New Comic Book Day: Talking With Henni‘s Miss Lasko-Gross

Z2 Publishing

As it’s New Year’s Eve (and a fifthweek!) the release calendar is very light. So to help us bring in the new year, we have an interview with Miss Lasko-Gross, the creator of the book Henni, described as “a commentary on religion, coming of age, and being yourself…in a fantastical world where old traditions and religion dominate every aspect of life.” Lasko-Gross has previously published Escape From “Special” and A Mess of Everything, two semi-autobiographical works that won critical acclaim. She’s currently featured in a travelling gallery show, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women.” I also got a chance to read Henni, and you can see my review at the end of the interview. Be sure to check out the preview of Henni we’ve got – there are larger versions of every picture here.

Topless Robot: How difficult or how easy has it been to make the jump from semi-autobiographical work to fiction?

Miss Lasko-Gross: It hasn’t really been hard at all. I work on whatever I feel passionately about, so even though on the surface nonfiction versus fiction, it’s a big leap, it’s all honest work even if it’s fictional, if that makes any sense. This is a story that I really, I feel it, I enjoy it. It wasn’t a conscious decision, is what I’m saying. This is the direction I moved in, so I just flowed that way. It would’ve been more easy to turn out a third autobiographical novel but this is really what I was feeling.


TR: It seems to draw fairly heavily from old fables. Is that a conscious thing? What are you kind of pulling from to tell the story?

MLG: There’s a lot of research involved combined with things that I just loved myself growing up. I was a huge fan of Greek mythology when I was a kid and Aesop’s Fables and those kinds of story constructs. But as for worldbuilding in Henni, it’s more drawn from the study of comparative religion with everything mixed up. You don’t feel “these are the Muslims, these are the Jews, these are the Hindus.” It’s just, everything is a combination of at least three different elements. So while the structure is drawn from fables and to a lesser degree from mythology, it’s unique in the way that it’s combined.

TR: You’ve been immersed in the comic world for 2 decades, and it has not traditionally been the friendliest place for woman creators. How much of that informs the creation?

MLG: Most of my friends are in the “artier” side of comic book culture. For women in the mainstream big 2 world, I’ve heard some horrific stories that are more in line with what I think you’re getting at. But the indie culture is probably one of the most social egalitarian segments of humanity. At Small Press Expo or MoCCA, etc. you’ll see a really good balance of male and female creators and in particular among the people who are the most respected. However, my husband is also a comic book artist and he did some work for DC and runs a little more in those circles. So depending on where we are, I think each of us is viewed as the +1. I felt that when I went to mainstream type events with him, it was definitely like, if we introduced ourselves as a couple who does comics, any serious questions about the craft would go his way, shop talk. And I think that they assumed that I did a doodly little diary comic about unicorns and period blood, as opposed to being a “professional” like he was.

The state of the comics industry doesn’t dictate what ends up on the page but I suppose
having a woman’s frame of reference may exert a subconscious influence. I think my work goes head to head with the male artists in my field. Gender is sort of irrelevant.

Z2 Publishing
Click to enlarge

TR: Henni is very much an adventure story but it’s one that looks like it values cleverness over brute force.

MLG: Sure

TR: Are you angling for all ages with Henni, or is it kind of a 13+ or a 10+, because some of the concepts in here are a little advanced, but the presentation seems appropriate for everybody.

MLG: That wasn’t a conscious thing. I don’t think about demographics when I’m doing the work, but I think it’s kind of in the same territory as Bone, where it’s a story which technically there isn’t swearing or graphic nudity. There’s an attempted rape, there are some mutilations, but I think that’s just organically the way the story came out. I don’t think like, “okay, I gotta get men and women between 18 and 34.” If you think like that you’re just going to create product, and I’m making art, so I don’t really think about that.

TR: Is there someone in your head that you’re telling the story to?

MLG: I guess to anyone who enjoys a fun, slightly dark, adventure. Henni is NOT intended as a didactic work. It’s my nightmare that someone thinks I’m trying to teach people a lesson about life. That’s just not what it is. It’s just supposed to be as fun to read; as as it was to create, hopefully. I could have included graphic gore or sex, and that would be more in line with some of my previous work, but it just didn’t really feel like the way this story was going naturally. Sometimes what’s left unseen is more horrific than showing explicit violence or nudity.

Z2 Publishing
Click to enlarge

TR: It does feel kind of like a traditional…something that I would have probably discovered when I was 11 or 12, and thought that it was kind of the epitome of high adventure.

MLG: I don’t want to talk down to that 11 or that 12 year old kid. I think that the underlying theme, whether the kid appreciates it or not, is kind of irrelevant. It’s just meant to be a journey to go on, and I know when I was a kid, I really despised anything that was sugar coated or “oh this is a nice story for kids.” Whenever adults start making something that they think is a nice story for kids, for smart kids that’s just insulting. It’s cloying, and it’s not fun to read. There’s no sense of discovery or adventure. I think it’s good to always read up a little bit, to the point of your complexity threshold.

TR: Looking at the evolution of the character designs, Henni seems to have grown older and more recognizably human-female as you’ve gone along. Was there a reason for that change, or was that something organic that happened through the course of creating it?

MLG: It was organic. It seemed to suit the story a little bit better, I think. When I started it, it was kind of a side project and I was thinking “little critter” or “little animal,” but it’s not really the kind of adventure for a little animal. It’s more of an adventure for a person, but also importantly not human, because I’m not talking literally about Earth societies. I think it was somewhere in between. This has the weight of a story that would involve humans. Not to say that funny animals don’t have heavy adventures, but it just felt like a little more of an anthropomorphic character was appropriate than a little creature.

TR: Yeah, it would have been weird if it had been two squirrels and a wild boar.

MLG: Yeah, it would have been absurd in the wrong way. There’s absurd and wrong in the right way, but it wouldn’t have hit the notes that I wanted.

Z2 Publishing
Click to enlarge

TR: Process question: do you script first, or do you draw from an outline and then kind of fill in the dialogue as you go?

MLG: My books kind of spin outward in a spiral. I have crazy person notebooks. I should never be allowed to teach anyone how to organize a graphic novel because the thing is I have a story, and it’s about 3 graphic novels worth of story, and I have…I start out with, before I have the outline, I have kind of episodes. I have the important beats of the story that should happen and then very detailed dialogue around just the most crucial beats. Like I have the last page of the third graphic novel, I have that script tight. I have a couple of things that happen in the second book tightly, and then the first book as I’m going. I feel like I get penned in if I write a script that’s really tight and then the drawing feels like a chore where you’re like “alright, I already know exactly what I want and now I just have to physically draw this character over and over again moving through this construct.” So I think to keep it fun, I keep it loose and I think through the drawing sometimes. I’m a visual thinker, so I think the story beats really come out much differently even if I script it, when I’m just drawing and letting it flow.

TR: How much drift from the original story beats as originally conceived do you find happens when creating like that?

MLG: I find that all of the major notes are going to be hit, but the way that you get from one place to another is where all the nice little surprises happen. Because sometimes you see something visually like “oh what if they went that way instead of this way,” and it gets to the same place, but in the telling, it diverges from what I had intended originally.

Z2 Publishing
Click to enlarge

TR: Henni’s sister and mom are fairly important to the story, but she’s moved away from them physically as the story progresses. Are they going to come back?

MLG: I can say that in the second book, which I’m actually very well into, there might be some flashbacks that will give you a little more richness to her backstory, but physically she is separated from them and moving further and further away from home.

TR: Is it going to stay Henni’s personal journey, or is there going to be some kind of operatic drift towards her kind of fixing the problems that she’s encountering?

MLG: She definitely has her plans for what’s going to happen next, but life has different plans, and the more people you encounter, the more you have to deal with other peoples’ agendas. So I’ll say that while she’s definitely continuing on her journey, there will be many complications.

Z2 Publishing
Click to enlarge

TR: You said you’re well into 2. You ended it on a pretty big cliffhanger [laughs at own terrible pun [editor’s note: you will also laugh at it]]…

MLG: [laughs][editor’s note: see?]

TR: How soon are we going to see 2? I’m excited.

MLG: This is more of a scheduling thing than a drawing thing. Because there was a bit of a delay in getting the timing right for Henni to come out, and the printing and the schedule and all of that, I would say I’m more done than not with the second book.

I’m about 150 pages into the drawing of the second book, and there’s a lot more story [there], and I just have to tie up in my typical crazy person fashion, a chunk of the book right in the middle, and then the ending. So once those are done, it’s up to them when they want that to see the light of day.

TR: Awesome. Sounds great! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us!


Z2 Publishing
Click to enlarge

As I said above, I got my hands on an advance copy of Henni, and the enthusiasm you see is legit: it’s a great book. It’s gorgeous to look at, and it’s a classic, clever, smart, timeless adventure story that builds an interesting, scary world with layers of storytelling that will make it a rewarding reading experience for almost anyone. It’s like Maurice Sendak making A Handmaid’s Tale. It’s really nice to go into the new year already having a “Potential Best of 2015” file on my computer, and Henni made me create it. Be sure to check it out when it’s released by Z2 Comics next week.

This week I’m also checking out the new issue of Hickman and Pitarra’s excellent East of West, as well as getting caught up with my Marvel Unlimited and trying to bang out my Christmas haul: A World of Ice and Fire, Randall Munroe’s What If? and 15 issues of DnA Legion that went on sale the day after Christmas at my shop.

I want to take a second to thank you all for reading. The past 3 months writing for Topless Robot have been enormously fun, giving me the chance to read a metric asston of comics that I might have otherwise missed and to talk to some creative, thoughtful, incredibly intelligent people about stuff I really love. I can’t thank Luke enough for giving me the chance, and all of you for reading and commenting every week. Happy New Year, everybody.

What are you reading this week?