Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Miss Lasko-Gross' Henni

Miss Lasko-Gross is unusually versatile for an alternative cartoonist in that she can write a sci-fi caper, a highly personal autobio story or in the case of her book Henni, an allegorical fantasy book. What makes the book distinctive from a visual standpoint is her use of a cool blue-green wash, often in subtle ways. It doesn't dominate the page so much as it enhances it, and it's a nice contrast to her thick line and extensive use of spotting blacks. The characters in this story are a sort of anthropomorphic cat creature, and they have furry bodies, human faces and sharp teeth. Lasko-Gross is extremely skilled at portraying emotion with body language: arched eyebrows, furrowed brows, bulging eyes and just general uses of stance and gesture sell the story in a way that allows her to slowly unveil the larger plot.

The story centers around a teen named Henni, who lives in a corrupt, oppressive theocracy that her father was punished for defying. She was due to be put in an arranged marriage that was supposedly made in careful consideration and prayer by their priests but was really determined by how big a bribe you gave them. Henni is openly rebellious, something that her mother tries to quell to no effect. When she crosses over lines that she was forbidden to cross, her sister declares her a demon and a merchant sends off for a stoning party. In reality, he was a rebel who aided her escape. After that, she happens upon a village with its own corrupt set of values (not unlike Calvinism, with predestination and such), but she slowly began to realize that it's all one big con no matter where she went. Only the forbidden works of art left by a blind artist gave her hope, and after meeting her she learned that her father might still be alive.

This is a deeply feminist work, as Henni doesn't just rebel as an individual, but as a young woman who rebels against the roles put on women in this society, who exist mostly as chattel. They are to be seen and not heard, and educating them was frowned upon. She's able to turn the prejudices of the second village against them in trial and escape from horrible punishment. It's a book about irrational entitlement and male entitlement in particular, as the ruling class rules by force and superstition instead of logic and hard work. There will be future volumes of this story, and Lasko-Gross does well in letting the story follow its own pace. In searching for a land of truth and justice, Lasko-Gross turns a fantasy narrative into an update of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim Progress, another allegorical story about the hard road to heaven, as Christian walked the land encountering the living avatars of various qualities like Faith, Hope and the Doldrums. Recognizing and accepting the hypocrisy around her while acknowledging that there was still hope was the key. This volume felt like a warm-up for the character and the world surrounding her, with deeper lessons still to come.

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