MISS LASKO-GROSS had published two very well-received graphic novels, and both had been laced with the personal and real. They had covered her childhood and her adolescence, but she felt still too close to her early adulthood to create a book about her life’s next chapter. So the creative response was a turn to fiction.
“I made a conscious move into fiction for a number of reasons,” Lasko-Gross tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, about why she created her latest graphic novel, “Henni.” “I didn’t feel removed enough to summarize my 20s yet, and was also reasonably sick of drawing my own stupid face. Most importantly, ‘Henni’ — and its sequel, my current project — is exactly the kind of book I enjoy reading. It’s an adventure, with relentless forward momentum and lovely little disasters around every corner.”
Lasko-Gross has a gift for building evocative worlds you can lose yourself in, as well as a keen sense of how to keep you compellingly uncomfortable as you move through these narratives. Ahead of her appearance tomorrow night at the National Book Festival’s “Graphic Novel Night” pavilion, Comic Riffs delved into how she creates sequential art that beguiles the eyes, and how when you crack the spine of a Lasko-Gross work, it’s your own spine that tingles:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Becoming a parent, I believe, can have a specific type of profound effect on an artist. For many creatives, it’s not just about less free or alone time to create work, but also about the fresh observations, and sharpened areas of awarenesses, that alter an artist — quite notably a storyteller. Could you talk some about what parenthood has meant to you so far as an artist?
MLG: First, a disclaimer: What I’m about to say would have deeply annoyed the happily childless me of the past. Now I would describe the personal parental transformation as moving from feeling like an aging young person, into the headspace of a grown-up. You’re not necessarily wiser or more mature, but you do gain an extra level of perspective, which can only enrich your artistic output.
When I made “Escape From ‘Special’ ” and “A Mess of Everything,” I was speaking from a brutally honest and raw place about childhood and adolescence. Tackling the parent and teacher characters involved a great deal of speculation as to their motivation. Now I understand how much sacrifice, fear and irritation must have informed their [at the time] inscrutable actions.
Writing and drawing Henni coincided with my own happy, but exhausting, pregnancy and early motherhood. I found myself, somewhat paradoxically, amplifying the darkness and chaos of Henni’s family. Henni’s mother sees herself as a moral guardian, though from an outsider’s perspective she’s physically and emotionally abusive. She clearly loves her daughters and does everything she can to protect them from the “corrosive” influence of their “dangerous” intellectual father. Understanding the intensity of motherhood pushed me towards upping the intensity of her mother’s behavior, precisely because I understand the fear at its core.
MC: I’m fascinated by the evolution of Henni as both story and character. You’ve talked about how anthropomorphism frees you up in certain ways from specific sociocultural readings, but could you talk about Henni’s development in your mind and on the page? She looks so small and rounded and elfin at first; then for a time looks like a human-faced animal who could comfortably crouch on a Maurice Sendak page — and the final Henni has an athletic physicality that well behooves her in a threatening world. Please illuminate Henni for us.
MLG: The early changes to her physiology reflect the evolving tone of the work. Henni started as a side project for the “House of Twelve” app on ComiXology. The little, round woodland creatures of those early chapters fit the original tone, but fell short and were subsequently redrawn for the graphic novel.
As the narrative flowed from something without much weight into a vessel for more deeply felt themes — ubiquity of injustice. racism, sexism, xenophobia and finally into an allegory about the dangers of fundamentalist thinking — she needed a parallel physical evolution. This was definitely a dark, sensual journey for a brave and capable girl, not a twee critter. Cuteness was muffling the impact, putting too much distance between the reader and protagonist, and therefore not serving the narrative.
MC: So many superb storytellers, including, say, Craig Thompson and Marjane Satrapi, seem to first emerge with powerful autobio or semi-autobio works before turning to pure fiction. Could you talk about the pleasure of turning away from yourself — getting out of your skin — for a while with Henni, and perhaps Henni 2)?
MLG: I would go even further when breaking down this type of career progression. For people, like myself, who’ve created comics from an early age, I’d categorize Autobiographical as second level. Most of my work from the 1990s was fiction interspersed with only the flavor of personal experience. The emergence into artistic maturity is a reflective turning point for many artists, which is why so often, their first complete and widely seen work is autobiographical.
After my first two graphic novels, I made a conscious move into fiction for a number of reasons. I didn’t feel removed enough to summarize my 20s yet, and was also reasonably sick of drawing my own stupid face. Most importantly, Henni — and its sequel, my current project — is exactly the kind of book I enjoy reading. It’s an adventure, with relentless forward momentum and lovely little disasters around every corner. Whereas nonfiction cuts away the inconsequential and superfluous, fiction is a sculptural process. It was a relief to flex those muscles, building up from scratch.
MC: Your works tend to have themes of unease and nonconformity and self-discovery. Could you speak some about why you are drawn to these areas? Does it all, as it so often does, go back to childhood, or are there other elements or influences at work here?
MLG: My love of weirdos and non-conformists is personal, but also drawn from a place of deep admiration. Strange challenging, unlikable people drive cultural and artistic progress. They break ground in ways that can later be comfortably imitated by more palatable folks. They’re easy to celebrate posthumously, but often overlooked or treated unkindly in life. That person requires a journey of self-discovery, because their path doesn’t necessarily contain the typical landmarks and rewards, which give “normal” people their identity.
Those who’ve read my autobiographical work know that I was always in trouble at school and not well-liked. I also resented that merely expressing myself led me to be categorized with kids who maliciously caused problems. The happiest and most fulfilling moments of my own past involved breaking free of constraint and expectation. So naturally, I can’t resist the catharsis of those narratives.
MC: At the festival, you are on a panel that spotlights very disparate women creators. Does the bigger picture hold any meaning for you, as women notably gain equal space on the convention floor and on comics bestseller lists and at the interview mike? Do you feel connected to these larger recent shifts, or not so much?
MLG: While I don’t feel directly impacted by the general state of women in comics, the changes you mention have helped move female cartoonists from being treated as a novelty or token to being seen as competitors and peers. Of course, every artist still has her own struggle to be seen, and some women — particularly those working in mainstream comics — still face off against sexist assumptions at work.
When I started out, there was a network of zines and women-friendly anthologies, which were themselves modeled on pioneering showplaces for female talent such as Wimmin’s Comix, Real Girl, Tits n’ Cl–s, etc. … so i see myself as a direct beneficiary of their groundbreaking works. They created the template for art that could be ugly, rude and true. A legacy of art not pandering to the male gaze.
The National Book Festival runs 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Washington Convention Center. The Washington Post is a charter sponsor. Click here for more information.