Author and Artist Ben Hatke, protecting his bar of chocolate.
Author and Artist Ben Hatke, protecting his bar of chocolate.

By: Nicholas Eskey

During this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, writer and artist Ben Hatke is spending time with publisher First Second to help commemorate their 20th anniversary.

Fortunately for me, I got a chance to sit down with Ben in the hot San Diego sun and take some time from his already busy dance card. As this interview is taking place, it is Friday afternoon, and Ben eagerly waits to see the night’s outcome of his Eisner award nomination for his graphic book Little Robot.

You are First Second’s special guest this year, with two really praised books right now, “Little Robot” and “Zita the Space Girl.” How has been this whole process and the kind of ride for you with these two books?

Oh gosh. The Zita series is really my start, especially with First Second. So this is a trilogy of graphic novels of space adventures, and this is the final Zita book. Zita I felt, as a three book series, was sort of my proving ground as a storyteller. And so the final book of the Zita series when it came out a couple years ago, in 2014 I think, I just felt like it was sort of my graduate thesis in storytelling. I felt like I kind of really took everything I learned from the first two books and wrapped it up in the third.

Little Robot was a completely different project all together. It’s a gentler story. It’s for younger, just really starting out readers. [Little Robot] is about a little girl who finds a robot that washes up on the side of a river and inadvertently turns this robot on. It’s about the friendship that develops between the two of them. Very, very different things; a little human and a little robot. That was just a gentler story. There weren’t even any lined panels on the boarders. So, it was just a different beast. But at the same time, I was still drawing from some of the things I had learned from Zita.

Now I’m into picture books as well, so this year I have “Nobody Likes a Goblin,” which is a picture book that flips the normal fantasy, D&D type of story on its head and looks at a little goblin as a protagonist. And in the fall, in just a few weeks actually, “Mighty Jack” comes out. That’s me coming back into the big 200-page graphic novel realm so to speak. And even though Little Robot was a couple years ago, it’s coming back because it’s up for an Eisner award. So I get to go to my very first Eisner awards and dress up fancy and have a good time. Haha.

Now with Little Robot, it’s such a cute book and I especially liked that between the girl and the robot, she’s actually the one taking this little robot through this journey, like a guardian. She’s a child, and she’s taking this inanimate thing around and kind of teaching it and showing him the world. It’s such an interesting dynamic, as opposed to a child and an adult. That’s kind of the relationship that they have here.

Starting out, yeah, and that was something that was consciously building into the story, this idea that she’s really young. It’s very much impressions. Not a lot of this is said outright, but she’s kind of on her own. She’s been putting together her view of the world by herself, both because of whatever living situation she has, but also because she’s basically kind of an introvert personality; mechanically minded and an introvert girl. But the idea of their friendship is changing, just like all friendships change through time. So it does start out as a very “parent-child” kind of relationship.

Even in the text there are very few words, even in the very beginning of the book. We go through several pages of the introduction before even the words come in. And all through the point when the girl comes in, when she activates it, is unsure of it, and the robot keeps trying to get up, but it can’t. It takes a step and it falls. Eventually she picks it up and sets the robot up upright. She puts her arm around it and they take a step together. By this point we are 30 pages into the book, and that’s where the first line of actual dialogue comes in. She says “That’s it, one step at a time.” And that’s the beginning of their friendship. It’s very much one sided, or very much parent-child. Like a guardian who’s teaching.

As the story progresses, the robot learns and grows, and their friendship becomes sort of as equals, until the robot begins to remember it came from. Then we start to deal with the things that pull a friendship apart. The difficulties that arise in friendships. The misunderstandings.

To me it looked a lot like this robot is showing this little girl, or at least introducing her to feelings. Because she’s so very mechanically minded, she seems so straight forward, so more of plain facts.

It sorts of flips, from her being the parent to him showing her. And when misunderstandings arise, you get the impression that this is the girl’s first friend, and so when the robot wants to leave, to go exploring, to become apart from her or to develop itself, the girl has to deal with feelings of jealousy for the first time. There’s this scene that I kind of felt intense about when I was making it when she tries to lock the robot away. “No you can’t go!” Like this possessive friendship. So she’s learning from the robot how to deal with all of these emotions that she never had to deal with before. And of course the adventure comes in when the factory sends someone to fetch the robot, to bring it back. And there has to be a rescue, and so you deal with the things that pull friendship apart, and then that healing process after you have gone passed some of these lumps in your friendship or your relationship, and those things that heal that back together. Then you’re stronger because of it… I’ve basically told you the emotional arch of the whole book! Haha.

So at the end, you see hopefully if I’ve done my job, the whole development of friendship, that final strengthening, and what it means going forward.

It does go almost a full circle. They definitely both grow. They grow as better individuals, learning about themselves; her more for her emotional side, or her humanity from that standpoint, and then it going beyond what he is, away from taking pure input, and begin questioning what he is. I love how First Second as a publisher are really great about getting all these artists and writers as yourself, that are so open about writing these stories that are so provoking. Whether they deal with parent-child relationships, friends and friends, growing apart. Things that just need to be said, yet a lot of people nowadays are just perhaps shy about getting into that discussion. And that’s why I also think you’re up for an Eisner is because you continue this conversation.

Story is a conversation, definitely.

Exactly! And that’s why it needs to be used more, especially in the teaching of young children. Especially if parents are unwilling to take that role themselves, which a lot of them aren’t’. They’re hoping that media, or teachers will do that, even though that’s not really their role.

You were mentioning First Second as a publisher, and this is their 10-year anniversary in existence. I kind of got involved with First Second toward the beginning. Not the very beginning, but long enough that I can now start to look back over those 8 or 9 years and see with all the things that could have happened with my work as a young, sort of staring out story teller, that ending up with First Second was probably one of the most providential, best possible thing that could have happened. For me personally it’s been such an artistically nurturing environment.

You can look at the market and all these external things when you’re making a story, but with my experience, I can’t speak to everybody, with my experience with First Second, with Mark Siegel, and with Calista (my editors) is that I’ve always been so encouraged to dip deep and to really allow myself to dig deep artistically in a story sense. It’s rewarding to be able to do.

Even when I’ve gotten into trouble, like when I was working with the second Zita book. I just got really mired and really lost in the story I was telling. I was not sure with what I was doing. And they were there for me during that time. I think they turned it in late and it all sort of ended up okay. But I do remember I ended up having to abandon a lot of actual drawn pages and take huge steps back and rework the story. I just never felt abandoned there. I always felt that they were there for me, even when things got really hard. So those relationships that I’ve developed there have been really tremendously rewarding, and really really allowed me to dig into stuff… Dig deep into a story, even if it’s on the silly or lighter side. You can still find something true, or something maybe universally human to latch onto.

Lastly, what would you love to see yourself doing, if you could do anything, as an eventual project?

I don’t know. I’ve been really thinking about a lot of different story telling formats and mediums now that I’ve got a foot in graphic novels, and a foot in picture books, and then now working on a middle-grade novel. My whole interest has been story, and visual storytelling, and how words and pictures can work together. I have huge post-apocalyptic story I’ve cooking in the back of my mind for a long time, I have an Italian, modern fairytale story that I’ve been very excited about and been grappling for a long time. There are some projects, unlike Mighty Jack which I’ve just finished, that just flow out in a relatively short time. Mighty Jack started in 2006, and not constant work since then, but the grains of the story. So it’s benefited from that long incubation period. There’s also some older audience type books that I’m drifting toward. So I don’t know. That’s the future. It’s misty and murky right now, but there’s lots of things I’m excited about.

Congratulations Ben Hatke, who did walkaway with an Eisner award for Best Publication for Early Readers. Great job!

Make sure all of you check out his works, such as Little Robot, the Zita the Space Girl trilogy, Nobody Likes a Golbin, and the soon to be released Mighty Jack.