“While it can be enjoyed for its story at face value, Lasko-Gross has proven with Henni that she is on par with R. Crumb in both content and execution of social commentary. That’s an endorsement if ever I’ve written one.”
Publisher: Z2 Comics
Writer and artist: Miss Lasko-Gross
Release Date: January 2015
I would like to say that 2014 was an especially turbulent year for various forms of oppression across the globe, but, sadly, the more stories that bleed across the news—from racial abuse to harassment of the LGBT community to laws legislating women’s control of their own bodies to violence against the press—the more that this feels like The New Normal. Or maybe it’s nothing new. Maybe the technology that allows us to stay more connected than ever is merely shedding light on what was always there. Regardless, writer and artist Miss Lasko-Gross is well-aware of this unrest and expertly captures it in her original graphic novel Henni, which is part fantasy, part social satire, part cautionary tale.
Henni, the eponymous lead of the graphic novel, is a young lady who hails from a fantasy land ruled by a theocratic government. The land has Seussian undertones to the landscape; Henni and her fellow inhabitants of this land are humanoid felines in nature. Like many of theocracies of old, the mystical land in which Henni lives feels downright archaic and medieval. Henni’s society discourages questioning of any kind of the status quo, stamping out creativity and freethinking. This is problematic for the young woman who has been taught by her likeminded father to always be curious, to always keep questioning.
Henni’s free spirit is put to the test when she sees her father punished for not attending temple service. Compounded on top of that, when the young girl discovers treachery among the land’s high religious priests, Henni chooses to flee her oppressive surroundings. However, as she quickly learns, the world beyond her home has disturbing similarities to the land she is leaving behind.
The religious studies nerd in me was giddy at the anthropological nods and different winks to various faith systems that Lasko-Gross packs into the story. The creator straddles the line of showing the beauty of the different belief structures Henni encounters, while at the same time highlighting the similarities those structures hold, for both good and sometimes ill. This focus on religion and the double-edged impact it can have on humanity is, as I suggested above, timely, for we’re seeing more and more what happens when faith transformed into zealotry is unleashed on those who are considered lacking proper belief. Further, like in Henni’s homeland, we’ve seen what can happen when religion writ large is allowed to seep into the rule of law. Again, depending through which lens you view this, that permeating of religious values can be for good or ill. The world Lasko-Gross has constructed leaves the reader thinking that she has a strong opinion on the matter, but the trick is that the author still manages not to cast a negative blanket on all activity done in the name of religion. That’s the mark of an adept writer, letting the readers think for themselves, just like Henni.
The black-and-white color palette Lasko-Gross employs is brilliant on multiple levels. It allows the artist to capture the finer details of the world she’s constructed, really allowing the characters she’s populated her world with pop out of the page. At the same time, using blacks and whites serve to comment on the dogmatic world in which Henni exists, leaving little rooms for shades of grey to latch on to the land. When Lasko-Gross does use those greys, though, they act as a way to mirror the struggles Henni herself is wrestling with.
Henni is a graphic novel that can stand multiple readings, as each one will yield another question for the reader to ponder upon. While it can be enjoyed for its story at face value, Lasko-Gross has proven with Henni that she is on par with R. Crumb in both content and execution of social commentary. That’s an endorsement if ever I’ve written one.