A spaceship crashed in yard one morning. Usually I would wait for the intergalactic version of roadside assistance to show up. Aliens really don’t want to be bothered by humans and they usually leave some form of compensation to pay for the da mages. This spaceship, however, opened and its pilot knocked on my door. It was Ben Hatke, author of Zita the Spacegirl comics. He needed to use the phone (his cell was smashed in the crash). While we waited for his wife to come around with the second spaceship, we watched Fraggle Rock and discussed his books.
Whitney Grace (WG): How did you get started in comics?
Ben Hatke (BH): Way back in the olden days there were these things called message boards. One in particular, a message board called Flight, was set up by Kazu Kibuishi as a place for web comicers to post and comment on each others work. I started posting and participating on the Flight boards and was later invited to participate in the Flight Anthology, a collection of short comics from a variety of creators. My flight stories were my first published work and sort of paved the way for me to be able to do my own graphic novels.
Later there was a collection called Flight Explorer that was similar to the Flight books, but more distinctly all ages. That book saw the first Zita story in print -a fifteen page story about a magical wishing sock.
WG: There are a variety of influences in your art style, would you please name a few and explain why you like them?
BH: Well, I have an abiding love of the worlds of Jim Henson, particularly where Brian Froud was involved. When I was a very small child one of my cousins took me to see The Dark Crystal and even though we had to leave the theater I think it made some kind of mark on my soul.
There’s also the Elfquest comics by Wendi and Richard Pini and, of course, the Ghibli films with their rich visual world building (my favorite is Kiki’s Delivery Service).
WG: If you heard “dance your cares away, worries for another day” would you clap your hands? That was a Fraggle Rock reference in the first Zita the Spacegirl book on right?
BH: I would definitely clap!
WG: While you explain the clever origins of Zita the Spacegirl in your books, would you mind telling the story again?
BH: It’s a love story! My very first Zita comics were drawn to impress a beautiful girl I met in college. Her name was Anna and she actually invented the character when she was in high school. I started developing Zita for her, with the costume and the cape and the back story (which changed a few times through the years). This ended up being my biggest victory in comics, because she married me! Some years later I came back to Zita the Spacegirl and started creating new webcomics adventures for her.
WG: How has the character changed for you over the years?
BH: At first Zita was a time traveler from “the future” and was even part of some sort of Galactic Guard. Later, when I started the web comics, she looked a lot younger and was hopping from world to world for an unspecified reason. Robot Randy and One joined her in those days, but there were also a couple of other supporting characters that have since disappeared.
WG: Why did you decide to focus on her origin in the First Second trilogy rather than the original adventure comics you first started?
BH: I think the webcomics helped me develop her personality and just get very comfortable with this character and the feel of her world, but when it came time to do a full graphic novel the most interesting story, of course, was why this girl was hopping from planet to planet.
WG: What do you like about writing for a superheroine rather than a hero?
BH: I think that, growing up with only sisters and now having a bunch of daughters, heroines just seem very natural to me.
WG: Does your daughter Zita get mistaken for the comic book character? What does she think about being named for her?
BH: Zita’s a cool kid. She came into our life at a time when I didn’t think much more was going to happen with the character. But when the opportunity to do the books came along, I started to worry that it would be weird for her, my own little Zita, but I think it seems very natural for her. She’s definitely very different from the Zita in the books.
WG: How has being a dad played into your writing and drawing?
BH: Oh yes, quite a bit. My girls are my first audience and my first line of critics. They check on my work, and watching them have their own adventures is definitely inspiring.
WG: Please explain your approach to the creative process.
BH: Story is king. I’m pretty confident as an artist, but I feel like it’s essential that I consider myself a writer first. In all illustrated stories, but in graphic novels in particular, you have to remember that the best art in the world can’t save a lukewarm story.
I spend a lot of time developing an outline for each new project and at the same time I have a sketchbook/notebook where I toss out all kinds of ideas, character designs and scenes.
I’ve learned the hard way not to start drawing pages until I am happy with every beat of the story. Things still sometimes change a little as I go, but it’s important to have that strong skeleton to support you.
WG: How does it feel to be on the New York Times Bestseller list?
BH: It’s nice! You know making the books, even in my full house, is often a solitary process. You spend so much time all on your own, working on a book that any indication you get that the book is really out there in the world, and really reaching readers leaves you with a warm feeling.
WG: How have fans of your work reacted to Zita? Are your fans mostly kids or do you have a mix?
BH: It’s actually a nice mix. I tend to take seriously the idea of the “all ages” story. I admire the many of the Pixar films for striking that balance between age-appropriateness and great depth of story.
On the other hand more and more kids have been showing up at events dressed as Zita and that is just the coolest thing in the world to see.
WG: What do you think comic books offer readers that they can’t get through another medium?
BH: Silent panels. I think that’s one of the coolest tricks comics has. Like any big trick, you don’t want to overuse it, but it always seems to be powerful when you have a lot going on and then you pause for one silent reaction shot. One image that just pops. That can’t be done in prose. It happens in film, but differently.
WG: What do you want to do next with comic books? Anymore Zita?
BH: I’m pretty sure there will be more Zita stories, I just don’t know when.
Right now I’m working on a new graphic novel called Little Robot which takes place on our own world -in my own neighborhood in fact. It’s about a small girl who finds a robot that washes up on the banks of a river and becomes unexpectedly responsible for it.
WG: Do you have anything to declare ?
BH: Bowling! Bowling is so much more fun than I remembered.