Why Israeli Illustrator Who Designed New Yorker Cover Drew a Line

Tomer Hanuka, 40, talks about the dream of every illustrator, how to tell a story in a picture and what made him decide to return to Israel after 17 years in New York.

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Illustrations by Tomer Hanuka
Illustrations by Tomer Hanuka

I’ve noticed that most of your illustrations portend something ominous. Is that intentional?

Yes. It took me a while to understand that that’s what I do, and I’ve developed an awareness of it. From my perspective, the outer layer of the drawing is very Western, even a bit Japanese, all very polished, glittering, with flat coloring, part of the world of consumer products. But what is drawn – not the style, but what’s “under the hood” – is, I would say, very Israeli.

There’s a sense of people who are desperate, at the end of their tether, usually sweating, knowing something bad is about to happen, with the noise of a bomb ticking in the background. A black cloud. Something about to collapse. The truth is that when I get commissions from The New York Times Book Review, it’s always for post-apocalyptic books like “The Hunger Games,” or for zombies – that’s my specialty.

What’s your take on the American fetish for zombies?

I think the zombies are actually teenagers – you know, that feeling that no one understands them. It’s an amazing metaphor for an individual who is stuck in a world in which everyone is the same. That’s what you feel like in America, that you’re imprisoned in some story, that you are supposedly the one who sees the truth and everyone is trapped in the system. They’re zombies. I illustrated Stephen King’s novel “Cell,” in which a virus turns people into zombies through the phone where they work. Corporate zombies.

You went to the United States immediately after completing your army service, studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and 10 years later were already doing work for all the big newspapers, for Universal Studios, for Microsoft.

I was about five years older than all the other students, I had an awful accent and I looked weird. In fact, I was clueless. I worked in a factory in Queens to survive, and my parents really helped me; it’s only now that I realize what a sacrifice they made. Half a year after graduating I was awarded two medals by the Society of Illustrators, which are really the two most important prizes in the industry. It’s an honorable international organization with a rich history, with galleries and a library and a gorgeous building next to Central Park. A place that makes you feel – especially if you’re a foreigner – that you have a home there.

The medals kickstarted my career. I graduated at the end of 2000, and within a year or two I was working with all the newspapers and magazines I’d ever dreamed of working with. It all just happened.

Sketch for a graphic novel from 2009. Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

Your style suddenly became popular.

Look, it’s not by chance that I went to the United States. I grew up in 1980s’ Israel and was always very obsessive about America and all things American. My twin brother and I were wild about Marvel comics. That’s what I grew up on and drew my inspiration from, and I think that in the end it gave me an advantage. I learned how to tell a story in a picture.

How do you tell a story in a picture? Let’s take the poster you did for Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” You chose a frame that doesn’t exist in the original film.

Movie posters are usually “altars” for the stars: one huge head and another head next to it. I have a serious antipathy for that. I want to show what’s most personal. Hitchcock is of course a director I admire. He very much influenced the way I look at stories and compositions and rhythm. When I saw that movie again, in order to do the poster, I really felt the loneliness of Norman Bates, the feeling of a modern man locked in this Edward Hopper-like loneliness. I wanted people to identify with him, to see his softness. The idea really was to take a scene or a moment that’s not in the movie and convey something else through it. Softness. He holds her body gently as he pulls her out of the bathtub, and you view the scene through the open door, observing this modern loneliness.

Have you had illustrations rejected for immaterial reasons?

Penguin Books put out some classics whose covers were done by comic-book artists. I was given the Marquis de Sade and with it the task of testing the boundaries of Penguin’s marketing department, which was careful to ensure, among other things, that the illustrations would not affect the books’ prominent location in Barnes & Noble. To my surprise, the nipple of a girl on the front cover got through without any problem, but a large black horse standing in a living room on the back cover had to undergo visual sterilization.

Is artistic freedom an option when you work with such big companies?

It depends. When I worked with [the musician] Jack White on the cover of his latest album, my contact with him was almost unmediated. You’re working with an artist who knows exactly what he wants, down to the specific Pantone blue hue that brings together all the visuals connected to the album. And he leaves you room to run. On the other side is Warner Bros., which, because of its size, and maybe also its level of economic risk, generates systemic anxiety that gets translated into more and more layers of intermediate managers in the process. You look at the project through a series of burning hoops and don’t understand how you get through them without being scorched.

Illustration for a short story by Shani Boianjiu in The New Yorker. Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

Now you’ve come home after a long stay in New York.

Yes, my wife and I spent 17 years in New York. People are always asking why I came back – no one asks: “Why did you stay there such a long time?”

What’s it like coming back?

I can’t exactly say. I try to give myself a specific reason for why I did it, but there isn’t one. I think I reached a kind of satiety; that what I was going to receive there I will always have, and that it doesn’t depend on being there. It doesn’t get lost.

And precisely after you left New York you got the chance to fulfill a dream: You did a cover for The New Yorker.

I’ve been doing illustrations for The New Yorker for 15 years, but a cover is something else. In the world of illustrators it’s something like a unicorn that you pursue but will never get to see. For at least five successive years I thought about it every night, and on every long train trip, and while having lunch with friends. I was constantly coming up with ideas, looking at what happened this week and how it could be made into a New Yorker cover.

And then came the phone call commissioning you to do a drawing?

No, that’s not how it works. There’s the art director, who’s been in charge for a very long time, and you pitch her an idea. There’s a group, say, of 35 illustrators who get a calendar that notes the idea for each week, and you do sketches. Now, they don’t tell you this explicitly, but the secret lies in combining two things: the point in time – let’s say Halloween – and something thematic. For example, on the Halloween after 9/11, Peter de Seve, who has done a lot of illustrations for them, drew kids dressed up as firemen, because they were the heroes of the hour. The firemen – not Superman or Spiderman. The third factor, of course, is that the drawing has to be good.

Every week you cast your bread. The New Yorker kept encouraging me. Yes, they said; it’s close, it’s going to happen. Three years ago they bought a cover illustration, but something happened and it didn’t get published. Then I sent them the illustration “The Perfect Storm,” and it suited them perfectly. It was very important for my biography to have that happen, even though I realized that I was obsessing about something that in the big picture is completely negligible. But then it happened, and suddenly I got a lot of phone calls and congratulations, and [journalist and broadcaster] Yael Dan called and wanted to talk to me on her program [on Army Radio], and I wondered, “Hey, do people really care?”

What’s it like to get something you’ve wanted for such a long time?

It’s an interesting feeling, because most of the time life is filled with disappointments, and you go around with tears in your eyes. I personally always feel that my life is falling apart. And suddenly something like this happens, as though fate is tapping you on the shoulder and telling you, “You’re all right, it’ll be all right.”

You were on a high?

For at least 20 minutes.

Not even a few days?

No, because the thing with a New Yorker cover is that the first New Yorker cover is the easy part. The hard part is to do the second.

And did your life actually change since then?

No. Not in any way.

There’s a lot of the dark side in your illustrations, plenty of blood and violence. Why are you so drawn to that?

That’s a very good question, and I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t actually have a good answer. I don’t know why I always go to the place of monsters. Our life is very normative and very orderly, but even so, there is always also this pit. There is something black seething below, and to behave as though it’s not there is a lot worse than trying to cope with it.

And your illustrations are the way to cope, to be in control?

Yes, because to tell a story is to give meaning to a situation that is by its nature random. It shuts down the anxiety for a few seconds. The idea that I can take very stressful things and arrange them in a logical, aesthetic composition affords me a feeling of control. I am 40. The penny has dropped. I got the message. I understand that if I’m lucky I’ll do another four or five books. I’m working on a book now, and it’s very hard and is taking a long time, and I also have to make a living in the meantime. You can’t make a living from comics. You don’t see a shekel from it. So I’m trying to figure out how to put this Lego together.

It’s interesting that both you and your identical twin brother, Asaf, have the same profession, which is in itself quite rare. Like you, Asaf is a highly regarded illustrator and has worked with the writer Etgar Keret, among others.

Yes, he is very talented, very productive. His style is very different from mine, but also similar in many respects. People often get confused between us and between our work.

You mentioned earlier that you both grew up on Marvel comics, which you got from the United States, on fantasies and superheroes.

All kinds of power and control fantasies of people in tights. Nothing could have been more different from Ramat Ilan, where we grew up, which is a kind of orchard with gray buildings and a highway, opposite the university [in Tel Aviv].

Is it hard when there’s a twin, and on top of that, one who does the same thing you do?

That’s the only reality I know. Look, we both fled from it. We each needed the distance of a whole continent. I went to New York to study, he went to Paris and did very well there. In childhood, even though we were very active socially, we had this bubble of the comics, which no one cared about but us. We were in that bubble until we burst and each of us fled to a different hole. After 10 years we started to get an itch to come back, and we started to work together again. And there is something very strong about our togetherness.

What are you working on together now?

For the past year and a half I’ve been concentrating on a graphic novel that I’m doing together with a good friend, Boaz Lavie, a director and a screenwriter. That’s what we do all day, every day. That story started in 2009, when we pitched the idea to publishers and sold the book in the United States and France.

What’s the story?

Overall, it’s about war orphans in an imaginary country in East Asia. They have super powers, if you remember those twins in Burma.

Is that what you’re working on all the time? Because we have to take a moment to talk about this announcement on your website: “The studio is closed. I will not be taking on new projects at this time. Thank you.”

Yes, I closed the studio.

If I were looking for an illustrator, I would say: Get me this guy, no matter what the cost.

Really? Good. Then I’ll leave it as is. I had no idea. The truth is that I’ve received a few offers like that since I posted the announcement. Look, I’ve already worked with Nike and Microsoft, so the satisfaction won’t come from there, and the fact that you see your name in Time doesn’t solve anything for you and doesn’t set you up for life. I will still take commissions, I will always work, just now I want to deal with the book.

Do you feel that you’ve succeeded, that you’ve arrived?

I’ve noticed, and I also understand that there’s a joke among people in my circle, that I apparently never stop working. I work about 12 hours a day, and it’s rare to find a weekend in the past 15 years when I haven’t worked as well. I am setting holidays aside for the moment, because it’s obvious that they’re the best time to work. In the background we’ve lived in eight apartments and a few continents. My nephews grew up like rockets. So why this obsession to illustrate? I think it’s because I’m afraid to grow up to be the person I think I was supposed to be. Or at least what the army personnel officer and most of my high-school teachers promised I would be: no one.

Tomer Hanuka.Credit: Gali Eytan