The Man Who Churns Israeli Anxiety Into Comic Art

Asaf Hanuka’s comics column has been translated into nine languages, making local angst universally understood

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Scene from Asaf Hanuka’s autobiographical comic strip “The Realist.”
Scene from Asaf Hanuka’s autobiographical comic strip “The Realist.”Credit: Asaf Hanuka
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

For seven years Asaf Hanuka’s comics column, “The Realist,” has been appearing in the weekend edition of the daily newspaper Calcalist, successfully fusing material from contemporary Tel Aviv life, mundane and gray, together with glittering, dazzling and dreamlike icons of American pop culture.

In his autobiographical column Hanuka offers his readers an intimate glimpse into his challenging, draining and private family life, relationship and career, all against the backdrop of the tumultuous and violent Israeli reality and the struggle to survive within that reality.

The precise blending of exceptionally beautiful and powerful imagery and a revealing and intimate autobiographical text set in Tel Aviv succeeds in touching more universal raw nerves.

A book containing columns from the first four years of “The Realist” has already been translated into nine languages (including French, Italian, Spanish, English, Russian and Korean). It was awarded a gold medal by the American Society of Illustrators and was a contender for the top prize at the important Angouleme International Comics Festival.

Two weeks ago the book won one of the highest achievements in the international comics world. At the Eisner comic industry awards ceremony, the equivalent of the Oscars, “The Realist” was awarded the top prize for best foreign comic strip.

“The Realist” isn’t the only one of Hanuka’s creations that has been successful around the world. The booklet “Bipolar,” which he created in 2002 with his twin brother Tomer, was published in the United States to great acclaim, and his graphic novel “Kamikaze Pizzeria,” based on a novel by Israeli author Etgar Keret, was a contender for the Eisner prize in 2004.

His graphic novel “Divine,” written by the twins together with writer Boaz Lavie in 2015, won global accolades, as well as garnering the most prestigious prize awarded to Manga comic strip writers working outside Japan.

Hilit Shefer.Credit: Gabi Menashe

In an interview held at his studio in south Tel Aviv, Hanuka attributes the birth of “The Realist” to the editor of the Calcalist weekend supplement, Amir Ziv, who in 2009 proposed that he submit a weekly column.

“I was making comics that I thought were funny. Then Amir said ‘listen, you’re not a funny person. Just tell stories from your life without trying too hard.’”

At first Hanuka tried to think of topics that combined his life with financial topics, but he understood that this was fraught with anxiety.

“So I followed that lead, the one with anxieties. I started with that and at some point I told myself that I could also talk about my relationship with my wife, my conceptions of fatherhood, the professional situation I was in, and also about Israel and current events. Gradually, this column became a vehicle which could be applied to any topic.”

The first reader and editor of all his columns is his wife Hilit Shefer, also a successful illustrator, whose work appears in newspapers and periodicals in Israel and abroad, in ads and on book covers. He consults with her a lot, deliberating together how to set limits on the degree of exposure of their intimate family life in his column.

“The stories in The Realist are often very mundane and Asaf’s imagination as an illustrator is what enables him to soar,” says Keret.

“With his help, the description of a situation such as a visit to the National Insurance Institute offices or the need to go into a bomb shelter when you don’t know where your child is allows you to identify emotions you have which you haven’t yet been able to name. It’s a bit of an emotional lexicon that describes what it’s like to live here. Just like in a book where you turn a page and find a butterfly collection, here you find a collection of anxieties and yearnings and guilt feelings that accurately describe life in our reality.

“I think his book is garnering such positive reactions around the world because it humanizes our existential situation here. For people who only know Israel through the lens of CNN, covering mainly terror attacks and soldiers, all of a sudden being exposed to how people raise a family here or how they try to make ends meet, seeing how people live here with nonchalance, in an atmosphere of uncertainty in which wars occur with the frequency of a biennale, this is something that humanizes this place.”
Identical and talented twins

The Hanuka twins, born in 1975, spent their childhood in a suburb close to Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

The most dominant feature in their home was comics. Shipments supervised by an aunt living in the United States ensured a steady stream of Marvel and DC comic books, which became an inseparable part of their daily lives. The brothers not only followed the adventures they saw in the illustrations – they also liked to draw their heroes themselves.

Superheroes, the dichotomy between good and evil and secret identities — these things dictated the games they played with their friends, serving also as a tool for defining themselves.

“My secret identity was an Arab, or Mizrahi [Jew of Middle Eastern origin],” says Asaf. “I grew up in a house in which my mother spoke Arabic to her mother but never to her children. The entire issue of our origins was vague; it wasn’t clear to me where my family had come from. I think my mother, who came from Iraq when she was four, preferred that we, my sister, brother and I, would grow up in a neutral environment with no reference to Ashkenazi or Sephardi origins, so that we would simply be Israelis.

“Arab characteristics, which appeared in the form of language, food and the family’s domestic traditions, were almost a secret. Just as with superheroes, where Clark Kent is actually Superman’s secret, the secret somehow defines him. In the Israel of the 1980s there were no Mizrahi cultural icons. As a child I didn’t see a reflection of myself or my family in Israel’s cultural space. This ostracizing created alienation towards the local culture, which propelled me in other directions, such as American pop, specifically towards superheroes, who all had a secret identity which defined them.”

Hanuka served in the army as a graphic artist in its weekly magazine Bamahane, and after working there for a while he plucked up the courage to suggest to his commanders inserting a comics strip in the magazine.

They agreed to devote the last page of the magazine to this, and Hanuka invited a host of comics artists to publish their work there, from time to time publishing his own work.

Two of his collaborations started in those days. One was with writer Boaz Lavie, with whom he created a subversive comic book series, about a soldier who suffers from post-traumatic stress and deserts the army). The other was with Etgar Keret, who acceded to Hanuka’s request to serialize in comic form stories from his book “Pipelines.”

“As someone who had read many comic books, I felt some alienation towards Israeli culture, since it lacked strong visual images. Its heroes weren’t connected to me in any way and I saw no reflection of myself in them,” explains Hanuka.

“When I read texts by Keret I felt that there was suddenly a connection between some distant American image, absolute and deriving from pop culture, and contemporary Israel, a local Israeli neighborhood. Furthermore, his stories always contain some powerful visual image. So we met and worked together on ‘Streets of Fury.’

He wrote the text and we sat together and considered how to turn them into comic form. The idea wasn’t to illustrate them with comics but to tell a visual story that would parallel the verbal one. My meetings with him changed my life in some ways, since much of my work today is based on this technique.”

Keret explains that the transformation of his stories into comics in Bamahane magazine was creative and moving, managing to carry the texts into other non-trivial places.

“I was quite enthusiastic when I saw them and asked to meet him. I told him that I could write specifically for him, which is how we wrote ‘Streets of Fury,’” recalls Keret. That book was published in 1997. Seven years later the graphic novel “Pizzeria Kamikaze” came out, a comics version of Keret’s book “Kneller’s Happy Campers.”

Following his military service Hanuka lived in Lyons, France for three years, studying at the Emile Cohl School of Art. Every day consisted of eight-hour classes, after which students were graded. Hanuka relates how he was socially disconnected, coming out of his isolation only in 2000 when he moved to Paris, where he resided for a year.

After a few years as an illustrator in France, he returned to Israel and decided to abandon that line of work, taking a job as a graphic designer for an internet company. After a year this new identity imploded. He started illustrating again, working for papers in Israel and abroad, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and GQ.

Tomer Hanuka.Credit: Gali Eitan

He taught at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art while working on “Pizzeria Kamikaze” and on “Bipolar.” At the same time he gazed from afar at his brother, who was doing well in New York.

One must relate to the relationship between the two brothers. They went their separate ways after the army, when Asaf headed to France and Tomer to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts. Immediately after that he began illustrating for top newspapers and magazines, and for over two decades he made a name for himself as a respected illustrator, garnering many prizes.

In 2014 he became the first Israeli illustrator to have his work featured on the cover of the prestigious New Yorker. In one of “The Realist” columns, Asaf Hanuka showed Tomer emerging from a shiny limousine in a fancy black suit and with a big smile, while he stands hunched over on the side, wear shabby clothes and looking gloomy as he opens the limo door for his brother.

They look the same, speak in the same monotonic manner that sounds a bit cynical. They were raised on the same visual imagery and work in the same field. This has led to the fact that over the years they’ve been constantly subjected to comparisons, says Asaf. Their traveling overseas, each to a different destination, was an attempt to construct an independent identity.

“I think each of us went away in order to understand in what way he’s special,” he explains. “Tomer, for me, is like a parallel universe, what I could have become if I’d made slightly different choices. I’ve never illustrated a cover for the New Yorker and probably never will, and I’m completely OK with that. Any competition between us is an interpretation by others, whose role is to explain the flaws in the symmetry between us, but it’s not something that is present in my personal life. I’m happy with his success and with my own lot. People still mix us up, congratulating me for the New Yorker cover, in which case I simply say ‘thank you.’”

How does one deal with envy?

“At a very young age we internalized the fact that envy, even if it exists, is not something we’d devote time to. Even in times when I decided to stop drawing and Tomer was reaping heaps of awards in New York, that wasn’t what motivated me. Drawing is a very intimate thing. It’s me with myself and what I want to do.

"I always supported him, feeling that his success was also my own. He is my closest partner, we’re very involved in each other’s work, and for me this partnership is much stronger than envy. Besides, envy can also be a motivator, since if he wins a prize, why shouldn’t I get one too? After all, our DNA is not that different,” he says with a smile.

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