I want so much to love Miss Lasko-Gross, but I struggle. Her moody, shadowy illustration style is attractive, but a bit static, and many of her stories are didactic and self-reflective, leaning dangerously towards navel-gazing. But she’s a strong and self-assured woman cartoonist—her work just screams to be supported! And with Henni, she makes her point clearly and coherently, with far more universal appeal than usual, through the wise choice of an allegorical framework.
Henni is the story of a cat/woman who lives in a religiously oppressive and morally corrupt society, where girls are married off at an early age and their mothers bake pies filled with money to bribe the high priests for the best husbands. Henni, who’s a bit sharper than the average cat, thanks in part to a society-defying (and subsequently exiled) father, finds the cracks in these traditions and breaks free of them, running away, past the pale of her civilization. Unfortunately, as soon as she’s beyond the boundaries of one stifling society, she stumbles into another, where the rules are equally as strict and free expression just as stifled, with only the surface details slightly tweaked. Frustrated but determined, Henni works to navigate this new situation and finds herself becoming increasingly defiant and challenging the system more and more. Ultimately escaping to the great, dangerous, and potentially uncivilized unknown, she seeks her exiled father and perhaps, more importantly, her self.
Though by its nature as an allegory Henni feels a bit on the nose, what really pushes it into compelling territory is Lasko-Gross’s increasingly skillful illustration style. Detailed, dark, blue-washed backdrops bring the sinister nature of Henni’s world to life. Henni’s dramatic expressions as she works to puzzle through her captivity speak as much as her words—her fangs bared and her face in despair make you feel trapped and frustrated along with her. Furthermore, the black and white and blue palette conjure up the feeling of a classic film, adding to a subtle timeless quality that flows through this story.
Henni’s tale is a story of power and control, of questioning and rebellion, of artists, politics and cultural arbiters. By choosing to tell it as an allegory without specific connections to real world governments or religions, Lasko-Gross expresses her views succinctly without specifically vilifying those of others—a wise decision to bring readers from different walks of life to her work, and perhaps to help those readers consider the interplay of external control and free will in their own lives.
At the end of Henni, our feline hero embarks on a journey into a vast, perilous, and unseen mystery, and there’s something liberating to this moment—it’s terrifying, but also freeing. But part of me also wonders what she’ll find out there, and happily, Lasko-Gross has indicated that she is working on a sequel, in which Henni will get a clearer of view of the puppet-masters in control of the rigid societies she’s encountered. With such a curious heroine seeking the truth, I feel almost certain that we will find it—or at least come a step or two closer. I can’t wait to find out!
by Miss Lasko-Gross
Z2 Comics, 2015