We recently had the truly exciting opportunity to catch up with letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou to talk about their work on Valiant’s SAVAGE series, different approaches to lettering and what fans and comics journalism can do better to credit letterers in the industry.
Check out the full interview below!
Comic Watch: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us here at Comic Watch about your work on the thrilling new SAVAGE series at Valiant! You are no stranger to Valiant Comics, with work on other hit titles like X-O Manowar and Quantum and Woody, so can you tell our readers a little about your origin story for getting started with Valiant?
HASSAN: Hey! Thanks for having me. So I was on a plane that crash landed on a deserted island, and I grew up fighting dinosaurs, before I was pulled out of there by editor Heather Antos.
I had done some work with Heather before Valiant, she was editor on a couple of pitches and things I’d done, and I think we’d just crossed paths through comics generally. I think the first project Heather messaged me about for Valiant was X-O Manowar, which was super exciting, but Quantum & Woody was the first book that made it out schedule-wise. Valiant is superhero stories and big kind of pop books, but from a letterers perspective, there’s no specific house styles or anything, so you get to have a lot of fun figuring out each new approach to a series.
CW: SAVAGE is a series that has a very distinct feel to it, featuring violent survival-action mixed with sci-fi influences. What can you tell us about the overall aesthetic you wanted to bring to the series with your lettering and how it impacted your approach compared to other titles you have worked on at Valiant?
HASSAN: Yeah I guess I always start with the artist and what they’re doing. This was my first time working with Nate [Stockman] but I’ve known him and his style for a while, so already had a kind of idea how I’d approach it. His stuff is really big and bombastic and full of character, so I wanted the lettering to have that same approach. If he’s going balls to the wall, and I didn’t also try and also do that, it’d be doing a disservice to his excellent work. So there’s a lot of color and big text and shouting and bursting balloons and everything like that. In terms of energy it’s not a million miles away from Quantum & Woody, but it’s pretty drastically different (to me) to what I do on X-O Manowar, which is a bit more serious.
CW: In the remarkable SAVAGE run from 2016, Dave Lanphear took on the lettering duties to some spectacular results, helping it to become such a popular character in Valiant’s lineup. What was your homework like preparing for this new series and how do you feel your execution on letters differs from the work we saw in the first run?
HASSAN: This kind of comes back to the previous question, which is that for me so much is dictated by the art. And Clayton Henry and Lewis LaRosa are tonally really different than Nate, so my style had to be different than what Dave would choose on the original run. You can see that just by looking at it, too, I think. I looked at how Nate had been lettered before, and if there were any specific cues from the original series that were called out (like you don’t want to break away from tradition without reason), and then built up a style guide from there.
CW: There is a lot unfolding with the return of SAVAGE picking up right where we left off with the character now finding his way in the modern world before facing down this Project Bizarre villain, but it seemed to offer a lot of opportunities for the letters to really shine and take some risks. Can you tell us about the collaborative process on the design of SAVAGE and what type of freedom Valiant gave you when getting started?
HASSAN: Yeah that’s a fun thing with Valiant, they’ve been really open about letting me kind of go wild with approaches, and they keep asking me back for other comics, so I think that means they like it! I’ve done a few books with Heather now, both in and out of Valiant, so I have a sense of what things don’t land and what do, what will work and what won’t, that sort of thing. I don’t recall that much changing from my initial draft to what we had in the end. The fun thing with editors for me is that I think it’s better for me to go like 150% and have someone pull me back in a few areas than go 80% and feel like I left some ideas behind, and Valiant are great about pushing me in that direction.
CW: You’ve already been able to put together an impressive resume in the industry as a letterer working with a lot of different exciting publishers like Vault, Aftershock, Image and more. What do you feel separates Valiant from the rest in your opinion and what keeps you coming back to work with them?
HASSAN: There’s just something quite interesting and exciting about superheroes and big bombastic stories in comics, right? Getting to do this mix of big, bold, funny, serious stuff in a superhero world has been fun. Plus Valiant gets some killer artists on their books — I’ve worked with Ryan Brown, Nate Stockman and Emilio Laiso (and a one pager with Erica Henderson) through Valiant, who are all amazing. I think that’s the main draw for me.
CW: There is an important aspect of pacing in a series like SAVAGE that is packed with so much over-the-top action but also enough dialogue to help push the story forward in an interesting way. You have pulled it off incredibly well in the first issue, but were there any challenges in striking this balance with the letters?
HASSAN: I think with text-dense stories it’s only ever really a problem from my perspective if there hasn’t been adequate room left in the panel. It doesn’t really matter if there’s just one balloon on a page if an artist hasn’t given you room to work with, it’ll still make the job a little more difficult. With Nate, he’s super aware of everything like that. I think the most difficult was probably the first page of issue #2, where Nate drew this incredible lab full of little background stories and details, so I was very careful about what to cover up, because there’s so many funny little moments in there.
CW: Letterers are often considered the unsung heroes in comics who simply don’t get enough credit for the work they do in bringing our favorite stories to life. As the Editor of the Eisner-winning digital magazine PanelxPanel which celebrates the comics medium, this is something you are certainly familiar with. What do you feel like can be done in both comics journalism and fandom in general to bring more attention to the art of lettering?
HASSAN: I certainly don’t think it’s that necessary to be more attuned to lettering or anything like that for comic readers, like putting my Mr. Serious hat on. We’re working to create stuff that captures readers and keeps them entertained, or makes them think, laugh etc. Being aware of the different roles in comic production isn’t really important for that to happen, and honestly probably not that important in wider comics journalism. When you’re discussing the value of work, the impact it has etc., there’s scope there to bring more discussion to art and colors and lettering, too, but I think we see that anyway. I’m moving round the question a bit, I suppose. The first bit of that question about credit is maybe the most interesting, because I think that credit should come from a broader sense of recognition across the entertainment industry generally about who creates what work, and also perspective in our own sense of what role we play in each of our fields. The most important credit in comics is probably historical credit for characters and stories that have had huge cultural impact (like Weezie [Louise Simonson] not being credited on X-Men films and that sort of thing) that also come with access to pretty Earth-shattering amounts of money for creators that never had access to it – because some people made a lot of money off of the ideas of others.
For things like lettering and coloring, that’s more about making us feel good as more background members of the team, haha! But I suppose more seriously, it’s acknowledging that decisions are being made that have an impact on the reader from people other than the writer and artist. But yeah, I guess that’s less for comics journalism than it is for us to feel better about ourselves.
I really don’t know if I answered this question at all, sorry.
CW: From SAVAGE to X-O Manowar and all the work with other publishers in the industry, plus your work with PanelxPanel and even making films, have you found it difficult to manage the workload you receive as such a sought-after letterer?
HASSAN: I just work a lot of hours, I guess. I don’t think you work in comics, or be sort of comics-adjacent if you didn’t really love the medium. And for me it’s just each new project offers a chance to make comics, to push myself and try something different and to experiment with the medium. In practical terms, I heavily use a calendar and the Notes app on my computer, plus I have a spreadsheet I stole from Jim Campbell to track projects through the month.
CW: What do you feel makes SAVAGE a unique entry in your own catalogue of work and what are you most excited for fans to see as the series continues?
HASSAN: I’ve spent a lot of these answers talking about Nate Stockman, but between him and Tríona, it is genuinely a stunning book. The two of them as a duo are phenomenal, and there’s some incredible massive fight sequences coming up that look SO good. But also all of Nate’s small character moments and gags are just brilliant.
And there you have it! Be sure to support your Local Comic Shop and add SAVAGE to your pull list and follow Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou on Twitter to stay up to date on all his latest work.
Big, Bombastic and Full of Character: An Interview with Letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou of Valiant’s SAVAGE
User Review( votes)