PanelxPanel: the comic book criticism that works

PanelxPanel: the comic book criticism that works

We interviewed Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, creator and director of "PanelxPanel", digital magazine of comic book criticism, winner of the Eisner 2019 award. With him we talked about the meaning, objectives and sustainability of the criticism and how "PanelxPanel" can be an example to follow.

PanelxPanel is a monthly magazine in pdf format created by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou who, for a couple of years, has been proposing and carrying out an idea of comics criticism and popularization with series and characters from the US superhero scene, based on in-depth analysis and interviews developed through long articles in which to dive away from the frenetic speed imposed by the web. A successful concept, given the results of the public and the victory of Eisner 2019.
With Hassan we talked about how and why PanelxPanel was born of his idea of criticism, its value and its meaning in the world of contemporary comics.

Welcome to Lo Spazio Bianco, Hassan.
When, how and especially why the idea of PanelxPanel was born and that first concept evolved and changed between the moment of conception and the release of the first issue of the magazine?
So not long after I started the Strip Panel Naked channel, I started writing articles for the now-closed ComicsAlliance. That then shuttered its doors not too long after – hopefully not a coincidence – and I was left trying to decide if I wanted to take the SPN column somewhere else, or what to do with it. I’ve always been a big fan of magazines, especially with longer articles, deeper dives, and hopefully well-designed. So I figured if it was a case of finding a new home for my writing, why not do it in the way that I’d like to consume it, and put together a curated monthly magazine? I think the motivation for much of my work has just been to make the thing I’d like to see, and then try and convince people that it’s what they wanted to see as well!
In terms of what changed… I suppose it’s constantly shifting. There’s a sort of wall, where your imagination hits against reality, and I think for me starting out it was a balancing time, design skills and such, so as time has gone on and we’ve got more confident, I think the presentation has, too.

If you had to define in a few words, what is the PanelxPanel’s editorial line? Has it always remained the same or is it changing with the passage of time?
I think it’s always been the same, which is to deliver some high quality writing, criticism and discussion on comics. We’ve tried to expand the topics, featured more pieces on indie comics, manga, and webcomics, too. But really, it’s a space to cosy up with some good writing to help you dive deeper into the creation and thematic lines of some very good comics.

At a time when the content’s online use is based on synthesis and speed, PanelxPanel is characterized by a search for deepening and, therefore, also for the request to invest time in reading. Even the choice to present the contents of the magazine in pdf format recalls in a certain sense a relationship with an analogical time in which reading required its own sphere. What are your thoughts on these topics?
Yeah I think absolutely the case. When you go to a website now, you’re hit in the face with a thousand different adverts, links off to other articles or sites, lists and image scrollers, anything to desperately get you to stay where you are on the site, to drive advertising revenue, because the sites need money to survive. When you pay for something, you’re then directly funding the creation of that, so we can do away with ads and the like, and try and create something that reads elegantly from start to finish, or just satisfying as smaller chunks within the bigger whole of the magazine. I think in a sort of idyllic way, I like the idea of sitting with a magazine and a cup of tea on a lazy day and just getting lost in a world away from the internet!
We’re also launching some physical books in the new year that are an off-shoot of this, called PanelxPanel: One Shots. They’re pocket books, each one with a deep-dive into a particular topic. They’re sort of like if the first half of the magazine was one long essay, but in pocket book form. I think much of it is trying to recreate a physical experience.

Since you mentioned it, can you tell us some details about this new project?
Yeah, they’re something we’ve had in the works for a while. I think many people started writing them at the end of 2017/start of 2018, so we’ve been toiling away on them for some time before the announcement. They’ll initially be print only, because the format is so key to why I think they work. They’re A5 pocketbooks, in the region of 70-80 pages. So, like I mentioned before, they’re a little longer in page count than the first half of an issue of PanelxPanel, but about one specific topic. They’re broken up to be easily accessible and easily readable long form writing, and should fit in a coat pocket so you can take them with you. Importantly they’re also great reads on a wide variety of topics, including the history of Canada’s identity as told through its comics, and an exploration into just why Rob Liefeld took the by storm by when he did, and a lot more coming. For me, it’s just pushing further the idea of reading accessible but engaging criticism in new and different ways for readers.

Each issue of the magazine has a more or less similar structure: long interviews with authors and in-depth coverage of a particular comic book – usually an editorial novelty -, technical analyzes on various aspects of comics language and a section dedicated to short reviews. How was the choice of this structure configured and what changes – additions or deletions – have been made over time?
A couple of things have changed over time, in some ways making the first section of the mag a little different than the second half, creating more of a closed experience around a particular comic. But otherwise, we changed the format of some of the Regulars in the second half, going from a short interview section called 5 Questions… to Solo, more of a guest essay space. I found that I wanted a bit more space for unrelated features, so opened up a space at the back, and figured the two big interview spaced would be enough interview material each month.
Making the structure was mostly just, again, figuring out what I wanted to read. We have a Regular feature called Big Talk, where we often have creative teams interviewing each other, and this came out of some feedback when I was prepping the first issue from a writer friend, who liked the format of Chain Reaction, which was a radio show where someone would interview a creator, and that interviewee would then become the interviewer for the next episode and so on. We did that for the first six months of the mag, and then switched it to being more open, but it was a fun approach.

How is the PanelxPanel’s editorial staff composed, how do you choose your collaborators? Is it a fluid editorial group or are there people who have been with you since the beginning?
The only editor on the magazine is me, unfortunately! But our writer group is a mix. We have some regulars, like Tiffany Babb and Andrea Ayers, who have contributed to quite a lot of issues, and writers like Sean Dillon, M.L. Kejera and Rasmus Lykke who do a few pieces a year, and then a roving selection of others, too. Sometimes it depends on the subject matter of the feature comic as to who would be a good fit, and after working on the mag for so long you get a good sense for what sort of pieces and styles writers are interested in, so I mostly tend to approach those that I think would have an interesting take. We have somewhat open submissions for more of the Regulars, which is also how some of these writers became more regular ones.

Did you get an idea of what the typical reader of the magazine is? And what relationships have you established with readers over these two years?
Yeah, we definitely have a lot of creators (I’ve been surprised by some of the names that have listed themselves as regular readers!) and people that want to make comics at some level professionally in our readership, which I think was to be expected from the kind of thing we do. But we also have academics, longtime fans and those interested specifically in whatever our feature book of the month might be. One of the coolest things for me was getting an email from someone who said they’d been reading comics for over forty years, and reading an issue of PanelxPanel had completely changed the way they think about the medium. I hope that we can do that for people every month.

What was the issue of PanelxPanel that had the greatest response from the public and which one you and your editorial team are most proud of?
Understandably our biggest issues in terms of readership have been the issues around some of the big ‘blockbuster’ comics. Things like #4, which had Mister Miracle features, and issue #24, which was our WicDiv issue, have been very popular. On my side, personally I love issue #27, which was our Pretty Deadly issue, which marked another design shift for the magazine, but I honestly think we’ve done a really good job with having a great cross section of voices and essays each month.

Regardless of the readers’ feedback, are there any topics or themes that you think are important to promote and that you continue to propose in the magazine?
The obvious one is the value of criticism. I think that’s one of the bigger arguments the magazine makes, that it should exist in the first place, and that hopefully people are willing to pay to support that work. It’s not easy convincing people that they should drop $3,00 on a magazine about the thing that they love, but almost universally the reaction is incredibly positive from readers after they sample an issue. Beyond that, just the range of comics being published in the market, the different approaches to style, and the artistry of the medium I think is important, even if it is about superhero comics. Every level of the work has a craft involved, and so I want to shine a light on that craft and get people to look at the comics they love in new ways.

What is your personal view of criticism? That is: what are its responsibilities, what should his role be in the world of comics, what are the conditions for exercising it to the fullest?
You asked about editorial remit earlier, and I think that’s interesting. There’s so many different places writing about comics that I think it’s important to have your voice and your unique approach, and much of that will inform the value and responsibility of your outlet within the culture of criticism. For us at PanelxPanel, it’s about helping comics be seen as an art form made up of artistic decisions by creators. There’s a tendency to think of these things as disposable, which the distribution method of American comics doesn’t help, so we like to hit pause, get your attention for a few hours, and show you some of what’s making you love the series you love. In a wider sense, criticism is valuable for understanding the work being made around us, for understanding how the medium itself functions, and how to interrogate that.

In Italy, comics criticism, which now lives on the web only, is perceived by most experts as amateur, partly for reasons to be attributed to itself and how it developed over the years, partly due to a preconception of the comic’s Italian world that often equates the criticism to an enemy (especially if the analysis of a product also highlights the critical points in addition to the merits). What is the state of criticism in your Country? How is the role of critic perceived in the Anglo-Saxon comic world?
In much the same way, I’d argue. There has been a shift away in some of the biggest comics sites to more wider media, in film and TV, which is very understandable as sites that want to pull readers in on a large scale to generate the revenue it needs. But I do think there has been less education and assistance for people wanting to write critically about comics, because there is no centralised hub or aides in place that people can access and learn from. We’re all just figuring it out on our own, which can be useful, but clearly has its downsides. I do think we’re getting better though, there are some great web sites doing smart writing about comics, like Women Write About Comics and Multiversity.

In a world now unfortunately accustomed to demanding free digital content – almost as if what is not material is not the result of a job – PanelxPanel is paid. How did you develop this choice? Have you achieved economic sustainability?
It was always going to be paid, because I wanted to pay the writers that worked on the magazine. Ad revenue is low, and difficult to sustain, and if you follow that model it will naturally push you in a different direction for content, searching as many clicks as possible, and I didn’t want that. The other model is something like Patreon, which I already use for Strip Panel Naked, but if there was going. To be a pay wall, I didn’t want it to just be a website, I wanted a product. I think in that way, it’s an easier sell to someone to say pay $3 and you’re getting this 100 page magazine, than pay $3,00 and you will have access to this website. Maybe it’s a small difference, but I think it does make one.

What does it mean to you that PanelxPanel won the 2019 Eisner Award for Best Comics-Related Journalism/Periodical and what value do you give to this award?
Yeah it was incredibly surprising. We were nominated for the Eisner in 2018 but didn’t win, so it was a nice surprise to be nominated a second time as well this past year. It means a lot, in that it does help validate the work we do on the magazine, and many of the long days and hours poured into it on many fronts. Other people also see strong value in it, and the Eisner’s being voted by peers also means a great many more people see value in it, too. It was an honour that’s only after six issues it was nominated, so to win was really something special. It gave us good drive to keep going, too, and try and make the magazine better and better.

Thank you so much for your time, Hassan.

Interview made via e-mail in December 2019

Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is the editor of the Eisner Award-winning PanelxPanel magazine, as well as voice behind the Strip Panel Naked YouTube series. You can also find him lettering comics, like Red Sonja, Quantum & Woody, and Black Stars Above.


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Italian independent online magazine for information, criticism, analysis and diffusion of comics.
Reviews, interviews, insights and information on comics, webcomics, movies based on comics, cartoons and everything about the Ninth Art.