By Ben Hatke
192 pages, color
Published by First Second
Ben Hatke is one of those creators that when you first encounter, you instantly want to read more of his comics. That’s how I felt when I read his stories in the Flight anthologies, which had a lot of charm and wit about them. So when his debut graphic novel showed up on my doorstep, it was one of those, "Put everything down and make time to read this first." And I’m glad I did.
Zita the Spacegirl starts off simply enough; Zita and her friend Joseph find a mysterious button that, when pressed, opens up a gateway to a far away planet. Once Joseph is kidnapped, though, it’s up to Zita to go through the portal and try and rescue him, with a wide assortment of humans, aliens, and robots. It’s a clean premise, one that opens up the door for all sorts of adventures about Zita. This first book focuses on Zita’s attempt to find Joseph and get him back before an asteroid destroys the planet in just three days. It’s an important plot element, not only because it provides a sense of urgency to the book, but because it ultimately is the core of the plot web that everything else ties into. It’s a smart move on Hatke’s part, because not only does it make the looming thread get larger with each new moment, but because at the day every single character in Zita the Spacegirl is fighting for survival.
The big charm of Zita the Spacegirl‘s writing isn’t the plot, though, but rather the characters. I love Zita, with her sharp attitude and wits about her. She’s still quite recognizably a kid, and doesn’t come across as a shrunken grown-up, but at the same time she’s old enough to have developed enough morals to know right from wrong, and not to abandon friends. My favorite interactions she has is with the floating robot One, as the two good-naturedly spar back and forth on their travels to find Joseph. One provides an invaluable amount of aid to Zita, but at the same time his believed superiority is a good foil for Zita, especially when she’s proven right in the long run. In many ways One is like Zita getting a younger sibling that tags along, but who also has a certain amount of firepower that’s needed. The rest of the characters are as much fun; even the silent Mouse gets some great moments, and when one of Zita’s friends fails her, it’s in a way that makes sense, not merely so the plot can advance. Hatke creates realistic dilemmas and in a way there is no simple solution.
I liked Hatke’s art before, but I feel like it’s gotten even stronger since the last time I encountered it. From Zita’s sly look as she holds the mysterious button, to the look of terror when she realizes what she has to do next, Hatke gives her a beautifully expressive face. The rest of the characters fare just as well, from inventive looking robots (and I love that they all appear slightly run down) to bizarre aliens, most notably the Screed, which look like a combination of a diving helmet and an octopus. By the time the book’s over, you’re ready for Zita to get out into space to go after more aliens.
The closest thing I have to a complaint about Zita the Spacegirl is that it felt like it was over almost before it started. At 192 pages, it’s not a tiny book, but Hatke’s story zips merrily along, and I think it’s a testament to the book in general that I was surprised to suddenly be at the conclusion. Fortunately, the title page gives it a subtitle and a mention of "Book One," so hopefully we’ll get more Zita the Spacegirl before too long. This is one of those all-ages book that really is for all ages; it’s adorable and fun, with a strong dash of adventure. (Now if the next book could just be 384 pages, well, wouldn’t that be nice?) This is a lot of fun.