THE LETTERER OF THE DAY IS…HASSAN OTSMANE-ELHAOU
Lettering is, without a doubt, an art form that isn't as appreciated as it should be. There are still solicitations, reviews, and comic book covers that fail to mention the letterer.
I admit, when I started reviewing comics for Comic Book Yeti at the beginning of this year, the subject I was least knowledgeable about was lettering. Having reviewed a number of comic books, read even more with a slightly sharper critical eye, and interviewed a number of creators, lettering is still the subject I know least about. BUT I do know more about lettering now than I did in January 2021 and that's due, in large part, to many of the amazing letterers working in the comic book industry today.
I thought, though, what better way to continue to learn about lettering than by interviewing said letterers themselves using a standard set of 15 questions for each and every interview. Without further ado, I present to you how I'm closing out my first year as a writer for Comic Book Yeti with the series "The Letterer of the Day is..." with another edition of this series every. Single. Day.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Hassan, thank you so much for joining me in the Yeti Cave. If you have any other jobs other than lettering, what is it you do?
HASSAN OTSMANE-ELHAOU: Lettering is probably a solid 90% of my working time. I also edit PanelxPanel magazine, which takes up another 30-40% (bad maths joke). And trying to get Strip Panel Naked videos on comics storytelling out on a semi-regular basis is another couple of percent. But primarily it’s lettering and PanelxPanel magazine, both of which intersect probably fairly frequently!
I started lettering probably quite recently in comparison to many of the other people you’ll be talking to in this series, I think. The first thing I lettered was maybe in the middle of 2016 and the first thing I got paid to letter nearer the end of that year (my memory isn’t great, but I have those dates in my head!). It was around 2018 that I tried to go full-time comics-related work, between the YouTube series, the magazine and comics lettering. Since then, the lettering side has grown, thankfully!
CBY: What are the comics that influenced you and made you want to work in comics?
HASS OE: In the UK, when you’re a kid, you’ll inevitably have read a bunch of Beano and Dandy comics, which are our gateway into the form itself. But when I was at school, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Essential Spider-Man vol. 1, which were these cheap black-and-white reprints of the first Amazing Spider-Man comics, and I’d never read anything like it before. It was after the Toby Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man film had come out, which I had on VHS, so I guess I was a fan! After that, I found the Panini reprints of Batman and X-Men we used to sell in newsagents over here, and then the Ultimate Comics reprints that made their way into WHSmith’s (for any UK people).
Somewhere around the same time, I’d started getting more French comics, especially Lucky Luke. We would drive to France every year (I guess because my dad could speak the language, being Algerian) and hang out on the beach and in secondhand book shops. My dad had read loads of Lucky Luke as a kid, so if we found any copies of it we’d grab some and I’d try my hand [at] reading them with some assist from him whenever the plot actually required reading some of the balloons, haha.
I don’t know that these were the comics that made me want to make comics, but they were the things that got me drawing as a kid and starting to find more and read more comics. It was probably more recent series like Samnee and Waid’s Black Widow, getting into Stray Bullets, Criminal, Blacksad, that sort of thing, that got me wanting to be part of comics.
CBY: What do you enjoy most about lettering?
HASS OE: There’s something about the additive nature of comics that I think is really fascinating. Like, the artist gets a script, which tells a story. They draw the pages, which tells a story, using the script as a basis. The colorist then tells a story over the inks, and as a letterer, you come in and tell a story over that, too. Just the actual idea of what it is becomes really interesting in that regard, because you’re putting your personality on the page, but you also have the vibe with the personality of the work and the creators that have come before you. And everyone has a distinct tone, right? If I work on a book with Hayden Sherman, the decisions made by them are so distinct as compared to say, Emma Ríos and Jordie Bellaire on a comic, which is so distinct to Sami Kivela and Jason Wordie, Justin Mason and Triona Farrell, etc. So each new book, you have to bring your own instincts and your own flavour, but you’re cooking the same meal as all these other creators, so you have to try and balance your spices against what they’ve already added to the pot. Not enough, and maybe you aren’t really contributing much to the meal, too much, and suddenly it’s way too spicy.
Which is a bad metaphor to say I like figuring out the best way to contribute to the story we’re telling!
CBY: What is something you wish the average comics reader (however you want to define that) understood about the art of lettering?
HASS OE: Honestly I don’t think readers need to know anything about lettering. In fact, it’s probably better if they don’t know anything at all, let’s preserve some of the magic haha!
No, I don’t really know, this question does get asked sometimes and I fear the answer is never really a good one. We can do the kind of standard like, we don’t get paid very much money per page thing, which is true, sure. But I don’t know that’s relevant to a reader that much, I guess. I’m curious to see what everyone else answers for this, because it’s the one I wonder about the most. Do readers need to know anything about the process at all? Does it impact their enjoyment or engagement if they understand how things are made? I mean, to me it does in retrospect, I suppose (that’s basically what PanelxPanel and Strip Panel Naked are both all about, actually). Yeah, I’ve come back 'round on this one, Jimmy…!
Maybe the only thing to say then is that it is its own job, with its own craft. There’s elements of lettering that are essentially sort of technical jobs, but it’s also heavily a creative, story-additive role in comics-making. If you replace me on a comic with any of the other people you’ll be interviewing, chances are that comic will look and read quite differently with each different voice. Which is a great thing, because it shows how a letterer should be a specific choice on a comic. I think there’s plenty of comics where I might not necessarily be the right choice as letterer, and that’s precisely because lettering isn’t just a technical production role. I sometimes wonder if that is a misconception – there are plenty of instances where production roles take on lettering, and sometimes the way the role is credited away from a person can give it an impression of a production role, which (to me) can diminish the input and additive creative role of a letterer.
But, I do think it’s worth saying these are things which impact me more than they do a reader when enjoying a comic. These are the things you think about when you’re lettering comics every day, not when you’re kicking back and reading to get lost in the next chapter of whatever story you’re loving.
CBY: What do you think is the biggest misconception about what you do as a letterer?
HASS OE: I think my answer to the previous ties in with this, about seeing lettering as a production role rather than something closer to the colorist or artist or whatever. If you want me to be wholly honest, the biggest misconception I have found when telling people about lettering is that it’s even a job in the first place! Most people outside of comics, and I’m sure a lot of people who read them, too, don’t realise it’s a job, or have much of an understanding of what it actually entails. That there is a writer who writes the words, but isn’t the one who writes them on the page, but instead is some chubby schlub sat behind a computer copying and pasting them over the artwork…for a lot of people, that’s (rightly) a weird idea!
CBY: Hand lettering or digital, what tools do you use to letter comics?
HASS OE: I use, as probably everyone else will say in this series, Adobe Illustrator. That’s like 99.9% of my work there. But when I’m drawing sound effects in more natural ways, I use Photoshop to draw those over the art, [with] a variety of brushes. I use an iPad as [a] kind of drawing tablet in that case. For hand-lettering, I typically do that digitally in the same way, hand-drawn on Photoshop. For me, it gives you the same crunchiness and analogue look as traditional hand lettering, but in a way that’s much more amenable to current editorial workflows. I hand-lettered an issue of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt like this, and the recent Roofstompers short story published by TKO Studios. When doing traditional, I have a set of Faber-Castell TG1 pens, which are beautiful. I just don’t typically have that much call to use them!
Most of my kind of analogue elements I use, I end up drawing in Photoshop. So any custom brushes for balloon strokes or sound effects within Illustrator, mostly they come from playing around in Photoshop first. For me, that’s like a really solid stopgap between the “traditional” or “analogue” world, and the digital world of Illustrator. On certain comics (Beyond the Breach, X-O Manowar as recent examples) I’ll still entirely work in Photoshop for the sound effects and just layer them in, but in other cases (Red Sonja, Chicken Devil) I’ll hand draw within Illustrator based on brushes made via Photoshop or Illustrator.
It’s one of these things, branching out of this (sorry), where typically you see hand-lettering as this kind of superior cousin to digital lettering. And having done a very small amount of it, it is a really interesting process that creates something entirely unique. But it’s also a completely different skillset – like when I hand-lettered Roofstompers, that really was just completely different to lettering any of my regular monthly books. The process is different, what’s required of you is quite different. But it was something I loved doing, and am doing again on a couple of short stories.
But on the flip side of that, what’s great about digital is being able to be a chameleon on each book. There are your own quirks which you keep around, and there are things that I kind of naturally do a lot because I like the way it works and looks, but it also means you can reinvent your style with each new collaboration. What I do on The Rush with Gooden and Duke isn’t the same as what I do on Chicken Devil, or what I do on What’s The Furthest Place From Here?, even though the style itself has similarities (line tails rather than traditional pointer-tails). But both [of] those are completely different to Red Sonja and X-O Manowar, which is also different to World of Krypton or Time Before Time. This is something that hand-letterers did less, I think, because the job was a different one then.
CBY: Can you take me through the process of how you go about choosing a font/lettering style once you become involved in a project?
HASS OE: I start by just getting a feel for what we’re doing. Is it a horror, sci-fi, all-ages comedy, whatever. That helps with the tone of the style initially. Then I look at the art a little closer and see the line thickness, the stroke-type, that sort of thing. For example, Tyler Boss’s art on WTFPFH?, he has these thick ink lines. So when I was first asked to work on that comic (way back in like, 2018 maybe?), I had these thick inky balloons, and a thick, inky font. When we came to actually getting going on the comic properly this past year, I kept most of what I’d figured out then, but changed the tails to lines rather than pointer tails, because I’d read much more of Tyler’s own letter-work since then, and saw that actually, he had used line-tails himself. So I figured that might be a way to bring the lettering a little closer to his own style, too.
Looking at something like The Rush, Nathan Gooden has a crunchier line than Boss, so I made a crunchy brush in Illustrator (from a Photoshop brush) and began with that. I had a thing for the line tails, obviously, so used one I’d made for another comic, where in the end we’d gone with a pointer-tail, that already had some crunch to it. I use a balloon connector on that series, which is a sort of anachronistic lettering thing from hand-lettering days, because the comic is set against the Gold Rush, so in my head, it made sense to have something that felt a little older in the balloon style. I don’t expect that to translate for anyone reading it, but it just made sense to me for the decision-making process. Font-wise, I wanted something that felt big and heavy to offset it against the lower-case dialogue that we use for smaller asides (something Si Spurrier does really nicely in his scripts, by the way), while also not feeling too digital, to lean into that anachronistic element I had in my head. So I went with HedgeBackwards, which is a Comicraft font I *love*, and handily comes with a lowercase variant, too.
CBY: From a letterer’s perspective, which qualities do you most want to see in your collaborators to lead to a successful collaboration?
HASS OE: There’s a basic sort of checklist of things here, like leaving enough space in the panels for the dialogue to go into, making sure everything is sized properly, getting the final draft of scripts and minimising revisions once work is done, making sure speakers in the panel aren’t drawn in difficult orders, that sort of thing. I don’t think that makes the collaboration any better for the work necessarily, but it makes letterers happier! For better collaboration, I think just being all on the same page, making sure we all know why we’re telling this story, what it’s about, what it’s for. That’s the way I can best do my job, really.
I think part of this is just being open and being excited, right? Like if we’re all feeling the energy, you’re all going for it. I’ve got a new graphic novel with Ibrahim Moustafa and Brad Simpson, our follow-up to Count at Humanoids. And with that, and our amazing editor Rob Levin, you can feel we’re all kind of pushing ourselves now it’s the second time round. So in this case, I went to Rob and asked him if we could try something new with the lettering, where I hand draw the sound effects over Ibrahim’s inks, and Brad colors them as one whole thing. Being open to that idea is enough, really, even if Rob had turned around and said that’s insane, we don’t have time for it, the workflow is too awkward, whatever. But I think we were all just going for it, and everyone was excited about making this book even better than the last, so we got away with it. Just having that energy and that atmosphere – and the time! – gives you chance to even think of suggesting stuff like that.
CBY: Are there any typical hand/wrist injuries letterers are prone to and do you have methods to combat injuries due to repetitive tasks/overuse?
HASS OE: You’re sat at a computer a lot. The best purchases I made were for an ergonomic chair, which fixed back issues I was having so quickly, and a sitting/standing desk to allow some stretching and movement throughout the day. Plus, just exercising…! I’m a new convert in lockdown, haha! But yeah I get out for an hour’s walk every day, and try to fit in another half an hour of exercise of some variety in the day, too. I’ve found most of the aches and pains have gone away since doing all of that.
CBY: Is there a letterer that is still lettering today that you think doesn’t get enough credit/recognition? And which of their comics should CBY readers check out?
HASS OE: Annie Parkhouse is excellent. I think a lot of American readers don’t know her because primarily she worked on 2000AD, but she has done various American comics (Hellblazer, The Mask, The Invisibles, etc.). Annie also lettered "America," which is one of my favourite Dredd stories. But her work is great, and you can see the interesting transition from hand lettering to digital lettering, where the font she uses now is based on her hand lettering – so even in the digital age, Annie’s work still feels very much her own. I think Clem Robins and Todd Klein have approached the digital age in a similar way, which is super interesting. Both have their fonts which are based on their hand-lettering, and are also great fonts with lots of alternates to keep it feeling as analogue as possible. I mentioned before about the way hand-lettering is different to digital, but I love the hand letterers that kept their vibe from analogue to digital in that way. I honestly think, say in the case of Clem, you’d be hard-pressed to tell his font is digital. It’s great. On the flip side of that is Jack Morelli, who mostly does a lot of Archie books so doesn’t seem to be in “the conversation” as much. But Morelli took a lot of the spirit of his hand-lettering across to digital. It’s really worth reading as much of Morelli’s Archie comics as possible just for the lettering.
CBY: Which of the comics that you lettered are you most proud of or means the most to you and why?
HASS OE: I guess as a bucket-list thing, I lettered an Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie story, and that is probably one of the most fun things. I got to get notes from Alan, so it’s going to be hard for anything to top that, honestly. Shanghai Red was one of the first proper series I lettered, with Chris Sebela and Josh Hixson, and also the first thing I saw of my work translated into another language. The French editions got sent to family in Algeria pretty quick…! And speaking of Chris, he gave me my first break by bringing me on to letter Short Order Crooks like four years ago — so even though my work has grown quite a lot since then, it holds a special place.
I do think part of the fun of lettering comics is that you work on so many things, that you can use each one as an opportunity to try something different, so I’m picking [a] few books here, but all of them I try and make them special, if that makes sense. I try and do something new, try something different…add something that makes the book unique to my work and to me, so – to go back to that analogy earlier – I’ve added some of my spice to it.
CBY: From when you first started lettering comics to today, how would you describe your growth as an artist and, in that time, has the comic industry’s perception of lettering changed?
HASS OE: I had no idea what I was doing when I first started. I did have one of those, like, falling-in-love moments, when I first started to learn how to letter from Jim Campbell’s great tutorials. I did a few pages and whatever it was, it just clicked for me as something that made sense to my brain. I loved it. It was purely an accidental thing, there were no great plans to letter comics (I didn’t even know what lettering really was), but once I got started playing around with the tools, it all just came together. So I basically had very, very little experience in actually lettering, when I first started. Everything has been a learning curve, figuring things out, making mistakes and then seeing what went wrong, taking that to the next project and fixing it. Learning how to incorporate the Photoshop work into lettering, seeing what I can get away with in terms of sound effects, drawing over the pages, looking at different working methods, that sort of thing. Really the answer to this, I suppose, is confidence. I’m still not really all the way there yet, but with each project, you get a little more confident and you figure out something you didn’t know before. I don’t actually talk to any other letterers, except for the wonderful Aditya Bidikar (our Letters & Lines podcast will be back!!!), so a lot of this has just been years of trial and error.
I don’t know how much the perception of lettering has changed, but we’ve definitely seen more cover credit for letterers in the past few years, and maybe more people talking about it, but that might just be because if you talk about it more, people talk to you about it more, too. So I don’t know, but I think seeing more cover credit, and seeing people actually enthused about lettering is always good fun.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
HASS OE: Chris Ware’s Building Stories, Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, and Emma Ríos’s I.D.
CBY: What current projects are you working on that CBY readers should pick up?
HASS OE: I just sent off the final files for Chicken Devil #4, which is [an] absolute hoot. And the DC series I’ve worked on that hits the stands first is World of Krypton, which I think is out in December. The new Image series What’s The Furthest Place From Here? just started, and The Rush just came out…the second volume of North Bend just kicked off, Crimson Cage launches in December, the second volume of Time Before Time I think just released its first issue…Lots of really fun stuff!!!
CBY: What’s your favorite comfort food?
HASS OE: Chocolate, pizza, burgers, the really spicy Algerian stew my dad makes...
CBY: Thank you very much, Hassan! You can follow Hassan on Twitter at @HassanOE. Follow PanelxPanel on Twitter at @panelxpanel. Check out his website HERE. Don't forget his Youtube series Strip Panel Naked.
HASS OE: Thanks, Jimmy!