August 7, 2014

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Zita the Spacegirl Book 1

Written and Illustrated by Ben Hatke
Published by First Second

Zita is a brash young girl who isn't afraid to touch a button from space. Unfortunately, that's not exactly a good life choice. Soon, her friend Joseph is sucked into a space warp and Zita must follow in order to save him from her own mistake. Transported to a doomed planet full of aliens, Zita has to keep her wits about her and gather what friends she can from the outcasts of society to save Joseph--and maybe make it home, if they're lucky--in this engaging, impressive first entry in the series.

Ben Hatke, a veteran of Flight and its all-ages cousin, Explorer, doesn't try to make Zita cute or lovable or any of those other traps that books with a young protagonist sometimes fall into. Instead, she's a little bit of a jerk, and it looks like someone else might pay for her mistakes. That allows the story to be one of redemption for Zita, as she must rescue Joseph, even if it means possibly being trapped in space forever. She has to overcome fear and a nice level of danger (just enough to make the reader worry, not enough to be too violent for kids), make tough decisions, and learn the value of forgiveness.

That latter point is a theme across the book, as Zita, Piper (a magician with a selfish streak), and Randy (a clumsy robot hiding a dark secret) all have reason to look for redemption as we go through the story. It makes for a great soft moral for young readers to absorb--people (and robots) make mistakes, but should always be given a chance to make things right. How they handle that second chance is what determines the true character of a person (or robot). Best of all, however, it's organic to the story and not forced. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a book that's heavy-handed with its message. (Didn't like it as a kid, hate it worse when it's in an adult book.) Hatke's work here wants to teach readers something about human nature, but it's performed in a way that puts the story first, message second.

And what a story! Once we move quickly into the alien world, Zita is surrounded by creatures ranging from humanoids to monsters to robot constructs that look like something out of a nightmare. Zita can't afford to be too afraid, because she must find Joseph. Her single-minded determination puts her in danger from all points, but she never gives up. By the end, the choices she makes show that her character has changed thanks to her experiences and being part of, for lack of a better term, an underclass of creatures and robots facing long odds. Zita can't save Joseph on her own, but her willpower can change those around her, making them better people/bots, too, just as Zita herself becomes a hero.

There's a lot to like about just the plot and script in Zita the Spacegirl, but it would be wrong to neglect Hatke's art. There's definitely a digital feel to the work, as is true for most of the creators that came out of Flight, as there is a lot of processing going on with the backgrounds and coloring. Hatke's linework itself is very thin, but expressive. He gives us just enough to understand what is going on, but there's not extensive detailing or backgrounds. In that way, it's a bit like a highly processed mini-comic. At certain points, like to emphasize the mad scientist nature of Piper's lab or highlighting the pipe system looming over Zita, Hatke will make the background as important as the characters, but the focus is squarely on Zita and her friends or foes.

The characters themselves and the bit players surrounding them are the real artistic draw. Hatke keeps the aliens more varied than an episode of Star Trek, and if you look closely at the crowd scenes, you'll see he's dropped in some Easter Eggs. In other cases, homages to Jim Henson or Miyozaki can be spotted, at least one of which is pretty blatant. I love the way that Hatke takes the time to make this world feel real by having more than generic aliens or just a few species. This is an ecosystem, not a static world.

I also came away impressed with Hatke's page layouts. Though most of the action takes place with the reader's eye placed close to the characters, he's not afraid to provide longshots for perspective, allowing scale to dominate the page. There's a strong flow from panel to panel across the narrative, too. Hatke is very good at deciding what visual will have the most impact, and to avoid talking heads. Sometimes, we just see feet!

Zita the Spacegirl is a great all ages book, one that is definitely geared to and perfect for younger readers, but also retains enough strong work visually, thematically, and in dialogue to be something adults can enjoy, too.