As someone who is obsessively interested in the process of making comics the name Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou holds a lot of weight in my world. Hass is the creator behind Strip Panel Naked series on youtube and the digital magazine “PanelxPanel” and is a person who knows and loves comics. When I learned he was teaming up with artist Juni Ba for a new graphic novel my interest was peaked. The team has taken to the crowd funding publisher, Unbound, to release “The Unlikely Story of Felix and Macabber.”
I was able to talk with both Hass and Juni about this new all ages graphic novel. The two discussed creating the very unique would of the story, their working relationship, and how to tell an all ages story effectively. Below you will find the interview with Hass and Juni and you can check out the Unbound page for “The Unlikely Story of Felix and Macabber” up now. There you can also read the first chapter of the story as well.
In the pitch for “The Unlikely Story of Felix and Macabber” you talk about the origin of the idea came out of a wrestling documentary you were working on. How does wrestling translate in what we see in this graphic novel?
Hass Otsmane-Elhaou: One of the real eye-opening things about directing that documentary was learning the reason why a lot of the younger wrestlers got into it. There was one who said specifically he hadn’t “ever seen a man before,” until he saw Ultimate Warrior. Everyone had a really similar story, they saw wrestlers as these big, tough men, and they (naturally) idolised them. Then when we spoke to these old pro’s, they were not superhuman. They were just guys, flawed like the rest of us, with regrets and ambitions and issues. Their reasoning for being what they wanted to be was, in a way, flawed. And that’s what Felix & Macabber is about. In some way I think wrestling provides a home for some lost souls like it did the people in the film, and me as a kid in some regard, and we try and capture that in the comic.
Juni Ba: As far as I can tell, wrestling is about spectacle, and relatability to the personas. We made the designs, and the layout of wrestling scenes very dynamic. Bombastic even. Macabber is an archetypal wrestler in his design. Very big, brawny and has a lot of majestic charisma. But, thanks to Felix, we get to see how Mac is also a man with negative traits, failures in his life, and all in the hope to conform to an idea of what a man is. Wrestling is the setting for a reflection about what it is to be a “manly man”.
Reading the first chapter you guys set the table for the struggles of Felix but also give a quick and nuanced glimpse into who Macabber might be and who he was. Who are these two and how do you set out to tackle the themes of the book with these two characters in very different stages of life?
JB: Mac is the old man who was once the embodiment of a certain idea of success and fame. Felix is the young child who wishes to attain that level of acceptance from society, instead of being ostracized. We use a lot of ourselves to create them. Using our own doubts and aspirations, and our experience to make those characters multi-dimensional. This book is very much about not so obvious and easy answers to questions we asked ourselves.
HO: Yeah, it’s sort of versions of ourselves in some way, just transposed to these monsters. Felix is lost, with a home life that doesn’t make sense to him, and he’s looking for some outlet. Anything to allow him to flourish, to be the man everyone wants him to be. Macabber is at the end of his journey (or so he thinks), realising just how much he’s actually given up to get where he is. A family, a life, real friends… he’s missing all of it. These are two people who could learn a thing or two off of each other, but it’s not always as easy as that.Continued below
I love that you guys just drop the reader into this world. The design of the characters and the world are unique but also seem to have an analog to the real world to help guide the readers. How have you set out to create this world that is something completely new but also is easy for readers to follow without exposition?
JB: I suppose the secret is to act as if there wasn’t anything to explain. You get pulled into the story by seeing the characters interact, and you understand how things work. It consists essentially in taking things that exist in our world (schools, houses, cars…) and making everything odd, just odd enough that you recognize it’s resemblance to the real world, but think “this is weird. How quaint.”
HO: Yeah Juni has it perfectly I think. Keep the raw concepts the same, and everything else just don’t explain unless you need to. If we treat it like a reality, we don’t have characters asking to explain all the concepts, they’d just know it. I think we talked about Mad Max: Fury Road at one point, how you’ve got all these moments that show different parts of the world fleetingly, without explaining, but it adds to the texture of the world. We wanted to try and do a little of that with it.
What has been the inspiration or idea behind the overall look and feel of the world and all its characters?
JB: Hass did the base work, really. He had an idea of what kind of esthetic he wanted. There was already a bit of Tim burton in his descriptions. So I went for what inspired Burton : German expressionism, old monster movies (lots of atmosphere in those), children’s books. I added my own influences and made a mish-mash of that. It’s really all about thinking “weird and creepy” and making everything look either one or the other.
HO: Juni gives me too much credit! I threw some ideas at him, but Juni took those and ran! I think we both had the same thoughts and ideas in our heads after chatting, so when he drew the designs for the characters it just clicked immediately for me. It was exactly what I was thinking when imagining these characters, but better. Which is probably a good description of our collaboration. Juni makes everything better!
Looking at this book and how cohesive it feels and how different it looks I would believe its a project from a single creator doing both art and writing. What makes this team work so well together? What has the process been like for creating the book as a creative team?
JB: Telepathy. I’m not kidding. It’s essentially one saying “hey I got an idea two days ago” and explaining it, and the other says “get out of my head”.
HO: It sounds like a joke but that’s exactly it. We’re just on the same wavelength. We’ve chatted so much about it, and whenever one of us has some input we like to have a Skype and just talk it through and throw a few ideas around. The writer/artist divide isn’t that clear here, because it’s just so much of both of us in here. This is t my story and Juni’s art, it’s our story (and Juni’s amazing art).
Most comic readers are familiar at this point with Kickstarter when it comes to launching creator owned books. Felix and Macabber is currently running on Unbound. What made you explore the Unbound platform for this title?
HO: Unbound are a crowdfunding publisher, so unlike Kickstarter where we’d just take the money and get everything printed ourselves and then posted out to backers, Unbound will publish the book. They help us with distribution, getting the book into shops and libraries and schools and all the places we feel it would do well. So we’re crowdfunding for a published book.
What makes an all ages story one that truly appeals to all ages? Do aim to create something that works to that wide audience or is a natural consequence of the story and your creative process that leads to a title that has that appeal?Continued below
JB: There is a term in animated movie lingo that i like to use often : family movies. As opposed to “children’s movies” that I consider were made to keep your kiddies busy while you do other things (or sit, bored in the theater), “family movies” engage you on an adult level. Treat subjects you find interesting, and don’t talk down to you. We’re aiming for that. A book that the parents will sneakily steal from their kids, and that the kids will re-read over the years, and discover new things.
HO: Like Juni, to me all-ages means applicable to everyone. For a younger audience, hopefully they’ll have one reading, and for an older audience they’ll see something else. I’d hope that a younger audience might get initially swept up in Felix’s awe and wonder of Macabber and those big fight scenes we do, but an older audience might notice more of the pain and honesty that we hopefully inflict upon those action scenes.
As a writer who happens to be very much involved with critically analyzing the comic medium with projects like PanelXPanel and Strip Panel Naked does that help your own creative process? Are you able to look with the same critical eye on your and Juni’s work?
HO: Well doing those has definitely helped me learn some good tricks and tips on how to pull of certain scenes, and there’s definitely things I’ve analysed on Strip Panel Naked that I’ve lifted for Felix and Macabber. But for me it’s no fun if you’re going to make a comic and not try to utilize the medium to its advantages, so I hope that I’m writing moments into this book that do take advantage of it. There’s loads of stuff we tried to do in the opening chapter, too.
In each of your works like “Soul Juice,” “Ndaw,” “Monkey Meat” and “Splurch” it appeared like you tried something different each time in your style, layouts and use of the medium especially with the digital format. Have you tried anything new with the art on this story?
JB: All those were student projects. I’m 24 years old, and not yet “set” in my ways. So I try to diversify, and change things, and try things. Often, when thinking about a story, the visual style comes instinctively to me, and I just apply whatever the powers that be put in my head. This book, like others, was a way to try things I wanted to do anyway at that time period. This book in particular was my first attempt at 9 panel grids, and my first at trying different types of layouts depending on what kind of scene I’m making (9 panels for mundane scenes, and more dynamic for fights). I also really doubted my ability to color, so it’s my first try at actually doing it for professional purposes. This is a comic, I want it to use it’s medium as much as it can.
Both of you are extremely talented in your respective roles on this title and bring different skill sets and styles as well. What do each of you feel the other brings to this book?
JB: Weirdness I suppose. I throw a lot of things at the wall, a lot of weird, odd or crazy things, and Hass is the net catching and using what is worth using.
HO: The fun thing is I know whatever I write for Juni, he’s going to kill it. If I write a crazy action scene he knows how to handle it. If I write a monster suddenly understanding his own mortality and fragility in a facial reaction, he’s going to get it. That opens up a lot of options in your work!
Will this book be all we see from Felix and Macabber? The world seems like it might have some other fun stories to tell as well?
JB: It’s not in the plans right now, as far as I know. We did notice that too, but I think it’s best to focus on this one story before even contemplating the idea of a spin-off or anything like that.
HO: Everytime Juni sends through a page with a new monster design I feel like I want to write something about that character (a Mrs. Cthulian spin-off keeps getting stuck in my head), but we always saw Felix and Macabber as a very particular story that was done in one. Hopefully the world we’ve created and the characters we bring to it (can’t wait for you to see some of the other main monsters!) might give us freedom to do more in the future.Continued below
For readers interested in “The Unlikely Story of Felix and Macabber” where can they find more information about the project and how to get involved?
JB: We shamelessly spam art and news for it on our social media. Mine is @juni.ba on twitter, and @junibaart on facebook. They should be set with that. But if they pledge, they’ll get even more information throughout the process of making the book, and even the first chapter to read immediately when they pledge, no matter the amount.
HO: Well you can find the book at https://unbound.com/books/felix-and-macabber and if you pledge you’ll get the entire first 30+ chapter emailed through to you. Otherwise on Twitter @hassanoe I’m tweeting out previews and fun bits about the book!