Zita the Spacegirl (Series)
Created by: Ben Hatke
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596434465 (Amazon)
Recently, it’s come to my attention that maybe I’m not really a fan of science fiction. I may not even be a fan of adventure. I’ve found that the idea of a science fiction world isn’t enough to spark my interest. A world populated by robots? A dystopian future of genetic manipulation? Star-spanning empires and the rebels that seek their liberation from those empires? I always have a sense of been there and done that. The ideas just don’t excite me like they once may have—I presume that decades ago, when I self-identified as a sci-fi fan, these things genuinely did excite me. When I hear of a new Battlestar Galactica, I can’t be bothered to care any more than I would for the news that there was a new Civil War show coming out this Fall. Even though I loved the original BSG as a kid. And the same goes for adventures. The idea of watching a hero overcome great odds to save the princess, the town, the nation, or the world is a tired device. Used and reused.
Still, even a cursory glance at my Top 100 Comics list will reveal numerous books from both genres entrenched even as far up as my Top 10, so clearly my lack of adoration for the genres isn’t the end of the story. Not being a fan doesn’t mean I actively dislike the genres; it just means they have to offer something special in addition. Really, it just means they have to sell the kinds of things I love in other stories. I’m currently reading Jeff Smith’s Bone to our three-year-old daughter (her favourite characters are Kingdok and the rat creatures, whom I’ve given Muscovite accents). What’s been pronounced in this reading (moreso I think than in prior excursions into Smith’s Valley) is both the depth of atmosphere and the breadth of characterization. Smith invests the book with fantastic character moments that speak not merely to the state of his heroes and villains but to the nature of the human person itself. This focus elevates the work beyond a mere exercise of plot and device to a height most fantasy adventures never even bother seeking to reach. It’s why Bone is one of my favourites despite its grounding in the fantasy and adventure genres.
This is also why I appreciated Zita the Spacegirl so much as I did. The book, while solidly aimed at adventure-loving youngsters,11I’m not certain but almost-certain that the Zita series is primarily aimed at young readers. There’s nothing I’ve seen on the jacket or indicia that would indicate Young Readers (or even Young Adult readers) but the book boasts that all-ages kind of sensibility that’s common to the taxonomy. is filled with the kinds of character moments that will make it sing to even the parents of those youthful, single-minded readers.
Zita the Spacegirl (and its follow-up, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl) ostensibly relates the adventures of a reluctant hero, Zita, a girl sucked from our end of the galaxy to another end of another galaxy. It’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey—only instead of two dogs and a cat, it’s just a lone lost girl who becomes something bigger than she is. While that description may be enough to sell the story to any number of my friends, I’m curmudgeonly enough to require more bang for my buck. It’s not enough for me to know that Ben Hatke has written books that my daughter will want to hear read over and over, but it does say something special to know that these are books I’d actually enjoy reading to her over and over.
Hatke pours a lot of love and care into his creation. Not only is he conscious of the need for his characters to boast winning personalities, but his creative spirit is well evident in the vast array of amusing alien creatures that rain all over Zita’s parade to greatness. I found myself dwelling on panels longer than I might usually be given to do—especially treasures like this:
Seriously. Aren’t these things the most adorable little squirts.
Where Zita shines is where books like the later Crogan Adventures shine: in its complexity of human relations.22I was tempted to just leave it at “personal relations” as most of the interactions are with aliens, but Hatke’s aliens are really probably more just humans in weird shapes. It feels sometimes as if Hatke takes lessons from Miyazaki and Ghibli’s school of characterization, as even Zita’s antagonizers are portrayed in sympathetic terms. They are not bad guys for the sake of being bad. They are, to quote twentieth-century American philosopher Curly Howard, victims of coicumstance. Sometimes they labour under false beliefs, sometimes they operate by the dictates and limitations of their insular cultures.33With this in mind, it wouldn’t be difficult to read into the Zita books some sort of veiled critique of the American people. Though I doubt that’s within the realm of Hatke’s intentions here. All this works toward making Hatke’s books a more readable, believable world.
At present, there are two Zita books in print. While the former is quite enjoyable and introduces most of the principal characters (as well as what may be the Series Dilemma), the latest release Legends of Zita the Spacegirl is the better of the two. The character having been introduced already, Hatke’s allowed to explore Zita and her new family of friends a little more closely. And while Zita experienced some growth in the first volume, it was mostly due circumstance. One of those people-having-greatness-thrust-upon-them sorts of things. In Legends, Zita is able to grow by observing the better, more courageous, more compassionate acts of others. It’s a more natural accomplishment and so ends up meaning more.
A couple months ago in my review of Josh Tierney’s Spera, I mentioned that I was on the lookout for books that I’d soon be able to pour out upon my young daughter. I said:
I’ll be looking for books that don’t portray femaleness as an indictment, a weakness, or a reason to be victimized. And honestly, apart from a handful of books, I can’t immediately think of much that fits the bill.
Whatever indictment that is on much of the comics industry as it currently stands, I’m happy to say that among that handful of books (which includes Hildafolk and Bone and Nausicaä and Spera), Ben Hatke’s Zita series will find a place in my heart and on my shelf. I’m excited to see where he takes these characters. Whether they adventure to get there or not.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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