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Pornsak Pichetshote & Aaron Campbell


Page 45 Review by Stephen

"My mother's all about obsessing over shadows in a room full of light. We're not doing that to Leslie."

There's so much humanity and individuality in Aisha's face, there, as she talks to her best friend, Medina. Her mouth lies slightly open and gentle, but her eyes gaze into the distance, the future, determined. On the previous page - in recollection of her mother - Aisha's shoulders were slumped while leaning forward, with the weight of having been rejected. But she will not give up on her mother-in-law.

One of the many wonders of this is that the evidence remains deeply ambiguous as to whether Aisha is being too trusting and optimistic, or whether her fiancé Tom knows his own mum better than she does.

What could any of this possibly have to do with a horror comic?

Well, there are so many more horrors other than the occult or the alien. There is uncertainty and vulnerability, not knowing if you can trust someone: the threat of harm, physical or otherwise, can be just as frightening as its actuality. Ask anyone who's ever worried about being bullied at school the next day, for hours upon end, day after day. Or read JANE, THE FOX & ME.

Aisha is confident that Leslie's no threat, either to herself or to her step-daughter, Kris, even in the knowledge of what's gone before, but her university friend also has substantial doubts and we, the audience, are privy to some extra moments which they are not.

Secondly, there's the very real, current and all too enduring horror of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia: ignorance voiced with pride, spread sheep-like by osmosis or deliberately through disinformation as a virus which currently culminates increasingly not decreasingly in America, England and some parts of wider Europe in extreme intimidation and outright violence: beatings, acid attacks, murder and mass, white-supremacist terrorism.

But equally there is the horror for Aisha of being rejected by her mother simply for becoming engaged to a non-Muslim, Tom, no matter how devout she's remained.

What's this series called again?

Then, of course, there is absolutely the horror of the creeping, the intangible and supernatural against which we have no defence. Worse still, if only you see it, feel it or smell it, no one may believe you. If no one else experiences what you do, then you go through it alone. That, I would suggest, is the ultimate horror, and this book racks that up to almost unbearable degrees, on multiple occasions, in from several different viewpoints, as you shall see.

Aisha is experiencing nightmares. They're growing increasingly vivid and intense. A corpse-white cadaver wraps itself around her, draining her sleep and suffocating what's left with its cloying stench of rotting meat. Ghastly grey hands creep over her shoulders and thighs, an intimacy of the unknown, invading her like an incubus with cold hands, cold fingers, cold heart.

Ah yes, that which cannot be fought or reasoned with. With that we come back again to real-life horror: those who are violent that cannot be reasoned with on the street, at work, in your home. It's chilling.

Aisha, Tom and Kris have relatively recently moved into Tom's mother's apartment on the top floor of a tenement building on the Lower East Side which was the target of a bombing attack. I spotted the smoke stains on the very first page past the prologue, rising from the top of the fourth-storey windows. It's there on the metal shutters on the ground floor too. The bomber was verified by law enforcement as a lone wolf, but they had once glanced at an ISIS website, so you know how that goes... Now the tenement has few tenants left for it is far from repaired, and some of those that remain, well, they don't like seeing a Muslim of colour and Pakistani origin climbing their rickety stairs. There is still so much anger, and even if hatred is suppressed then it will usually out somewhere, somehow.

I swear to whatever (if any) god you believe in that INFIDEL has been ridiculously well thought through and comes with a sophisticated balance and so many unexpected perspectives, for the final irony is that it is non-Muslim Tom, Aisha's fiancé, who is so determined to protect Aisha and respect her faith along with its sacred traditions that he is the one fighting her corner against his own mother, Leslie. He was reluctant to move his family in because Leslie used to poison his daughter with sweeping Islamophobic slurs, as if all Muslims obeyed barbaric laws, condoned or actively encouraged terrorism. For example when Kris once played with Aisha's hijab:

"Women who wear this let people get killed for drawing cartoons. They let men throw rocks at girls like you!"

But to Aisha that was two years ago, she believes Leslie has learned and that it's vital that Kris know her grandmother because her biological mother died so early that Kris can't even remember her.

The first chapter begins in paranormal terror and it climaxes in paranormal terror, before an even more awful real-world ellipsis of a cliff-hanger which could have gone any number of ways, but it is completely eclipsed by the second chapter's real-world ramifications, which will have you screaming in vicarious terror. Now that is emotional investment.

HELLBLAZER used to combine occult and socio-political horror to successful, cathartic effect, but it was always a little bit burlesque because its star, John Constantine was a dabbler in diabolism et al. This is a very different beast, being grounded firmly in the street-level, down in the subway or on the park bench: on what we see all around us right now. I would suggest that the exceptionally uncomfortable paranormal aspect is merely a symptom, side-effect or result of the rot, not its cause, but that which it will come to catalyse only fuels it further.

So it doesn't make it any less pants-wettingly terrifying or grotesque.

There's a sequence in the third chapter which perfectly exemplifies the "sophisticated balance and so many unexpected perspectives" I mentioned earlier which especially needs commending without, I hope, giving away that gut-wrenching ending to chapter two.

It involves Haley, one of the tenement's other occupants whom Aaron Campbell does a masterful job of depicting at her most genuine, natural, open, friendly - in fact bubbly - as she meets and greets Medina, Aisha's best friend and fellow Muslim, thanking effusively her helping to carry in shopping. Haley is blonde; Haley is white. The dialogue is so cleverly directed during a single page from the brightest of bright which should lift anyone's soul when it comes to kindness and inclusivity... to the darkest of dark, at its most abrupt, in the most awful accusation of racism, at its most personal.

Haley, you see (and this is where I have to be careful not to give the game away), has accused Aisha - to others - of something truly hideous. But the thing is, Haley doesn't have a racist bone in her body and has only reported precisely that which she's seen. She just didn't see what Aisha saw.

At which point I'd remind you of what I wrote earlier, for it applies to Aisha, to Hayley and will soon to Medina, and it forms the whole heart of the horror here:

"Worse still, if only you see it, feel it or smell it, no one may believe you."

The argument is reprised six pages later on. Huge props to Pichetshote for giving both scenes - and perspectives - so much punch.

I'm sure that I read somewhere that artists and co-collaborators on all aspects of the comic, Campbell and Villarrubia, chose to illustrate all the everyday elements in digital while pulling back to the traditional, more physical art process for the psychically parasitic. They rendered that on Bristol board.

It may seem perverse, but I've seen so many other offerings where the purportedly real has been rendered in pen and ink and the preternatural given a computer-driven day-glo and gloss. The result has always been a distancing disassociation between the two elements: here is the real world, but the other is freaky, immaterial so won't matter to you - they're special effects, so you don't empathise.

What Campbell and Villarrubia have achieved, by contrast, is an unholy marriage which makes what would otherwise be ethereal all too sensually and so immediately repugnant, overwhelming and nasty.