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Interview: Ben Hatke on Zita the Space Girl

Ben Hatke’s brave sci-fi heroine Zita the Space Girl made her debut in Flight Explorer, an anthology of comics for kids, edited by Kazu Kibuishi, creator of the series Amulet. In a short comic titled “If Wishes Were Socks,” readers were introduced to the fun, humorous adventures of Zita and her companions. When Flight Explorer was abandoned by its original publisher, librarians hoped that Zita’s stories would continue elsewhere and they did—at First Second Books. Expanding on the original concept of a girl space explorer, this new book tells the story of how Zita found herself on an alien planet. Called fun, delightful and out of this world, Zita the Space Girl will continue to find new readers that enjoy a voyage across the cosmos.

I met a scruffy and sweet Ben Hatke at New York Comic-Con last October where he agreed to give readers a bit of insight on the development of Zita the Space Girl—just in time for our First Second Week here at Good Comics for Kids.

Scott Robins: Science fiction is a largely untapped area of publishing for kids. What do you hope Zita will do for the genre and where does the book fit with what’s currently available?

Ben Hatke: I grew up with a bit of science fiction mixed in with my fantasy as well as stories that blended the two. I particularly loved Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time when I discovered it. In my own mind, the line between science fiction and fantasy is pretty blurry. I honestly don’t know how Zita fits with what’s out there now, but I hope I’m bringing a fresh sense of fun to the genre. Also, now that I have four daughters of my own, it’s nice to offer them a valiant heroine.

One of the things I was interested in doing with Zita was keeping the illustration style and the cartooning very open and readable. I wanted to make a book that almost anyone could pick up and follow and find something entertaining or interesting. It’s my attempt to draw in as many different types of readers as possible and especially readers who maybe haven’t read a graphic novel before.  It’s been gratifying to read some of the reviews, on Goodreads and elsewhere, where people say things like “I haven’t read many graphic novels, but I enjoyed this book.” When I read something like that I feel like I’ve accomplished at least one of my goals for the book.

SR: In Zita, there are a ton of great alien characters. Where did you look for inspiration in designing them and how did you keep them from resembling your typical ‘we’ve seen this before’ aliens?

BH: Oh gosh, that’s the easy part for me!  I even did a little comic about it:

Drawing creatures in my notebooks is probably at the root of every poor grade I ever received in school.  I’m just glad it all led somewhere because this kind of thing has been causing me problems ever since fourth grade when I colored and cut out paper antennae and glued them to my head when I was supposed to be doing math. Luckily my teacher that year was very encouraging and understanding.

But it’s still easy to get lazy and slip into patterns. My lovely editor, Kat Kopit, was always quick to point out when too many of my creatures were green or brown. I’ve also noticed that I tend to have a lot of fun designing vegetable-type creatures. One thing that really helps when I start falling into repeating designs is to take a look at the natural world, whether through books or poking around outdoors. We have a Smithsonian book in our house called Natural History: the Ultimate Guide to Everything on Earth and it’s an absolute treasure trove of weird creatures. Books like that are proof positive that no matter what kind of strange creature you create, there’s something on our own planet that is going to be more incredible.  I find the fungus section particularly inspiring.

I also take a lot of walks with my girls, and we often see things that add to my mental catalogue of creature designs. Last spring for instance we watched a large snapping turtle laying eggs. That was fun. The eggs looked like ping pong balls.

SR: The brave, plucky young girl protagonist has its origins in children’s literature. Was Zita inspired by any of these characters? Any thoughts on who she was modeled after, both personality and overall look?

BH: Well Zita obviously has her precursors in the venerable line of young girls who find themselves in other worlds, like Dorothy, Alice and Lucy (Chronicles of Narnia). But I wanted to make sure she also had a streak of brashness and impulsiveness. A little something of her own that hopefully sets her apart. Zita’s personality is somewhat inspired by my wife, Anna, who is a bit of an impulsive button pusher herself. She also has elements of my daughters Angelica and Zita (my second daughter is named Zita).

SR: The Piper and Mouse also seem like familiar characters from children’s literature. In fact, most of the characters in Zita have a familiar quality to them. Was this a way to ground the book as graphic novel squarely aimed at children?

BH: I don’t think it was as calculated as that. It was more that there are certain types of characters that are just fun to write. If I’m having a fun time writing these characters they will be fun to read, even if they end up conforming to tried-and-true types—like One, the Heavily Armored Mobile Battle Orb, a crusty warrior with a soft heart. Characters like that are easy to hear talking in your head! You almost feel as if they are writing their own dialogue.

I have been consciously trying to include fairy tale and folk tale elements to Zita’s world. Partly this is to blend the science fiction and fantasy elements (that blurry line again) and partly because I have an affinity for the old stories. I started seriously working on this Zita story while my family and I were living in a little house in Italy. It’s a tiny house high up in the mountains and in the cold, rainy months we did a lot of reading. Luckily, several people had passed through and left books behind for us. One friend of ours had stayed in the house while she was working on a master’s thesis in Fairy Tale Literature and she had left all her research—big books of fairy tales from different cultures. It’s not a coincidence that it was around that time Piper and Mouse started showing up in my sketchbooks though they looked somewhat different at first as you can see here:

SR: Zita is full of great chase and battle scenes, as well as alien landscapes. How important is the visual/cinematic for you in telling your story?

BH: Like creature design, I think drawing action is just one of my strengths. It’s one aspect of storytelling that I do pretty confidently.

As for the cinematic element, I like comics that play out that way. When I put together pages I think in terms of where the “camera” is. I think about how to frame a shot. In my thumbnail sketches I sometimes write things like “zoom out.” Actually I often think of the whole process as a little movie right down to the point where you block out scenes and hope that the “actors” cooperate with what you have in mind.

Comics are a very unique dance between words and pictures. I find that it’s really best, for me, to lean hard on the visual aspect and trim out any dialogue that isn’t needed. The old adage “show don’t tell” is maybe even more important in comics!

SR: How did you strike a fine balance between the lighter elements and humor in Zita with the dire circumstances she must overcome?

BH: I just go with my instincts. If the situation written into the story is dire enough it’s easy to come back to the gravity of it. On the other hand, I do sometimes have to consciously hold back from putting in too much humor. I have to keep myself from overdoing it. So there is a balance that needs to be struck. I just try to blend all the ingredients and hope for the best. That is horrible advice for baking, but it seems to work for a graphic novel!

SR: The end of the first book leaves the story open to more adventures with Zita and her friends. Can you give any hints on what will happen next? How many books do you envision to tell Zita’s entire story?

BH: No hints! Well… okay …but since I’m still drawing the book I don’t want to promise anything in particular, but I can say that there will be a very important new robot character in the second book, as well as someone from Piper’s past.

How many books is a good question. I started out thinking of Zita’s story as a trilogy and I’m still leaning in that direction, though it could easily spill out into more books if I’m not careful. There are also several shorter Zita stories I’d also like to tell. I’d like to find a place for all the little stories, the vignettes and side adventures.

SR: Who is the ideal reader for Zita the Space Girl?

BH: Someone who likes adventure stories! I know it’s cliché, but I really hope that it’s a book that almost anyone could enjoy. That said, there is nothing like handing this book I wrote and drew and colored to a kid who is 8 to 12 years old and watching their eyes light up. And then watching them sit down right there and read it. That’s probably been the most gratifying part of this whole adventure so far.

Visit Ben’s blog for more Zita including early drawings & preview art and sneak peeks of his upcoming work.

Click here to see a book trailer for Zita the Space Girl.

Scott Robins About Scott Robins

Scott Robins is a librarian at the Toronto Public Library and the co-author of A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics. He is the children's programming director for the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival. He has also served on the graphic novel selection committee for the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids and Teens and is a jury member of the Joe Shuster Awards in the "Comics for Kids" category.

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