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Artist Ben Hatke previews new graphic novel Little Robot

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Girl meets robot. Robot meets girl. Girl and robot become unlikely best friends…and take on the world. That’s the premise behind Ben Hatke’s newest graphic novel, Little Robot, out today from First Second. The best-selling author of the children’s book Julia’s House for Lost Creatures and Zita the Spacegirl series, Hatke is known for creating smart young heroines and in Little Robot, he takes on a new heroine in the unnamed protagonist who befriends a mechanical agent — embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.

Hatke reveals to EW how Little Robot came to life and see more exclusive pages below.

EW: You’ve previously referred to this book as “a little book in a big world.” But the subject matter is so important and the main character is so strong, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble making an impact with it. What do you hope that your readers (and those who are discovering the world of Little Robot) take away from your work?

BEN HATKE: Navigating a first friendship is one of the main thrusts of the book (and maybe every new friendship is a first friendship in its own way), but I think of it more as a meditation on friendship more than a lesson, if that makes sense. So for older readers maybe I hope they nod and say “yes, that’s what it’s like.”

You write a lot of superheroines and fun female characters like Zita. What was the process like in creating the character for this story? And how do you hope readers relate to her?

The girl in this story is very special and she developed in my sketchbook over a period of time, even after I had much of the main plot of the story worked out. With some characters I can look at them and clearly see where they came from and which elements of a character’s personality came from which people in my life. I can say about “One” (the battle robot from the Zita books), “Oh this is one friend’s grand posturing and another friend’s big voice.” But with our little protagonist from this book I felt more like I was discovering this little person rather than creating her. She’s a hero for the introverts and the makers.

Can you talk a little about what inspired the story? I know it started as a comic strip, but I’m curious as to how you took it to the next level in terms of storytelling.

Yes, I’d been working on the Little Robot strips and early on I had tried to pair the robot with Julia (from Julia’s House for Lost Creatures) but Julia’s story became a picture book and the Robot’s story took a different path. The story is also partially inspired by and informed by the landscape around my home in Virginia. The rural area in the Shenandoah valley.

What was the design process like for the robot and also the little girl? Was there certain things you wanted to focus on in order to differentiate your heroine from other young heroines? And was the idea to always have the robot speak more of a “human” language than make noises and be mechanical, like so many robots we see depicted in graphic novels?

Very early in the original web comics the robot’s sort of “language” became apparent. I really enjoy trying to phonetically sound out and write out these weird emotive noises the robots make. And each of the robot’s has a sort of signature noise with a few other noises built off of that. For the robot’s design — well it was a really unconscious process, but I think what I was going for was getting as much emotion as possible out of as simple a design as possible. For the girl (which, as I’ve said, was kind of a process of discovery), I was definitely working for a design that was different from Zita (and Julia) both visually and emotionally.

Can you talk a little about what’s next for you after this, and what projects you have coming up?

The next book is a picture book called Nobody Likes a Goblin. It’s about a small goblin who has to leave his dungeon and travel into the outside world that is very unfriendly toward goblins. Like Julia’s House, it’s all ink-and-watercolor. The other official projects on my desk right now are a two-volume graphic novel adventure called Mighty Jack and a middle grade “regular” novel called Miracle Molly. Such busy times!

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