Spacing Out: An Interview with Ben Hatke
After a successful appearance in Kazu Kibuishi’s Flight anthology, Ben Hatke breaks out on his own with the winning Zita the Spagegirl, an action-packed romp starring a very precocious little girl lost around the stars and trying to find her way home. Zita embarks on a madcap adventure to rescue her friend Joseph, avoid the creepy aliens who want to harm her, and get back to earth. It’s a tall order, and there’s a lot of fun to be had (mostly for the reader) along the way. We talked with Hatke about the new book and how much fun it was for him to work on it.
For those who haven’t seen the book yet, how would you describe Zita the Spacegirl?
The story begins pretty simply: Two kids find a crater and inside the crater is a big red button. The question is, do you push the button? Cautious Joseph says no, but headstrong Zita can hardly keep herself from pushing it. So she knocks Joseph down and pushes it despite his protests.
A door opens up. Joseph is dragged through the door by tentacles and Zita, after a crisis of conscience, goes after him and finds herself on an alien world full of dangers that she has to navigate through to save her friend…and robots. Plenty of robots.
What first drew you to comics?
Early on, of course, I got really into Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield, but the first long-form story that really captured my imagination was Elf Quest by Wendi and Richard Pini. I remember riding my bike to a nearby comics shop when I was maybe 10 and trying to find all the issues so I could read the story in order. To this day, the smell of old comics gives me tears of nostalgia.
In your bio, you mention how much you love playing tin whistles. Are you good at it?
No! I’m really not very good at it. Sometimes the line between what you enjoy and what you’re actually good at can be blurry. But I have three different whistles now and they are fun to play. I usually carry them with me in my bag and mostly I make up tunes.
I also tend to whistle and/or sing when I get excited. Twice now I’ve been told by the guards at the National Gallery to stop singing while I wandered from painting to painting. I hadn’t even realized I was singing. (I get pretty inspired at the National Gallery).
When did you first start drawing?
Like most kids, I started drawing before I started writing. I’m just one of the ones who never stopped. The family story is that I started early on copying cheetahs from old National Geographic magazines. Now my eldest daughter (she’s 8) copies every day out of this big Smithsonian book of natural history. She draws more than I did.
You studied at the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence. How did that come about?
That’s kind of a long story, and something of an adventure. The short version is that around 2006, after I had been doing freelance illustration for a couple years, I had this overwhelming feeling that I needed to either take my art up a few levels or find another profession.
At the same time, we had started talking about spending a year or so in Italy because it’s where my wife’s family is from. Her grandmother’s house was in this tiny village up in the Apennines (a good three hours from Florence) and it had been vacant and uncared for for almost 20 years. We worked on fixing the house while I made periodic trips to Florence to study. We already had two little girls at he time and we went from sleeping in our coats and having very…uncertain plumbing to making a nice little home. I can’t remember any other year in my life when I learned so much about so many things.
Where did the idea for this first Zita story originate?
Well, in the very beginning, it originated as some looseleaf-drawings comics by this lovely girl I met in college. I worked on developing the character and started drawing the comics to impress her. And it WORKED. She married me. A few years later, I went back to the comics, doing short webcomics, and Zita started getting younger and her personality developed a bit. Finally for the graphic novel I realized that I should tell the story of why she was wandering around in space in the first place.
Those early comics were a real hodgepodge, but I think the long, slow development of the character was very important.
Did any of your children inspire the character of Zita as she got younger?
Well, they all do in a way, but Zita has a lot of my wife, Anna, in her. Her sort of ferocious caring and sense of outrage—that’s Anna. But we also have a Zita of our own. My middle daughter was born at a time when a Zita the Spacegirl book wasn’t really on my radar. So we named her Zita because when she arrived the name just really fit her.
What other projects are you working on?
Well…I’m just finishing up Zita 2 and I have a pretty good plan for the third book. I’m also slowly chipping away at a set of illustrations for a small-press edition of G.K. Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse. Those are very different from my comics work.
What’s next for Zita?
Right, so, as I mentioned, I’m heading toward the home stretch on Zita 2, which deals with her journey home getting stalled by a sort of legend that starts to build up around her…and robots. My goodness gracious will there be robots.