The Divine is a new graphic novel published by First Second created by illustrators Asaf Hanuka (The Realist), Tomer Hanuka (Placebo Man), and writer Boaz Lavie. Asaf and Boaz reside in Tel Aviv, Israel while Tomer lives in New York City. On a hectic Thursday afternoon, I was fortunate to talk to Boaz and Asaf about their new book – unfortunately Tomer was unavailable.
Comics Beat: I got a chance to read The Divine and to start with I’m curious the process. How does a page come to be?
Asaf Hanuka: The classic structure of writer, penciller, inker, and colorist, we have it in our small book but in a different way. The difference is that in our book, each stage has it’s own autonomy which means that Boaz wrote the story in the beginning, then he and I “directed” the story, deciding on scenes and what’s going to happen in each double [page] spread. Then I did the pencil sketches and then Tomer did the color inking, he had complete freedom to change the drawings from whatever I did. So I had a certain freedom in regards Boaz did, then Tomer did after. Whoever has the work on his table, he has the freedom to do the best he can do.
You really have put your ego aside to do this. It’s not mine, so each of us does different things in different areas and it’s important for us to work together but at the same time, each one of us needs freedom.
CB: How does your previous work in film influence this current collaboration?
Boaz Lavie: I think it comes from a few different reasons, my perspective on it is the way we create together […] I think music is more similar to what we do. Even though Asaf, Tomer, and I have some experience in filmmaking, it’s a collaboration that is based on knowing each other very intimately for many years – more that 20. We know our disabilities and capabilities, the things we prefer and things we hate so when I wrote the story, I knew that I had make something that Asaf and Tomer would relate to very strongly. It’s not like I’m working with two illustrators to just get my script out, from the get-go it had to be something where everyone is listening and knowing each other. From that point on, the process was the same for “directing” – there are scenes that I know Asaf hates.
For instance, Asaf is really into a certain kind of scene building in comics that is very focused around a certain image. Even in his Realist book, he builds a story around a specific image. And if there’s no image, you can’t understand it, so when I told him about scene, it had to be built around an image. From that point on, with each step […] everyone listens and had in mind the others’ vision and perspective on the story, so it’s really complex.
CB: You’re right, it does have this musical undercurrent.
BL: I think it’s more music, although it’s not simultaneous, it sometimes feels like it is, you know? There are stages, but in a way I think the result is something that really resonates as a collaborative work.
AH: Another side to it is that both Tomer and I, for the last 20 years, have been doing commercial illustration. Even if sometimes we get hired to do jobs we enjoy, this was still our dream project. We dreamt of doing it since he went to School of Visual Arts and I went to France, our path separated and this was our change to do something together and it had to be a place where you can do whatever you want unlike the work in professional illustration where you just draw somebody else’s ideas.
CB: It sounds like there was a unification and passion that wasn’t accessible previously.
CB: Getting into The Divine, something I recognized and wanted to ask about was the theme of masculinity and the way it was displayed through characters Mark and Jason. Where does this theme come from for you, especially considering the perpetuation of war and violence?
AH: I think the relationship of Jason and Mark is something that is very common in Israel because you always have a friend from the army who is very different – he could be a bit of a douchebag. Maybe you don’t really like him and his morals, but you were in the army with him so he’s your friend and you don’t doubt it. Maybe 10 years pass and you know what he’s doing; for me this was something I could recognize in my life. I’m not sure if in America it’s normal for this kind of thing to exist; one friend being more calm while the other is just crazy.
BL: The first few times that people related to the story talked to us about how Jason’s character is a psychopath; for us we come from a culture where people are sometimes very aggressive and they express their masculinity, I would say, in a very outgoing way and they’re not considered psychopaths. For us, we are dealing with this very thin line of creating characters […] For me what’s intriguing about having two radically different characters is there’s something “characturic” about them. I find being on the border between creating “caricaturic” characters and real characters is very inspiring for me. To create a character that many people can relate to is almost like creating a mask in theatre – you recognize yourself in it, but it’s still not a real human being. Comics is great for this because the way characters are being drawn, you cannot be too specific – you have to have stereotypical reference and work with it and I find building characters and story is kind of like that.
I agree with Asaf, I think the relationship between [Jason and Mark] has something Israeli about it and they translate to American culture in a way that is very surprising for us. It’s very interesting for us to see how Americans read the character’s relationship in regards to masculinity, fatherhood, and how to expresses yourself as no longer a child; how to find your own place in the world as a man.
AH: Also, seeing most superhero, American books – the hero is an alpha male and in The Divine, masculinity is a theme, but another is fatherhood. Once you have children, you have to separate from the image of being a total, alpha man. So I think as a dialogue for what comics is for us – as an image of growing up and dreaming of becoming superheroes – we had to forget it.
BL: As an example, Jason is someone who doesn’t have a family and the way he behaves throughout the story is a way to be a man – to be a loner; an alpha-loner male. To express yourself, you have to be in this very “rumble-style” world, but the other option is to become a father and become responsible as a father and I’m not sure what option is better, actually. But in our story, it’s pretty clear and those two options cannot live together. There’s a very big dissonance there.
CB: It’s really interesting that you’ve gotten different perspectives on The Divine; The US and Israel–
BL: –and from France as well.
CB: How has that reaction been?
BL: I think it has been something in between, actually. Many people discussed the fact that those two cultures [Jason and Mark] are very radically build or created and some people treated as something wonderful and some people were very bothered about it.
AH: It’s like the opposites are symmetric–
BL: Yeah, black and white – and it bothered some readers in France. They used the term “Manichaean” which is a very intellectual term the comes from Persian, a religious term about the power the good and the power of the bad. The two cultures represented the bad and the good in such an extreme way, for some readers it’s amazing and for some, it’s a turn-off. The distinction is too strong.
AH: The French readers also may be a little bit more interested in the story behind the story which is about the Htoo Twins and the geopolitical context of everything. It really started with Tomer back in 2006 when he heard on NPR stories of the real Htoo Twins and started doing the research and the art – he built this universe and then Boaz and I joined.
CB: Do you think that Tomer, who is unfortunately not here and cannot speak on this, intended to bring others onto this work or it just worked out that way?
AH: I think that, aesthetically and conceptually, it’s something that’s really captivating for him, but also for me because there’s the part about being a twin. Tomer and I grew up in the suburb of Tel Aviv in the 80’s and it was very grey and very boring – we were reading the superhero comics like addicts. We really dreamed about having superpowers and then we read this story about these twins who really have powers, at least according to people around them. It was this twisted mirror that reflected everything we ever dreamt of up but in a world which was so tragic and sad. For us, diving into it was a way to maybe understand part of our childhood and I think for Tomer, it was clear that this was a comics project we would do together.
CB: The depth of the myth around “The Divine” is palatable as a hyper-fast pseudo-religion. How does this stem from real event with the Htoo Twins?
AH: Actually, Tomer did a lot of research in the beginning about exactly what kind of religion they have – it’s a mix of Buddhism, Christianity, and Paganism. It’s a belief that the Mountain has a spirit and the Water has a spirit – a real mix. He took, for example, the giants in the story, originally real sculptures of giants that stand in Burma and the Dragon is constructed of animals in myths they have. We had all these aesthetic codes, but then Boaz built the story out of this.
BL: When I started it was all concept art, this crazy photo the the Twins and all we needed was a story.
CB: Is that an unusual place to start when you write stories?
BL: I think for any writer, starting from something that wasn’t originally their idea…that’s a unique or bizarre point to be at. But still, the photo was amazing, I really wanted to do something with Asaf and Tomer for years and it felt like it could be something that could be our big thing. In my mind, I kind of had to erase everything and start from scratch meaning you’re not going to tell the real story; everything is going to be invented and we’re going to start from nothing. We build a world and a story and a universe that is completely our own. That was a great point to start because I know Asaf and Tomer will trust each other and everyone believes we can do this thing together. It took something like 18 months to complete just the scenario, there were many changes working with Calista, the editor, and Asaf and Tomer. There were a few versions of the story we just had to throw away because they didn’t really fit.
We all agreed to start, in a way, from scratch. Inspired by the amazing photo and some conceptual images.
CB: That sounds a lot like what you said earlier about a musical flow to collaboration.
BL: Exactly. You listen to a lot of stuff and know in a very vague way what you’re going to do and then you close the door and start creating your own stuff.
CB: I found the true story of the Htoo Twins to be almost unbelievable grandiose in nature, but lacking in context somewhat. Does The Divine try to find a way to talk about the aftermath of adventures and war – like what happens after the hero leaves?
BL: We have a very conflicted area, so for us talking about conflict and war […] this is a very stressful situation that we live in, day in and day out. Although our lives are very easy and okay in a western city like Tel Aviv, what’s going on basically a few miles away is pretty much war, constantly – every two years or something. In a way, it’s something we are very familiar with, the war situation. I think the fact that we tell a story that actually happens very far away, in an imaginary country in southeast Asia, it helps us in a very deep way to express our anxieties and fears, maybe even hopes and dreams about general situations in such places. You know, we are fathers today and we worry about things. I think the political aspect, the situation you’re talking about – “what happens after?” – we’re stuck in situation forever and ever, nothing happens.
AH: Nothing’s going to happen and nothing’s going to change.
BL: You know, it’s still shitty. We’re not the kind of creators that will create something that has happy endings in this sense – never. We don’t believe in it, you know. We do believe that certain people, individuals, can create change and bring something else. In a way, we’re not so pessimistic but we know the situation in The Divine is not solved in a sense. We know that something good happens there but it doesn’t have the usual happy ending 0r something like that. I think it reflects our own feelings about the war we are living in.
AH: I hope the story works like that in The Divine; when you read it, it looks like a real thing and you’re in it and you’re invested in the situation. But then, when you finish it and you think about it, you think about these characters as stand-ins for ideas, like metaphors. These ideas are doing this dance against each other.
CB: I didn’t consider that a book based off a real-life event that you weren’t a part of could end up being such a deeply personal creation.
BL: Yeah, extremely personal. I think that was the biggest challenge, for me at least. Otherwise, take this very historic and bizarre story about these twins in a faraway country that I know almost nothing about and create something that is completely my own and tells the story of me as a man, as a personal in this world with conflicts, with issues, with problems. In the end, I believe that every one of us has a spot in this book, but for me, it’s my own expression about my life and my conflicts. That’s one part, the other part is art – it’s my own expression as a writer, as a storyteller; it’s completely my own perspective about things.
AH: I think it’s a classic case where someone goes very, very far in order to understand himself and look at some kind of mirror. We had to go into this imaginary jungle and the story of these twins to understand something about ourselves. But if you’re not doing the journey and you’re not hitting certain points, you’re just staying at the same place, you’re never understand.
BL: There are amazing works of art where someone only talks about their specific, small life. It could be amazing, but there is always a journey and we did a very specific kind of journey. Other people and other creators […] you can have the [Richard] McGuire book Here.
AH: The journey is the time.
CB: It’s a beautiful book. We’re just about out of time – any last thoughts?
BL: I think the category or genre in which the book falls in is not very easy to categorize. Is it action, adventure, fantasy…? I think for readers I would suggestion just to read it open minded, it’s a mashup that deals with genres, but isn’t of only one. Many different kinds of readers can enjoy it. I believe it from the reaction we’ve got so far.
AH: What he said.
CB: Well, thank you both very much.
AH & BL: Thank you.