ZITA THE SPACEGIRL by Ben Hatke
If I were forced to choose one word to sum up Ben Hatke’s ZITA THE SPACEGIRL trilogy, it would be “delightful.” I could toss a lot more words into the mix — imaginative, whimsical, heartwarming, and so on, but really, all one need know is the entire series is a delight. And now I just wondered if our comic/graphic expert Brad had reviewed it and of course he has, and it turns out at the end he says Zita is “a delight.” So there you go.
The trilogy is made up of Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl. The books are aimed at YA, and it’s hard to imagine any child not enjoying every aspect of it — character, plot, visuals. While it lacks the rich depth or wholly original characters to make it a full crossover book, it’s equally hard to imagine most adults not enjoying it either, even if they’ll recognize some well-worn characters. And of course, reading it aloud to your child would be the best of both worlds.
In Book One, Zita’s adventures begin when she and her friend Joseph witness a meteoroid crash to the Earth. Inside is a device with a big red button. Joseph, standing in for pragmatic, cautious, adult-minded folks everywhere warns Zita not to push the button. Zita, representing kids and like-minded adults, of course pushes it anyway. The results are not good. A portal opens up, tentacles grab Joseph and pull him in, the portal closes. After doing the obvious — running away — Zita returns to the device and takes on the burden of dealing with the consequences of her action by pushing the button and jumping into the ensuing portal. Cue adventures.
What kind? The kind that involve a giant mouse named appropriately enough “Mouse,” who communicates via ticker-tape; a huge Lennie-like alien named Strong-Strong, several down-on-their-luck robots, a can-he-be-trusted Rogue named Piper, Piper’s former and-not-so-happy-with-him significant other (and her giant cat), Doom Squads, living ships, Dungeon worlds, space giants, swarming planet-consuming hearts, asteroids hurtling towards planetary destruction, prison breaks, a talking skeleton and his best friend, a sentient pile of rags, last-minute rescues from certain death, and the list goes on.
The action is fast-paced much of the time, with lots of driving urgency (planets about to explode, friends about to be executed, etc.) behind the plot. But Hatke also knows when to slow things down and allow for some quieter moments, for both the characters and for the readers, letting some more emotional moments settle in, during a moment of self-sacrifice, for instance, or a realization that maybe fighting isn’t always the answer. Along those lines, he also isn’t afraid to now and then let the visuals alone carry the story or the emotions, offering up several wordless pages at a time, with no loss of impact.
You can see from above the books also have their share of “lessons”, beginning with that very first one of taking responsibility for one’s actions. But these lessons in ethics are part and parcel of the story and characters; there’s no moralizing, no didacticism here. What’s learned grows naturally out of the events and sits side by side with the joy of adventure.
As mentioned, some of the character types will seem familiar. Piper is your usual rogue of apparently questionable trustworthiness/ethics that you know will come through in the end (think Han Solo), Strong Strong is the typical big strong fella of few words whose size is only overmatched by the largeness of his heart, Mouse the usual stalwart warm-blooded animal companion, and so on. Kids of course won’t react the same way to these types, and for adults, even if they are familiar types, they’re well, familiar types and there’s something pleasant about familiarity. And Hatke does a good enough job of breathing personality into each so that they read more of a kind than a simple, empty clone.
Humor in the stories is both through dialogue (especially the skeleton and the rag creature) and visually. And speaking of the visuals, while I’m no judge of art in and of itself, I thoroughly enjoyed the richness of Hatke’s background detail in more rich panels of an urban street, a junkyard, and the like. Otherwise, the art seemed clear and lively to me. Best I can say is I responded well to it.
I’ve spent a lot of time bemoaning how little I’ve enjoyed the graphic novels/comics I’ve read over the years, including many of award-winning or highly hyped ones. Just a year or so ago I wondered in a review if I maybe just am the wrong person. But since then (and with a lot of help from Brad), I’ve discovered a few that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and while Zita is more geared to YA and less rich than those several (Daytripper, Saga), it goes in that category as well. Highly recommended, all three (and here’s hoping he writes some more, though it ends well).
Zita the Spacegirl is one of those perfect YA science fiction stories that you wish had been written years ago so you could have read it as a kid — which means that you’re gonna want to get this book in the hands of a child in your life. Just make sure you get a chance to read it first.
The story begins when Zita and her friend find a strange object that has fallen from space — a square, hand-held device with a big, red button on it. Just imagine what you’d do: Would you press that button? Guess what the young child Zita does? That’s right — she presses the button. Instantly, a door of light opens before her and the arms — tentacles? — of a strange creature reach into our world and grab Zita’s friend. Zita runs away in terror to think about what she’s just seen and what she should do.
As you’d expect, she goes to talk to her parents and spends the rest of the book waiting for her parents to figure out some way to save her friend. She is then reunited with her friend at the end of the comic. They live happily ever after.
You don’t really believe a word of that, do you? Like many great adventures written for children, we never see the main character’s parents or any other adults on earth, and the young child must take on adult responsibilities. Zita decides she is to blame for her friend’s kidnapping, and therefore she must fix everything. And why not since she’s got the mysterious device? So she presses the red button once again, and steps into her adventure.
In this review, I can’t begin to do justice to Hatke’s vivid imagination in coming up with such a wide variety of creatures and machines and inhabitants of the world Zita enters. Some seem kind but are dangerous, some are boisterous but benign, and still others threaten her before becoming her closest allies. In this world we finally see adults, but they are strange and unpredictable and difficult to judge.
The story’s tension is created by several factors other than the unpredictability of those she encounters: First, she soon realizes getting back to earth is not going to be easy. Secondly, to make her being stranded even more frightening, Zita realizes that everyone is abandoning the planet because it’s about to be destroyed by an approaching asteroid. And she can’t find her friend or get off the planet herself. Finally, she finds out that the recusing her friend will require a major mission dependent upon her finding new friends and building a team on a strange planet.
Zita the Spacegirl is a delight. As you can tell, I highly recommend it. The dialogue is funny, the art is stunning, and the plot is compelling. Your kids will love it. Both my children — 8 and 11 — enjoyed it and the second volume. The third volume comes out in less than two months. Even though it’s a continuing story and you’ll want to find out what happens next, unlike some comics and novels in a series, it has enough closure to give a sense of satisfaction as you come to the final page. Do not pass this book up.