Thursday, May 08, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #127: Ben Hatke's Stories of Zita the Spacegirl

We're in the middle of a sustained burst of excellent graphic novels for kids and teens -- probably sparked by Jeff Smith's Bone, in the late '90s and just after, and now characterized by a whole host of creators (mostly writer-artists) from Kazu Kibuishi to Raina Telgemeier, from Doug TenNapel to Jimmy Gownley. Sometimes I call it the Flight school, after the suitable-for-all-ages anthology that launched a lot of careers in that area of comics and the lands immediately adjacent, but there's as many creators that didn't come up through Flight as those that did.

Ben Hatke studied in that school: he draws clean, thickly-outlined characters (though he has lurking crosshatching as well) and uses bright colors that pop to energize his panels, while sending his characters through exploits that are rambunctiously adventurous and still suitable for middle-school kids. And his career did get a boost from a story in Flight Explorer, the first side-branch of the Flight school specifically aimed at the kid market, with a story about his long-percolating young heroine, Zita the Spacegirl.

This month, the third graphic novel about Zita arrives from First Second, completing a trilogy (though there's still room for more Zita adventures, as there should be). It follows Zita the Spacegirl, from 2010, and the inevitable sequel Legends of Zita the Spacegirl from 2012, and could only be called The Return of Zita the Spacegirl. (We've discussed the importance of iconic, SEO-friendly titles here before; don't make me repeat myself.) Since the three form one story, we might as well look at them together.

They form a pretty typical trilogy: the original Zita basically stands alone, introducing our indomitable heroine (who I guess is around ten; certainly not much older) on Earth before tossing her and her young friend Joseph through some kind of space-warp to a faraway planet, full of strange and wonderful alien creatures and on the verge of an apocalypse that only the right person could stop. She's realistically tough and resourceful -- this is the kind of universe where a girl like Zita can really shine, given a chance -- and so gathers friends around her quickly as she tries to save Joseph and get both of them home. But, of course, when presented with the choice between going home and saving the day, no spacegirl could ever make the wrong decision.

And so Legends of Zita the Spacegirl is more clearly a sequel, and equally clearly doesn't end its story. (Since I am a geek, I am required by law to make a Star Wars parallel here: consider it done. But it's actually the third book that is the darkest of these three, unlike George Lucas's space opera.) Legends does have another planetary threat -- a different one, on a different planet, of course -- which Zita must battle, but it also sees her find some new friends and the inevitable doppelganger (since every hero must battle her dark half at least once).

Return picks up almost immediately from the end of Legends, with Zita in danger from her own personal Jabba the Hutt. But she does have all of those friends, because she helps and protects and loves them, and we all know that they -- along with a few new folks we meet this time out -- will be along to join Zita and save yet another world one last time. (I hope I'm not giving any spoilers when I imply that a series of adventurous graphic novels for middle-schoolers have happy endings!) Hatke also provides an afterword in the third book, explaining that Zita was actually created by his wife (well before they met) and providing a lot of amusing doodly sketches.

Zita is one of those iconic adventure-girl characters: defined equally by her rambunctious headlong flight into danger and her unshakable moral compass. She's a girl who's not just always doing something; she's always doing the right thing (by her own lights, at least) -- befriending the friendless, helping the helpless, standing up to bullies and crooks and nasty people everywhere, the way we all thought we would when we were ten. Her adventures are excellent for girls of the right age, but maybe even better for boys, who need to know that they could be the ones saved some of the time. And these are also the kind of book that are excellent for kids, but too good to be left only to them.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment