Ben Hatke splits his working hours between painting, illustration and making comics. All the rest of his life is spent having adventures with his growing and boisterous family. Ben lives and works in Northern Virginia, is a regular contributor to the Flight Anthologies and creator of the web and print comic Zita the Spacegirl. He is also the co-founder of Smallpax.com, a small sketchblog for Catholic and Christian artists and illustrators. Two of his greatest creative influences are G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. His work can be seen at www.househatke.com and www.zitaspacegirl.com
Stephen McCranie: I like your story for Parable Volume 1, entitled “A Stylite Story” because of the strong historical elements. When did you first hear about Simon the Stylite, and what exactly inspired this story?
Ben Hatke: The seed of this story appeared one evening during a group discussion I was having with some friends. The original topic was economics, but we had strayed into other areas—notably spiritual practices. One fellow, an undergraduate, said that he thought the Stylites had achieved the highest form of the monastic life. Looking back, I’m pretty sure he didn’t realize the pun he was making, but to me it was very funny. You know… because they were the “highest” monks. I thought it was funny, anyway.
So I started reading a little more about the Stylites and Simon sort of struck me as this guy who just wanted to be left alone but, like all dynamic people, he found solitude a little difficult to manage. You know, you can’t really decide to live on top of a stone pillar without attracting attention.
S: So, you recently returned from a significant stay in Italy. Can you tell me about what you were doing there and what it was like living there?
B: Well, these days I’m trying to find a way to balance my work interests between comics and illustration on the one hand and painting and sculpture on the other. We stay in Northern Italy periodically to visit family, but it also gives me a great opportunity to study and grow artistically. This has involved a lot of reading, some study at the Charles Cecil atelier in Florence, and just a lot of painting and drawing and hands on learning. We stay in a pretty isolated (but beautiful) little spot in the mountains, but I’ve been lucky to have a lot of very talented artists come and visit—so I’ve had a lot of good people to work with.
This past summer there I worked on a statue, some portraits and several small still life paintings. As for what life was like, generally, I’ll just say that they have better cheese than anywhere else on earth.
S: I think I saw a picture of that statue in your blog, a Madonna made out of plasticine, right? Did that make it through the casting process okay?
B: Ha! Not yet. I had a very nice plaster and silicon mold made, but having them cast in metal was a longer process than I had time for, particularly because it involves making and correcting wax copies. So I stopped with the mold and brought it back here to the States. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish the project this year.
S: I’m excited to see pictures of the final product on your blog! Now, I hear you’re working on a graphic novel for First Second. Can you give us any hints on what the book’s about?
B: Yes! This is a full length Zita the Spacegirl story. The first of two books actually. A short Zita story appears in Flight Explorer, which came out earlier this year but this new book is a lot more involved and has a bit more action. It will tell how this young girl from earth ended up on her own in the universe.
S: Cool—I read that story in Flight Explorer. Is this your first full length graphic novel?
B: It is.
S: I’m working on my first graphic novel as well, based off of a comic strip that I drew for my school newspaper. And I believe other Parablers like Sarah Mensinga and Jeremy Vanhoozer are working on their firsts as well. What aspects of the process have you found challenging so far?
B: The writing. Good writing is difficult in the best of circumstances, but I think what makes the creation of a really good GN so difficult is that, unlike a prose novel, when you make plot changes, or even small changes to a scene, it often involves redrawing a big pile of thumbnails (or worse, inked pages). And then your hand starts to ache just thinking about making the change and you might just decide NOT to change it and then, suddenly, you’ve given in to mediocrity.
S: How did you become a Christian?
B: Well, you see I was baptized.
I don’t really have much of a “conversion story” if that’s what you mean. I was born into a Catholic family and ever since reaching the age of reason I’ve been weaving back and forth over the line between sinner and saint. Just like everybody else.
S: Finally, Mike Maihack told me you might have an interesting story that involves a bottle of wine, or something…
B: Early in the year, in April, it had been pouring rain for what seemed like weeks and everyone in the village was depressed. It was really unseasonably rainy to the point that there was a lot of flood coverage on the news. But one day the clouds suddenly lifted and the sun came out. My wife came running into the house saying “Ben, the wine is here! You’ve got to come see this!”
I went down to the fountain by the road and just about everyone in the village was there (which really isn’t a big crowd). The yearly shipment of wine had arrived and everyone was filling up these huge casks -buying a year’s worth of table wine all at once.
The wine came on this huge truck, in a big tank, like a milk truck with a hose on the back. So it was sunny for the first time in days, and people were filling their glasses from the truck hose. It was great.
S: That sounds so awesome. What a great experience! Okay, now for our last question, have you taught yourself how to breathe fire?
S: Awesome! And what made you decide to learn how? Was it hard to learn?
B: I’ve gravitated toward circus skills for a long time, actually. Growing up I did a lot of gymnastics, and in the summers starting when I was about thirteen, I would unicycle everywhere (early on I fell down a lot).
In college I started juggling, and for a while my wife (who does a lot of the same things) and I would put on commedia and juggling shows at festivals. I had always wanted to do fire breathing because it seemed like a natural way to end juggling with torches. In the end I talked with a friend who had been part of a sort of traveling fire show and learned some of the different ways of going about it. I also read a few articles on the internet, then practiced with water.
It’s a fun thing to do when you’ve got a big group of kids around.
S: Did you ever burn yourself breathing fire?
B: Not really. I did singe the end of my hair once, but that was probably just a sign that I needed a haircut.
S: Ha ha, great answers. Thanks so much
B: Thank you. Back to work for me!