Exclusive: Ben Hatke’s ‘Little Robot’ cover revealed

Jan. 08, 2015 | 6:00 a.m.

“Little Robot,” an upcoming graphic novel from Ben Hatke, is the tale of an unlikely friendship between a lost, childlike robot and the little girl who helps him explore the world.

The all-ages graphic novel is due out Sept. 1 from First Second, and Hero Complex readers get a first look at the book’s cover, which features the diminutive heroes.

Hatke is best known for his bestselling “Zita the Spacegirl” graphic novel series, which introduced a galaxy-trotting superheroine on a mission to save her best friend from an intergalactic doomsday cult. Hatke has also contributed to the “Flight” anthology series and is the author of the children’s book “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.”

In “Little Robot,” which began as a series of watercolor cartoon strips Hatke published on his website, a curious robot befriends a shy girl who’s handy with a wrench. It’s a soft, summer-soaked story about friendship and courage and more than a few mechanical heroes.

Hero Complex caught up with Hatke, who talks about creating the story’s magnetic characters, the lessons he learned from “Zita,” and the inspiration he finds in his Shenandoah Valley home.

Hero Complex: Can you tell us about how this project came about? What inspired this story?

Ben Hatke: In January of 2012, I sat down at my desk and drew a simple, five-panel comic strip about a Little Robot. It looked like this (click on image to enlarge):

The protagonist in Ben Hatke's graphic novel "Little Robot" first appeared in this cartoon on his website. (Ben Hatke / First Second)

The protagonist in Ben Hatke’s graphic novel “Little Robot” first appeared in this cartoon on his website. (Ben Hatke / First Second)

I tossed it up on my blog and people seemed to connect to the comic. Pretty soon I found myself doodling a second and then a third Little Robot comic. I didn’t have much of a plan in mind beyond “I’m going to do this for as long as it’s fun.” And it was fun! It kept on being fun! I had spent the last several years creating graphic novels that were each around 200 pages and it had been a while since I’d played around in the newspaper-strip style of comics. When I got up around 20 or so comics, I started thinking that this Little Robot guy might have a longer story to tell.

HC: What kind of challenges did you face in developing the robot?

BH: For me, characters develop simply through spending time with them — when I doodle them over and over in my notebooks, and when I toss them into different situations to get a feel for how they react. It takes time, and it’s weirdly similar to developing a relationship with a real person.

Honestly, when it came time to start work on the book, most of the work in developing the personality, “voice” and design of the robot was done. I’d already drawn 30-some comic strips about the robot and done plenty of sketches. If you read through the early comics, you can actually see the robot’s character and design developing.

Ben Hatke's "Zita the Spacegirl." (First Second)

Ben Hatke’s “Zita the Spacegirl.” (First Second)

I had the same experience with Zita the Spacegirl, having spent years developing her in shorter comics before starting work on the books.

HC: The robot dialogue is fun, and not a beep or bloop in sight. How did you develop its/his “language”?

BH: That was one of the really fun parts! All the robots in the book have a different vocabulary of sounds. It’s usually easy for me to get an idea of what a robot sounds like in my head, so the hard bit ends up being how to spell out those noises.

Writing out sounds is fascinating and can say a lot about character, so I try to avoid shorthand whenever possible. “Beep and Bloop” is sort of a widely accepted shorthand for “robot sounds” in the same way that “ribbit” is shorthand for “frog sounds.” But, if you listen, frogs have a wide range of sounds. Fat bullfrogs kind of go “rrRRORk!” and little springtime frogs go “treeep-treep.” It all depends on the frog. Or the robot.

HC: Can you talk creating the little girl character? She’s not a typical protagonist.

BH: What is a typical protagonist? I think it’s the kind of thing that, the more you try to define it, the more it will escape you, because we like to celebrate the things that set our heroes apart. I mean, I tend to agree that, in stories, days are mostly saved by fit, talkative white guys. But to my mind that just leaves more room for a black, mechanically gifted, female introvert to grab the stage and stand out.

The little girl (she’s never named in the story) went through several different designs in my notebooks, but I wanted her to be different, visually and emotionally, from what I’d done before. My previous two heroines, Zita and Julia, were both white extroverted leaders, so this little girl ended up wanting to be a black introverted builder.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke. (First Second)

“Julia’s House for Lost Creatures” by Ben Hatke. (First Second)

Unlike the Little Robot, who developed slowly and steadily over a long period of time, the girl didn’t exist until I started the book. She had to develop in a shorter period of time but it was the same process of drawing her over and over in my notebook, making small changes until she looked “right.”

HC: Why little girls as heroines?

BH: Why not?

Ben Hatke's "Legends of Zita the Spacegirl." (First Second)

Ben Hatke’s “Legends of Zita the Spacegirl.” (First Second)

Look, I suppose after five books featuring young girls as leads it’s a fair question. And the simple answer is that I have four daughters of my own and so I spend a lot of time watching little girls have adventures. And they say to write what you know.

Also, one of the first books my dad read aloud to me was “The BFG” by Roald Dahl. It’s about a little girl named Sophie who saves England from a horde of bloodthirsty giants. The more I look back on the book, the more I realize what a huge influence it has been for me.

But putting aside my own family situation and early story experiences, when I’m writing a story with a young protagonist, I have only two(ish) genders to choose from, right? But of all the hundreds of thousands of other elements I have to choose from, every one of my books, so far, has robots in it. So “why robots?” might be a more revealing question…

HC: Is there anything you’ve learned from doing the “Zita” series that informed your work on “Little Robot”?

BH: Oh yes, loads! Every project informs the next one, but in this case I felt like I was taking all the nuts-and-bolts stuff from “Zita” and pushing it as far as I could with “Little Robot.” I have a sense that I’m getting stronger as a storyteller, or at least more confident, and that’s good. Storytelling is so, so tricky.

Ben Hatke's "The Return of Zita the Spacegirl." (First Second)

Ben Hatke’s “The Return of Zita the Spacegirl.” (First Second)

There’s also a lot of little, technical stuff I worked on in this book. It’s an “all-ages” story, but I have very young readers particularly in mind, many of whom may not be strong readers, so I’ve tried to keep the visual storytelling as clear as possible. Some of the things that are the least interesting to talk about have ended up having the biggest effects on the reading experience. For instance, I did away with panel borders in this book, and kept the edges of each panel rounded and hand-drawn. That worked out really well.

I also worked hard to connect this story to the world around me. Writing and drawing from life is something I find is very important, and for this book, I went on a lot of long walks with my sketchbook and used a lot of locations from the areas around the Shenandoah Valley where I live. Railroad bridges, abandoned jeeps, mountains and woods all came from these sketch walks.

HC: What’s next for you?

BH: Next is Goblins! I’m working on a story that features them now, along with some of my other favorite dungeon dwellers. It’s also my first book with ne’er a robot in sight.

HC: Anything else you’d like to add?

BH: I’m really excited to finally be sharing “Little Robot” with the world. It’s a story about friendship and a love letter to summertime, but it’s also an adventure story with robots and cats and a brave girl who is a mechanical genius.

Keep up with Hatke’s work on his website, and see his sketches, deskshots and day-to-day work on Twitter.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+


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One Response to Exclusive: Ben Hatke’s ‘Little Robot’ cover revealed

  1. Jill says:

    Thanks for writing about Hatke, he's a fabulous artist and writer! We're loving all of his works!

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