A steady stream of superhero flicks keeps tearing up the box office and whatever is left of television programmes, with no end in sight. For kids trapped inside adult bodies like me, this is the best time to be alive.
Nerdstalgia aside, I’m also a parent. And as such I am very critical of the media I expose my children to. Lot of junk is being thrown at kids. I will try not to get stuck in a rant about the rampant sexism and capitalist brainwashing present in so-called children’s entertainment - that’s for another post. Suffice to say for now that I have an aggressive bullshit filter for things I let through to my children’s sensitive brains.
Not all is lost. Some people are making really good, progressive comics (also known by their grown-up name: graphic novels). I’d like to highlight one such gem right now.
Zita The Spacegirl began as a web comic by Ben Hatke. Hatke later set out to tell Zita’s origin story in the form of a paperback trilogy.
Zita’s adventure begins with her best friend Joseph being kidnapped by a creepy alien thing - and it’s Zita’s fault. That’s some serious drama right off the bat. Just because it’s a story for children, doesn’t mean it has to be fluffy kittens, right?
There’s spaceships, lasers and explosions - albeit never excessively violent. The plot is not as
lame predictable as many other books in the children’s section would be.
The illustrations are excellent. Hatke obviously knows how to do composition and lighting, and uses his skills well. Space is a dark place, yet the story is mostly bright and colourful. The odd dark moment never crosses into nightmare-inducing territory. The story has depth, but never gets too complicated and doesn’t need much explaining in order for kids to follow along.
Writing, drawing, inking, lettering - Hatke did virtually everything himself, and mostly by hand. Especially the sketchy line art gives the story a personal touch, making no attempt to hide that this story is being told by a human being. And that with some practice, kids could do something like it, too. The sketches included at the end of each book further show how much fun (and work) Hatke poured into them, for adults and kids to appreciate.
Besides being easy on the eyes, what really makes the Zita books special is the characters. They are fresh, loveable and relatable. Hatke avoids most of the overused tropes we have all become so used to from mainstream comics. He tackles difficult topics such as responsibility, tolerance, sacrifice - even slavery - in sensitive, tasteful ways.
The world is full of details and feels organic and alive. Many characters appear in just a few panels, yet have distinct memorable personalities.
One pet hate of mine is when entertainment - especially they kind supposedly made for children - deploys and perpetuates anti-social sterotypes. It’s taking creative shortcuts, resulting not just in less interesting stories but also sending outdated and essentially harmful messages to children.
Comics in particular have a terrible track record when it comes to diversifying race and gender. The good news is that Zita fairs very well in both regards. The four central humanoid protagonists consist of two males and two females. Three of them are white. But considering how all the other characters are literally aliens - many of whom play important roles in the story - there is certainly no shortage of racial diversity within the Zita universe. Interestingly, all antagonists are aliens. Hatke successfully dodged that bullet.
“I tend to write adventurous female protagonists, but that’s probably because it’s what I’m surrounded by in my day-to-day life. I have four kick-ass daughters and a badass lady friend. If I need inspiration I just watch what they’re doing.”
–Ben Hatke; @flickeringmyth.com
One of my favorite things about the Zita books is that none of the characters are overly sexualized. It’s one of those things you suddenly become aware of when you are the father to daughters. Everywhere girls look, they are presented with incredibly unrealistic and unnatural images of women.
Zita’s female physique is not exaggerarated in any sexual way, and it’s bizzare that I even have to point that out. Her interactions with other characters have nothing to do with her being a girl. For instance, her relationship to Joseph is never romantic. It’s a friendship where one person just happens to be female.
OK, so Zita is a little girl. Let’s pretend for a moment that even the most twisted, misogynistic artist wouldn’t have objectified this character.
Exhibit B: Madrigal, the adult female. She’s a badass pirate, and a lesser artist could have easily portrayed here as a scantily-clad space babe. The Madrigal Hatke gives us is mature and attractive, but not because she wears tight/slutty/barely any clothes. Instead, what she wears is a reflection of her own character. She wears comfortable, practical clothes. She has tatoos. It’s convincingly the style of a confident woman who likes to express herself, as opposed to the premature wet dream of some white male artist.
// TODO RAPH: picture of madrigal
In the spirit of equality, I find it important to emphasize that it’s not just the female characters which are free of the usual comic stereotypes. The males are not testosterone-drenched muscle-packed warriors, but normal, flawed human beings with feelings. Joseph initially needs saving by Zita, a welcome twist on the Damsel In Distress trope. Piper has no discernable super powers other than his intelligence and paranoia. And get this: his weapon of choice is a flute. Not a gun. Not a sword. Music. The language of the soul.
“it’s impossible not to sexualise [comic] characters”
Axel Alonso; Marvel editor-in-chief; src: The Telegraph
Let me conclude by saying that I really think the world needs more comics like Zita The Spacegirl. Not only because it passes the Bechdel Test. But because, at it’s core, it’s about love and respect.
Hatke has hinted that there might be more Zita comics in the future. If so, I cannot wait to throw my money at it. I also really hope that Zita will inspire other authors to make high quality, progressive graphic novels which are compatible with adults’ and childrens’ minds alike.
Part of me would really love to see this made into a film. Then again, it feels like Zita is just perfect as a graphic novel, and any form of reinterpretation might do more harm than good. It could, however, make for an awesome video game.
From a more practical point of view, you can get the complete story in three inexpensive books. This means you can introduce children to a comic that has a beinning, a middle and an end without much trouble. Sure beats trying to catch up on literally hundreds of inherently inconsistent issues of Spider-Man.
“I’m hoping to one day create a second trilogy [and some short stories]. However Zita will be a few years older when we see her again.”
–Ben Hatke; @flickeringmyth.com