Zita the Spacegirl
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Ben Hatke is not shy about his influences in Zita the Spacegirl (First Second, 2011). He calls up Star Wars, Marvel Comics’ MODOK, Terry Gilliam (and I’d also say Terry Pratchett while we’re at it) and — I’m not throwing this out lightly — Jim Henson and his Muppets (maybe more specifically, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but the overall attitude, too) as well as many more. But that’s not to say this book ever becomes a game of “spot the reference.” Hatke has enough skill to make this book fun in its own right.
Our heroine is the titular Zita — a girl of about 11 who follows her friend/rival Joseph through a portal that sends them both to a planet that’s facing destruction. Zita’s brave and savvy enough to just go with the scenario that’s presented to her. Yes, there are problems — weird creatures and dangers lurking at every turn — but Zita’s also having fun. While I wouldn’t call all of Hatke’s creatures “cuddly,” there is a softness to his art which makes much of the book pretty playful. There are scares, sure, but Zita’s always presented as someone who can rise to them.
The roguish Piper, who is not quite trustworthy since he has his own agenda and a goatee, makes a worthy foil for the practical Zita as well as a unthreatening crush object (if we’re going with the general Labyrinth vibe here, David Bowie was much weirder on that account). He’s also a good entry point for adults and older readers. As much as I adore Zita, I do want to know Piper’s story too (and since this book ends with a promise of more, maybe I’ll get to).
Hatke goes far to evoke a world full of robots and aliens and castles. It’s such an overused word for books like these, but yes, his art has an animated quality to it. Zita seems to be moving as she runs away from robot spiders, or as HAMBO attacks their enemies. Hatke’s storytelling is amazing, but it is his expressive, delightful art that drives this book.
I am probably at least 20 years too old to be in the target audience for this book, but at the same time, I absolutely am. Hatke has created a title that can connect with all ages — children who like adventures, their nerdy parents (or people who could be nerdy parents), and those of us who used to be 10-year-old girls (or boys!) and still appreciate stories about them.
Ultimately, I don’t know who wouldn’t love Zita the Spacegirl. I think it’s for all of us.