Comics Review: ‘Infidel’ brilliantly reflects the horror lurking in our own souls

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If someone had told me ten years ago that in 2018 we’d have two comics by major publishers with Pakistani-American protagonists, I might have dumped cold water on their head to make them talk sense. But here we are. We got our superhero in Kamala Khan, whom I love so much that even nearly five years later, I’m in disbelief that she exists. And now we have another heroine, who is, wonderfully, nothing like her.

Infidel is a horror comic about a group of people living in a rundown apartment building where something horrible happened in the past, and the shadow of those evil acts still hangs over the old building—literally, as the characters slowly begin to find out. At the center of the story is Aisha; she has moved into this creepy building with her fiancé, Tom, and his young daughter, in order to take care of his mother. But the older woman harbors a secret prejudice in her heart, and the monster that stalks the shadows of their home feeds on hatred and fear…

The comic’s author, Pornsak Pichetshote, and artist Aaron Campbell have created a gloriously dark, chilling world that is all the scarier because its monsters walk among us in reality. In this first issue we’ve just begun to unravel what the bogeyman of this story will be, but hints so far point to it being hatred that has taken on physical form. Protagonist Aisha is haunted nightly by dreams of this hate-spewing demon, and at first it seems to only be a manifestation of the fear and malice she encounters from her neighbors (and the world) on a daily basis. And that makes the nightmarish specter even more terrifying when it appears in front of her waking eyes.

Pichetshote reveals in this interview on the Nerds of Color podcast that he was first inspired with the idea for the story years ago, in the Obama era, when he was still an editor at Vertigo. He says that he was disturbed by people’s claim that they were living in a post-racial time, even as they noted that Islamophobia was on the rise, or actually lapsed into Islamophobia themselves, sometimes in the same sentence. “I thought it was amazing how at the time the culture was able to promote these two things hand in hand without seeing the irony or the contradiction.” Pichetshote says that with every passing year the story became more relevant, and he eventually couldn’t just “keep it in a drawer” anymore, and had to send it out into the world.

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The art and the writing work seamlessly together; it’s clear that Pichetshote and Campbell have chemistry, a unified vision and a place they want the story to go. It’s confidently creepy, and in the way of all good horror, does an excellent job creating an atmosphere of dread that puts the reader on edge without overdoing the cues that say, something is very wrong here. It feels as though we’ve dropped into these characters’ lives, the story giving us just enough to start to get to know them without overwhelming us with exposition.

I appreciate that the monster is not the only villain, but that there’s a sense of lurking danger coming from all the people around Aisha except for her close loved ones. It feels very true to life; I certainly don’t feel the sense of safety and comfort when I’m walking down the street that I used to ten or even five years ago. And I love that a certain character’s racism is hiding under a veneer of politeness, because that’s a real thing, and harder to deal with in some ways than barefaced hatred that spits in your eye.

Now then… about that title. Initially when I saw this comic’s first promotional push a few weeks ago, the word INFIDEL stamped across a cover that featured a Muslim woman in hijab gave me immediate and unpleasant pause—more so once I found out that neither the artist or the author was either Muslim, or a woman.

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I, and most Muslims, hate this word. It’s been falsely associated with us for a long time, but in fact it originated in Christianity, and was part of the rallying call for things like the Crusades and the Inquisition, as in, “Let’s go kill all the infidels and reclaim our former Holy Lands.” Historical accounts of the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099 proudly describe how the horses of the Knights Templar waded to their knees in the blood of Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. It adds insult to injury that in the modern age that history of violence has somehow been conveniently dismissed, while simultaneously being weaponized to portray Muslims as barbaric crusaders on a mission to destroy any “infidel” that isn’t like them. (The implication being that this justifies those medieval bloodbaths after all, as well as the mass killing of Muslims today.)

I reached out to Pichetshote, and he’s been admirably receptive to this criticism, as well as assuring me that he’s aware of the negative connotations of the word and has plans to address them. What I’ve learned about him since has given me ample reason to trust his judgement, especially considering how thoughtful he has been throughout his writing process, and the great lengths to which he has clearly gone in researching and talking to as many people as he can. I still have a visceral uneasy reaction to the title, but I’m interested to see where the story will go from here.

I’m intrigued by the author’s choice to put Aisha in hijab on the front cover, when she doesn’t wear it on a daily basis (though, as he pointed out, of course she still wears it to pray). I do like that it gives the reader an explicit, visual representation of Islamophobia. Then there’s the detail that Aisha is estranged from her mother and has drifted a little bit from orthodoxy, although her faith is clearly still important to her. I’m looking forward to seeing where Pichetshote goes with that, because it’s a more complex portrayal of a Muslim woman than we’re usually given. We tend to be written as one of two stereotypical caricatures: the devout, oppressed hijabi with no opinions of her own, or the rebellious modern woman who has no need for her parents’ culture or religion.

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Framing Aisha as a woman who prays, but struggles with the idea of hijab, illustrates how faith is an ongoing journey rather than a monolithic, calcified state of being. It also makes the point that hijab is just a small part of a Muslim woman’s identity that is made to represent and carry so much more than we intend or desire. There is so much more to who we are that’s usually completely obscured in people’s minds by their preconceived notions about what that small piece of cloth means. In that way, the symbolism of the front cover of Infidel quite cleverly makes the reader do some of the work—their initial reaction to the image of a woman in hijab might be negative, but a closer look reveals that she is actually the victim. And that problematizes the reader’s first instinct, and perhaps makes them recoil for a different reason. I love it.

I can’t wait to read what comes next, and not just because this is an excellent horror story. It gives me a particular feeling of excited relief to see an author of fiction tackling Islamophobia, because for so long we’ve been gaslit or dismissed when we tried to raise awareness that it’s a real phenomenon that is claiming lives. It’s even more empowering to see an author of genre comics taking on this topic. As we’ve seen with Get Out, genre—especially horror—is an incredibly powerful way to deconstruct and explore social and political issues without becoming preachy. And comics is a perfect medium with which to push back against Islamophobia, because so much of the anti-Muslim propaganda we’ve been inundated with over the years has been the juxtaposition of violent images and negative words.

In a media and entertainment landscape where the only Muslims we see are evil and out to get us, it’s a refreshing and empowering reversal to see the truth: all this time, we’ve been the ones running from murderous villains, while the rest of the world jumped at shadows, ensnared by figments of their own fearful imaginations.

Infidel is available March 14, 2018 from Image Comics.

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