It’s never about confidence, it’s about doubt, Lasko-Gross, the transgressively intelligent creator of Henni, reminds me.
The thing to understand about Miss Lasko-Gross, the gifted, passionate creative mind behind this year’s hidden gem, Henni, is that once her thoughts flow, there are no sentences.
Well that’s not explicitly true, well not in any practicable sense. There are words of course, there are clear thoughts translated into regularized patterns, easily recognizable to first-person users of the English language. But it’s not the kinds of idea-regimenting orchestration run like a train station for the damned and the damnable. Not the kinds of straitjacket structure you were taught in the same schools that made you sit in those little wooden benches, made you face forward and stare at those indecipherable chalkboards. Lasko-Gross’s structure is of a very different kind, it’s the structure of fluency, of fluid mechanics, or mastery.
Imagine ideas as a single space, like a hotel or a mall or that crazy restaurant-casino some two miles down the road from your great aunt’s farm. Imagine ideas have a solid geography and you can wander up to them, walk inside of them, explore them inside and out. Begin by making a point from one direction, then spin around and convey that same idea from an entirely different aspect. Imagine ideas had form and weight, rather than just purpose. That’s how Lasko-Gross communicates, without even saying a word, just by the way she structures her sentences.
And for a conversation like this, it’s only fitting that we begin at the end. Not the real end, the real end comes later. But the kind of end that comes unexpectedly, with suspending one project, and expectantly, by surrendering to a project that began as nothing more than a diversion. It’s not the real end, that will come when we talk about what Miss is planning on doing in the next few hours and about her writer’s photographs, but it’s an end that will do for a start.
“I had been working on a very, very dark and depressing piece of nonfiction, and Henni,” Miss Lasko-Gross begins, “was a project I’d started on the side. Just for, y’know, for my own enjoyment. And I think the pleasure of that took over. And eventually I abandoned this very depressing book that I was working on. And my heart was really with Henni and her story. And it started off where I thought to myself, ‘What do I like to read?’ And I like to read an adventure story where there is something new potentially around every corner. So, I was doing it just to entertain myself; here’s a character, and what happens next? If this happens then, what happens? And eventually I started to fall in love with the project and started to focus on research for this project and abandoned the other one. And at that point I went back and I really thought through this whole adventure and became a gigantic story in my head which is going to be in three separate graphic novels.”
We spin off into talking about exactly that research, when Lasko-Gross says, “I’m not just commenting on one thing, I feel like I’m talking about the whole of everything. The entire world view, like you said the weight of history and also the weight of current events and I don’t just mean Charlie (Hebdo), I mean… Well any time I could have written this book, whether it was 10 years ago or 10 years in the future, there’s always going to be something heavy like this, like you have your Boko Haram attacks against young women for going to school, repression of people based on gender, race, class. It’s sadly a constant. And I took all of that into consideration. Although you’ll notice, that any place that Henni goes is not a group that would be analogous to something very specific in our world. Everything is a mash-up of multiple cultures, meant specifically so that you don’t sit there and try an pick apart all of these; these are the Muslims, these are the Jews, these are the Christians, these are the Hindus, it’s not what I wanted. And also with the visuals, I did a lot of research to the same ends, so that you would have, y’know the feel of maybe pre-Columbian, in terms of the resources, you’d have pre-Columbian South America, but then you’d also have a bit of the look of Medieval Europe. It’s meant to be very familiar to the reader but not specifically placeable.”
And that brings to mind one very specific moment. Call it the White Whale moment, where Lasko-Gross basically renders the entire thematic structure of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a few concise panels, and from the point of view of a subaltern not participating in the hunt for the beast. I ask about that moment, after Henni has escaped from the repressive regime of her village and its Templemen, but still isn’t entirely certain which way to go or how her story will unfold.
Lasko-Gross recalls that scene vividly, “Well it’s a miniature version of a Clash of Cultures. Where, Henni is coming to this moment with just her naked fear, essentially. She’s running from a beast, and just as this beast is going to tear her to pieces, she certainly assumes, suddenly the beast is set upon by spears and you see this entirely new group of people. To our eyes very similar to Henni’s people. But to her eyes, they would be completely different. And they take her as well, they question whether she’s this malevolent animal spirit made flesh or just a savage. And they decide on savage. And they decide they will take her with them. And she is taken along as a trophy essentially just as the giant carcass of meat that they load into their wagon. From their point of view, they got a carcass, they got a naked woman, and that’s two objects acquired to bring back to their civilization.”
One thing that is apparent in Henni, right from the very beginning, and this sets the work apart from others that also process multicultural issues, is the stark differences the characters are able to find within the buildings and settings and other characters themselves that begin to seem amorphous and unitary and similar to readers. Lasko-Gross addresses this issue directly, “I’m so glad that you pick up on that, because that’s what I’m putting out. And that’s how I feel, and how I hope people will feel. I hope they don’t feel that they need to come up with exact comparisons. By feeling that’s where people can head towards (heading towards exact comparisons) the kind of writing on my work that I wouldn’t care for. They’d miss the point, and they try to get too specific and just dig through and dig through. Because you’re meant to, just a certain point, and it sounds like you did as a reader with good reading comprehension, you’re supposed to stop at a certain point and kind of accept that you’re not going to be able to pick out what exactly it is, and just enjoy the story and enjoy it for something that gets very close and very familiar but isn’t exactly anything you know for sure.”
Lasko-Gross continues by meditating on the idea of social commentary. She offers, “I think I would say that you could do a more pointed social commentary, if you’re clearly not speaking about our world, about humans, about our groups. I think science fiction and fantasy have classically been the perfect venue to discuss who we are, for that reason. That you can make people let go of their own sense of being attached. Like a classic, Star Trek talking about racism. A story like Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels seeking into who we are, and the absurdity of our constructs.”
But that does pose the question on the time each volume takes to craft, and on how Lasko-Gross’s creative process might be individuated from other cartoonists working in similar genres. She responds, “It was about… Well, the entire time I’ve been working on Henni was four years. However, in that time, I have done almost two graphic novels. So Henni itself, the first book, took about two, two and a half years. And I’m now very well into the second book. I’m about a hundred and fifty pages into the second Henni. So it’s going to be about two and a half years per book, unless the third book gets away from me. And there’s already things I need to draw in the third book that I always try and push myself. And so, I don’t limit myself in the writing to what’s not beyond my abilities, my complexity threshold. So with the things I’ve set up for book three, and I keep it very loose, I don’t have a tight script, but I know what’s going to happen… I have things to draw which may push book three into taking a little bit longer than the others, if I want to do service to the words and make the art be what I need it to be. To have the emotional weight.”
It’s hard not to frame this as a learning process, and Lasko-Gross replies enthusiastically, “Yeah. Absolutely it’s a learning process. I right things where I’ve never drawn them before. I’m confident that I’ll tackle it. I’ll do my research and I’ll be able to draw. But a lot of the sequences in the first book involve the kind of things I’ve never drawn in my life. And also inventing things and creating, well, worldbuilding something that doesn’t exist. So it’s something both physically and mentally exhausting. Every panel, I think any cartoonist will tell you that every panel, is like a battle. Even though the reader looks at each panel for maybe one second, maybe two seconds. It’s something you fight out through hours.”
But isn’t she scared? This is a very courageous way of plotting a graphic novel, to do service to the ideas rather than play to your strengths.
Again, Lasko-Gross enthuses, “No, not at all. Even if i have no idea how I will tackle something, I know that it will get done and I know that I’ll come up with a solution. I think that I feel what you’re getting at is, I feel the same way when I look at an art form that’s not my area of expertise. Like, I look at music, and it’s like dark sorcery to me. Like I don’t understand where it comes from, I don’t know how they know what to do next and I feel the same way. I look at it from that side and I go, ‘How are they creating this amazing thing that I don’t…’ So I guess what I’m saying is, is this your craft? I don’t know if you draw? But if this is your craft, you know what you’re capable of and you have to trust your abilities. And I guess it makes sense to me, because when I see a problem I see all the ways that I break it down. But in other art forms, I feel the exact same way as what you’re expressing to me—like I feel I just don’t know, when I’m looking at someone else, how they’re going to make something happen. I know personally, at least in the realm of art, not other things, the majority of things in life I’m just hopeless and miserable at, but I know in the realm of art I can achieve what I need to.”
After a compliment, she continues to meditate on her artwork and how it might echo Henni’s own journey. “First of all, thank you, again. Very flattering. I try and…,” she pauses, then picks up again, “What I want in my artwork, I think more than for people to like it or hate, and what I’ve done for 20 years in comics seems to be finally becoming a little more appreciated, is that I think it’s more important for me to offer people something that they can’t see anywhere else, than something that they like that reminds them of ‘Oh it’s like this artist, or it’s like that artist.’ I would rather have people look at my page and go, ‘That can be no one else,’ than like it, actually. Because I feel like if I’m just giving people more of the same, what’s the point of what I’m doing? If I can be put into a school of, ‘Oh she’s like this group of artists,’ what’s the point. So I feel like for that reason it’s always been worth it for me to labor, and do something that’s incredibly labor intensive, and not that’s the way you’re supposed to do comics at all. My husband is a cartoonist, and he always gives me a hard time for the amount of details I put into my panels He’s from the Kubert School, and he’s fond of saying, ‘You should treat your panels like…’ urm… ‘like a piece of toilet paper!’ Not like a painting. The way I do it is wrong, but it’s always worked for me.”
And returning to a consideration of her own artwork, Lasko-Gross continues, “Well Henni is the one to… Well, there’s the easy way to go, and she doesn’t really ever take that. I think there’s a similarity there, I think(, between Henni and the way I work creatively). She would rather do what’s true, she’d rather know the truth, and she’d rather face the truth than do what is safe or comfortable at all times. And in that, I suppose, the artwork and the process does match perfectly. Her outlook.”
“She’s not… it’s not…,” Lasko-Gross continues, offering a consideration of Henni within the broader cultural endeavor of mythology. She says, “I’m not doing the thing where I’m creating product. Where someone says, ‘Well, let’s take the standard adventure; this is this lad, and he’s off on this adventure…’ She’s not, she’s not… This is a story where violence is not a thing that you root for. You don’t solve the problems with violence. And the accent these deeds with bravery. She’s really on her own journey, she’s not on the Hero’s Journey. And whether you think she’s a hero or not, I suppose, I mean she is a protagonist, so I suppose you tend to root for her. But she’s not a classic hero in any way. And certainly not the masculine ideal of what a hero is. She’s not fighting her way out of problems. She’s clever, but not, like an impossibly clever person. You know where they always know the right thing. She’s a little bit lucky, she’s a thinker, certainly. But her deficit, the thing that keeps her from being more of a standard hero is that instead of just being magically a genius, she’s someone who for her world has had a great amount of book learning. But she’s also incredibly naïve because she’s also only lived in this very small village with very narrow thinking, and she’s never ever, after her dad was disposed of after their people for his nonconformity, she hasn’t had a single person to talk to. Not her sister, certainly not her mother who’s a fanatical supporter of the Temple. And certainly not even her friend Kora, who is often very dismissive to anything Henni’s interested in. To any kind of real discussions, or to any kind of intellectual growth. Since her dad was disposed of, she’s had nothing to read, she’s had nothing to do, she lacks the know-how and the confidence you’d expect from a hero, from someone who could handle every situation.”
It’s never about confidence, it’s about doubt, Lasko-Gross reminds me. Just moving with confidence means that the world is a known quantity, that nothing can be new, and ultimately everything must become disposable. Speaking of Henni, Lasko-Gross continues, “She doubts herself. She’s not confident, she’s not sure of anything. And that’s what makes her, to me, more clever than someone who just says ‘Ha, I knew it!’ She doubts herself. She has a pretty good idea, because she has a good head and her father’s raised her, in the early part of her life to question, she has a pretty good idea that this whole system is bull. But at the same time, she doubts. And she fears. And she doesn’t go bravely ahead. She’s brave because she doesn’t just give up and admit to a life that would be easy with whatever husband they pick for her, and just going along with the plan. So she’s brave in that sense, but she doesn’t have swagger in that sense, as they say.”
By the end we return to the beginning. But of course this isn’t the real end. The real end comes in just a few minutes. But for now, by the end, we talk about the beginning. About Henni’s beginning as a distraction that just won’t remain a diversion.
“Oh the nonfiction.” Lasko-Gross says.
With a slight nervous chuckle she delves into the memories, “Yes, it was a very heavy book. I mean it had fantasy elements in it because, well I was working on this story about… well I have a friend and suddenly they stopped returning my calls. And I thought, ‘What a duck, he is,’ (except, it is entirely possible Lasko-Gross didn’t quite say ‘duck’) But then I heard from him about a month later, when he came out of a coma, because he was in an explosion. And that’s why I hadn’t heard from him. And it was a story about his nightmare in the hospital, and skin grafts and the whole process. You know, very heavy, very true. And I just, I was not feeling it after a while. I think it would have been a good book. And I may return to it someday. Because I don’t have a preference of fiction versus nonfiction. But it was just not where my heart was at the time. I think both books would have been Miss books. It was a commentary that had a lot to do with our healthcare system, and the way people are treated here. My friend who was in the hospital ended up with a hospital bill of over $100,000.00, because he was uninsured. And that to me is a disgraceful thing because just surviving, it can put you into debt for a lifetime. So it would have been… well it’s not altogether dissimilar, it’s just that I wanted to be in a different world. I’d done two graphic novels before that were nonfiction. And I just wanted to go in a different direction. But I think… I don’t know whether I’d say it’s a left-brain or right-brain distinction. Because, even in tackling something that takes place in the real world, you’re still framing it as a story. I think you’re just working on things that actually happened, as opposed to things you’re creating. So I suppose it’s a little bit less creative, but it’s also a little bit more challenging. Because you have to anchor it in, well Harlem Hospital in the case of the other book. As opposed to creating a different world.”
And, we reach the end. And like every conversation I’ve had and most likely Lasko-Gross has had on the day of the interview, just a handful of days after the tragic and unsettling terror attacks in Paris, we talk about Charlie Hebdo. But we frame the Charlie Hebdo attacks with a very specific moment, a Salon.com article by Samuel Sattin that offers a meditation on Charlie Hebdo framed by reading Henni. Even across the phone line, Lasko-Gross’s response is palpable.
“That was very intense.” She says, “I thought that was wonderful and I thought it was…I mean everyone, not just in comics but in writing who cares about issues of free speech and other people’s attempts to, coming from a fundamentalist point of view, silence something that they don’t like or can’t deal with. I love the article. At first I had like a little stab in my stomach the load image, where it’s my book across the ambulances in Paris. That was just… you know, it’s a stab in your gut. And the whole, not just the event and not just being brought into the article in that framework, because that was a wonderful piece, but it’s just a time where everyone in comics, I think all of our hearts are breaking, right now. And anyone who’s read my work knows these issues are, not only close to my heart, but it’s just everything to me. And every time you see someone silenced for something so…I’m sorry if I’m stammering a little bit, it’s just so brutal and so childish at the same time, and it’s just a terrible way to go about conducting your life. ‘I don’t like you so I’ll kill you. I don’t like what you’re saying, you hurt my feelings, therefore you must die.’ Like it’s, it’s… It’s not the way. We like to think of ourselves as humans, in the Western world, as more sophisticated than that. I should say the modern world, not the Western world. And then someone just brings everything down to a tribal animal level like that. And it diminishes us all, as people. And I think that’s why everyone is so emphatic about posting pictures of them with their weapon of choice whether pens or brushes. And the protests that have been going on, because we’ve all been hurt. And I think everyone is screaming out, ‘No!’ in their own way. And we’re actually thinking of going to a protest today. But I have a four year old. And we’re trying to figure out how we can bring him to the protest without it being overwhelming, and how it can be a teaching experience so we can talk about free speech without having him terrified that someone’s going to try and kill his mom and dad for what they do.”
It’s an inexpressibly human moment, the idea that, as Bruce Sterling put it, the Future composts the Present. That things will always go on, and that the four year old son of loving parents, will take this moment to frame a debate around freedom of speech, mixed in with love and support of family. When we finally do draw to a close, we back and forth about Lasko-Gross’s author photograph. She has two—a “grumpy” one (in her own words) and one with her smiling. But which to use, is my consideration? The one that shows the warm, accessible Miss Lasko-Gross? Or the stern Miss Lasko-Gross who, down the ages, will stand shoulder to shoulder with Dickens and Shakespeare? Which, indeed?