Mighty Jack Cartoonist Ben Hatke on Juggling Art, Blowing Fire and Creating Ridiculously Charming Comics

Comics Features Ben Hatke
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<i>Mighty Jack</i> Cartoonist Ben Hatke on Juggling Art, Blowing Fire and Creating Ridiculously Charming Comics

Ben Hatke is known solely for his fire-breathing skills. JK: he also makes lush comics geared to middle- and elementary-school students, including the popular Zita the Space Girl series. He’s also released wonderful picture books that may not technically be comics including Nobody Likes a Goblin, but are close and extremely charming. Paste met up with him on a book tour, where he charmed a roomful of children in Athens, Georgia, while promoting his newest graphic novel: Mighty Jack. Hatke read the two picture books out loud, told stories and answered many, many questions from kids, sometimes the same question several times. Paste tried to ask him some different and more grown-up, complex questions, and he was game. We’ve also included pictures from last San Diego Comic-Con, in which Hatke used his circus skills to balance on stair beams, defy physics and be the closest thing to Spider-Man despite being surrounded by many people dressed as Spider-Man.
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Paste: You’ve mentioned that you consider yourself mostly self-taught when it comes to making art. What did you study? Where’d you go to college? Circus school?

Ben Hatke: Circus school! Ah, sadly no. I studied history at a tiny liberal arts college in Virginia. But I did fly out to L.A. one spring break, during my college years, to try out for Cirque Du Soleil. That trip was part of a whole parcel of adventures and misadventures that I have to be somewhat less-than-sober before recounting in full.

But truly, one of the great questions in my life has always been how to combine my desire to sit at a drawing/writing table and make things, with my desire to be up out of my chair, jumping around. How can I best get those two things to work together? How do I marry my physicality to my draftsmanship and storytelling? I haven’t found the perfect answer yet, but it’s one reason I named my blog Art and Adventure.

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Ben Hatke practicing juggling in college.

Paste: You also said you grew up drawing comics. What kinds of comics did you make (e.g., single-panel, longer narrative, superhero, Calvin and Hobbes rip-off)?

Hatke: Oh, Calvin and Hobbes rip-offs for sure.

I’ve always loved comics. And I’ve been putting words and pictures together pretty much since I could hold a pencil (or for at least as far back as I can remember). My first love was the newspaper-style comic strip format, rather than long-form comics. One of my earliest strips was a Garfield-esque comic called Birds, about a group of birds that played together in a band. A few years later I had a strip called Ducks that was about my best friend Denver and me exploring the river—except we were ducks! That one was inspired by our real adventures canoeing up and down the Tippecanoe River in the summers.

During my tween and teen years my family was involved in the Society for Creative Anachronism. That’s where I picked up archery, because I was too young for the fighting. At one event there was a big sheet of paper taped up to the wall for someone’s birthday and I sat for a couple hours and filled it with little cartoon knights, like a big Where’s Waldo? page. That turned into a strip, called Knights, for our barony newsletter.

Later on I got a little more into superhero stuff and had a character called The Nightmare who dressed all in black and fought against a living, man-shaped flame with an eyeball at its center. He was called Oculus, and he was my greatest creation.

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Above: Ducks and The Coming of Oculus, two of Hatke’s early comics efforts.

Paste: I feel like most kids who do that start out trying to imitate the drawing style of others. Did you? And whose? Was there anyone whose visual style clicked with you more?

Hatke: Like most other artist/storytellers, the list of influences gets pretty long. Maurice Sendak, Leonardo Da Vinci, Brian Froud, Wendy Pini and Trina Schart Hyman are a few. There was a book of Barry Windsor-Smith art at our local library that I checked out many, many times. Also, as someone who read superhero comics in the ‘90s, I know there’s probably some Todd McFarlane still rattling around in there.

When I was about four or five years old, my cousin, who was a cool teenager at the time, took me to see The Dark Crystal. It was terrifying. We eventually had to leave the theater and she took me home. But I owe her a great debt because that movie stuck with me like nothing else. I still have dreams that spring from the impressions that movie seared into my very young mind. So Jim Henson has been a big influence on me—the dark stuff as much as the light.

Paste: You said the only real art training you received was in Italy, in a classical curriculum, which I assume means drawing from the Old Masters a good bit. Whose work did you appreciate the most while you were there? What’s the difference between trying to redraw Bill Watterson’s line versus trying to redraw, say, Raphael’s?

Hatke: When I was studying in Italy the artist that struck me most was Pontormo. That guy could really draw a thing. One day, that summer, I was following my friend Lynn through the streets of Florence. Lynn was a teacher at the studio and really gifted painter. We were rushing from the portrait studio back to the main studio for a lecture, but she suddenly ducked into a little church (Santa Felicita) and said, "I want to show you something," and what I saw there was Pontormo’s beautiful Deposition from the Cross.

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It’s a swirling, but well-composed, mass of interconnected bodies, but what struck me most was the riot of pastel colors. They were like the colors of those springtime Easter M&Ms. It was so great. We only stayed a few minutes before rushing to the lecture, but it so happened that during the slideshow that very painting suddenly came up, projected onto the old studio wall, and Lynn and I started clapping and spilling wine because we’d just seen it in person.

As for the difference in linework (the difference between Watterson’s line and Raphael’s line), the old Italian masters held onto the idea that “disegno,” or drawing/composition, was the real root skill behind painting, architecture and sculpture. So for me, drawing is drawing is drawing.

Paste: Having seen you talk and watched the previous video you did for Paste, you seem to be a bit of a performer. Do you think that’s unusual in the comics field, which is well-populated by introverts, both among creators and consumers?

Hatke: I do enjoy performing. My wife and I spent some time in our early years doing little circus-type fire shows at festivals. I’ve always enjoyed it, even though I very much need my quiet alone time to feed my introvert self.

I guess I’d say I love a crowd, but I’m at home in the quiet. There are definitely other performers out there in the Land of Comics, though. I find them. In fact, I co-host a podcast called The Galaxy of Super Adventure, which is half Serious Discussion About The Creative Life and half Insane Radio Play in Deep Space. My performer-type co-hosts are Zack Giallongo, Jerzy Drozd and Lucy Bellwood.

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Ben Hatke at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, Courtesy Sean Edgar

Paste:Is drawing/making comics just another way of performing?

Hatke: I think the thing that links it all together is The Art of Storytelling. Here in The Land of Comics, we’re all storytellers. And storytelling is performance. And comics is performing through a lens of paper and pen, words and pictures.

I’ve been thinking a lot (I mean seriously, like, a LOT) about the power of stories. If math is the language of the universe, then stories are the language of humankind. I shoot arrows, breath fire, do backflips and escape handcuffs, but storytelling is far and away the most powerful tool in my kit.

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When I’m storytelling, be it with paper and pen, or to a live crowd, I try to be very aware of my audience. When I’m working in comics I can’t really “read” my audience the same way, but I do think about them. I think of myself as taking my readers on a journey and trying to surprise and delight them, or make them think and wonder, at as many turns as possible.

I’ve been working, lately, on becoming a better live storyteller. Just last night I was at a Macmillan Publishing dinner at the National Conference for Teachers of English, and all the authors were supposed to get up and say a few words about their current book. I sort of sped through that part and then used the rest of the time to tell a little true story. It was a fun story to share, and a chance to practice my storytelling.

Paste: I’d also say that, if any one thing characterizes your books, it’s a kind of physicality. Not that your characters are engaged in long scenes that primarily consist of punching, but they have a wide range of gestural expression. They move around a lot, and they convey their feelings through wide shots more than close-ups. Do you think that’s true? And, as a follow-up, do you think that comes out of your own experience with gymnastics and tumbling? Or do they just come from the same place?

Hatke: Right. As we’ve already discussed, physicality runs deep with me in both life and art. I am very, very enamored with the idea of body language and gesture in storytelling. How much can be said by gesture, before we even get to the words? It’s so powerful and can do so much If you can really get a handle on it. (I’m still trying to improve this.) Body language is exactly that—a language. We all " read” that language to differing degrees, and it’s a piece of the puzzle of empathy. It’s a language I’m seeking to be more eloquent in. Gymnastics and the rest have definitely helped me draw the rough-and-tumble stuff. It helps to have a personal idea of the weight of a body moving through space.

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Ben Hatke at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, Courtesy Sean Edgar

Paste: Your stuff also isn’t super urban. What kind of environment, city-wise, did you grow up in? Do you feel like you need nature around you? You have a bit of Caspar David Friedrich and the sublime in your stuff, especially in those big two-page spreads in the picture books.

Hatke: Ohh, thanks! Well, I should try to be honest: one reason my stuff isn’t very urban is that I just prefer drawing trees and plants over drawing buildings. I prefer organic lines over straight edges. The thought of drawing, say, the Manhattan skyline gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I grew up in a small Midwestern city (Lafayette, Indiana). But I did spend a lot of time out of doors, including days at a time in a canoe. I like the city. I like the country. I like the sea and the mountains, and I don’t know where I’m most at home. Now I live in a ramshackle farmhouse in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley (awesome). It ends up being a great setting for stories, and I’m a big proponent of drawing your stories, as much as possible, from your surroundings—both your emotional surroundings and your physical surroundings.

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A sketch of Ben Hatke’s house

Paste: You mentioned photo reference. How much do you use it? Do you make your kids pose for you?

Hatke: I do. Having a parcel of models of different sizes is super helpful. I also use myself. Here, have some silly reference photos:

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Hatke’s daughter, Julia, posing for Little Robot

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Above: Ben Hatke art reference photos

Paste: Speaking of your children, would you say that the range of grade levels for which you’re writing has broadened as they’ve aged? What do they like to read? Do they read comics?

Hatke: My eldest daughter usually has her nose in a science text, but we have lots of comics and all kinds of fiction drifting all over the house. One of the little perks of doing this book-writing thing for a living is that I come home from events with big armloads of books of all kinds, often from authors and artists I’ve met. It’s a good way of reading things we might not otherwise have discovered.

My own work is definitely aging up. I don’t know how much of that is the result of my kids getting older or my interests changing. Hard to say.

Paste: Talk to me about the process of working with colorists. I know you don’t do that on the picture books, which include your watercolors, but how do you go about it for the others? Have you always done that on the longer works? Do you ink it yourself? Do you create a color palette or guidelines for them to follow? How much leeway do they have?

Hatke: Mighty Jack was the first book that I didn’t color myself. So I’m accustomed to doing every little bit on my own, even down to hand lettering, so working with a colorist was very new and I was worried about it. But I was lucky. Hilary Sycamore and Alex Campbell were a dream to work with, and it was thrilling to send off my artwork and see it come back looking better. They added so much and, frankly, they did a better job with the colors than I could have. I am way too timid with colors.

The process was pretty easy. When the pages were all finished, inked, scanned and cleaned-up, I sent the files off. After the first pass we had some back and forth about the color palette and, specifically, the sort of color identity for the main characters, and that was about it. Easy peasey.

The second volume of Mighty Jack is all finished now and the colors for that book look even more fantastic.

Paste: There’s also a bit (or sometimes a lot more than a bit) of darkness/chaos/creepiness in your work, even the picture books. And yet you seem like a pretty sunny person. Discuss!

Hatke: I’m a pretty sunny person, but…Life is an unbelievably heartbreaking affair. I was at a dinner last night seated between two English professors. The teacher to my left told me about losing her son, at age 26 to a rare medical condition. She then started talking about visiting her son in the hospital and it took me a moment to realize she was talking about her other son who was battling the same condition. The teacher on my other side said she understood about hospital visits because her 11-year-old daughter had been hit by a car and was starting junior high in a wheelchair.

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I then spent the rest of the night walking the streets of Atlanta in conversation with author/poet Ibtisam Barakat who was born into, and had her life shaped by, the Arab-Israeli war and subsequent occupation. She turned those harrowing experiences into a beautiful two-volume memoir.

All this is to say that I’m aware of how lucky I am, so I stay sunny as best I can. And also that you can’t ignore darkness! Good stories, just like good drawings, are compositions of light and dark. So if you’re interested in a Slightly Darker Shade of Ben, I recently used Instagram to live-post a short story in pictures called "Once More Unto the Breach, or The Ballad of the Lone Adventurer.”

And as to stylistic spooky-creepiness, remember I’m the kid who still dreams about The Dark Crystal and loves Halloween best of all. There’s a little bit of creepiness in my DNA.

That’s right. I’m just a big creepy creep. I mean, look at me:

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[Ed. Sure Ben, but we’re also looking at this:]
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