Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #315: Henni by Miss Lasko-Gross

There was a wave of new cartoonists over the first decade of this century: young, energetic, focused, with different voices and particular views of the world. A lot of them were women, which was encouraging: too much of "comics" had been a boys' club for far too long. And they almost all came in through the door marked "memoir," whether they were creating graphic novels from big New York houses or zines stapled in their bedrooms -- they mostly were taking the stuff of their own young lives and turning it into art as they went.

Many of that cohort are still committing memoir: Lucy Knisley has two books coming out in less than a year about her travels and travails, and there was a new Gabrielle Bell book covering similar territory early this year. But some of them are leaving their own lives behind to venture into the darker and wider lands of fiction, which should be encouraged: not that fiction is better than nonfiction, but many lives are always preferable to one.

Miss Lasko-Gross is solidly in that wave: her first two books were memoirs of her childhood (Escape from "Special", 2006) and adolescence (A Mess of Everything, 2009), but she's been quiet for the last few years. Maybe she's been working on this: Henni, a new graphic novel that might begin a longer story but doesn't need to, will be released in late January by Z2 Comics.

Henni the book is a fable, perhaps, somewhere in the hinterlands of the fantastique or fantasy more generally. Henni the character is our heroine, a smart girl on the cusp of adolescence in a low-tech community that we quickly learn does not value women or girls as anything like human beings. Her people are also the opposite of anthropomorphics: their faces are fully human, except for impressive canines and variously pointy ears, but their bodies are mostly covered in fur that Lasko-Gross depicts as pure inky black. Even before the title page, we see that nasty, cramped society turn on her father, and we know Henni herself will not have an easy time.

Henni can be read as another YA dystopia; Henni discovers the sordid truths behind the pious lies of her village, is doomed by that knowledge, and leaves to seek a better place. But Lasko-Gross's vision is darker, and perhaps more all-encompassing than the bestselling prose novelists working with similar material: Henni does not find utopia over the next hill, or a cute boy who loves and respects her. Instead, she finds other places as bad in their own way as her home village, or possibly even worse.

So this book is more pointedly feminist than most similar stories: the societies Henni encounters clearly disdain and denigrate women because they are women, and use religious justifications to do so. The specific religions are fictional, but they will be very familiar: they rhyme with a lot of the repressive ends of the monotheisms of our world. But Henni is still young, and still indomitable, and smart enough to find ways out of most predicaments.

It's not clear if Henni will have further adventures; the book ends at a moment of determination and resolve that could either lead to another volume or could be a fine place to leave Henni forever. Either way, this book stands strongly alone, with a sharp point of view and enticing art, mostly black with blue tints for atmosphere. It may be early to say so, but it's guaranteed to be among the best graphic novels of 2015.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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