HASSAN OTSMANE-ELHAOU

Interview conducted 21st May 2019

Where and when did your love of comics start?

I suppose there’s different parts to this answer…! But I think the earliest I can remember loving comics was as a kid with Beano and Dandy, obviously. Then my dad would get me Lucky Luke comics if we went to France (he’s Algerian and had Lucky Luke as a kid), but the thing that really got me was borrowing a copy of my friend’s Essential Spider-Man. It was one of those massive black-and-white reprint editions of the first 20 or so issues of Spider-Man from the 60s, and I fell in love with it. I bought a bunch of comics from WHSmiths after that, in those Panini reprint magazines (that are amazing), before stumbling into a comic shop in Sheffield and seeing The Ultimates Vol. 2 #1-3 in a little collection. That was the comic that got me going to a comic shop every month!

Could you tell us a little about your background in film? What made you decide to explore that as a career?

I actually wanted to draw comics when I was younger, up until about 16, 17. I couldn’t draw, and I had an art teacher that dissuaded me from comics quite often, and bummed me out a bit about trying to work in the medium. Then my dad sat me down and showed me A Fistful of Dollars, and as stupid as this sounds, I’d never seen a film like that before. All we watched in the house was awful family comedies and Jean Claude Van Damme films… I didn’t really know films could be these beautiful, artful things. So I watched as much as I could get my hands on, from Tarkovsky to Allen to Kubrick to Bartas and more, and fell in love with film hard. When I was trying to decide what to do at Uni, film made the most sense. It seemed to suit me, and after I graduated I worked freelance shooting ads and pieces for companies, before managing a local corporate film production company.

Film has a wealth of good websites, podcasts and journalists whereas a lot of comic sites (not all) seem to focus on gossip and advertising the latest line of merchandise or TV show. You and a handful of others have really contributed to upping the standard. How do you deal with the expectation level people have come to expect from the projects you are associated with?

Yeah I think there’s some really fantastic comic websites out there, Women Write About Comics and others do a fantastic job. I think PanelxPanel is a slightly different beast in that it’s more a magazine than necessarily comparable to a website (the demands on content are much less, demands on design more, for example). I don’t know that there’s really an expectation level felt on my side, or at least not a conscious one, but all of the stuff I’ve done just comes from making something I wanted to read or see, to use an old concept again. So I guess that’s sort of my barometer for if it’s good enough, really. I just want to put the stuff out there that I was always on the hunt for, and hopefully that’s what we do!

Do you feel that having that cinematic eye and understanding of that medium in terms of how and why something works has helped you when it comes to analysing comics?

Yeah I think so. The degree is the thing that really helped, and various film theory books I read during that time. They all helped me think visually, in terms of colours and composition, and then just reading comics helped patch it all together. Once you start looking for design elements, storytelling considerations, that sort of thing, it’s easy to start noticing it all.

You’ve said before that Moon Knight was one of the comics that drew you back into reading comics again. What was it about it that reignited that latent love of comics you clearly have?

A combination of factors, I guess. The initial one was just seeing Dec Shalvey’s name on a comic, as he was one of the first people I ever interviewed about making comics, back around 2006, so to see his name on a Marvel cover was really surprising. And then seeing Ellis’ name there, too, I had to try it. The format of the different-story-per-issue was perfect for me, and the fact I needed to know nothing about the characater or world for it to work. Just all of it was brilliant.

Strip Panel Naked is an education. The way it takes apart a section of panels or a page and shows the inner workings is a revelation at times. Breaking comics down in this way gives new levels of appreciation in regards to what’s happening on the page. Was this your objective when you started the project?

Again I remember spending time searching Google for, “Every Frame a Painting for comics,” and finding nothing. It’s just stuff I was looking for, and realising no one was really doing it. So I guess I’m just the sort of person that decides to make it instead of waiting for someone else to do that, and that’s really how it started. Each episode is just things that I’ve found in various comics, essentially, and putting that into words in a way that other people can see it, too. Then I can pretend I’ve actually spoken to someone about it…!

How do you go about choosing your themes and subjects?  Is there a plan of where you want to go and what you want to delve into?

No plan. Originally it was just comics I was reading at the time, but as time has gone on and I’ve become busier and busier I’ve had to try and focus a little, and pick comics I either want to revisit for a read, or that is on my to-read pile. But there’s no specific direction other than whatever I’ve found interesting lately, I suppose. I do try not to repeat concepts too much, though I’m sure people could find examples of where I’ve done that…!

Is the Strip Panel Naked video’s off the cuff or do you have a list of things to hit as you go along?

Yeah it’s all scripted! I wish I could talk as easily as that without a script, but basically the way it goes is just reading the comic and hitting on something that might be interesting, and then building round that. In some episodes it means looking for other comics doing something similar, or more examples in the same comic or by the same creative member, or just focusing in specifically on that one page. And then once I’ve gathered enough notes and examples, I write out the script to record from!

Your creative outlets have some similarities in terms of approach but how do you decide what ideas are a better fit to explore on each medium?

I’ve written some things for PanelxPanel that I then decided were actually better as episodes, and vice-versa, yeah. If something is really, really visual, then it’s going to be better as a video episode, but sometimes there is a way to rework the concept to fit either writing or video, so at that point it just comes to a decision of which will be more effective. I’m a little more limited in PanelxPanel in that I usually only write pieces around the feature comic, too, so that usually makes up my mind as well!

What were you trying to achieve when you started PanelxPanel and do you think you’ve done what you set out to do?

I had started writing Strip Panel Naked articles at ComicsAlliance, and by all accounts they seemed to be doing quite well. It gave me another outlet, and a little money, and was quite fun. But when ComicsAlliance closed down, I didn’t really want to lose the momentum of writing these extra articles, but I suddenly found how tough it was to get paid money for doing this, and how easy I’d had it at CA. I had offers from numerous places, but they ranged from no money to pay-per-click, which probably means no money when it comes to the kind of thing I write. So I had the same thought, what do I want to read? I love magazines like Sight & Sound and Little White Lies, so why not make a comic version of something like that? So that was the aim, and I think it was successful!

Is it hard to keep up the schedule? Does having such fine people contributing help ease the pressure to get each issue out?

The PanelxPanel schedule is fairly easy, the monthly schedule. It’s easier than the Strip Panel Naked schedule, which was weekly, but is now more like every two to three weeks. But yeah, having other writers obviously helps a tonne, but it’s the design and scheduling side that is toughest for me. But we haven’t shipped late yet! *touches wood*

The Creators Editions are fantastic and it’s great to see how a comic is put together from all the different people involved. How hard is it to get the whole creative team together?

The fact I haven’t done a Creators Edition Strip Panel Naked in about two years probably answers the second part of that question… Haha! In a way, they were replaced by the PanelxPanel feature interviews, which go into way more depth than we ever could within about 5-10 minute episodes, and feature more of the team than we could organise for the show.

Can you switch off when you are reading a comic or do you always look upon it with that forensic eye of yours deconstructing the page?

Unintentionally, yeah. I remember at Uni, our lecturers told us they wanted to ruin watching films for us, because they wanted us to have that mindset when watching films, and they were right. After the first year, watching something purely for fun was actually really difficult, and it’s sort of happened with comics, too. Films have become my fun thing again, but occasionally there will be a comic that lets me switch that side off and just enjoy it. I just have to remember to not think too hard about why it happened with that comic!

Your Letters & Lines podcast with Aditya Bidikar was fantastic. Do you think there’s a greater level of appreciation for the art of lettering and colouring and what they add to the overall project these days? I’m a big fan of Ken Bruzenak amongst others but there are times when I wonder how many people pay attention to who letters or colours on any comic to be honest.

Yeah I think we could all appreciate it a lot more. I love lettering, and it’s become a bigger and bigger part of my job over the past year, too. And it’s interesting, because I don’t think really a regular reader should be paying attention to the letters or colours, or the art or the writing, for that matter. All of this stuff should ideally be as invisible as possible a general reader. Another thing we were taught in Uni about film is that if at any point you’re watching one, and you suddenly say, “Oh wow, that shot is beautiful,” the filmmakers have likely made a mistake. If you notice the composition more than the emotion or the story, you’re being pulled out of the story. Obviously that’s a simplistic view of it, but I think it mostly holds true.

What are your thoughts on where the comics industry finds itself today?

It seems pretty healthy! Looking at some recent reports, comics are doing well, it’s just the way they’re doing well is different. The book market is booming really, and webcomic readership probably outnumbers print by a huge factor.

Of all the fantastic work you’ve done what issues, episodes or lettering stands out as something you’re most proud of?

I’m really proud of the Young Animal issue of PanelxPanel we did in 2018. It was a pretty big task, we had about five or six interviews with creative teams, tonnes of essays and process stuff, and that was just the first half of the magazine. It was around 200 pages, which is twice what we normally do, and I had the same amount of time to put it together that I normally have. And I think it’s one of our best issues to date, too.

And for the 24 Panels anthology comic through Image last year, I lettered a short by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, which is probably a career highlight I’ll never top.

Going forward how long do you see PanelxPanel and Strip Panel Naked going on for? Is there an end in sight where you’ll move on to something else?

I don’t know, really. I enjoy them both a tonne, and in terms of creative freedom they’re unparalleled. Strip Panel Naked’s schedule has slowed, but I love making it, so can’t ever see a time when I give it up!

What themes, comics or creators would you like to explore that you haven’t had a chance to capture yet? Who’s on the wish-list?

I’d love to do a PanelxPanel on a Warren Ellis comic at some point… I would have also said Sandman, but we’re doing a Sandman Universe issue soon, so we can cross that one off the list!

Do you have any free time outside of all your various comic themed projects to relax? I’m surprised you have time to answer these questions for starters with your workload. Are you an obsessive?

Little… My hobbies were making these things in the first place, so unfortunately I tend to spend a lot of my free time just working… I try and watch TV and films away from laptops and phones as a way of disconnecting, and occasionally fit in a book, but yeah, there’s a lot of work…!

Recently we’ve seen a lot of podcasts and web sites that cover a variety of things shift over from a free to everyone model to a subscriber only or enhanced content through places like Patreon. Is this the future of quality content?

I think so. It’s definitely the way to do it without needing to also pump out click-bait stuff to drive traffic and revenue, but even then it’s quite hard. I do think though that you can build a dedicated audience base when there’s a price point, but you will obviously always reach less eyes than you did otherwise.

If you could recommend anything for people to watch, listen or read what would it be and why?

Of course, Strip Panel Naked on YouTube, and PanelxPanel from gumroad.com/panelxpanel — but apart from my own stuff, I’ll throw a TV recommendation that I’ve been loving, which is BBCs Mum. Three seasons of will they-won’t they with Leslie Manville and Peter Mullan, and it’s been one of my favourite things on TV the past few years.

Hassan thanks for your time.