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Interview: Ben Hatke on Legends of Zita the Spacegirl

Eva Volin

I’m not going to spend a lot of time introducing you to Ben Hatke. You’re a smart reader and I know you’ve been paying attention, so I don’t need to tell you about how he played a part in the Flight anthologies, or about the enthusiastic response he got for the first book in the Zita trilogy: Zita the Spacegirl, or even about his astonishing antics at ALA Annual 2011. You know about all this. Instead, I’ll just invite you to join with me in a collective Squeeeeee! at the news that volume two of the Zita trilogy came out on September 4th. Legends of Zita the Spacegirl more than lives up to the promise of volume one and ends with an Evil Cliffhanger, making me itch for volume three.

I was given the opportunity to ask Ben a few questions about Zita, gaming, and art in general and here’s what he had to say. Many thanks to Ben Hatke for patiently answering my questions and to Gina Gagliano for offering me the chance to ask them.

While there is just as much action and adventure in the second volume, and Zita still has her reckless moments, there are somber moments as well. Some scenes have a pinch of melancholy to them. How deliberate was this change in tone?

Pretty deliberate, I’d say. The adventure of the first book takes place over just a couple of days, but as this story begins Zita has been out there for a while. Long enough so that her situation is really sinking in. Long enough that she’s missing things like peanut butter.

There’s a lot of action in this book and that is fun both to draw and to write, but I also wanted to show a bit of travel, and let us see Zita coming to grips with just how big the universe is. That realization of the size of the world is, I think, a common part of growing up, even for kids who don’t get trapped on another planet.

Also, I like seeing quiet moments, with a character just looking out of a window. Moments like this are unique to visual media and work really well in a graphic novel. You might not know exactly what the character is thinking, but you can see that they ARE thinking and that gives you the sense that the character has an internal life. It makes the character just a little bit more real.

zita 212x300 Interview: Ben Hatke on Legends of Zita the SpacegirlYou seem to have quite a fondness for robots. Heh.
One of the things I like most about Zita’s travels is that she doesn’t go to basic science fictiony-type worlds and meet stereotypically alien aliens. How much of a place do traditional science fiction tropes have in your work?

I love robots! Robots are all a little bit broken, aren’t they? I think robots are sometimes more like us than we are. Sometimes their inner workings and functions are a mystery even to themselves. You can get a surprising amount of emotion out of a robot. Oh robots! You are us!

This is an interesting question about Science Fiction Tropes. It’s hard to answer because I kind of avoid thinking about the ingredients of Zita’s world. To use a kitchen analogy I’m cooking and not baking. Baking follows a set recipe. It’s controlled and calculated. But in creating Zita’s world I’m tossing ingredients into a pot like the Swedish Chef, sipping the broth, adding spices and just deciding for myself when it tastes right. Okeee dokeee!

My feeling is that for all the robots and space ships, there’s a lot of fantasy (if you want to draw that distinction) at the heart of Zita’s world.

I’ve heard you are a big fan of role playing games and play pretty regularly. How does (or doesn’t) gaming have an impact on your work?

You know, I worry that it’s the other way around! Role playing games, when they go well, are a marvelous way to experience shared storytelling. As a game master the characters always surprise you, and as a character you really get to have an effect on the story. But the more I work and story crafting the more I worry that I’m getting to be a picky role player.

Occasionally (though not as often as I’d like) I create and run games for my friends. When I’m planning a game I find myself reading a lot of articles about what players like to experience in a role playing game. It’s really very similar to what readers like in a good story, and the game master tends to ask the same questions of himself that an author asks while writing. So I feel like I’ve learned a bit from trying out things in-game that later apply to writing stories.

One thing that works well both in writing and in role playing is asking yourself, “what’s the worst thing that can happen in this situation,” and then having that thing happen. That is a sure-fire way to increase tension. And tension is what involves people in stories (not gold or collecting cool items).

I have a great group of friends I play with and I feel like they’ve been pretty patient with me when I run games because I’m a pretty haphazard GM. I always err on the side of drama, and I never have a good handle on the rules for combat.

According to your bio, you’ve spent quite a bit of time focusing on fine arts, studying the masters, attending art school in Italy, etc. After going to all this trouble to “learn art,” what brought you back to comics?

I never left comics! Again, it’s more the other way around. I started out as a young freelance artist/illustrator/designer, but I was almost completely self taught. I got to a point where I started to feel that I could be better, but not without studying some of the fundamentals of art. It was a point when I decided I should either learn to really do this right, or find something else to do with my life. So I spent a couple eight-month stretches studying in Italy.

I did a brief program at the Charles Cecil studio in Florence and I got a library card to the British Institute library in Florence and created a sort of self study course.

I really do love oil painting, sculpture, and life drawing and while it’s not something I really make a big part of my living, I consider it a vital piece of the puzzle that makes up my weird “career.”

The study of fine art and “academic” style drawing really had a profound and revolutionary effect on both my illustration and my comics. I think everyone who wants to make comics, even if they have a very stylized or “cartoony” style should take the time to draw from life whenever they can. It changes the way you look at things.

I’ve read that you developed the character Zita while in college in an attempt to charm the woman who has since become your wife. (Nice job!) What brought you back to the character, first in your short story in the Flight anthology and then in her own series? Were children always your intended audience for the Zita stories?

Yeah, that worked out pretty well! The early Zita stories were …very very silly. But later, when I started getting involved in Flight, Kazu Kibuishi mentioned something about his Copper comics that really struck me. He said (and I hope I’m not getting this wrong) that part of the reason he made these beautiful, one-page webcomics was to teach himself to tell a story in a limited space. The Copper comics were all one page.

So I decided to try to challenge myself in a similar way, and I turned to Zita the Spacegirl. That’s when Zita started developing a younger persona. And then, when I had kids of my own, I guess I started to have a better idea of who I was writing for.

You’ve spent the summer working on the third book in the Zita trilogy. Once that’s done, what’s next?

The third Zita book has come along very well! This one has been, of the three books, probably the most exciting to work on. Part of it, I think, is that I’m gaining a bit of confidence as a storyteller and so I’ve been able to enjoy the creative process more without the nagging fear that the entire project is going to burst into flames at any moment. I’ve just started coloring the book, which clocks in at about 220 pages, so I still have a ways to go.

After this I’ll be working on a picture book which I don’t want to talk much about just yet, except to say that I think it is going to be a great opportunity to really stretch myself artistically…

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Eva Volin About Eva Volin

Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.

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