comicbookGRRRL Do not offend the chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible.

16Jan/150

Review: Henni by Miss Lasko-Gross

In a year already tragically marked by the ever familiar battle between art and religion, freedom of speech and religious (in)tolerance, this fable about faith, identity, and art within an oppressive society from the critically acclaimed Miss Lasko-Gross has been noted as being particularly timely.

It's a tale that will be relevant for a long time to come, commenting not only on fundamentalist beliefs but societal oppression of women, rebellion against repression, and the power of art.

Underground comix star Lasko-Gross is well known for her celebrated semi-autobiographical graphic novels Escape from "Special" and A Mess of Everything (available from Fantagraphics), as well as featuring in the Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women touring exhibition.

Henni cover

"In a village governed by strict religious dogma lives a girl named Henni. Unlike most Henni is special as she dares to question the way of things and instead relies on reason. Dissatisfied with her lot in life Henni strike out on her own in a search for truth, adventure, and more.

"Written and drawn my Miss Lasko-Gross, Henni is a commentary on religion, coming of age, and being yourself."

The book opens with two striking images: Henni, our protagonist, alone in a vast dark space, eyes closed, only her face partly illuminated; Henni, in extreme close up, wide eyes and mouth hanging open, an expression of shock and disgust upon her face. The mood is set then before the story even begins with a girl who is somehow isolated, and who has seen terrible things.

In the turn of a page we are shown Henni's youth, the young cat-like human creature admiring a dragonfly amidst the fallen pillars of a ruined temple, scarpering over desolation in admiring pursuit of life and beauty, her tail curled almost devil-like across the rocks.

Henni page 1 Henni page 2

Calling to her father - who is clothed in contrast with Henni's dark but naked fur - who was meeting a bearded individual, Henni asks him outright why he lied about their destination to her mother. In a few short panels her world is broken as he tells her that her mother cannot be trusted and, crucially, that he does not love his wife. The girl visibly droops, her shoulders sinking as she looks for reassurance that he still loves her. "Of course I do, don't be stupid."

Her father's honesty is intriguing, his voiced distrust of his wife brazen. When father and daughter return home to a younger child and an angry mother, Henni covers her ears as they argue before her mother opens the door to officials who take great delight in tying up the father and, in the face of his unrepentant wrath ("Teradice will rise, and you will be crushed like insects!"), cutting his ears off. "Don't you dare cry," Henni is scolded by her mother, "he brought this on himself."

It's an added introduction to the original stories of Henni, published in the too short-lived House of Twelve anthology series on ComiXology, giving us the background to Henni's childhood trauma, her missing father, and perhaps the root of her questioning nature. As we pass Henni's youth and move forward in time, the differences between the original comic and the newly reworked sequence are as striking as the similarities. The opening panels are, at first glance, identical but for their arrangement. Henni's form has changed somewhat, elongated towards more human proportions than woodland creature, dialogue added and extended, Henni's outlook shifted to more worried from the beginning.

Henni (new)

Henni (new)

Henni (old)

Henni (old)

Henni's story is told in black and white throughout, with a blue wash that reminded me a little of Bryan Talbot's palette in Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, or a more ethereal version of Seth's blue-toned works. The stark black and white is offset by the softness of the blues and in the delicate line-work, as well as a focus, always, on the facial expressions of the cast as they contort in hate, fear, or wonder.

This softness too encourages a slower read, a gentler pace, to catch faded backgrounds and detailed buildings, and the frequent closeups of faces. Panel sequences that share a physical background but progress the character through time add to that effect. This is an adventure tale but it's the small moments that are just as important as the larger story beats; a glance to the side, a droop of the ears, a twitch of the tail, all endear the protagonist to the reader within a matter of pages.

The panel structure throughout is quite rigid, rectangles with wider panels to establish settings and movement between places, narrower panels where conversation or action moves more rapidly. Flashbacks and stories are told with decorative panel borders - stories in fact are a running thread, from the proverbs of her people to the stories and superstitions around her religion, to other religious interpretations, to stories told by a later hero. Henni is perhaps more fable than fairytale with its breaking of rules and search for truth, all through a subversive Sendak filter.

Henni heads to the temple with a "special" pie from her mother, to join a queue of similar young females of marrying age. The other girls - like Henni's sister, Hilde - are thicker of face and sterner of eyebrow, with less pointed ears compared to Henni's feline looks. As she delivers her pie and inscribes her name, the templemen remark upon the waste of education that allows her to do so. Annoyed and suspicious, she returns after dark to witness the corrupt men counting their bribes and discussing who paid enough for the best husbands - with little sign of divine intervention. Angered that her beliefs are based on lies, Henni's journey from curious young girl to fugitive young adult begins, her fangs bared as she snarls that the status quo is "Not. Good. Enough."

Henni page 3

Like Lasko-Gross' earlier work, the theme of an outsider is predominant throughout as Henni fails to see similar stirrings of curiosity in her people, hidden as she is behind her devout mother and the trauma of her disappeared father. Her sister too is so well indoctrinated that when faced with absolute logic she betrays her own sister, convinced that Henni is dead, her skin worn by a demon. The price of rebellion for Henni is incredibly high, her own family turning against her as they did her father, a stoning party sent out to kill her for quite literally stepping over a line.

Henni close-up"The mouse who peeks in the viper pit is eaten," goes the proverb of Henni's people, as she flees from their complete obedience to the corrupt priests. The book is plunged into darkness as soon as Hilde turns against her sister, the black background crowding in around Henni, choking her until her face, tears, and trembling hand are all we can see. In many ways Henni is no more knowledgable than her peers, it is only her questions that have found her alone and frightened in the dark - a belief in freedom stronger than a belief in obedience, she is an accidental rebel.

Organised religion as a method of control will be familiar to those who have studied or experienced many of humanity's different faiths. In my own experience questioning elders was very frowned upon and there was an expectation that you should simply accept what you were told - that certain things were sins, that certain people were sinful, that the devil is very real, and that questions about whether dogs go to heaven are highly inappropriate. Growing up with access to other means of information alongside what I perceived as an intolerant religion ensured that I never really identified with the church. But equally many good and kind people did, while I lost other friends to even more fundamentalist strains.

While Lasko-Gross positions the religion and officials here (and in a subsequent village - similar but different via architecture! Brilliant!) as corrupt, the same is not applied to the other people. There is no hint from the other girls that they are unhappy with their lives and destinies, there simply isn't any option for Henni to choose another path, to exercise her free will.

Henni page 4

It's a situation that is easy to identify with, not only regarding religion but also with respect to any facet of identity. The fact that it is women who are subjugated in Henni, and that it is a young woman who seeks liberation, certainly adds power to the various themes within.

There are some reviews that suggest Henni is a book solely for younger readers, that the overall themes have been overly simplified for adult readers but I do not believe this to be the case. Lasko-Gross has created a very stripped down look at numerous complex issues, getting to the bare bones of the trouble that corruption and religion, an us versus them mentality, can create. That the book incorporates so many aspects of these issues is tribute to some fantastic plotting and more than anything else to the incredibly captivating Henni herself. She is not a typical dystopian hero looking to save the world but simply a normal person with an independent spirit seeking to make sense of her world, a figure that will resonate with many.

Sure it's a coming of age story and a hero's journey tale, but it is certainly almost all-ages in both reach and appeal (and definitely far more all-ages than a great deal of Lasko-Gross' fabulous underground work!) and completely avoids hammering the reader over the head with any one message or - god forbid - moral.

Like other comics that have utilised anthropomorphic animals as characters, Henni neatly avoids closing minds by having any kind of recognisable human religion at its core. Were the characters people, one religion or another would surely feel targeted, but here there are multiple roots of many faiths intertwined into something new and distinctly fantastical.

The lack of humans avoids distractions from the story itself, the world seeming at times similar to medieval Europe or perhaps early South America - there is a taste of poverty in the air, a lack of animals and perhaps resources. The cat-like nature of Henni echoes her curious nature, her devil-like silhouette reflects her desire for free will.

Henni page 5

As Henni continues through the larger world her dealings with oppression and religious domination are far from over. As she begins to grasp how the world really works, her clever mind is her main weapon of defence but still she is desperately conflicted on the inside - "What a wicked thing I've become," she says of her determination not to submit, after agonising over rushing to help someone only to pause and tell herself that she should respect their ways.

A second key character appears, The Disruptor, an artist blinded for the expression of his views who is determined to continue showing the oppressed people his art. His works are always destroyed under charge of blasphemy but his defiance in the face of tyranny marks him as a true rebel hero. His belief in freedom of art has robbed him of his sight but not his skill, and certainly not his resolve. Art as revolution for those who have no voice to see and to feel and to hope. For those who know that obeying is not the same as agreeing.

It isn't art as a weapon, but rather the opposite - art as communication in a place where voices are silenced.

"Quiet obedience is the very source of our unity," Henni is told near the beginning. She answers: "But are we truly harmonious? Or simply skilled in crushing dissent?"

There are questions here with no easy answers, but for Henni at least the journey shall continue in Volume 2. I can't wait!

Henni Volume 2

Henni Volume 2

Henni is published by Z2 Comics on the 20th of January (out now in the US!), £14.99 ($19.99)