascinating.

In terms of success, that hits close to home because I feel like I'm still trying to define it myself. But I do think the ability to follow your creative impulses and make a living for yourself and for the people that you love and your family is the best formula for success that I can think of so far.

I do wonder a lot, though, about the fact that as I meet people who are very talented and successful, they are still frustrated by a thing they haven't done or can't do. I think part of that is healthy for an artist. It can help them grow creatively. But how much of that is unhealthy and actually sets you back? I don't have an answer.

What gives you hope in this moment? What are you most afraid of?

What I'm most afraid of is definitely very easy. Turn on the news. Politics. The environment. What gives me hope is that despite all these horrific things that are happening, we as a society have moments where we band together and rise above it.

We have moments where we devote time to try to effect change in things, and this often happens against our immediate self-interest. The amount of compassion and empathy, the sense of agency, where good people are pushing the ball forward despite all the horrible things happening in America and around the world — that gives me hope.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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