by Patrick Ehlers and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. […] None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
Patrick: There is a lot to be stressed out about in 2018. One of the more insidious is also one of the more pointless: racism. It’s a series of prejudices and assumptions based on lies passed down by generations of systems put in place to keep the powerful in power. It is literally senseless. But it is also tenacious as fuck. Whatever else is going on, the looming specter of prejudice is going to warp everything else, muting solutions to all other societal problems. Pornshak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell’s Infidel 5 takes this uncomfortable truth and and shows just how persistent racism can be, even in the face of literal demons.
Pichetshote starts the issue by laying one form of racism on top of another. There’s a Korean family in the apartment building, and the father makes a comment about a job of his going to “a black thug.” It’s a statement that seems less demonstrative of any active racism, but more of an institutionalized racism expressing a specific frustration. It’s not pretty, but it’s such service-level racism that it’s fucking jarring to Ashley decry them as the “Worst. Neighbors. Ever.” Letterer Jeff Powell betrays the creative team’s sympathies, however, by filling their speech balloons with Korean hangul.
Most comics would just write this text in english with some brackets around it with a little asterisk indicating that it’s translated from Korean. That extra bit of authenticity suggests that this team wants to represent their actual culture and experience. We will see the hangul again later in the issue during the explosion. With no characters on the page, Powell is able to indicate that two culturally distinct groups of people are experiencing the same awful events.
Which is to note that they are being infinitely more empathetic than Ashley and her neighbors. They fire off a bunch of reddit-ready white working class frustrations, including a classic about Ashley not booking a job because she was white. The ugliest part of their racist bitch session is this sense of entitlement that pits equal opportunity against “just being P.C.”. Their concerns about the dude in 3D stem from the exact same place as Ashley’s presumption that she deserves the part with the theatre company more than the people of color that beat her for it. Pichetshote expertly pivots from this more generalized white-entitlement to the specifically hateful distrust for 3D. It’s all part of one continuum of racist hatred.
Abe’s pissed off because his racism was punished — he lost his university gig after diminishing the role slavery played in America during one of his lectures. This is an important point, because not only is it racist to downplay the slave experience in the United States, it is an intellectually dishonest debate to engage in. Like, even if we could remove the concept of race from that lecture (and, for the record, you can’t), the argument is total bullshit. And that is the crux of the issue, possibly even the entire mini-series: racism causes people to make decisions that are not in their own best interest.
This perfectly sets the reader up for Medina’s confrontation with Tom in the basement. There is a literal fucking demonic monster on the loose and Tom can’t see past is own latent (and not-so-latent) racism, choosing to target his friend instead. Of course, Campbell’s good at reminding us that Tom doesn’t see the individual in front of him anymore, just the body of a brown person.
Look how the shadows obscure only Medina’s face, and she’s trying like hell to emerge from this darkness only to have Tom’s fucking ALL CAPS “NO” smacking her back down.
The rest of the scene is upsettingly violent and visceral. Drew, I wonder if you’ve got a specific take on the board-with-a-nail-in-it scene or Campbell’s brutal 13-panel beat down sequence. For me, they play out like the obvious consequences of ignoring the humanity of your fellow man. Hell, Pichetshote makes a point of reminding the reader of Medina’s education, and her struggles with faith and dating, before Tom beats the hell out of her. Not only does Tom’s hatred make him blind to the common enemy he and Medina share, it makes him blind to her totally evident humanity.
Drew: I think that blindness to each other’s humanity is exactly what this series has been about, and actually makes me want to quibble a bit with your epigraph. To be sure, there are individuals, corporations, and political parties who can exploit racism as a distraction, bending it to their own ends, but I hesitate to call that its “function.” Indeed, I’m not sure there’s a “function” to racism any more than there is to the sun rising in the morning. Excluding out groups is an unfortunate truth of virtually every society throughout history, a childish quirk of humanity that insists that I’m more special than you — however it is that we distinguish “I” from “you”. Race is an obvious one, but so is religion, social class, gender, sexual orientation — there’s really no limit to the excuses we’ve come up with to be shitty to one another. To my eye, this issue takes the position that all of that shittiness exists on the same continuum, and is to some degree inherent in all human interaction. But far from being hopeless about it, Aisha’s resolution at the end of the issue suggests that trust might just save us from our worst instincts.
Aisha fears stepping outside of her mother’s good graces — good graces she may well consider racist, given her attitudes about Aisha marrying Tom — so doesn’t trust her love as unconditional. It’s a leap of faith to trust her mother, but as “Medina” points out, Aisha doesn’t have a choice.
Aisha may have that mother/daughter bond to fall back on, but the notion that we need to trust and rely on the people around us is an easy one to extrapolate out. Or, at least, it would be without the odd wrinkle that the neighbor in 3-D actually shouldn’t have been trusted.
I’m honestly at a loss to square the “trust is good and necessary” conclusion with the notion that some people actually do mean us harm. This series never seemed all that interested in 3-D’s motives (or even who that bomb was really meant for), so I hesitate to dwell on them, but I think it’s fair to say it has something to do with targeting one of those out groups I mentioned. The best I can come up with is that the fear and distrust both exemplified and perpetuated by his actions are the polar opposite of trust. A kind of “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
But even there, Pichetshote and Campbell’s conception of fear and distrust is far more complicated than I’m letting on, complete with all of the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance that tend to crop up when folks try justifying their hatred. Ashley and Mitchell don’t see their position as racist, so feel free to judge their Korean neighbors’ racism. They’re feign indignation that anyone would use the phrase “black thug,” but don’t even blink at Abe calling 3-D “that Arab shithead.” That is, they’re using the premise that racism is bad to justify their own racism — a position that rings true in the real world, where conservatives are railing against the “reverse racism” of affirmative action.
Which maybe explains why the morality of this issue is so messy — that this is an accurate portrait of the world around us. Medina’s insistence that we have to trust one another is empowering and the fact that fears and distrust can undermine those efforts is terrifying; both are true, and both are reflections of the world we live in. Campbell turns in some truly chilling art for this finale, but as ever, it’s the social commentary that unsettles me the most.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?