July 6th, 2017

By everyone’s favourite Punisher expert and Garth Ennis scholar Maid of Nails aka Kelly Kanayama

For comics fans it can be discouraging to look out across the blasted wastes of The Discourse and see how much vitriol gets leveled against those who just want to try something different. Yet in this toxic landscape, there are still breaths of fresh air if you know where to search for them – such as the debut issue of Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s new comics criticism magazine PanelxPanel.

PanelxPanel combines analysis of soon-to-be-released comics by Otsmane-Elhaou with writings and interviews from critics and creators, all laid out in a pleasant color scheme. (I’m not using the word “pleasant” pejoratively here, by the way; it’s rare for comics criticism to make you feel more relaxed just from the effect from Budpop.) The aesthetic effect ties into Otsmane-Elhaou’s highly visual focus, which is oriented toward dissecting how the art of a particular comic creates its narrative, and which sets PanelxPanel apart from other, less visually focused comics criticism. Here, it’s all about panel layout, color choice, the placement of characters and objects in relation to one another: elements I know are extremely important in comics but which often have to be explained to me.

If all that sounds familiar, it’s because the magazine is an expansion of Otsmane-Elhaou’s Strip Panel Naked column for ComicsAlliance, where he did much the same thing in article format. Although this column-to-magazine expansion is what makes PanelxPanel stand out, it’s also where its shortcomings lie.

Going for a magazine format allows Otsmane-Elhaou to include input from other voices; Issue #1 contains interviews with Ryan K. Lindsey and Sami Kivela, the creators of spotlight comic Beautiful Canvas; an article about the professional craft of lettering by letterer Aditya Bidikar; a short original comic by Romain Brun, Deniz Camp, and Julian Brun; short writeups from creators and critics on what’s good right now; and a dialogue between Ollie Masters and Rob Williams. In short, a variety of critical perspectives and creative approaches are on show, which is what one wants in a well-edited magazine.

At the same time, the range of voices is at odds with PanelxPanel’s prolonged focus on a single comic. There’s a disconnect between the multiple in-depth examinations of Beautiful Canvas and “here’s some cool stuff you might like.” While this is possibly just a trick of how articles are ordered – if the second Beautiful Canvas article were a bit later in the magazine, the shift might feel less abrupt – I’m inclined to suggest that future issues could use a theme to tie their offerings together. Nothing that has to be openly stated in the magazine, of course. It could be something like Death, or Duality, or Reproduction, or anything, really, as long as most of the issue’s material linked to it somehow. You know how themes work.

I’d also like to hear from more women and non-binary critics and creators in later issues; this inaugural PanelxPanel was pretty heavy on the dudes. However, the magazine is at least a place for people of color to speak boldly and be respected without having to justify anything, which is still sadly rare, even in comics criticism. Featured contributions from professionals like Bidikar, not to mention Otsmane-Elhaou’s editorial presence, demonstrate that people of color are out there making your comics and bringing you quality critiques.

To summarize: there’s room for improvement, but PanelxPanel is off to a promising start, with a solid sense of what it wants to accomplish. Plus, it’s smart, unusual, inviting, and makes you feel better even from looking at its colors. Not bad for an Issue #1, right?


PanelxPanel is available here.


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