“The Realist,” Asaf Hanuka, Pardes Press, 190 pages, 125 shekels
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In mid-July I boarded a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I was planning to be in the city for a few days for the film festival, and I shoved my suitcase deep into the bus’ luggage compartment. On the way, stuck in traffic somewhere between Sha’ar Hagai and the city that’s the epicenter of much of the chaos in this part of the world, a sense of gloom began to come over me. To cheer myself up, I began texting with my partner on WhatsApp. As long as I don’t forget my suitcase on the bus, I wrote her, I might just survive this city. The year before I’d forgotten my suitcase on the train. This time I was determined not to endure a repeat of that exhausting scenario.
Soon afterward I was in a cab speeding toward the Jerusalem Cinematheque. My thoughts wandered to the press conference with guests from France to which I was hurrying, but just as I went to pull out my wallet to pay the driver, it hit me — The suitcase, damn it! I didn’t have it. In a glorious act of amnesia worthy of analysis on a shrink’s couch, I had left it on the bus, in the luggage compartment. My desperate phone calls to the Egged bus company and a frantic ride back to the station were to no avail. “The police bomb squad handled it,” an Egged employee informed me laconically.
A few days later, when I went to collect the suitcase’s charred remains and ventured to look inside to see what had become of my things, my copy of “The Realist” was staring right back at me. Unlike some of my favorite items of clothing, Asaf Hanuka’s comic book had heroically survived the Jerusalem explosion unscathed. The lovely illustration on its cover suddenly made me smile. In it, Hanuka looks beaten and battered, slack and bloodied, as if given the not-so-gentle treatment by the bomb squad. He’s sitting there exhausted, hurt, barely hanging on, in the corner of a boxing ring (or is it the site of a terrorist attack? Reality and imagination got jumbled in my mind for a moment). In contrast to his dead-eyed black-and-white figure, his son right in front of him stands firm and erect, in color, waving two red-gloved fists as if to say: “No bomb squad is gonna mess with me.” I chuckled at this sweet optimism and naiveté. But a moment later I also felt the undercurrent of pain the figure exuded.
This is the power of “The Realist.” It manages to create characters who are tethered to the here and now, using very powerful visual imagery that at first is dazzlingly beautiful, but just a moment later somehow conveys the boundless despair — whether it be from economic problems, social ills, the security situation or something else — of contemporary Israeli life. Hanuka’s comic strip collection takes readers on a journey through a harsh and sweaty Tel Aviv reality, and sweeps them up into a whirlwind of beauty, pain and weariness, with glimmers of joy peeking through now and then. It invites readers to bounce back and forth between their own lives and Hanuka’s, to find solace in seeing that he, too, is groaning under the same burdens, and to escape sometimes into the illustrations, the characters, the whole aesthetic experience that he offers, and to take pleasure in deciphering Hanuka’s unique visual language.
“The Realist” is an anthology of the comic strips by that name that Hanuka, one of Israel’s top cartoonists, has published in the Calcalist newspaper since 2010. Over the past couple of years, the book was published in numerous languages, earned wide acclaim, and in 2016 brought Hanuka the Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comics world. Only after “The Realist” won the award for Best Foreign Book did an Israeli publisher agree to publish the book whose every page drips with what it means to be an Israeli nowadays.
Hanuka’s comic strip is autobiographical. In it, he combines — always on a single page — experiences from family life, marriage, parenthood, work and his art. He uses his talent for illustration to record his life, to ponder it, to extract small moments of grace as well as moments of struggle. A lot of struggle. He’s more concerned with self-flagellation, self-mockery and misgivings about how he goes about his life, then with celebrating what’s worth celebrating. But this self-flagellation becomes all the more powerful when it transcends the personal and private and connects to a collective “here and now.”
For example, a strip he drew during the 2011 social protests engages in some time travel: “In 2050 my son will be the age that I am now. He’ll look like me, only better,” Hanuka writes. He’ll live in a tiny residential cubbyhole. It will be after the big war, and luckily he’ll have enough money for the down payment on this cubby. He’ll remember that the trees on the boulevard were once real and not made of plastic, he’ll recall how he saw police officers beating a homeless guy with clubs and wonder where all the people who were swallowed up in patrol cars disappeared to.
The illustrations combine gray with fluorescent green, the young Hanuka sports a futuristic haircut and computer-generated geometric elements float around him —God knows what app they’re attached to. The only solace the son can find in his shattered country is in his ownership of his pathetic little apartment.
In another visually stunning strip, Hanuka presents a single large illustration rather than a series of panels. His illustrated alter ego sits at a desk. The computer monitor on it shows a random Facebook page. A cable extending from the computer winds its way across the floor and up into a vein in Hanuka’s arm. His head lolls backward, he has an empty, zombie-like gaze and a stream of blue sleeves, a thumb-extended fist at the end of each one, pours from his gaping mouth. The overgrown “like” icons fill the room, overflow the waste basket and scatter on the floor. The strip is called “Likeaholic.”
In other strips, Hanuka tells how his Mizrahi appearance makes him immediately suspect at the airport and has us join him as he endures an overly thorough security check; draws himself being controlled by some sort of Big Brother that tells us that his comic strip is just a pathetic version of a brutal reality, as we see him sweating hard to come up with an idea for a strip four hours before deadline.
“The idea doesn’t matter, as long as it has a funny ending, something that everyone will get and not just you,” his wife tells him, incidentally reassuring readers who don’t always get the punch line of his comic strips.
That’s definitely part of the fun of “The Realist”: deciphering the imagery, analyzing the context, seeing your life reflected in Hanuka’s illustrated world. That happens quite a lot (fortunately, and unfortunately), and when it comes wrapped in such precise and beautiful illustrations that fluctuate on the scale between realistic and surrealistic, it’s highly enjoyable.
Some of the strips in the book are better than others. Some are real genius while in others the point is a bit weak. Sometimes the format, which requires you to dive into a new story with each turn of the page, can be a little tiring. Still, “The Realist” is a real gem of Israeli comics, a work that combines visual brilliance with an expressive and effective depiction of modern Tel Aviv life.
Hanuka, a longtime fan of American comic strips, sometimes relies on his legendary superheroes to reveal the superpowers that contemporary Israeli life draws out of all those who are determined to survive here.
Even Superman, he shows us, can be sweaty and weary when he has to schlep bags from the supermarket, watch the baby, keep his marriage afloat, take out a mortgage and go through life with a ton of anxieties.