Pornsak Pichetshote & José Villarrubia Discuss ‘Infidel’ at NYCC 2019: The Horror News Network Interview

by John Evans

Infidel burst onto the scene last year to overwhelming acclaim. The dangerously scary title earned numerous awards- including the 2018 Horror News Network Comic Award for Best Mini-Series– and Hollywood came knocking for the movie rights after only two issues hit store shelves. Courtesy of Image Comics, writer Pornsak Pichetshote and colorist/editor José Villarrubia took some time out of their busy schedules at New York Comic Con 2019 to meet with Horror News Network and reflect on the incredible series their team (including artist Aaron Campbell and letterer/designer Jeff Powell) created.

Horror News Network: First of all, congratulations on the great success of Infidel and the fan reaction as well as the awards you’ve earned. The last time we spoke, the title wasn’t finished yet, and we’ve seen since then that Infidel has done very well collected as a graphic novel. Does the episodic nature of a monthly book- especially a monthly horror book- get lost sometimes at all in a graphic novel, or is it just a different experience?

Pornsak Pichetshote: I think it’s a different experience. I love monthly comics. That’s how I read comics, and I think the wait time in between issues ends up becoming part of that experience. Now I read my monthly comics in a stack. Even the process of putting one comic down and picking another one up and having that luxury, there is a subtle change in how we interact with the stories. Or even having the option to stop reading. I’m the kind of person that when I start a book, I have to finish it. I definitely don’t do that for comics. So psychologically, I think it is a different mental process that happens. I especially loved reading the reviews as they were coming in, and seeing what people were thinking as they were reading it. When you have the time for conjecture, you do conjecture more, it gets you more invested in the material, and it deepens your relationship with the material. So I love the serialization of comics. I tend to be wrong about most things in media. I remember when Netflix first came out, being like, “That will never work!” Television is about the space between episodes, where you’re talking about television, and it’s a new way of experiencing that now.

Horror News Network: Infidel  is scary, and one of the things for me as a reader that really frightened me was turning the pages and being surprised at what I’d find next. When you were planning the pages of Infidel, how did you consider the reader’s physical experience with the pages of the book? 

Pornsak Pichetshote: For me, when I get hyper-intellectual about comics, I become interested in the similarities and differences between movies and comics. In both formats, you control space and time. But in comics, you control more space than time. If it’s a 20 page comic, you have ten opportunities to control time, and that’s in the page turn. For the rest of the comic, you are controlling space with the illusion of controlling time. For me, that page turn is the only time you are taking control of the narrative away from the reader. So, there you have the most opportunity to get the biggest bang for your buck that way. I think a lot about what the punctuation for every page should be, and what the punctuation for every spread is. If you’re working for Marvel or DC, the first ad happens on page 5, and then after that you have no control over where the ads go. And that’s a different experience. It’s great to work at a place like Image where I know where all my page breaks are. The thing that I don’t think is talked enough about how Image does a book is the level of control they give creators over page length. The thing I love about Image is some comics are twenty pages, others are thirty, others are forty, and it really is depending on what is best for the narrative. And that’s an enormous amount of freedom and an edge that you have as a writer to tell a story. Having all that kind of control that you don’t necessarily have in a traditional comic really helps the experience a lot.

Horror News Network: The art and the colors of Infidel are so much a part of this book. How did you approach the color scheme of the artwork to convey emotions and tell your story?

José Villarrubia: In terms of coloring it, since I was editing it, I was giving both Pornsak and Aaron a lot of notes on different story ideas and artwork ideas. And then Pornsak would also give Aaron notes. And then Aaron would give Pornsak notes as well. So we were all doing editorial work in some ways, which is not typical of how comics are usually made. We both loved the project, and we both wanted the best for it, so we were all tough on each other. And there was this trust that we could be tough and that you were not doing it just to be critical or to try to make a mark. We were all thinking about how this could be the best it could be.

One of the things I told Pornsak right from the start is that even if I was the official editor of the book, I could not possibly edit my own colors. Nobody could properly edit themselves. The colors I was putting were the best ones I thought at the time, but that doesn’t mean they were the best because it was just my eyes making the judgment. So, both Pornsak and Aaron gave me a lot of color notes at first, and then fewer as we went along. Pornsak actually pushed me to be more psychedelic, more things that I would not have normally dared to do for a Marvel or DC title. But Pornsak really has that sensibility that most editors don’t have, of actually speaking about color- not just art- in specific terms, and wanting Aaron and me to do things that we hadn’t done before, so there would be a freshness to this book that other horror books don’t have. As it turns out, Aaron took a very realistic approach to everyday life and the characters were very believable. And my palette was not realistic like everyday life, but more realistic like we see on film. It was a very filmic look that had color harmonies for different scenes. They were subtle enough, but they gave everything a desaturated look that is very common in films these days. And that was a subtle way to set up the horror element. In addition to the blackness that Aaron would do, this psychedelic color would happen in spurts. Not too much at the start, but it would gradually increase and there was a lot at the end. It was thoughtfully done, but mixed with spontaneous stuff. The opening sequence, for example, where Aisha is having what she thinks is a nightmare, has this fractual color pattern over the image. That’s something Aaron came up with. I colored it, and he said, “How about this?” and I said, “How about this?” And he liked it, so we just left it. There was a certain amount of experimentation, but within a very controlled frame. I think that color is in comics like music in film: to support the story. But not to overwhelm the story, and not to play second fiddle to the story, either. There is a rare balance between colors that are just tinted and colors that call attention to themselves. Horror is such a subtle genre, especially suspense horror, that it’s very easy to get grotesque. And it’s very easy to get too much right away. And I think that we were all very vigilant so it would be just right, using our judgment.

Horror News Network: Pornsak, you started at Vertigo as the editor. What do you make of DC shuttering the brand?

Pornsak Pichetshote: Man! It’s such a big question. I have a lot of conflicting emotions with it. Obviously, I’m sad. But at the same time, though, Karen (Berger) and Shelly (Bond) and Will (Dennis) and Mark (Doyle), they’re all still making comics. And now they’re all making comics at different places, so those books are everywhere now. So I regret that there isn’t a Vertigo brand anymore. DC is still in the business of doing creator-owned books, just not through that particular label. They don’t have that logo slapped onto it anymore. Honestly, I have a complicated series of emotions that I haven’t totally worked through yet. One thing I will say is everyone there is still making comics. That aspect of it hasn’t changed. And if anything, the industry that we have now is something like Marvel and DC make up 40-60% of the market share. And when Vertigo started, that certainly wasn’t the case. They made up 100% of the market share. Whether it’s called Vertigo or not, it’s the spirit of Vertigo that Vertigo did for things that aren’t superheroes. Long running mini-series, long running things in different genres: that is the market place right now. That’s why I’m doing the books that I’m doing. And at least 40% of that market share is doing the things that Vertigo did, and that wouldn’t have existed without Vertigo. So it’s a weird thing for me. On the one hand, there’s a part of me that wonders: if Vertigo changed the marketplace to such a degree, did it make it so it didn’t need to exist anymore? And I don’t know, so I’m bummed that it’s gone, but in some ways it doesn’t feel like it’s gone. There are more comics than ever that do what Vertigo was doing, especially at Image.

José Villarrubia: Infidel is one of the heirs of Vertigo. I feel like Infidel couldn’t have happened without Vertigo. Not just because Pornsak and I worked for Vertigo, but because the mere idea of a comic that mixes a traditional genre that is not superheroes with social consciousness like Peter Milligan was doing on books before, and Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. That’s something that Vertigo started in mainstream comics in America. Infidel is very much in keeping with that spirit.

Pornsak Pichetshote: The number of publishers now that wish they had published Infidel particularly, or have come to me wanting to do something like Infidel, it just shows that something that seems so uniquely Vertigo in its DNA could be published anywhere now. It goes to show how deep Vertigo’s influence is.

Horror News Network: When we last spoke, it was just announced that there would be a film based on Infidel. Do you have any updates on that?

Pornsak Pichetshote: There is a script that’s with the head of Sony. From there, we’re waiting to see just like everybody else. It is a slow process in that world.

Horror News Network: Have you been able to read the script?

Pornsak Pichetshote: Here’s the thing: I don’t want to read a script until it’s the final, final version. Because otherwise I’m just going to get my head wrapped up in it. When it’s done, done, I’d love to read it, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I don’t know if I want to read a work in progress.

Horror News Network: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on together or separately that you can tell us about?

José Villarrubia: We’re not working together, but we’re consulting with each other all the time. After we started working together at Vertigo, Pornsak became a trusted confidant, somebody who I could really talk industry talk with. We understand each other perfectly about the commercial needs of the industry, the artistic needs of projects, et cetera. So I have been, in addition to coloring and what I do commercially, putting together a project with two students of mine who just graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art. It’s a historical project. I can’t really talk about it until it’s time for it to come out. But it’s the first time I’m working in an editorial way with ex students of mine. I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t done Infidel. I learned to edit through working with Pornsak, and learning how he edited books. Among all of my editors, Pornsak was the one who was the most passionate about the project we were working on together. He gave me the most useful advice. He was also the most critical, even when I didn’t always want to hear it. But that was good too. I’d like to think that I do a lighter version of his editing style. Even just before we met with you I was picking his brain, and we were talking about his project as well. I think it’s a very good time to be a creator of comic stuff. The market is broader than it’s ever been and more accepting of different projects. And the media possibilities are very exciting in ways that they weren’t before.

Pornsak Pichetshote: I’m working on a new book. I can’t talk about it yet. It’s killing me… I was hoping it would be coming out this year but it’s looking like it’s gonna come out next year. It better come out next year! I have a new comic coming out next year. This year, a lot of TV work kept me from comics. I worked on the second season of a Hulu show called Light As A Feather. The back half of the second season actually drops tomorrow. That’s a teen girl horror thing. I was lucky enough to work on a show called Two Sentence Horror Stories. I did a ghost story for them, and that entire season is available on Netflix right now. I did a Halloween themed short story for Doctor Strange that will be in a Doctor Strange Annual, and José colored that as well. That will be out the day before Halloween. I get most of my work at Halloween! But mostly what I’m doing is working on the new book that I unfortunately can’t talk about. I’m looking very forward to talking about it!

José Villarrubia: I’ll tell you one thing: his project is awesome and ambitious.

Horror News Network: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

Pornsak Pichetshote: You guys have been with us for the majority of the ride, so we really appreciate it.

José Villarrubia: We appreciate your support.

Horror News Network: We are especially excited about the film, because this is one of those books that just stays with you. 

José Villarrubia: When you talk about it being scary, one of the early conversations that Pornsak and I had, was that we both love horror as a genre, and we both love horror comics. But I was racking my brain thinking of any comic that ever scared me. I love classic horror. I love the Warren magazines. I love EC comics and the 70s stuff.

Horror News Network: But there’s not much out there that would keep you up at night…

José Villarrubia: Exactly. When I was proofreading the second issue of Infidel after Pornsak and I hammered every single detail that you can imagine down to the eyelashes, I was reading it when it was all done, the color and everything, and it freaked me out! I was like, “Ooooohhhh!” And I knew what would happen on each page but it still just freaked me out. I told Pornsak that this is something I have rarely felt. A lot of people have come up to us and told us that they were scared by it. Are you scared by a lot of comics?

Horror News Network: No! Even with movies… I love horror movies, but I usually don’t get scared by them. The things in horror movies that scare me have a lot in common with comic books in that they’re usually well thought out images, like the work of Stanley Kubrick, where the screen acts as a canvas. 

José Villarrubia: Eerie stuff.

Horror News Network: Yes. And you’ve definitely captured that with this book, in that I legitimately get chills when I turn the pages. And that’s almost impossible to pull off in a comic book. 

Pornsak Pichetshote: I appreciate that. I give José all of the credit in the world because we knew what we wanted in an artist in terms that it had to be artistic, there had to be enough expressions to it. Talking about the lessons we learn from working with each other, something I think about a lot is that José had the wherewithal to. If you talk to Aaron, he’ll tell you that he did paintings of barbarians slaying dragons and then got jobs for ten years doing crime comics and film noir comics. And then after that, that was all he drew after samples that involved slaying dragons. It took José to take a look at his art, to take a look at how he used blacks, to look at how realistic the art was and yet how expressionist the art is, and through that be able to say, “Here’s a person who could do really great horror.” Even though he’d never done it before in his career. And we talked to him and Aaron was like, “I’m dying to work on a horror project.” I give José all the credit in the world for that, and it’s one of the skill sets I don’t have and I want to develop more of the skill set of being able to look at the components of art and re-synthesize it and think: this person can do this even though they haven’t done it yet. And look at Aaron, Aaron’s doing Hellblazer now, and Neil Gaiman is looking at his art.

José Villarrubia: That is what I am talking about with the trust between me and Pornsak. We both know what our strengths are. And I think that because, in addition to being a colorist I’m an art teacher. I look every day for that potential he’s talking about in my students. I’m always making the leap of: if this person draws like this, how else can they draw? Whereas, when you’re in editorial, you usually get the project presented to you because you don’t really have the time to take those chances. You need to have a safe bet. And Aaron was never my student, but he graduated from the college where I teach. I started teaching the year he was graduating. Eventually it all comes together.


Nick Banks contributed to this interview.


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