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"If you've ever wanted to punch your boss with a giant robot fist..." Josh Hicks on Hotelitor

We chat with the cartoonist about mechs and why every artist should exorcise their retail worker demons.


Josh Hicks Hotelitor

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Josh Hicks about Hotelitor.

 

Where are our retail warriors? Who here has slung books in Borders? Who has flung fries for McDonald's? You have horror stories, and we want to hear them. More importantly, we want you to transform them into comic books for our pleasure.


Welsh cartoonist, Josh Hicks has done just that with Hotelitor, his new YA adventure from Graphic Universe. Anna, his protagonist, is an unpaid intern forced to take on every unappealing task while her boss coasts through his shift. She's stressing aboard the titular Hotelitor, the finest hospitality craft in its colony, equipped with jet feet, a hyperspace engine, and single, double, and adjoining rooms. Things go from bad to worse when a giant alien attacks the hospitality unit and strands the guests and crew in space after the struggle. It should be a nightmare, but why is Anna now suddenly thriving?


Josh Hicks shares his retail woes with us and how they found their way into Hotelitor. We discuss the manga that fueled his imagination and how he's never been able to shed his love for mechs. And, miraculously, 90 Day Fiance, The Bachelor, and The Jersey Shore are all referenced.


This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Hotelitor, it's All Retail


Brad: I feel like we have had very similar retail experiences.


Josh Hicks: Yeah, so the book's about a giant robot that's also a hotel, and a lot of the characters are like service workers, customer service people. I was a terrible video game store employee for a while. Worked a lot of weird odd jobs, weird work experience things. But yes, I was probably the worst video game employee. All of our stats were tracked, our sales, so I think I categorically was the worst, the actual worst in the country statistically.


Brad: That's a high honor.


Josh: Yeah.


Brad: I worked in bookstores. I worked for a company that tracked all the memberships and credit card applications that you got done. No commissions or anything like that, but you would get a 25-cent raise at the end of the year if you met standards.


Josh Hicks: Mine was like, I would get hours based on if I sold enough Wii nunchucks and stuff. Those were the ones they made the most overhead on. They would just cut your hours. I barely worked.


Brad: So, is that part of Hotelitor's inspiration? Are you trying to exorcise some retail demons?


Josh Hicks: Yeah, a little bit. I was trying to write about that period of my life, just finishing college and not really knowing what I was going to do and just doing lots of weird odd jobs and being very stressed out and not really good at any of them. That was the point of view that I started the book with. I wanted to write a little bit about that and try and relive the horror and get something positive out of it.


Brad: And did you find satisfaction in expunging some of those stories?


Josh Hicks: Yeah. I mean, it's a power fantasy that if you've ever wanted to punch your boss with a giant robot fist, this is probably the book for you. So that bit was very satisfying. It's quite wild. It's a sci-fi action comedy, so it gets out there a little bit. It was nice to anchor it in something personal. I think it was always my guiding point.


Brad: Well, I love mech manga. I love big robots smashing things and big monsters and I've read lots of it, but I honestly have never read one where one was a hotel.


Josh Hicks: That's my sales background coming back.


Hotelitor and Osamu Tezuka


Brad: Can you talk about your mech manga influences?


Josh Hicks: Yeah, of course. I've always loved giant robots. My earliest memories are playing with a Megazord. It's just baked into my brain. Evangelion when I was a teenager, sort of changed my brain in positive and negative ways probably. I probably watched it too young, found a lot of VHS tapes and it rewrote my mind. So that was a big thing. But specifically for Hotelitor, I went back to Tetsujin 28-go, Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, stuff like that. And I love Osamu Tezuka. It's not really mech. I guess Astro Boy is technically a cyborg, but that classic bouncy, vibrant, but big silhouettes, like sixties, seventies, eighties manga cartooning is something I wanted to give a go.


Brad: Mazinger Z is something that I absolutely adore. And Tezuka, I feel like you and him share a sort of emotional landscape as well as a cartooning style.


Josh Hicks: Thank you.


Brad: This feels Tezuka-esque. It's got his brightness.


Josh Hicks: Oh, thanks. That's great to hear. I mean, that's an amazing comparison. I can take that to the grave.


Brad: I've been reading a lot of it lately and obsessing over it.


Josh Hicks: What are you reading?


Brad: So, I have been reading Astro Boy, I got ahold of the Dark Horse Comics omnibus, and I've been reading that alongside reading Pluto, kind of going back and forth between the two.


Josh: Oh, nice.


Brad: But Ablaze has been publishing a lot of Tezuka. And I can't remember the last one that they did, what the title is, but that's what I'm currently on. [Editor's Note: it's One Hundred Tales]


Josh Hicks: Weird ones that weren't big and didn't get translated-


Brad: Like Bomba!


Josh Hicks: Oh, I haven't read that yet. I need to get on it.


Brad: The main character transforms into a horse. It's pretty great.


Josh Hicks: I really like his seventies period where a lot of the younger artists were doing Gekiga, like adult comics, and that was the big thing. And he got worried that he was about to be usurped. So he comes out with all these really insane crime stories, really twisted. The Book of Human Insects is great. There's a book called MW, which is really good. But yes, for this, I was going back to the source. I'm just trying to get that sense of fun, I guess.


Brad: And you have to assemble a great staff. I look back at my bookstore days, and I look at the crew who would work the shop, the person who was at customer service, the people who were at the register, the people who were in the back unboxing all the books, the people in the cafe, and each little section of the store had their own little personalities. And that's one of the things that I liked about Hotelitor. You have the departments and the people who populate them, and they have their own quirks.


Josh Hicks: I love those old playset toys where they'd open up, and you could move these little mini figures around. That was always early on in my vision. Being able to open the book and see where people would be walking around and where they would live in this hotel. And then, yeah, just fleshing out the cast. It is the people you're with that make it bearable.


Actually, the book is about a crisis. The Hotelitor gets lost in space. And if you ever were in a sort of monotonous day job - where I've been in jobs where the roof is caved in, it's horrible, but then you're secretly quite happy that there's a little break from the monotony. The main character goes through a little bit of that. And I wrote some of the book during COVID. I probably had a guilty feeling like that, where crisis is horrible, but then it also does break the routine slightly, and it's all about who you're with in that situation.


Brad: I remember one of the crises that we experienced at the bookstore was when the sewage underneath the store rose and it rose above the floor and suddenly in the back room, all the books were swimming in brown stuff. It definitely closed down the day, but it did inject a little excitement. Pretty disgusting, but...


Josh Hicks: Yeah, you'll remember that day forever.


Brad: Correct.


Hotelitor, Metal Gear Solid, and a Little Jersey Shore-esque


Josh Hicks: I did an unpaid stint on a reality TV show once as a production assistant, and I thought there was going to be TV, exciting, quite glamorous. And I got there and basically they'd rented out this production office and they were generating so much trash - It was just overrun it. The only tasks they gave me to do, I didn't drive at the time, was take all these bin bags full of rancid garbage up this hill in the middle of summer, and sneak it into their hotel trash compactor and pretend it was their domestic waste. I did that for a week. But I'm a big Metal Gear Solid fan, and that was a stealth mission, so that was quite exciting for me. I was sneaking around hotel security guards and stuff. But yes, a terrible experience and one that was rolled into the book in some way, I'm sure.


Brad: Oh man, that's the thing we don't think about when we're watching 90 Day Fiancé or The Bachelor.


Josh Hicks: It was basically The Jersey Shore but transported to where I live.


Brad: Oh, man.


Josh Hicks: It was insane.


Brad: So how does Anna then become your protagonist?


Josh Hicks: She's quite nervous at the start of the book. She doesn't really know what she's doing. She doesn't know what she wants to do. I definitely was at that place at some point. And also the lower down on the rung you are in a job in a place like that, the more weird tasks like carrying a load of bin bags into a hotel trash compactor that you end up having to do. So that seemed like a really good place to start. We had this big ensemble cast in this weird world, and she seemed like someone who could navigate all the little nooks and crannies of that and let us sort of interface with everyone in the hotel. And then it was an underdog story. She finds something she's good at, which is piloting a giant hotel robot to fight aliens, but it's not as easy as that.


Brad: Well, you do such a great job of establishing the environment and her character. In the first few pages the toilet paper needs replacing. She's got to cook an egg and then the egg catches on fire and she's got to learn how to extinguish a blaze. Just in a few panels, like a page and a half maybe, you get her anxiety, you get the environment of the Hotelitor, and you get a cast of characters. The economy of that was pretty impressive.


Josh Hicks: Oh yeah, that's really nice of you to say. I think about that a lot. Trying to tell quite a dense story in not that many pages. The space for characterization is maybe less than you would have in something that didn't have as much plot. I was always trying to play with ways to smoosh things down and get rich character details and stuff in there without bloating the page count out.

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