‘Zita The Spacegirl’ Creator Ben Hatke On Writing For Young Readers (And Not Boring Their Parents) [Interview]
Writer/artist Ben Hatke caught the attention of readers with his Zita The Spacegirl series, a trio of YA graphic novels from First Second that tell the story of an average earth girl who tries to save her best friend from an alien invasion -- and in the process becomes a spacefaring superhero. His latest project, Julia's House For Lost Creatures, is a picture book featuring a strange young girl who opens her home to goblins, faeries, mermaids, and all manner of fantastical monsters. ComicsAlliance sat down with him to discuss his approach to storytelling, and his upcoming projects.
ComicsAlliance: Your series of Zita graphic novels have been big successes, and gained a pretty devoted audience, but Julia's House For Lost Creatures is a straight picturebook. Was this just a story that you felt worked best in a different medium, or did you set out with the idea of making a picture book?
Ben Hatke: No, I was supposed to be doing a picture book; I had wanted to do a picture book; I was going to be producing some picture books for First Second, so I had a picture book to make. Now, I had a graphic novel I was working on called Little Robot, which is going to be my next book next fall, but I also had this idea of Julia's House – Julia's House was originally going to be a young readers graphic novel, and I was thinking the picturebook would be Little Robot. And then through editorial discussions and from sitting on ideas, those two ideas actually flip-flopped, and Julia's House became a picture book on its own and Little Robot grew into a larger story, a graphic novel.
So, Julia's House…the idea fit the picture book world a lot better. And as my first picture book, it ended up being the perfect thing to feel my way around a new format.
CA: So, you made this sideways leap into the picturebook arena. How did that differ, creatively, from doing graphic novels? What different muscles did you have to flex?
BH: Economy is a big thing. You've got a little more room to spread out in a longer story. It's almost like a poem is to an essay, or something like that. When you've got long form you've got room for size, but everything has to be carved away in a picture book and you're really thinking about reading it aloud.
As a father with kids at home, I do a lot of reading aloud. I know the picture books that I like to read and reread, and I know the picture books I like to not be asked to read again. And one of my goals in this was to create a book that parents would not be opposed to reading 14 times.
So I had my eye on those things, and I take [the "all-ages" tag] very seriously. I love picture books as art, and so I was trying to create something that everyone could appreciate … everyone can find something in it that they love. So I worked with those muscles, and painterly muscles.
There's a lot of digital work that goes on, in my process, in creating a graphic novel: it's black and white line art and then a lot of Photoshop colors, so you can change things around. With Julia's House, I had this thing where I wanted to make these paintings, these watercolor illustrations, and then I got to send them away and Macmillan scanned them for me, and that's what is in the book! One or two of them had very small changes digitally, but other than that, it was very much, send the illustration, they scan it, and that's that.
CA: So, this is a short story that creates an entire new world, separate from anything you've done before. Have you thought at all about exploring this world further? Or is it simply a stand-alone?
BH: That's a good question… My next book will be another picturebook. I'm actually at that very beginnings of this, and so I'm still in the process of deciding – I have a couple of different paths that this next picturebook could take, and one path is a second Julia story.
I have to weigh that against these other books that I've been wanting to do, and decide which one of these will be the next picture book. So, I'm not sure! I have another Julia story, and I don't know long it'll take to materialize. But I like her, I like her world, and it's a world I don't think people would mind revisiting… And as an artist drawing it, I wouldn't mind revisiting what's going on.
CA: Or if not a sequel, just more stories from this rich and crazy world you've set up? I love, for example, the way that Roald Dahl threw references to his other books in as background details, or the way that Neil Gaiman ties together The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish and Wolves In The Walls.
BH: Actually, with Julia…if you look, there's a lot of detail in some of the pages, and there is a Zita bobblehead doll, up on a way high shelf in one of the spreads, and there's also a Little Robot figure on her mantelpiece. There are nods. I don't know if it means they exist in the same story universe, but there are nods to these other characters existing.
CA: So this is technically the first appearance of the Little Robot?
BH: It is! It ended up being that, and I drew it in there by happenstance.
CA: Picture books are marketed more to smaller kids, but are you also getting some crossover from Zita fans? This certainly doesn't talk down or read like it's geared to a younger audience…
BH: I feel like with my books and how I've been received anyway, the Zita books, and my journey as a creator … You can do a venn diagram of books and comics and there's a large overlap there, but I've definitely got my foot in both worlds, in terms of people who are championing my books, and in terms of audience.
I go to a lot of libraries and a lot of librarian events, things like ALA, and a lot of those librarians are already familiar with Zita and have already been handing this new book out. They're familiar with me, and I guess they're thinking, "Oh! Now he's got a picture book, great!", so it's maybe not that big of a leap.
CA: As for Zita – it's a trilogy of graphic novels, telling this story. Do you have further plans for her, or have you told her story and you're ready to move on?
BH: Well, officially her story is on hiatus, but the next graphic novel I'm working on, the next sort of action/adventure I'm working on is called Mighty Jack, and it takes place in the Zita universe. Mostly on Earth, but it's part of the same story universe, definitely. I have this plan, and now we're talking many books ahead, but I do have an idea of doing a second Zita trilogy and rejoining her when she's a few years older. I've got ideas of what all has been going on.
CA: Well, Zita ages and grows over the course of the three books, so it'd be interesting to revisit her some years later, and see who she's become in the interim. In fact, I think one of the things people really responded to with Zita was that emotional content; that you weren't afraid to have the character grow, and even go sad in places. That's something you so rarely see in books targeted to this audience. You think of sad things for kids, you think of Bambi, Charlotte's Web, Bridge To Terabithia, etc – but it's usually a different sort of sadness.
BH: Right, it's tragic sad.
CA: But not that weird, wistful sense of loss, of growing and moving on.
BH: And that's one of the things I feel is important to the series, and I never got any pushback about it. I like there to be consequences and, emotionally, I want it to be real. And I think that's more to the point. It's something a lot of people can relate to. Not everyone lives with Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, right? But everybody knows that sense of loss, or that sense of "I wish".
Zita's stories deal a lot with identity, and how people perceive you versus how you perceive yourself, and very specifically, how people can lionize you and think of you as so great, and you aren't comfortable being felt about that way. And the truth being somewhere in the middle, you perception of yourself versus their perception of you and maybe both of them are correct…I don't know, I think we're all trying to figure that out. And at a certain age kids are grappling with this a little bit.
CA: Well, for such a big space-spanning story, Zita is not afraid to do small – it doesn't just exaggerate and heighten emotions, it deals with small emotions in a fantastic world.
BH: That's just keeping it real. Maybe if you were lost in this alien world, you'd have something you need to do – but you might take five minutes, go in a corner and just cry a little bit, and then get back to it.
CA: And thankfully it's no longer as much the case, but even four years ago when the first Zita book was released, having a female action lead in a YA book made it stand out. It was something that people latched onto, despite the "conventional wisdom" that girls weren't going to buy an superhero adventure comic, and boys wouldn't read a book about a female action lead. So, creating a book with an interesting nuanced female lead in this genre, for this audience was notable, and nice to see.
BH: Maybe; I feel like it was in the thick of it. A lot of those things were being created at the same time ... I never thought to do any other directions, and First Second is very supportive of artistic vision. I have nothing dramatic to tell you about that. No one was like, "I don't know, you should put a boy in there," or something.
For me, I get the question a lot about, "oh, female protagonist" or whatever, but I don't think about it that much. You know, I've got four daughters and I grew up with sisters, and It just seems natural. You write what you know, right? I watch my girls having adventures. I mean, they're not having adventures in space, but they're having adventures every day. I'm writing what I see.
I was just lucky because I didn't think much about it, and everybody was very supportive. I'm just like, tell a good story. That's always my goal!