Smash Pages is pleased to chat with Miss Lasko-Gross regarding her latest graphic novel, Henni, released by Z2 Comics earlier this year. misslaskogross tale about Henni, a young cat-like woman who hails from a community dominated by a harsh faith as well as an even more strict dogmatic mother, entered the comics industry in January at the exact same time the Charlie Hebdo terror strikes occurred. Essays such as this one helps remind readers what misguided people will do just out of fear for ideas, a concept explored in Henni as well.
Lasko-Gross’ earlier award-winning semi-autobiographical work, such as A Mess of Everything, might not come to mind when reading Henni, and yet both works share a bluntness and raw honesty that fuel Lasko-Gross’ narrative approach. The writer-artist’s newest work, which stars a character who faces stigmatization and far worse for daring to question her family’s faith, clearly strikes a chord with audiences. In a wide-ranging Q&A in which Lasko-Gross aptly notes “honor killings, attacks on school girls and artists not only occur, but are acceptable to some” brings home the point that this escapist story unfortunately has the means to speak to present-day atrocities. [Please note, this interview was conducted in early 2015, but logistics on Smash Pages’ end caused a delay.]
Tim O’Shea: No one could have envisioned the subplot of art as a form of protest against religious fanaticism would seem like such a prescient element in the wake of the Paris attack. As a creator, how satisfying was it you to see people use Henni as a conversation starter in a way about the senseless violence?
Miss Lasko-Gross: I think, unfortunately, whenever Henni was released, contemporary censorship and repression might have made it seem timely. Certainly when I was working on the book I had in mind the heavy sexism/racism/classism in the foundation of nearly every world culture and religion. I live in a lucky geographical/historical pocket of freedom and tolerance but that doesn’t change the tragic and violent truth.
We still live in a world where honor killings, attacks on school girls and artists not only occur, but are acceptable to some. Where otherwise “normal” modern people scoff at provable scientific facts and demand equal weight be given to their personal beliefs. Where people allow fear and hatred to erect artificial borders between groups of people. Henni certainly wasn’t intended as a didactic work, but I feel flattered that anyone would include it in an ongoing conversation that I feel passionately about.
What kind of religious or philosophical upbringing did you have? What kind of research did you to inform the religious/patriarchal elements of Henni?
I’d describe my family as politically progressive low-intensity Jewish. Even so, as a little girl, I still gave them a very hard time about the minimal level of religion they wanted me to practice. At the same time I was supposed to be learning about my own “true” faith, I was deeply into Folklore, Fairytales, Greek & Egyptian Mythology. I think I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in the underlying questions being answered. The world exists because…terrible things happen because… you must behave and nothing must ever change because…we’re better than other groups because… women are inferior because… I was young and unable to articulate why I didn’t want to participate, but knew I deeply mistrusted anyone who offered to do my thinking for me.
When writing Henni I did some general brushing up on comparative religion as well as reading “Guns Germs and Steel” for a bit of help with geological/geographic world building.
How early in developing this story did you realize you wanted it framed around a strong female lead–from the beginning?
I think a young girl was the only appropriate choice to serve the narrative. In the kind of isolated religiously fundamentalist village in which she lives, a male protagonist would have too many options in life. His opinions might be listened to, he’d have career/education choices etc… Only someone truly trapped and lowly in status would make sense.
At points in the stories you have Henni observe differences in housing structures/architecture in her journey, what prompted you to address cultural differences in such a unique (and great) manner?
The first “outsiders” Henni encounters, proceed to claim her as a trophy and take her to their village. A village that (to our eyes) differs from hers in only the most superficial ways. But because she has seen nothing of the world beyond her home, even the subtlest deviations seem other-wordily and significant. It’s a reminder that her naivete is not in sync with the readers perceptions.
Beyond Henni, who were your favorite characters to write in this first installment? Did you ever fight a temptation to make Henni’s mother a more sympathetic character?
I really enjoyed writing Henni’s mother, who does seem hateful and unfeeling. She is a fanatical devotee of the temple, who appears unmoved by the suffering of her family. I would argue however that she’s anything but indifferent, in her mind the only way she can “save” her daughters is to eliminate the subversive influence of her husband who (from her perspective) endangers their souls and pollutes their minds. I think, in the heavy pie incident you also sense her exhaustion after years of dealing with a “troublesome” daughter. She loves Henni (in her own rigid way) and wishes to “fix” and protect her. I think if I had made her softer or more willing to compromise her beliefs, henna’s prospects would be neither grim, nor the stakes high enough to further the narrative.
Is it fair to say outsiders are a character trait you like to explore in some of your stories (not just Henni)? If so, what is the appeal for you?
I try to always write characters that I’d want to read about (Preferably a virtuous freak over a dull golden boy) After all, how excited can you really be about the inevitable triumph of a powerful heroic figure? That’s also probably why, early on, indie comics seduced me away from the tights and benevolent fascism stuff. How can I care about a character who can’t really lose or doubt or fail?
What made you want to release Henni through Z2 Comics in particular?
Josh (Frankel) had a level of understanding and enthusiasm for Henni that made Z2 a great fit from the start. As an author/artist you give years of your life to the creation of a graphic novel so it’s ideal to work with someone full of great ideas and passion to match your own.
How much do you and fellow creator/spouse Kevin Colden bounce story elements off of each other while they are in process?
We lean on each other in the editing process, more so than during initial creation of our respective work. Quick questions fly back and forth, such as: “does this read visually?” or “would you see the dead hooker’s shadow from this angle? etc.. it’s a massive asset to have another set of eyes handy, especially someone well trained and honest and who’s ego can withstand a brutal critique. I’ve inserted connective panels because Kevin pointed out where a reader might get lost,. Some of his characters have spoken more naturalistically when I’ve pointed out a bit of clunky dialog. We are both better artists / writers because we never let each other get away with lame hacky shit.
Can you talk about the color choices you made with this project?
In the past I’ve also used a limited palette (“Escape From ‘Special’”, “A Mess Of Everything”). For Henni I focused on cool lilac, turquoise and black. It signifies to the reader that this is an enclosed world, not meant to represent literal reality. It helps create an atmosphere that feels “other.”
Is it true that some of the development of Henni was on a digital platform?
Henni started as a side project on the Comixology House of Twelve App. At the time I was working primarily on a nonfiction graphic novel, but Henni was too enjoyable and exciting a project to keep on the side. The story quickly unfolded faster than I could draw and the other book was abandoned to concentrate on Henni.