'Divine' Inspiration in Depths of Myanmar Jungle for Israeli Graphic Novelists

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

When twin brothers Tomer and Asaf Hanuka attended the comic-book world’s equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival in January, they unveiled their latest graphic novel, “The Divine.” Along with filmmaker, cowriter (and old friend) Boaz Lavie, their presence at the Angoulme International Comics Festival sparked much excitement.

The brothers’ reputation is so strong, two important publishers agreed in advance to release their graphic novel (France’s Dargaud and the U.S. First Second Books – owned by publishing giant Macmillan). And the expectations the book aroused among graphic novel fans caused the book to sell out in fewer than two days. That Asaf was also a candidate for the prestigious Angoulme prize for his autobiographical graphic novel “The Realist” also helped draw much attention to the table where the three sat and signed copies of their latest work.

If a book could blush, then the critical response to “The Divine” would have merited such a reaction. Publishers Weekly chose it as one of this spring’s top 10 leading graphic novels, calling it “visually striking,” a “standout” and “heady, hellacious, and phantasmagoric.”

Although the trio are Israeli, they haven’t published their graphic novel in Hebrew, and for now no local publishers have jumped at the chance to publish it. Instead, you’ll be able to read it in either French or English (the English edition is scheduled for publication on July 14). As it turns out, the three creators didn’t exactly knock themselves out trying to get “The Divine” published in Israel.

From 'The Divine,' by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, and Boaz Lavie.

The Hanuka brothers are among the best-known and most-respected illustrators and comic-book writers in Israel. Tomer returned to Israel two years ago, after a long spell in New York, where he spent less time working on comics and more on providing illustrations for leading U.S. magazines like The New Yorker (where his “Perfect Storm” illustration graced the cover in February 2014) and Newsweek.

Asaf has illustrated two books with writer Etgar Keret (“Streets of Rage” and the children’s comic “Pizzeria Kamikaze”); published two others in French (along with a French author); and provided illustrations for many newspapers in Israel and overseas. For the past five years he has also penned a weekly comic strip, “The Realist,” in Yedioth Ahronoth’s business daily, Calcalist. Two collections of these comic strips were published overseas, received rave reviews and were translated into six languages.

“We didn’t publish ‘The Divine’ in Israel because Tomer knew people in New York, I knew people in France, and it was the most natural thing for us since they’re people we know, and we knew they’d want to see what we offered them,” says Asaf, during a recent interview with the three collaborators.

Because of the non-Israeli content of the novel – it’s set in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Quanlom, where an explosives expert is hired to blow up an entire mountain – the trio didn’t even consider publishing it here, says writer Lavie. “Its subject isn’t limited to our identity as Israelis. We had the freedom to publish it overseas and had the feeling it could sell there. In Israel, by comparison, it’s not clear who would buy it beyond fans of the genre – and they read English, in any case,” he adds.

‘Realist’ approach

They would, of course, love to see their graphic novel come out in Hebrew, but know the chances aren’t great. Asaf says he actually approached Israeli publishers about “The Realist.” “They said they loved it but didn’t think it would be profitable,” he admits. “It’s disappointing, since this stuff is so local – it’s about Israel, Tel Aviv, my life – yet I can’t manage to find a home for it here.”

“In Israel, comics are not an industry,” volunteers Tomer. “It’s art. Since it’s not profitable, because there aren’t enough readers of comics here, you can’t expect a return. And so every big project is aimed first at the international market.”

“The Divine” is a very well-written graphic novel, smartly placing reality in conflict with fiction, realism with fantasy, and men clinging to their “adultolesence” in conflict with children in a hurry to grow up. The brilliant illustrations by the Hanukas aren’t just serving the story: sometimes they’re so amazing, there’s no choice but to linger on them, dive into the reality they create and give yourself over to the fantasy.

It all started eight years ago in New York, when Tomer was listening to NPR on the radio and heard a story that grabbed his attention. “It was the story of a photographer who traveled to the jungle in Burma and met two 9-year-old twins who were leading a rebel militia against the Burmese army, and everyone believed they had superpowers,” he recalls. “After that, when I saw the photographs of the twins I told Asaf, ‘Come on, let’s do something with it.’ We wanted to do something together, and it seemed a good place to start.”

Johnny and Luther Htoo. Photo by AP

The well-known picture of Burmese twins Johnny and Luther Htoo – in which one looks tough, smoking a cigarette, while the pretty and gentle face of his brother looks on behind him – helped spread the story of these young boys in the “God’s Army” guerilla group. It was in 1997 when a local pastor got them to join the rebels. A short time later, they led their guerillas to an impressive victory over the regular Burmese army, which immediately led to rumors that the two were invulnerable to bullets and explosives, and could kill their enemies through thought alone.

Twins themselves, the Hanuka brothers were quickly drawn to the story. They read everything they could about the Htoo brothers, learning about their lives and environment, collecting every scrap of cultural, social, geographic and military information concerning them.

“We tried to research their world of imagery, to understand what their religion involved, what idols there were there. We didn’t want our story to fall into representing clichés of monsters, but to work with the reality and create something from within them,” explains Asaf. “There was an interesting mix between East and West there – Disney shirts with army shirts over them – and a melting pot of a number of cultures: a bit pagan, a bit Buddhist, a bit Western,” notes Tomer.

The Htoo twins sent the Hanukas back to their own childhoods, to a time when they never fought in the ranks of a rebel militia but simply consumed enormous quantities of U.S. comics. Two decades on, the Burmese twins still succeeded in working their magic powers on these Israeli brothers.

“They were a riddle for us,” says Asaf. “Because as twin boys we read too many American comic books, we really dreamt we had superpowers. And suddenly, we ran into a story of twin boys who really had such powers – and in a real war. Okay, not really, but at least in their world.”

The hero of “The Divine” is Mark, an ex-military man who’s about to become a father. He has various fears about this dramatic change, which causes him to agree to a proposal from Jason, a friend of his from their army days. Together, they set off on a secret mission to an Asian country where a civil war is waging. There, deep in the heart of the jungle, the story’s realistic tone slowly starts to crumble under the weight of fantasy. Mark meets the 10-year-old twins who lead the local army. Thanks to their superpowers, they easily subdue any adult who crosses their path, using giant fighters, bloody battles and even a terrifying dragon.

In 2009, the Hanukas and Lavie signed a contract with Dargaud and First Second Books, and were sucked into five years of intensive work.

As opposed to many graphic novels, where there is a clear division between the writer and illustrator, Lavie and the Hanukas decided to work in tandem. Lavie wrote the story while consulting with the brothers, and then sat together with Asaf as they broke the story down into scenes. Asaf drew the illustrations and then gave them to Tomer, who added color and atmosphere. Each had a mandate to express their opinion, to criticize and demand changes from the others at any stage. “It was a bit like a band playing,” says Lavie, “an interactive creation.”

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