Bringing A Unique Horror Tale To LIfe
♦ Pornsak Pichetshote talks about Image’s horror series Infidel, now available as a trade paperback, drawn by Aaron Campbell, with Tripwire contributing writer Tim Cundle…
TW: Every story has a beginning, every journey starts somewhere… So who and what made you want to be a writer and where did you literary journey begin?
PORNSAK PICHETSHOTE: I was a voracious reader when I was a kid – especially of comics, but for the longest time I didn’t think I could be a writer. Even though I grew up in America, I went to high school in Thailand, and my school didn’t even have literature classes. It was only in college that I discovered people enjoyed my writing, so I wrote more. But I always assumed it was a phase I was going through. Because I didn’t think I had the qualifications to be a writer. It wasn’t until the summer of my junior year in college that I went home and discovered an old journal I never even remembered keeping. There, I wrote how much I enjoyed this writing phase I was going through. At that point, I realized that “phase” was longer than anything else I experienced in my life until that point, and maybe it wasn’t just a phase after all. Maybe it wasn’t going away and that I should see it through. So I decided to get serious about it.
TW: Have you always been a “comic book guy” and fan of the medium? If so, what was it about comics, and which writers and artists drew you to the medium and how, if at all, do you think their presence, or influence, manifests itself in your writing?
PP: My friends growing up definitely saw me as their “comic book friend.” When I was younger, I didn’t know much about writers and artists, but the first 50 issues of Spider-Man were some of the biggest influences in my life, primarily because – even if I didn’t know it at the time – Steve Ditko’s contributions. So he was probably the first creator that influenced me, even though I wasn’t paying attention to the names of people making comics at that point. Those Spider-Man comics sparked my love for outsider stories – one person against the world. It’s part of everything I write, definitely including INFIDEL.
TW: Was it difficult making the transition from being an editor to being a writer? How do you think the disciplines differ, and what was the most challenging aspect of writing Infidel?
PP: Editing by its nature is a very reactionary job. You have to wait for material to come in before you can get to the real nitty gritty. So the biggest difference between the two is really the blank page. I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan, and he once said, “I love writing, but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, Giftless. I’m not your agent and I’m not your mommy: I’m a white piece of paper. You wanna dance with me?’ and I really, really don’t.” I completely agree with that. So for me, the biggest shift is that writing is constantly battling the blank page and finding different ways to tame it.
Now the good news is, part of what you learn being an editor is the importance of structure and the mechanics of the medium, and that can – at times – make taming the blank page a little easier. But like everything else, there are disadvantages too. I remember reading how filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has this belief about the “inner editor.” He thought writers are more productive when their inner editor is at their most tired. So morning writers are more productive because their inner editor hasn’t woken up yet. Night writers are more productive because their inner editor is too tired to stop them. I do think there’s something to that, and part of my writing now is to not edit myself for a while and just let the ideas and emotions flow – which can be hard when editing’s so intuitive to me.
For Infidel, the biggest challenge to get over – and it’s the one my inner editor was the hardest on me on – was the responsibility (and ensuing research) to get all the different voices right and truthful. I read a lot, talked to a lot of people, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100% sure.
TW: Where did the idea for Infidel come from? Was your fusion of a modern horror / ghost story and a social commentary that serves as a critique of modern society an easy story to pitch? What the initial editorial response to Infidel like? And what’s, as far as you know and can tell, the fan response to it been like so far?
PP: Infidel was an idea I had for a really long time – the germ of it happened a year into Obama’s presidency, actually. When we had supposedly “licked racism,” because we had a black president, even though Islamophobia was increasingly on the rise. That irony led me to making INFIDEL. Since then, every passing year made the story’s themes more relevant, until finally, I felt like I couldn’t just let it sit in a drawer anymore.
As for pitching it to an editor… Because of the way comics have historically been made, we’re accustomed to thinking of the editor as gatekeeper, and that isn’t what it’s like on an Image book. My editor was long-time friend José Villarrubia. José’s a legendary comics colorist but I’m the only person who really knew that he’s also a frustrated editor with fantastic taste. When I told him about the book, he immediately suggested editing it, and I loved the idea of my editor being a seasoned professional with as much to prove as me. So right off the bat, my editor was a peer and collaborator, as opposed to someone hanging over a project with veto power. That’s the role I always tried to fill when I was an editor at Vertigo, so much so, I used to chafe when creators called me, “boss.”
The only person with veto power on an Image book is Eric Stephenson and after we pitched him the project, his “notes” was as simple as a response like, “This sounds really cool and definitely something we want to be a part of.” And that’s it. One of the great things about working with Image is their approval process comes down to whether they believe in a project or not. A binary decision with none of those things I’ve definitely seen in my editorial days of, “I really like this, but I need you to really get into x, y, and z so I can get my boss on board.
And finally, the response to the book has been better than I could have dreamed. From the pro response, to all the fans reaching out, to landing on NPR’s 100 Favorite Horror stores to the movie option. I feel really grateful.
TW: Artistically, Aaron Campbell was, and is, the perfect fit for Infidel. Was he your choice, or was he suggested to you by someone else? How did your working relationship develop? And how did you feel when you saw the first, finished pages of Infidel?
PP: I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that Aaron even exists as an artist. José was the one who suggested him based on all the noir art he’s done on Dynamite books. From there, José had a keen enough eye to see a horror artist waiting to bust loose. Working with Aaron was one of those perfect marriages you hear about it comics where, even though we had never interacted before, we quickly found we had all the same opinions about horror and genre. My first script is very much written as a way to carefully gauge all the different things Aaron could do. What his sweet spot is and where he needed to be pushed. And I’ve spoken to Aaron about how he was gauging me as he was handing in art too. José, Aaron, and I are all very hands-on at every stage of the book, so I see and weigh in on layouts, inks, colors, & letters, so even if Aaron does something very different from what I call upon in the script, I know that the things that are important to me are always conveyed – and that back and forth has always resulted in a better page. But all that was nothing compared to getting Aaron’s inks for the first time, since his acting is so good. I remember when José and I first saw a fully rendered Aisha, we both loved it and started feeling bad about the horrible crap we were going to put her through.
TW: Aisha, the protagonist of the story seems to be caught between two worlds, that of the demands of her faith and the actuality of living in a society that’s increasingly frightened of anything that it sees as being different to the ides of cultural and social normality peddled by elements of the mainstream media. As a character, was Aisha supposed to become the target of, and thus highlight, the rampant xenophobia that seems to be running roughshod over Western society? Do you think that as a writer you have a responsibility to inform and educate your readership as well as entertaining them?
PP: Yeah, that specific role for Aisha was always very, very, intentional. This story was always intended to be about xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism so having the story center around a Pakistani-American Muslim woman who has had to deal with so many different aspects of all of that was definitely by design. As for if a writer has a responsibility to inform, I can’t speak for all writers, but personally, as a person with only x number of years left on this planet, I like the idea of spending my energy doing things that expand, challenge, and interrogate what I know and get like-minded people to do the same. On the other hand, though, I’m deathly afraid of being boring, so it’s a constant juggle to tell a story with intention that’s also entertaining.
TW: Someone once said, forgive me but I can’t remember who, that the most powerful and meaningful literature serves as a reflection of the time and place in which it was written, and Infidel is a snapshot of the social zeitgeist that seems to be holding America, and every other Western nation, in its thrall. Do you think that this particularly vicious period of history will pass without scarring our ideas of what it means to be civilized or do you think it’ll leave an indelible stain that it will take generations to wipe clean? Why?
PP: I honestly have no idea, and that terrifies me. And that fear informs every page of INFIDEL. I want to believe that what this particularly vicious period of history is a blip. A step back, as our global society moves onto something better, but I honestly don’t know. I’m sure I’m not the only person reading the news headlines and feeling the world is on fire, and I wonder a lot if that burning earth is just where we live now. But Aaron Sorkin (I know; I quote him a lot) once wrote that “If politics brings out the worst in people, maybe it takes people to bring out the best in politics.” Because despite all the horrible headlines I read, it’s impossible to ignore the other headlines of people rallying together to fight to protect the basic human rights of people they’ve never met, and that moves me even as I type these words.
TW: Has the overwhelming interest in superhero stories (not that superheroes are bad, far from it) pushed other aspects of storytelling in comics into the background? And if so, what do you think writers, artists and publishers can do to help level the playing field between the capes and everyone else in the four colour universe?
PP: I worked for DC Comics for over a decade. Whether it’s directly or indirectly, superheroes have paid for most of the things in my home. But of course, I believe there’s more to comics than superheroes. And honestly, I think we as an industry are doing what we need to be doing to expand people’s conception of comics. I’ve always believed comics are always a couple steps ahead of the rest of entertainment. So to me, it makes sense that while the whole world is obsessed with live action superheroes, the genres covered in comics are at the most diverse they’ve ever been. In my opinion, the most exciting comics I’m reading right now are the non-superhero ones, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the world sees that too.
TW: Infidel has been picked up for television hasn’t it? What can you tell us about it spreading its wings and travelling to pastures new?
PP: Actually, it’s a film option, and we’re starting to hear murmurs of what that may or may not look like. And it’s really interesting watching the project move on and become other things. I’m a big fan of letting the book be the book, so when it comes to any kind of adaptation, I’m really more anthropologically curious to see how they will interpret it. Will the filmmakers see something I didn’t? Will I agree with that? Will I not agree with that? I honestly can’t wait to find out.
TW: What does the future hold for Infidel and Pornsak Pichetshote?
PP: I have that annoying thing where I’m working my ass off on a couple different projects simultaneously but can’t talk about any of them. Which means, I’m terrified everyone will be sick of hearing about me next year when I can talk about things.
Infidel is out now in trade paperback from Image Comics. Here’s Tim Cundle’s review of the trade too