The world has become a scarier place. Or maybe the world has always been this scary and technology and our heightened connectivity have made us more cognizant of the monsters, literal and figurative, that lurk in the shadows and, too often, in broad daylight. Art has perennially been used as both an outlet to comment on the world about us and as a coping mechanism for readers who are trying to make sense of the chaos swirling about them.
Cartoonist Miss Lasko-Gross knows the power of understanding that art can bring to the world in turbulent and uncertain times, a sensibility she brings to Henni from Z2 Comics, which she refers to as both a “fun adventure story” and an “allegory about the dangers of fundamentalist thinking.” Back in January, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we spoke about the conceit of Henni, the religious and philosophical elements in the book, and why Henni was a passion project. [Note: You can read my original 9/10 review of the book here.]
FreakSugar: What would be your elevator pitch for Henni?
Miss Lasko-Gross: Oh my God! I’m terrible at elevator pitches! [laughs] I could tell you something very nice and succinct. “There’s this girl! But she’s not a girl, she’s a cat! But that’s not really relevant.” And by then I would have lost them. [laughs] I would say it’s a fable or fractured fairy tale or allegory or whatever you will about the dangers of fundamentalist thinking, while on the surface it’s just a very fun adventure story. So, depending who I was talking to, I would lean in on “fun adventure story” or “allegory about the dangers of fundamentalist thinking.” But both are entirely true. It is about both of those thing.
FS: As I was reading the book, I thought I could give it to my younger niece or my friends and both would enjoy the tale. I feel like anyone who read Henni could get something out of it.
MLG: It’s meant to be open to whatever your reading level, whatever your philosophical bent. Someone who is sophisticated hopefully doesn’t feel talked down to and someone is at a beginner level wouldn’t think the book is over their head. The action on the surface is enjoyable for a kid to follow, even if they don’t have that level of reading comprehension yet to appreciate some of the broader themes.
FS: I think this was your intent, but I loved how the story borrowed from and crisscrossed different genres. If a reader likes fantasy, or if someone loves fractured fairy tales, there’s something for everyone.
MLG: Oh, yes, absolutely! Also, within the stories, there are other stories. There’s a theme running through of storytelling and it is meant to borrow not just in terms of genre, but also a cross-cultural way that feels familiar, but not entirely placeable. I meant for the reader to feel pulled in many different ways and feel many different genres while reading the book. That is very intentional.
FS: I feel like the book is also about our responsibility to tell our stories. It feels very timely.
MLG: Unfortunately, I feel like it’s always going to be very timely, whether a director is killed for making a film or a cartoonist is killed for work in a humor magazine or girls being shot for wanting to go to school. Sadly, that’s part of our cultural landscape. It’s not particular to a time and place. The idea of people who want to control the information and want to control other people’s beliefs—It’s not even specific to a contemporary setting. It goes back to the Inquisition.
It goes back probably to as early as people forming groups. Group cohesion has always been very important. Therefore, you have people who want to control the information, people who want to control the ideas. And some people want to keep others in line.
FS: There’s a lot of different societal and religious elements in Henni. Was there a conscious choice to pick what you wanted to include? Were the threads you chose because they seemed timely?
MLG: I don’t think timely figures into it. If you read up on comparative religion, you start to see that the specifics change but the story doesn’t really change. And the expectations and behaviors of people and myths—It’s more similar than different. And I wasn’t thinking of one specific group or even time period. I was wanting it to be familiar, but not placeable.
I borrowed elements from many different faiths and cultures. I’m currently drawing Henni Book 2 and I’m drawing a city that’s a combination of Victorian England, Hong Kong, and perhaps a little Calcutta or Mumbai. So I’m borrowing elements because I want it to be in the center and I wanted it to be relatable, but I didn’t want to pick on any particular group because that is not an interest of mine and it’s not my point. If you could sit there and say, “Well, these are the Muslims and these are the Jews and these are the Christians,” it would lose its focus and lose the message I’m trying to get across.
FS: What was your research process going in with Henni?
MLG: It was lots of trips to the library. I read Guns, Germs, and Steel. I can’t remember the author’s name.
FS: Jared Diamond!
MLG: Yes! It was a great reference guide, although I read it because I’ve been dying to read it. The idea of geography and paucity of resources can influence a culture and how they fare in clashing with other groups was interesting. I thought a lot about pre-Colombian South America. If you notice in Henni’s world, there are no domesticated animals and there’s nearly no metal. There are many isolated pockets, not a lot of land, and no agriculture. So if you’ve read that book, there’s a similarity there.
FS: Absolutely. How long had the idea of Henni been percolating for you?
MLG: I started Henni about four years ago and it was a side project. I was working on another graphic novel and this was just what completely took me over and captured all of my passions. I just thought about the kind of story I like to read. I like adventure. I like the type of story where something where adventure can be around any corner and you can’t necessarily predict the outcome; all the elements that I like. So I decided I would create something I would like to read. It’s kind of a pure passion project. It’s meant to be as fun to draw as it is to read. And it was fun to research. It’s that kind of story because that’s what I enjoy.
FS: I love the ambiguity of the ending because I feel like that’s how life is. There’s no conclusion. Was that a conscious choice for you or just how you came to the story and how it unfolded?
MLG: It’s funny because, in Henni’s mind, it would an ambiguous part of her life story, but, for the reader, she makes the only reasonable choice. She doesn’t know this, but, without giving too much away, any other choice she makes would lead to her death because of things that had been set in motion. So, unknowingly, she makes the only choice she has. In her mind, it might have been a decision as to where to take the rest of her life in. I think in a way, it’s a psychological conclusion more than a physical one. Her story goes on. I’m well into Book 2.
For Henni, it’s a decision between choosing to live as she has and curl up into a ball or does she choose to learn what she’s seen and want to continue in that direction. In that sense, it’s physically ambiguous. Actually, though, I think it’s pretty definitive.
FS: Is there anything that you can hint at that we’ll see in Book 2?
MLG: Henni has found herself very alone. She will meet someone who has a great influence on her life who isn’t necessarily the companion you would imagine for someone like her. So she will encounter different races of people—who she had no idea existed—and more densely-populated areas. And more trouble everywhere she goes, much to her chagrin. [laughs]
You can check out some of the art Miss Lasko-Gross has drawn for Henni Book 2 on her Tumblr page.