Books

‘The Divine’ and ‘The Realist’: The Diverging Worlds of Twin Comics Artists

Asaf and Tomer Hanuka and Boaz Lavie's 'The Divine' (all images courtesy First Second Books)
Asaf and Tomer Hanuka and Boaz Lavie’s ‘The Divine’ (all ‘Divine’ images courtesy First Second Books)

WIRED magazine recently ran a lengthy piece of narrative journalism on Silk Road, an illegal online drug marketplace that flourished on the Dark Web until the FBI shut it down in 2014. Reporter Joshuah Bearman’s copy gets comics-style animations of slick and sinister-looking figures, while drawn backdrops in neon green and yellow lend a digital sheen to the story. This is the pristine linework of artist Tomer Hanuka, now featured in a slim new graphic novel from the NYC-based Israeli artist, along with his twin brother, Asaf, and writer/game designer Boaz Lavie. It follows the Hanuka brothers’ early 2000s-era collaborative, award-winning comic miniseries, Bipolar.

Supernatural powers and civil war horrors in a mountainous Asian country underscore The Divine. The tale of dubious CIA missions mostly centers on machine gun–toting child twins who summon devilish forces to carry out acts of war. The kids are based on the real-life Htoo twins, two Christian fundamentalist tween soldiers who led a military coup in the late 1990s against the Burmese army — local legend had it that “divine” powers allowed them to move objects with their minds.

Page from 'The Divine'
Page from ‘The Divine’

In the book, we follow straight-laced explosives technician Mark, who gets wind of covert military contract work that he’d normally turn down were it not for the baby on the way; he accepts, and keeps it from his expecting wife, Rachel. Mark will mine mountaintops in the jungles of a fictitious warn-torn region called Quanlom, and the work comes by way of an aggressive alpha male named Jason. “We’re helping these poor people get themselves some fancy minerals,” Jason says. But the reckless mission is bungled, and ancient sorcery comes into play. What follows is a well-told work of magical realism that’s dampened by seemingly big-screen ambitions.

The Divine’s summer blockbuster premise might’ve locked me in as an adolescent — the intentionally realistic portion would suit WIRED’s longform section if it didn’t hold less water than the magic does. And yet, for all of its bombast, The Divine’s dialogue proves ironically almost too small to read within its panel grids. The lettering is miniature inside oversized word balloons, and it gets a featherweight font. But while Lavie’s script is overcooked — brushing only the surface of the grave matters at hand and instead going for flashy, extreme gore — as well as too neatly bundled by its end, this is a visually spellbinding book.

A page from 'The Divine' (click to enlarge)
A page from ‘The Divine’ (click to enlarge)

The Divine is flooded with resplendent color. Nighttime sequences in variations of forest green are dark and menacing, with a wealth of shadows pooling around protruding cheekbones or curling around campfire smoke. Day hikes through Quanlom’s rocky terrain are just as arresting, with pastels brightening drab earth tones along mountain ridges. Gruesome violence is right at the fore: entrails are splayed and deep red blood spattered across horizontal panels. Dragon tails get ornate patterns, which, like the rest of the book, are first drawn by Asaf before his lines are inked by Tomer, who then applies color. An army of gigantic, shimmering metal warriors conjured by the soldier children ravage a military base, swinging swords and stomping towers. They’re grandiose and terrifying. The juvenile inside of me savored every minute of these sequences; my difficulty with the rest can be attributed to boring old adulthood.

Far from winged reptiles and battlefields but also indebted to imaginative visuals, a new hardcover called The Realist culls Asaf Hanuka’s weekly nine-panel comic strips for an Israeli business newspaper called Calcalist. The series captures the life that Hanuka shares with his wife, son, and later a daughter in busy Tel Aviv. There are flickers of the funny father-child bond that Jeffrey Brown cast in A Matter of Life here, and in bouts of professional anxiety, I see the work of Gabrielle Bell. As with her strips, and despite the title, The Realist bursts with venturesome experiments in surrealism. While the bold art is grounded in the familiar — debt, fear of creative failure — this is hardly of the strict memoir comics variety.

Asaf Hanuka's 'The Realist' (all 'Realist' images courtesy Archaia)
Asaf Hanuka’s ‘The Realist’ (all ‘Realist’ images courtesy Archaia)

An eviction notice amid climbing rent prices reduces the cartoonist to a miniature bespectacled astronaut who eyes escape in his son’s toy spaceship. Later, a computer-sourced IV line pokes out of his vein, and a sea of disembodied “thumbs up” Facebook icons flood out of his mouth toward the ceiling. The influence of superhero comics materializes in “The Fantastic Dad,” where Hanuka suffers the burden of the cosmic powers given to Reed, Susan, Johnny, and Ben back in 1961.

Page from 'The Realist' (click to enlarge)
Page from ‘The Realist’ (click to enlarge)

In more candid strips, Hanuka recounts a time of marital upheaval. A “fight” between the couple takes place in a boxing ring, while an accelerated four-panel timeline tracks their relationship — punctuated by Hanuka’s ambivalent “Yeah, sure” and “So do you love me?” — and in “Time Travelers,” he logs the pair’s therapeutic trip to Manhattan.

During the counselor-recommended “rejuvenating” vacation, Asaf and his wife find themselves spiraling down the slide of Carsten Höller’s Experience exhibit at the New Museum in early 2012. Visitors lined up to wind through the Belgian artist’s “huge see-through chute” — per a press release, the slide was part of “a carefully choreographed journey through the building and the artist’s oeuvre.”

The exhibit in Hanuka’s strip is stiff and uninviting. He applies glum metallic tones for Manhattan building exteriors, for the chrome posts anchoring ropes that square off the art, and for Höller’s steel spectacle, but marvelous flecks of orange sunlight cap building facades, and the out-of-towners don bright orange helmets, presumably to fend off the injuries suffered when Höller’s slides were at Tate Modern in London. There are unseen bumps and bruises for Hanuka when Höller’s work stands in for a time machine, as the softly sunlit window it evokes proves to be little more than a glimmer of the couple’s cheerier past.

Page from 'The Realist'
Page from ‘The Realist’

“The thing is never to lie, always do the thing that burns the most that week,” Hanuka told online magazine Tablet a few years ago. When The Realist began to appear online following the newspaper publication of it, his mother asked if a divorce was coming, based on what she’d seen in his strip.

“I don’t know the future,” he told her. “I’m just reporting the present.”

The Divine is published by First Second Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers. The Realist is published by Archaia and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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