The most thought-provoking — and, I would argue, the best — horror stories draw their material from the familiar. Take, for example, the 2014 Australian horror flick THE BABADOOK, which uses a children’s book figure as a metaphor for grief. Although it was ignored by the Oscars, it won a slew of festival awards, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best First Film. Image Comics’ INFIDEL #1, out today, falls in this category of horror and is all the better for it. On one hand, it has all the usual elements of a horror story. A woman moves to a building where a horrible crime happened and, surprise, surprise, it seems to be haunted by malevolent beings. But writer Pornsak Pichetshote and artist Aaron Campbell (THE SHADOW) have a bigger story to tell: the horror of what it feels like to be an American Muslim living amid anti-Muslim xenophobia. The result: A thought-provoking comic that’s worth reading whether or not horror is your thing.

Image Courtesy of Image Comics

It’s All Just Cake and Fun Until…

As you might expect from a first issue, Pichetshote spends much of INFIDEL #1 establishing characters and the location. But his characterizations never feel spoon-fed. Rather, he uses dialogue to give readers the details that they need in an artful manner that’s surprising for a debut writer. (He’s a bestselling editor, with SWAMP THING among his creds, but INFIDEL #1 is his first creation.) Like many good horror comics (and films) INFIDEL #1 opens with a terrifying sequence. We see the protagonist, Aisha, seemingly attacked by a monster that smells like rotten meat as she lays in bed. She quickly comes to the conclusion that it was all a dream. But does she really believe that’s all that it was? What about the broken glass that she finds on the floor? Campbell’s close-up on her confused/scared face tells readers all they need to know at this point.

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After this opening sequence and the title page, Pichetshote and Campbell present us with a seemingly banal scene. We now see the protagonist, Aisha, discussing STAR WARS with a child (Kris) as Kris’s grandmother bakes a STAR WARS-themed cake. Everything about this scene feels natural. Aisha and Kris are having a common “who’s stronger” STAR WARS geek conversation about Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, the grandmother, Leslie, earnestly is decorating a cake with a STAR WARS creature whose name she can’t even pronounce. It’s all quite heart-warming, really. But then the horror resumes…

Maliciousness or Ignorance?

Immediately after Kris hugs her and runs off, Leslie tells Aisha that she wants to her teach her a baked ham recipe. The meal was Tom’s (Aisha’s fiance and Leslie’s son) favorite meal when he was growing up, Leslie says. But Tom himself quickly appears and reminds Leslie (and any unaware reader) of the problem with Leslie’s comment. Aisha is Muslim, and pork is haram. Aisha quickly makes an excuse for Leslie, saying that she must have forgotten. Yet Tom isn’t convinced. We soon learn that Leslie also walks in as Aisha is praying and once chastised Kris for trying on Aisha’s hijab. “Women who wear this let people get killed for drawing cartoons. They let men throw rocks at girls like you –!” Leslie tells the child. Is Leslie’s comment about the ham a symptom of her ignorance and forgetfulness? Or is it something more?

Image Courtesy of Image Comics

Questions like these make INFIDEL such an important read. Pichetshote and Campbell expertly capture the everyday xenophobia and racial tensions in a city like New York. Each scene feels real: Leslie clutches her purse when a black man sits next to her on the subway. Media pundits try to attach the crime at the building where Aisha, Leslie, and Tom live to Islamic extremism because the lone wolf suspect checked an ISIS website. Yes, you read that right … As if Leslie wasn’t enough to deal with, Aisha is living in a building that was the site of a crime that’s fostering anti-Muslim sentiment. The hate-filled people she meets in the hallways are just as scary as the monstrous figures she encounters in her dreams. And that’s precisely the point.

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INFIDEL #1 Final Thoughts

Image Courtesy of Image Comics

INFIDEL #1 winds down with a stunning horror sequence ending with, you guessed it, a cliffhanger. But there’s nothing run-of-the-mill here. What really stands out is how well all of the elements — both textual and visual — work together on the page. The colors, including the unusual blue tint of the characters’ faces in the sequence, lend a surreal feel to the already-mysterious drawings and text. Pichetshote, Campbell, and colorist/editor Jose Villarrubia clearly are on the same page, so to speak, with the vision for the series. And the result is just amazing. In terms of the plot, I don’t know what’s going to come in the next four issues of INFIDEL and I’m okay with that. Based on INFIDEL #1, I can tell you that whatever Pichetshote and co. give us surely won’t disappoint.

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