Ben Hatke on Visual Storytelling, Fairytales, and Genre-Blending

Originally published on Bookish.com, our sister company.

Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack duology takes readers on a wild adventure inspired by the fairytale character who climbs beanstalks and slays giants. The series comes to a close this fall with Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, which follows Jack and Lilly as they travel to a different realm to rescue Jack’s sister Maddy. We had the chance to chat with Hatke and ask him about his obsession with goblins, his thoughts on genre-blending, and more. Here’s what he had to say.

Reader beware: Minor spoilers ahead.

Bookish: In writing your series, which elements of “Jack and the Giant Killer” did you want to preserve and which did you want to get rid of?

Ben Hatke: I really just took the original concept—a young person trades something the family needs for some seeds—and ran with it. Some elements I kept, some elements I discarded. It was all a balancing act between the structure of the earlier tellings and the world that I wanted to build. The elements that I added tend to be things from my own life. Jack’s house, for instance, is modeled almost exactly after my own house. The treasure in the older stories becomes, in my tale, buried Civil War gold, because that’s the history of the Shenandoah Valley.

In the second book, they travel to a realm that has been usurped by giants. There are still fairytale elements, but I really just threw everything in a science fiction blender and focussed more on a good story than sticking to “Jack the Giant Killer.”

Bookish: In this series, you blend fantasy and science fiction without drawing a hard line between the two. Do you feel the two should be less separated in fiction?

BH: Well, I’m certainly not one for hard lines in general fiction. I think the line between science fiction and fantasy is more more about flavor than ingredients. I’d draw a sharper line between sci-fi/fantasy on one hand and speculative fiction on the other. In spec-fic you’re more concerned with spinning out an idea than with telling a good yarn (though you can certainly do both at once). That’s a difference in ingredients more than flavor. Anyway, the edges of genres are delightfully fuzzy and I always hesitate to define them.

Bookish: You’ve been working on this series since 2006—which character has changed the most?

BH: Oh, Maddy for sure. She started out as a goofy six-year-old. She had pigtails! It was just awful. She’s a much more fleshed out character now.

Bookish: You’ve said stories are the language of humankind, which is a beautiful sentiment because it isn’t limiting. Stories can be told in any language. They can be heard, read, seen, or felt. How does that idea connect to Maddy, who barely speaks at all and sometimes simply has speech bubbles appear with strange symbols in them?

BH: Stories are how we make sense of the world. The stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others help us explain ourselves to ourselves. We look at people in airports or on the street and say “I wonder what her story is” or “What’s that guy’s story?”

Visual stories transcend language. Silent films were amazing at this, and comics are too.

I’m intensely interested in storytelling through body language and Maddy, beyond my love for her as a character, always reminds me to tell without words.

Bookish: In the original tale, Jack is on his own, and your Jack declines help at first. But ultimately, this is the story of three characters who work together to save the day. Why did you want to have a larger cast surrounding Jack?

BH: Oh yes. Jack needs his friends! He needs them even, and most especially, when he doesn’t think he does. And really, the relationships in this book were much more interesting to me than the adventure. Or, rather, they’re all of a piece. In the first book Jack is really pulled in different directions emotionally. He’s pulled between his mom on the one hand, who wants him to be responsible. And there’s Maddy, on the other hand, who clearly benefits from the garden, despite the danger. Then there’s Lilly, this new outside influence. Lilly is a call to adventure. It’s all very confusing for poor Jack.

The second book is a more straightforward rescue mission, but it tests those bonds (I think) (I hope). In the second book Jack has sorted himself out a little more and has a single minded drive to bring his sister home. We do end up delving a lot more into Lilly and who she is and what she’s about.

Bookish: In this book, Lilly is crowned king, not queen. Was that an important distinction for you to make?

BH: It was the work of a moment, really. And it’s hard to talk about without going deeper into spoiler territory. The Goblin King wants to marry her and make her his queen. Instead Lilly fights and kills him. It didn’t seem quite right to me that she would still become the queen.

There’s a deeper discussion, of course, about the way we use gender in language, but I’m going to dodge that one for the moment.

Bookish: You’re very drawn (no pun intended) to goblins and seem set on redeeming their less-than-stellar public image in your works. What’s the allure?

BH: Yeah, what’s the deal with me and goblins? I’m still figuring that out! I like drawing goblins. I like thinking about goblins. I like the fact that they are little and weak and they only become formidable when they work together. I have this feeling that there’s a little bit of goblin in all of us. It’s that part of us that is grubby and small and awkward and also sort of owns it.

I really like goblins.

Bookish: If you were a mythical creature from one of your books, what would you be?

BH: Hard to say. I think I’ll let others decide.

Bookish: The machinery and pipes infringing on this formerly-green world reminded me of similar elements from the Lord of the Rings series. Can you tell us about why you wanted those two contrasting images?

BH: Like so many others, I’m deeply influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories. If you read those books early they never leave you. But beyond that, I think that this juxtaposition of the industrial and the organic is part of our modern consciousness now. It’s part of our story.

It’s an instantly relatable image, and it seemed to fit the story I was trying to tell. In that in-between realm, it’s the green growing things that make the links between the worlds. And the industrial encroachment is what breaks down those bonds and isolates the worlds.

…It’s a little heavy handed, maybe. In retrospect.

Bookish: There’s a lot of fun crossover in this series for fans of Little Robot and Zita the Spacegirl. Is this an inside nod to fans or a hint at a larger crossover?

BH: Some of those are just little winks, others are maybe a hint of things to come…

Bookish: Perhaps my most important question: Where can I find the seed packet that will give me one of those adorable little onion-heads?

BH: I’ve been scouring the flea markets, believe me. Let me know if you find anything!

Ben Hatke is the author and illustrator of the New York Times–bestselling Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, the picture books Julia’s House for Lost Creatures and Nobody Likes a Goblin, and the graphic novels Little Robot and Mighty Jack. He lives and works in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife and their boisterous pack of daughters.

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