Interview: Ben Hatke Heads Back To Space With 'Legends of Zita The Spacegirl'

Last year, writer/artist Ben Hatke published Zita The Spacegirl, the story of a girl lost far from Earth who becomes an intergalactic hero. This year, Hatke - and Zita - are back with more all-ages adventures, in the exciting, hilarious, and overall fun second volume: Legends of Zita The Spacegirl. We chatted with Hatke in advance of the books release by First Second to find out what's coming up for Zita, what the market is like for all-ages books, and which Joss Whedon show he draws inspiration from (hint: it isn't Golden Girls):

MTV Geek: Okay Ben, for those unfamiliar with the world of Zita The Spacegirl, what's happened so far?

Ben Hatke: To recap, young Zita and her friend Joseph find a crater in the woods. In the crater is a meteorite. In the meteorite is a red button. Joseph wants to let sleeping cosmic buttons lie, but Zita sits on him and pushes the button.

A portal to...somewhere else opens up and tentacles grab Joseph and drag him through. Zita makes the choice to reopen the portal, jumps through into a strange, distant world. She goes on a quest to save her friend and get back home. Along the way she gathers some unlikely friends -- a giant mouse, two robots, a large brownish grey thing, and a shifty drifter named Piper.

And she’s successful. She does save Joseph. Unfortunately she is left behind on the distant world and must find another way back to Earth.

Geek: And what's the main idea behind the next book? What kind of journey does Zita need to go on?

BH: Through the course of the first adventure Zita becomes something of a hero. She saves Joseph, but in doing so she saves an entire alien planet from destruction -- almost inadvertently.

In this second book we find her having to deal with a sort of heroic role or status that’s been thrust upon her. It’s a little bit about fame and identity and heroics. And robots! It’s also about robots.

Geek: There's a few great new characters you introduce this time around. Any you want to plug, without spoiling too much?

BH: There’s a mysterious woman named Madrigal who plays a part in this story. She’s a bit of a space gypsy who seems to have her own agenda and a bit of a counter to Piper. She’s also the only other human(like) character we’ve seen besides Piper. Madrigal’s scenes were a lot of fun to write and draw because she’s very athletic and action-oriented.

Geek: There's obviously a fair bit of adventure in this book, but also some sadness and loneliness as well. Is that something you were trying to capture?

BH: Yes! I think that’s a part of both real-life travels and also part of growing up. At least it was part of my experience growing up. One of the challenges was to try to capture that sense of the vastness of the world, which I think kids of a certain age start to come to grips with. I tried to balance this with the adventure that gives the story a lot of forward momentum.

Another note about quiet, lonely moments: one thing that is unique about comics is that they are both a literary and a visual medium. While there is a sense of pacing the reader still controls how quickly they turn the pages. You want to make a story that drives the reader to keep turning the pages because they want to find out what happens, but at the same time you want to issue little invitations to stop and drink in a moment. That’s how the reader participates. The moments when Zita is looking out of a window, and we maybe only get an inkling of what she is feeling through her face and her silence -- those are the parts where I’m hoping the reader will pause and take a breath and maybe remember what it’s like to be a long way from home.

Geek: One thing I think makes Zita unique is that she seems to have relentless optimism and drive. Is that true? And if so, why is that an important characteristic for her to have?

BH: Obviously there is room for all kinds of protagonists in adventure stories, but I feel like Zita is a person who would get wrapped up in some kind of adventure just by virtue of her personality -- space button or no space button.

She tends to make snap decisions and she’s the kind of person who, when she makes a bad decision, instead of retracing her steps just keeps moving forward. Some of her problems are always going to be of her own making. As she grows up I could see the adjective “relentless” being used to describe her.

Geek: General question, but what's the market like for original children's graphic novels? What's your experience been?

BH: It’s hard to comment on the overall market, but I’ve had a blast watching the first book make its way into kids hands this last year. Generally, Zita seems to do better in children’s literature circles than comics circles. Librarians in particular seems to love it and that’s been really gratifying. I hope this is the case for other great kids graphic novels and for their creators. I get the feeling from libraries and booksellers that there is a high demand for original kids graphic novels, and not enough of them -- or at least not enough high quality ones. And more parents and kids seem to be discovering graphic novels all the time.

Geek: Let's talk about the artistic process: how do you put together a book like Zita? And given that you're doing it all, what comes first, the art or the words? Does the Artist Ben hate the Writer Ben, and vice versa?

BH: Artist Ben and Writer Ben work really well together. So much so that it would be really difficult for Ben the Writer to work with a different artist or Ben the Artist to work with different writer. For me, personally, the graphic novel is all-of-a-piece.

As for the process: the story comes first and foremost. I always start my books with a good comprehensive outline. It’s not a script, but a twelve to fourteen point description of all the major beats in the story. I put very little dialogue in at this point and some of the description is left intentionally vague. I had a particularly fun time writing the outline for Zita 3. There was a moment when I was just banging away on the keyboard, just enjoying the process of writing, and I was thinking “man, how am I going to DRAW all this?”

Next I start a sketchbook. This part is also a lot of fun. Any silly idea I come up with goes into the sketchbook. Key scenes, locations and character designs all get drawn out here. This is where the visual sense of the story develops.

Then it’s time to start working on the pages themselves. Some graphic novelists thumbnail their whole book before they start finished pages. I tend to do both at once and try to keep about 20 pages ahead of myself in thumbnails. I sketch rough layouts for part of the day and then work on finished pages for part of the day. Despite having an outline I make a surprising amount of stuff up as I go, including all the dialogue. It’s like a director who has a bunch of talented actors who know how the scenes are supposed to go, so he lets them improvise most of their lines.

Geek: Do you have any influences you draw on for Zita?

BH: I feel like everything I love contributes something. I come back to early Henson stuff a lot -that easy shifting between the colorful, zany humor of the Muppets and the darker, Brian Froud-designed worlds of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.

I love almost everything that has come from Studio Ghibli and I appreciate especially Hayao Miyazaki's perception of European culture and architecture. Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of my all-time favorite movies. It takes place in an alternate 1980’s Europe in which the World Wars never happened.

I miss Firefly terribly. The whole flavor of Joss Whedon’s world of space was just perfect. There are a couple little visual winks to Serenity in Legends of Zita. Firefly has become my media equivalent of comfort food. It cheers me up when I’m feeling sad. I should probably send a copy of the Zita books to Joss Whedon to thank him for that.

I also read a lot. I read nonfiction across many topic and fiction across many genres. One of the most important things a storyteller can do is read many kinds of things. For instance, the Smithsonian Book of Natural History has been a surprisingly big influence for my creature designs. We have some weird life forms on Planet Earth.

Geek: Not to spoil anything, but while this is a nice complete story, there's also some great seeds for further Zita stories. Do you have a finite number of books in mind, or is this going as long as you can take it?

BH: I feel like I have to apologize for this but... Zita’s story is a trilogy. I’m just starting colors on the third book and, while I have some further plans for this world of Zita the Spacegirl... Well, what we have right now is a trilogy.

Geek: No apologies necessary! Last question, anything you want to tease to get people hankering for this book?

BH: A simple, cast-off little robot crawls out of a junkyard. The first thing it sees is a picture of Zita and an old mop. How much trouble do you think that could cause? Well, kind of a lot.

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl hits bookstores everywhere on September 4th from First Second.