A Fable of Freedom: Miss Lasko-Gross Discusses Her New Graphic Novel Henni

HenniWhile Miss Lasko-Gross' latest graphic novel wasn't meant to be reflective of current events, recent events have made its theme of seeking answers in a fundamentalist society unfortunately timely.

Henni ($19.99, 978-1-940878-02-7) released by Z2 Comics, is the story of a naturally inquisitive and free-spirited young girl in a fable-like land where the town's religious leaders hold unchallenged authority over all aspects of life. When Henni discovers that the rules of her village aren't as divinely-inspired as she was lead to believe, she finds herself on a journey to find somewhere in the world where she belongs. Along the way she discovers another village, whose ways of life aren't as foreign as they initally seem.

Miss Lasko-Gross has been publishing comics since her high school days. Her two previous graphic novels - Escape from "Special" and A Mess of Everything, published by Fantagraphics Books - were semi-autobiographic tales of growing up, and were critically acclaimed, with A Mess of Everything making Booklist's Top 10 Graphic Novels for 2010.

This interview took place the same day as the shootings at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in which 12 people were killed and 11 injured by two gunmen who reportedly targeted the magazine for its depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Given the subject matter of Henni, Salon.com recently published an article explaining why "Everyone should read this graphic novel," writing "'Henni' revels in the possibility that, although the pen is mightier than the sword, the one holding the pen can be urged toward conformity. That in a society where creativity is limited, art cannot truly exist."

Henni is currently available and is suggested for readers of all ages who enjoy fables, fairy tales, and adventure stories.

(Click on the images below for full-size versions)

Diamond: Thank you for this interview. How are you?

Miss Lasko-Gross (MLG): The situation in Paris has me in a mood, the cartoonists who were killed. It was thoroughly disgusting.

Diamond: Being a cartoonist, it probably hits you more than most.

MLG: Yeah, to have people killed for something that– it's the idea that people, rather than have a discourse or accept the tradition of satire, would just kill them. It’s like childish and barbaric at the same time, equal parts are just disgusting. Anyway, sorry to bring up something so dark, that’s what going in cartoonists' world today.

Diamond: Having just read Henni, it seems like it's kind of the themes you were touching on with that.

MLG: Oh, absolutely, it's just that fundamentalist thought that just gets in the way of human decency and rational discourse. But yeah, it is a theme close to my heart.

Diamond: It's kind of sad that the things you touch on are timely, but I guess it's kind of eternal, really.

MLG: It is, like those kinds of conflicts are perpetual. I could have written Henni like ten years ago. Hopefully not, but realistically I could have written Henni in ten years and there'll still be those same kinds of conflicts. It's an eternal part of the human condition, is groups, the "us versus them" and part of solidifying an "us" very often is a rigid set of rules, repression of people within that system, putting everyone in their place, keeping them there.

Diamond: What inspired you to make Henni?

MLG: It wasn't so much these issues, like "Oh, I have to comment on this," it was more like the other way around, it was part of the world-building stage. Henni as a book started as (part of) the House of Twelve app on ComiXology. It was a side project for me; I was working on a dark and serious book, and this was the light thing on the side that I was doing. I fell in love with the story, and abandoned the other project, because this is where my heart is. Comics, taking two years or three years to make a book, there's no reason to work on any project that you're not 100 percent passionate about. It's the kind of story that I like to read, an adventure where, really, around the corner could be anything.

Diamond: At what point with Henni did you decide, "This is what I want to do," and had you formed the story at that point?

MLG: At the beginning, I would say when it was for the app, I set it up as something fun for me, like, "here's a character, and what happens next? If this happens, then what?" It was more of a fun exercise. I think at a certain point I started weighing the two projects in my mind, and one of them was feeling a lot like a slog to get through, a lot of work, a lot of headache. It's a non-fiction book, the research was- it wasn't that it was so much, it just didn't feel like where my heart was. And Henni, moreso, I kept doing more and more research on that. Finding myself, if I was going to the library to take out some books, I would be more likely or more drawn to the ones on comparative religion and anthropology, it was more interesting, so I just that way organically, and I wasn't going to finish the other book since I wasn't feeling it.

Diamond: What kind of research did you do for Henni?

MLG: It's a combination of things I read in the past, and things I sought out specifically for this book. (When) I grew up, I loved mythology, I loved Grimms' Fairy Tales, Aesop's Fables. I like that kind of story, and it’s the storyteller's story. It's the kind that people will tell you, oral stories. My dad used to make up stories for me, and so there's that in the back of my head. And then when I go to do this project, I’m looking for specific- like comparative religion, I looked up practices and things that you think you know, but what's interesting is that when you actually read about a religion that you think you know – and I'm not going to be too specific because every culture in Henni is a mash-up of at least three groups, like three specific sects of different religions because it's not about any religion in particular. I was very adamant that I didn't want it to be like, "Oh, and these are the Christians, and these are the Muslims, and these are the Jews," that was not the kind of book I wanted to do. So when I was looking up very basic histories of religions I found such a gulf, such a difference between the way they're practiced and the teachings of whoever it was that that particular group is following, how the context of how the formation of a religion shapes ritual that doesn't even make sense in the modern world. I think that's where I started from, just playing with those ideas, and then thinking, "Okay, in her world, if the geography was as such – because I also love anthropology books – what would they be farming, what would they do?" Another book that influenced me was (Jared Diamond's) Guns, Germs, and Steel. In Henni, they live in a world where there's a paucity of resources. For the most part they don't have metals, they don't have any domesticated animals, so it's kind of like the pre-Columbian South America, as opposed to a world we would recognize as like Medieval Europe, even though it has the flair of Medieval Europe.

Diamond: Henni seems fable-like in its presentation. Was that something you were going for?

MLG: Yeah, in particular in the stories-within-the-story, where anyone starts to spin the yarn about whatever their belief system is, or later in the book in personal histories. People have a story of themselves and their people and a sense of who they are, which is very different from objective reality. So those in particular are meant to be evocative of fables.

Diamond: Your previous two graphic novels were pretty autobiographical. Did any of that come into this book?

MLG: I think you can find a link between the books. My first two books were about me, and this book, like everything an artist writes comes from your frame of reference, so I think some of my points of view, my distaste for organized religion certainly is a common theme. But at the same time very different because the kind of what feels when you're a teenager like epic repression that you experience in the suburbs of Boston is definitely not comparable to someone who is living within a very strict fundamentalist society where's there's what we'd call poverty. I would say thematically there's definitely a connection between those, but did I bring in autobiographical content intentionally to Henni? No… But the attitude is there. I think you can probably get a taste of that.

Diamond: Do you have an audience in mind for Henni? Or if you had to pick one, who would you recommend it for?

MLG: I'd say there's two sides to that. Because number one, if you start trying to write or draw that way, with demographics, then you start making product instead of art, so I don't do that in this stage. Retrospectively, now that the work is done, who would I recommend it for, or who do I think would be the most receptive to it? I think a very wide range of ages and intellects. I think just on a fairy tale or fable level, I think a very young reader could enjoy it and would just look at it on that one level. An adult audience, I think, would enjoy that, "Oh, this is an allegory about the dangers of religious fundamentalism," they can appreciate it on another level. It's definitely not a book meant to teach anyone a lesson about anything. It is commentary, but whether someone has a strong religious affiliation in their life or not, I don't think anyone will feel personally attacked. I would say anyone who enjoys an adventure story, and anyone who enjoys commentary on multiple levels, the fun and the serious together.

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