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Interview: Ben Hatke on ‘Nobody Likes a Goblin’

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Ben Hatke is a versatile creator: In addition to the three-part Zita the Spacegirl graphic novel series, and the Eisner-nominated Little Robot, his repertoire also includes picture books. His latest book, Nobody Likes a Goblin, published by First Second, is a picture book with a comics sensibility—the words and pictures work together to tell the story, and there’s a real sense of sequential storytelling to it. We talked to Ben about this latest book and how it fits into his body of work as a whole.

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You pop us right into the world of the story without any explanation as to who the goblin is, why he is in the dungeon, etc. It’s almost as if we have known him all along, and this is just the next chapter in his story. Why did you decide to avoid all that exposition?

Well for one thing picture books are short! But also I’m playing here with some very familiar tropes and settings. And often, in stories, what we’re not told is every bit as interesting as what we’re told.

The characters of this story are all familiar types—they all crop up in folklore and fantasy—but the story doesn’t go in the usual direction. What inspired you to take this direction?

I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons with a group of friends for several years now and that game takes a lot of fantasy elements and settings and boils them down to simplicity. But in the game certain types of creatures are just designated as “evil” and as an adventurer you can just kill and loot them with impunity. It always seemed a little weird to me. And goblins, both in D&D and in most fantasy stories, tend to be the least threatening of creatures. Goblins find power in numbers. A lone goblin is not much of a threat.

So I thought, “what about the poor goblins?”

Were any of the characters inspired by specific characters or stories?

Not so much. The main characters are all sort of archetypal. Things we’ve seen in fantasy stories time and again.

Your last book, Little Robot, was almost entirely wordless. Nobody Likes a Goblin is a picture book, so it has a lot of narrative text. Why does this sort of storytelling fit your story, and what are the challenges?

The format really depends on the story. It’s hard to nail down sometimes what makes one story a picture book and another a comic and another a chapter book. That part of the process is still a bit of a mystery to me.

Of course there are other times when I simply know that my next project for the publisher is supposed to be, say, a picture book. And in those situations the format comes first. I just know, okay I have to make a picture book next.

You have said that the surroundings of Little Robot were based on the area where you live. How did you create the world of Nobody Likes a Goblin?

The world of Goblin is really more of a fantasy realm that exists in my mind. Again, like a distillation of impressions from all the fantasy stories I’ve consumed. There’s a fair amount of Willow in there.

For the trolls’ cave, though, I did call up a friend and we hiked out to visit a little-known cave in the area. I took a lot of pictures. The cave in the book didn’t end up looking very much like my cave but there are definitely elements.

This book also has a very interesting spatial sense. You surround the action with large areas of black (when the goblin and his friends are in the dungeon and the cave) and white (when they are outdoors). What are you doing with this?

Sometimes with a picture book, it’s good to step back and look at the whole thing as a single piece of art. I’ve always loved how, in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the size of the pictures and the space that the illustrations take up on the page, changes. They start small and get gradually bigger until there is a full page spread in the middle. And then the illustrations start to get smaller, but never as small as they were in the beginning. Max’s world has gotten slightly bigger.

You described Little Robot as a meditation on friendship. Nobody Likes a Goblin has a strong friendship theme as well, but that’s not all that it’s about. What do you hope the reader will take away from this book, and how does it tie in to your other work?

I’ve noticed that a recurring theme in my books is the idea of building your own ragtag family out of all the misfits that fall into your path.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

Comments

  1. Jeff Herringa says:

    Are there bibliographies or encyclopedias of comics, graphic novels, and picture books that students and teachers can use to find content on interesting animation materials.

    I think Manga itself is it’s own category in this instance…

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