THERE’S A MAGICAL quality to Ben Hatke’s books, and an ambient warmth, as if even playing in space stokes a nostalgic glow.
This especially makes sense when Hatke, an author and illustrator based in the Shenandoah Valley, tells you he grew up gravitating toward Jim Henson and Roald Dahl, toward “Elfquest” and “The BFG” and “The Hobbit.” Even when Ben’s narrative slides toward where the menacing things are, that inviting glow seems to light the path.
And then there Hatke’s own path, which seems of optimal origins for becoming a gifted teller of children’s stories. His mom is a teacher who always has a book nearby, and his dad an architect and curiosity-driven inventor. And Hatke, this self-taught artist, has his own sense of play and adventure when he’s away from the drawing board — whether he’s practicing archery, or canoeing, or doing gymnastics and, notably, fire tricks. Is it any wonder that around his characters, always, is that spark.
That includes the superheroine in his bestselling graphic-novel series “Zita the Spacegirl,” and his children’s book “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.”
Three years ago, though, Hatke began posting on his blog some short comic strips featuring a small, pinging robot. Out of that grew a group of metallic creatures who have their own “morp-ing” vocabulary, as well as an introverted little girl who stumbles upon this world.
To celebrate Free Comic Book Day today, Hatke has created — exclusive for The Post — an original artwork featuring his little metal man from his forthcoming “Little Robot,” due out in August from First Second Books
Here is what Hatke has to say, and share, about his latest charm-laced project aimed at primary-school readers:
MICHAEL CAVNA: OK, Ben, the illustration work in “Little Robots” is gorgeous, from linework to lush tinting to panel-to-panel transitions. Did you do both hand-drawn and digital, because I seem to detect grace notes and tools of each?
BEN HATKE: Thanks! The art for “Little Robot” is ink on Strathmore drawing paper with a light ink wash so that when I lay on digital colors in Photoshop, the pages still have a bit of a watercolor feel. A couple of the pages are just completely watercolor illustrations.
Also, in this book I did away with panel borders, opting instead for soft-edged panels, and I think that suited the book. Right before I started on final art for this book, my French publisher for the “Zita” books brought me to France for the Angouleme comics festival. The art and artists I came into contact with there were very inspiring — in particular, an illustrator named Cati Bauer. When I saw her books, I said, “Who needs panel borders?”
MC: You have your own set of “boisterous daughters” at home. How old are they, and do they inspire your storytelling at all?
BH: I have a house full of girls! They are Angelica (12), Zita (10), Julia (7), Ronia (4) and Baby Ida (7 weeks). The girls are so inspiring. They’re also my first audience for various drafts of my stories and sort of my first line of editorial defense.
For the past few books I’ve worked on, one of the first things I do when I have a working outline is get everyone together — usually at dinner — and just tell the story. It’s a good way to see how interested everyone is and if they are confused by anything.
And for art, it’s helpful to have a bunch of little models of various sizes for grabbing gestures. Julia, who was still 6 when I was drawing the robot book, posed for the little girl in a couple of places. Julia also stood in for a goblin in a picture book I just turned in.
MC: Related to that, Is “Little Robot” designed, or marketed, to appeal to boys and girls equally? Do you have an intended audience, or not so much?
BH: I take the idea of “all ages” pretty seriously. I’m always hoping that people of all ages will find something to love in my books. And I try to be as kind as I can to parents. As a dad, I’ve had to read, and re-read, lots of books until I was sick to death of them. I want to make books that stand up to multiple re-readings.
I don’t write with just boys or just girls in mind at all. I never think of books — at least not my books — as “boy books” or “girl books.”
All that being said, I did structure “Little Robot” with beginning readers in mind. I tried to make the book in such a way that you could read the whole thing just through the art. The text then, I hope, adds another layer to the readers enjoyment.
MC: How much do you consciously try to alter your style from, say, “Zita” or “Julia”? And I won’t dare compare to your many-costumed Wolverine.
BH: I don’t think I was trying to alter my style at all. A few people have seen this book and mentioned that it was in a different style, or a new style, but aside from little things like removing panel borders and adding some ink wash, I didn’t think of it as a different drawing style.
It could be that I’m just growing as an artist. I did make a picture book, “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures,” in between the “Zita” books and “Little Robot.” The art for “Julia’s House” was all ink and watercolor with almost no digital work. It was a learning experience.
Putting Wolverine in a bunch of wrong costumes was a learning experience too!
MC: “Little Robot” is wordless for most of the opening one-fourth of the book, which heightens the sense of magical discovery through our immediate [non- verbal] senses. Could you talk about that as a creative/narrative decision?
BH: Again, in part it was, for beginning readers, an attempt to gently usher them into the narrative. But also I’ve been stuck on just how much storytelling you can do with gestures. It’s amazing.
MC: So, out of the [“Little Robot"] boombox — really? It had to be Toto [playing]?
BH: It had to be.
MC: Even as a fantasy, this story evokes the sense of free play and wide-ranging physical freedom that the current generation seems to have lost. Do you sense that as a parent, as well as a storyteller featuring children characters?
BH: Somewhat maybe. I feel like my kids are pretty lucky in that they get quite a lot of free-ranging time. They do have a fair amount of structured activities, but because we homeschool and live sort of in the country, they do get to romp around and explore a lot. I think it’s good for them.
The setting for “Little Robot” was drawn right from where I live –minus a few abandoned cars. I went out with my sketchbook and drew several of the places that show up in the book directly from life. The girls go swimming right near the old railroad bridge in the book.
MC: Pop culture, of course, has robots and mechanical creatures ranging from Ultron to Iron Giant to Transformers. Do you have to try to consciously avoid those visual influences? Or steer into familiarity with them?
BH: Yeah, there are a lot of robots in the cultural consciousness. I guess I was trying to do the most Ben Hatke version of a robot story that I could. Most of my robot influences come from older movies (“Short Circuit!”). I’m not much of a modern Transformers fan, and I don’t think I’ve even watched “Iron Giant” all the way through. I recently found a clip where the boy is in the house with the Giant’s Hand and I thought, “Oh, no!” because something so similar happens in “Little Robot.”
MC: What’s on your drafting board or digital screen right now? And what projects are you excited about?
BH: So much going on right now! I just turned in a picture book starring a goblin – it’s is a fantasy adventure and a love letter to “Dungeons and Dragons,” and I’m really pleased with how the art came out. It was crazy-fun to draw.
Now I’m in the thick of thumbnailing a new graphic novel about a boy named Jack. It’s another summer story, and another story set somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley. It’s about three teens who plant a garden from a box of very strange seeds. The plants that grow all end up being . . . not from this world.
MC: So what will you be doing for Free Comic Book Day? Heading to a neighborhood shop?
BH: I will be having a big party. It’s the day of Baby Ida’s baptism, and my sister and my nieces will be visiting, so I will have a house full of children raiding my comics shelves.