"Zita the Spacegirl's" Ben Hatke Builds a "Little Robot"

Ben Hatke seemed to come out of nowhere when "Zita the Spacegirl" blasted onto the scene in 2011. Prior to "Zita," he had published some short stories in "Flight" and "Flight Explorer," but his sense of design and character, his use of color, and the sense of fun his work was striking. Since then, Hatke's written and drawn two more "Zita" books and published his first picture book, "Julia's House for Lost Creatures."

His new, mostly silent book "Little Robot" follows a young girl who discovers a robot in the woods. When another robot comes to retrieve the first robot, the girl must save her new friend with only her wits and a wrench -- making for a suspenseful adventure tale that doubles as a fun story of lazy summer days, perfect for all ages.

CBR News: The book is wordless for almost the first quarter and after that there's not a lot of dialogue. Where did the idea for "Little Robot" come from, and why did you approach the book like this?

Ben Hatke: A few years ago, I just sort of started drawing a series of newspaper-style comics strips for no reason at all -- except fun. I think it had been a while since I'd done anything like that. I had no plan in advance, but I ended up drawing about thirty "Little Robot" strips. Slowly, without my noticing, the robot's personality developed and I began to think there might be a larger story to tell.

There are a few reasons for [the lack of dialogue]. First, and most simply, I just enjoyed the process of telling as much as I could with the character's acting and gestures. I've come to think that in comics this is almost always a good thing. Get across everything you can in the drawing and save the dialogue for what can't be expressed in lines.

But secondly, my kids have learned to read largely from comics, and I had noticed that there was a bit of a gap between silent comics and comics that were heavy with text. I wanted to create a comic that pretty much could be read and understood without the dialogue but for which the dialogue would add an extra layer of depth.

Was making a mostly wordless book a different experience for you compared to your previous books?

Not really a different experience. In storytelling, letting the character's "acting" do a lot of the heavy lifting was a lesson I learned in the first "Zita" book. There's a scene at the beginning when Zita's friend Joseph is pulled through a portal into another world and Zita tries to run away from this trouble she's caused. But then her conscience gets the better of her and she goes back to try to save her friend. That scene, originally, had all kinds of dialogue. But the more I trimmed away the better it got, until eventually there were no words at all in that little scene. "Little Robot" is sort of a continuation of that lesson.

Why did you decide to abandon panel borders? There are gutters but it definitely adds to this ambling feel of the structure.

Yeah. That, for me, was a minor revolution. My French publisher flew me out for the Angouleme Comics Festival right before I started serious work on the final inks for "Little Robot." It was an amazing, magical experience in all kinds of ways. One of the best things was that I met a lot of fantastic artists. I was signing next to an artist named Cati Baur and she had illustrated a book called "Quatre Souer" ("Four Sisters") and her work was just gorgeous and had the same soft, unlined panel borders. When I saw that book I knew I was doing the same thing for "Little Robot" and it worked out really well. Hey, thanks France!

Can you talk a little about the color because reading it, I kept wondering if some pages were watercolors or if it was all digital coloring.

Yeah, I slipped a few watercolors in there. I had played with the idea of doing the whole thing that way, like I do for picture books, but ultimately for something over a hundred pages, I'm not there yet. But I did do some parts in watercolor and the black-and-white pages are done with a bit of an in-wash added to hopefully give the whole thing a brushy feel.

You really captured this feeling that it seems like a lot of kids don't get to experience, these free range, meandering summer days without technology. Was that feeling key for you in the book?

It was! I have similar memories of summer and I think it's a good thing to have experienced.

Last year, you published your first picture book, "Julia's House for Lost Creatures." How do you think that changed your process and made you try something different in this book?

"Julia's House" definitely allowed me to stretch out a bit and those illustrations were all ink and watercolor originals with very, very little digital corrections. I think I got a little more confident from working on that book. I definitely took some things from "Julia's House" and applied them to "Little Robot."

In a book like this, do you have an ideal age you're thinking about as you're working on it?

I don't have the best age-range targeting system. I usually focus on getting into the world of the story and telling the best story I can in that world. My wonderful editor helps keep me on track with age-range stuff, and it helps that my own kids check up on my work. That said, this story more than most I've worked on has a specific age set in that I'm hoping some very beginning readers will pick it up.

I have been instructed to ask, will there be more "Zita?"

That is a question I get very often! There is no official answer other than that Zita keeps poking me in the brain with more story. I'm sure we'll see her again.

So what's next for you?

After "Little Robot," we will see another picture book in the spring called "Nobody Likes a Goblin." It's about a goblin. After that there will be a two-book graphic novel story called "Mighty Jack." It is a big adventure.

You have five daughters. One is named Zita and another is Julia. Have the others started clamoring for when they're getting a lead character named after them?

Uh -- I gotta get writing.

"Little Robot" is available in stores now.

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