One of the most visionary new graphic novels of 2015 is The Divine by Boaz Lavie, Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka. The story of a young man and his journey to a strange foreign land and experiences some terrifyingly real magic, the book works on multiple levels: as an adventure novel with monsters and big guns; as a philosophical treatise on topics like magic, children and alienness; and as an allegory for Western imperialism and might. As you might expect from such a complex and wide ranging book, my conversation with Asaf and Tomer at this year’s San Diego Comic Con was a fascinating philosophical discussion that ranges wide and far, and I think makes for interesting reading.
Asaf Hanuka: I came here and I met Scott McCloud in person. He’s someone I’ve admired since I was a kid. The theoretically thoughts that I had about what it means to make comics and how to make it, they are from his books. I actually met him. I see all these people who are really doing it for a living. It’s feeling like a dream is like a reality. This is sort of a family.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Have you felt like you are really far away from comics in Israel?
Hanuka: There is no industry in Israel. Already it’s a small country, so there are very few people to buy anything. But people really love books. They really love books. I think there is something fundamental in the Jewish religion that images are prohibited because God is abstract. A text is something that can be abstract. We cannot portray God as an image. It’s not the guy with the beard. Of course, I’m not religious.
Boaz Lavie: It’s getting philosophical now.
CB: Yes, this is interesting. I’m also Jewish, I should say. But I wasn’t brought up religiously.
Hanuka: This is my guess why comics never worked in Israel. Maybe it will someday.
CB: That’s an interesting point. I don’t know how it is there, but there is a traditional especially among my grandparents’ generation of Jews going into the entertainment business. I actually have a great-uncle who recently passed away who was a talent agent. It was something that people in his cohort moved towards.
Hanuka: You know what else? Big comics creators in America were Jews. It does have a connection point. I think the storytelling is something of Jewish influence.
CB: Have you read the books like Yossel that Joe Kubert created?
Hanuka: I have read. I got to meet Joe Kubert when he was in Israel. He actually signed his book, but it wasn’t Yossel; it was something else.
CB: That must have been a thrill.
Hanuka: Even the guys who created Superman, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, these guys are like the giants.
Lavie: It developed as a subculture. Entertainment is something in Israel that was never too big. Only things that were considered highbrow, serious writing, everything. Pop culture in Israel in general is something which is very underdeveloped. I would say that comics being pop culture, it’s part of the nonexistent Israeli pop culture.
CB: Do you think that is part of why you took a different approach than an American might have taken to The Divine? For one thing, you spent a lot of time in the early part with the family showing their relationships. And then the second half, it feels very alienating, I think on purpose if I read it right. Do you think some of the isolated nature of Israeli cartooning fed into that?
Hanuka: You are saying you feel if this story was created by an American team, then there would be less time before the departure to the jungle?
CB: Yeah, I really feel that way. And then when he gets there, it would be maybe grander. You would see the monsters early on and you would see the superpowers maybe bolder.
Lavie: Maybe because we are not a part of the American culture, we put more effort in portraying this American family from an outside point of view. Something like that maybe.
CB: I’m just kind of throwing out ideas. I don’t want to impose any sort of culture value on you either because you are both individuals creating an individual work of art.
Hanuka: Your interpretation is that the beginning of the story we really took our time. We really took our time before anything dramatic happens. But it was important for us to create tension in ordinary life. When a guy sees the fetus on the screen, it’s also sort of a monster. It’s also coming from darkness that is going to change everything.
I think we need to really understand the tension Mark, this hero, has in his ordinary kind of life in the fact he’s becoming a father and that doors at work are maybe not opening like he would have liked. We need to understand that so we would believe and we would be happy to go with him to this imaginary place of childhood, which is the jungle.
CB: Imaginary place of childhood?
Hanuka: In a way, it’s just a metaphor. I’m just throwing ideas out.
CB: That’s what you are supposed to do in interviews, right? Pull out the metaphors and try to see what they mean. I’m curious what you were thinking when you were picking an imaginary place of childhood. Obviously there are the child warriors there.
Hanuka: I think it’s a theme in the story that I found interesting. It’s about fatherhood. It’s about when you become a father, what do you lose? These children were left alone with no adults, with no fathers to take care of them, so they were not in safety. They became kind of monsters in the way that their childish plays, dreams, and fantasy became reality because everyone else around them believed that there is a dragon and they have superpowers.
CB: Wow, that’s very interesting.
Hanuka: You didn’t see it that way?
CB: I’m kind of taking it in. They manifested these abilities because they essential believe they have these abilities?
Hanuka: There was no adult to tell them-
CB: To tell them they didn’t.
Hanuka: – you have to stop here. It just grew.
CB: That’s an interesting metaphor. It drives away the kind of invaders. It keeps them focused in their world, but it also isolates them on some level.
Hanuka: I think it’s also a reaction to a Western power that has a list of interest, which are basically economic. They need these village to wipe out because they have this thing, the mountain, because they need some kind of material. They happen to meet someone with a different set of believes, someone who is alien who doesn’t believe in this system of money, who has other interests, who believes in gods.
I think every time you go out of yourself, your house, or your neighborhood, you meet a different kind of culture. The first thing you do is to say bullshit and you don’t believe it and it’s just fairy tales. But in their world under their rules, it’s possible. It’s also maybe this culture clash between Western and Asian.
CB: Do you see that, too?
Lavie: Of course I agree with many of the things Asaf says.
I think the question of being an adult, a father in this case, is something that really gives the tone. You can take almost every part of it and every question you have, you can shed a light through asking how is it related to the process of becoming a father?
The question of reality versus fantasy, the first part of the book is something we really felt we had to lay the ground for the things that are going to happen later on. In order for the fantasy to be so outlandish, so crazy, and so disturbing, something has to happen which is complete contrast to it. For us, it was just life in an ordinary American place with the conflict on the border of becoming something else, becoming a father. In order to become a father, one has to give up certain things. For us, it’s about giving up fantasy.
The difference, if I really can put it in a very short, concise way, between a child and being a father to a child is there’s a border and it is about fantasy. When you are a child, fantasy is something you can accept and be a part of your life. You can just live in a fantasy world. But once you become a father, you have the responsibility towards your kids to give them the right what is real and what is not real. You have to know it. You have to be very clear about it. In our culture, if it’s still confused, then something is wrong with you. If you cannot tell your own kid, “This is reality. This is fantasy. This is real and this is superhero. This is a book.”
Lavie: With The Divine, where these kids, as Asaf said, they have no families and no fathers. There is no right and wrong, fantasy and reality. Everything is so mixed up and so confused. When Mark, the hero of the book, goes to there, for him, that’s the kind of goodbye to fantasy. The lines are blurred. That’s the last time in his life that lines will be blurred because he’s going to become a father.
CB: I don’t want to assume anything about your personal lives, but there is a paradox if you are father yourselves creating this work of fantasy.
Lavie: There is a paradox in being a father and coming here.
CB: Oh, yeah. It’s interesting. I have three kids myself. I love my fantasy life. I spend a lot of time in my world. There’s a question of reconciling your everyday, ordinary existence with the fantasies you want to keep alive, too. Your life doesn’t end when you have your first child either.
CB: And your imagination doesn’t end.
Hanuka: I think part of your life does end- the part that is young and wants no responsibility and stays up all night. I used to really have a different life. Now I have two kids. I used to be smoking nonstop and working all night. Naturally I communicated with anyone, not giving a damn about anything. I really was being very marginal in society. Once the family made me a normal person in a way because I have to go kindergarten and speak to other parents. I have to take care and see that they eat well and dress well and all that. I had to become responsible.
I do think, yeah, sure, I have my fantasies because I love reading comics, so I still read them. But it’s very controlled. It’s this portion of the book I’m going to read for this hour and that’s it. I’m not going to live in like a never-ending circle.
CB: Yeah, that’s the maturity that comes from having your responsibility.
Hanuka: And care, yeah.
CB: Putting it in this specific place now instead of having it take over your life.
Hanuka: It’s on the shelf. It’s this form. That’s it.
Lavie: I have a six-year-old son and I have to only recently thought about life and truth, real and not real. I realized during the last couple of months or maybe one and half years, that I have give him the lesson that lying is okay if it is fiction, if it is a story, if it is on TV, if it is film, but lying is not okay when it is in reality. But that’s something that I really had to… It wasn’t easy for me to accept this idea because as a writer, when I go into writing, I lie. I invent stuff. Why is it okay? It’s okay I guess (I don’t know exactly) because I understand something that has to do with being an adult. It’s actually not about being a father, but at some point you realize when it’s okay to live or to in a fantasy. Lying is living in a fantasy world in a sense, yes?
CB: I went to dinner with a group of writers from my site last night. We were talking about why we enjoy writing criticism. I like writing especially long form criticism. To me, it’s way of thinking through my reaction to a work and allowing the work to kind of present a view of the world. I wrote a long piece on Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.
Hanuka: One of my favorite books.
CB: I’m curious, how did you interpret the theme of that book?
Hanuka: First of all, I read it when I was a teenager. I think that’s the point in my life where I realized that I don’t care about superheroes anymore and that I’m looking for something else. That book was for me the door for everything that is interesting for me now. I still remember the story very well. For me it was a metaphor about a relationship that is coming to an end. And how someone he used to be very closed to, he end up seeing in some porn thing, right?
Hanuka: How did this thing you cherished and you loved and was perfect become the most mundane and dirty?
CB: That’s a major lie, but it also illuminates your life in some way because you can look at that and say, “This is the portrait of a relationship that is breaking,” and it has meaning in your life. To me, that is maybe the difference between something you enjoy and something is more artful. That is, by the way, what Clowes said at a convention I was at that the book was about; it’s about his break-up with his first wife.
Hanuka: He’s married now?
CB: Yeah, he has been married I guess for quite some time. I actually had an alternative take on it, which may be a little more shallow than yours, which is Clay sees a work of art that profoundly changes his life. He sees the first movie, which is a very desultory porno, right? The one with the jagging breasts and the men with the big guts. The second one is dramatically different from anything he’s ever experienced in his entire life that it changes him where his entire way of perceiving the world is different. Even something as normal as a dog becomes that strange, headless creature.
Hanuka: Yeah, I remember that.
CB: It’s scene after scene of him trying to find his way in the world.
CB: By the end when he’s in the wheelchair, he’s kind of essentially broken by his experiences, but in some ways he’s also reborn.
Hanuka: So that work of art was like a time bomb that changed him.
Hanuka: Interesting. It makes sense.
CB: I chatted with Clowes after the panel about my interpretation. I said, “How do you interpret the story?” He said, “I can’t interpret it in any other way than what I’ve seen.” I explained it to him and he said, “That seems valid. That is very interesting.” My point is not to share that. It’s great to have this conversation. But my point is I think part of the pleasure of consuming these lies so to speak is to be able to kind of illuminate your life in some way.
Lavie: Our productive lies, I think. They give you different kinds of truths- the mess and theatre. It’s an experience that is a reflection. It’s very important. There’s a great role in our lives. And our lives are of course just lies and new quality of lies. I don’t know exactly how to call it. That’s the difference. I think growing up is about understanding the difference. You can be a good person, no lying, but still create completely imaginary stuff that gets to change people’s lives.
CB: Right. I don’t think a book like The Divine is a lie. I think it is a kind of illumination of your other world, right? Sorry, I didn’t mean to do a Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron to you.
Hanuka: This French philosopher– I think it was Jean Baudrillard — said the screen, also the page, the frame, the comic book page is a mirror. Actually you are looking at a mirror. It’s a twisted mirror is going to make your forehead look too big. But it is a mirror. A work of art for me, if it’s a good work of art… Like when I was a teenager and I read Velvet Glove, I felt it was some echo of what I was feeling with my failed relationship with girls at the time. This is how it feels like to be left alone, to be broken, to not manage to fix your relationship. It was like mirroring something that I felt. It helps to understand it. I don’t think it’s a lie; it’s more of a reflection for me.
CB: I like that a lot. I think that is why in the end we want to enjoy the art that we enjoy. It is in some way to illuminate our life, whether it’s The Wire TV show, for example. It is American society.
Lavie: It’s amazing, yeah.
CB: Oh, yeah. Well then you need to watch it, right?
Hanuka: I have to convince my wife because we need to watch it together on date nights.
Lavie: Oh, it is really a top three narratives, creations ever. Amazing.
CB: Yeah, I agree with that. I’m not super fond of the fifth season, the newspaper season.
Lavie: Okay, yeah.
CB: But Amsterdam especially.
Lavie: Oh, yeah.
CB: And the characters.
Lavie: It’s amazing, yeah. It’s so well told and so deeply I wouldn’t even say researched because it’s so there. It’s so believable. It’s really a rare piece of art. Yeah, it’s amazing.
CB: You have a long flight home. You can start watching.
Lavie: I watched [the HBO documentary series] The Jinx. Did you see it?
CB: No, I haven’t.
Lavie: I watched the entire six episodes on my flight from Israel.
CB: There’s a great example. The lies.
CB: On top of the truth on top of more lies.
Hanuka: It’s the art of lying maybe.
Lavie: There’s a very, very interesting discussion there in the series about these lies and layers of lying and being caught. Your whole life is based on a lie.
Hanuka: I would agree that something very basic I feel as an illustrator working in comics, I have to create from nothing or a white paper and pencil, something that looks like reality and the real world would accept as reality. He knows it’s not real; it’s just a drawing. But it can be drawn in a way that will convince him it’s a character and he has feelings or he’s doing the movement. I think there is a craft to writing and illustrating that needs to be very relative. But of course, we know it’s just made up.
CB: It comes from your imagination after all.
Lavie: Still we must be very, very good at it, you know? Creating a very, super highly believable world, which is important.
CB: How tightly did you design the country where they went to, where the Divine lived?
Lavie: Quanlom. I suppose it was inspired by real cultures and real histories and real religions. But at the end, we felt that we wanted to create our own vision of the place, a dream, without being limited to specific histories and specific stories or anything. That’s why we invented this place. We invented the nation. The story is very loosely inspired by a real story of the Htoo twins fighting in Myanmar during the late nineties.
CB: I thought that was very interesting at the end of the book, that picture of them. How closely did you base it on them? Or was it more of a matter of inspiration?
Lavie: It was an inspiration, but at the beginning of the process, we put lots of effort into researching and Asaf’s twin brother, Tomer, created the concept art based on the religions in the area. But at a certain point, when we actually started working on the story on The Divine, we really said goodbye to the real history and started inventing our own story. That’s the way to do it.
CB: It becomes more allegorical rather than specific.
Lavie: Exactly. It’s a tale. We are not in the position to tell their real story. It’s too complicated. We’re not historians. We’re not into it. There is a danger that if you take the real story and try to create a bio piece or something like that and the facts are not right. We didn’t want to go there. We wanted to tell our own personal story through these ideas of those very basic elements of twin brothers with magical powers, an American that goes there, something like that. Creating our own set of rules and telling our own story through them in a very positive way, not abusing the real story. Treating it as an amazing inspiration for us as artists.
CB: It’s respectful of the true story. They are very interesting characters on their own. What you are talking about them being the people left free to kind of develop how they need to develop, it’s very intriguing.
Hanuka: On the surface, it creates a story. The news story, it’s too amazing to write a comic version of. The decision actually was transformative and he convinced us to take the inspiration, research the aesthetic elements and some of the religious elements, but really create something different. It was the only way to make it creative for us.
CB: Going back to the lie, Mark lies to himself all throughout the story and suffers physical pain because of it. He nearly dies because of it. He loses his finger (Spoilers). Is this cost for not becoming truly an adult? Or is this him learning to become an adult?
Lavie: He also lies to his wife.
CB: Yeah. And honestly if I was in her position, I would consider if I wanted him to come back.
Lavie: That’s true.
Hanuka: I think he’s a character that doesn’t take sides until a very late point in the story. And as Israeli, I feel that all the time there is a current conflict in our lives with the Palestinians and occupation and the Israeli side. It has a lot of gray areas. It’s not black and white. It’s not only good and bad. It’s very, very ugly and complicated. But there is a point where a man needs to take a stand and choose a side. There is a war. You have to choose a side. I feel he’s a character who has something impotent about him not confronting his boss, not confronting his wife, not confronting his friend.
Lavie: Not confronting his future, his own future, as a person.
Hanuka: It’s like not really deciding what is bad and what is good. That’s also being an adult, saying, “I’m on this side and whatever happens, I’m going to take it.” This is why he was lying because he couldn’t be on a specific side.
Lavie: Yes, I agree. I think he’s in a way punished for lying. Not in a very simplistic way, but the finger, whatever happens to him, the fact that (Spoilers, spoilers) he’s getting punished for. And he learns in a big way that he must take a stance. Taking a stance was the next step for him. That’s his own evolution as a person and as a character, taking a stance. It’s becoming a man I think.
CB: In that way, it’s kind of allegorical. He’s forced to confront a round of creatures that is not becoming a man and he comes back profoundly changed.
Lavie: Exactly. Not necessarily happier, but changed.
CB: No, parenthood has a lot of challenges all throughout your life. My oldest is starting graduate school.
Hanuka: How old is he?
CB: He’s twenty-four.
Hanuka: Twenty-four is good.
CB: He’s ready for that.
Hanuka: It pays off, really.
CB: Yeah, well, yeah. There’s a lot of pain and a lot of pleasure along the way.
Lavie: Exactly, lots of pain and lots of pleasure.
Lavie: I think everything becomes more rich in a way. The experience of becoming a true person is richer, deeper.
CB: The stakes of your life become more important, like you were saying. Everything you do has a lot of different meaning, from the food you eat to when you go to sleep to the job you choose to the car you drive.
Hanuka: I think the biggest change, and Mark also understands it, is in the end, when you become a father, it’s not about you. It’s not about you. You are now secondary. There’s someone more important and it’s about him.
CB: It’s shocking too when you have a new baby in the house. It’s like a literally an alarm several times a day saying, “It’s not about you. Do you the thing you have to do now.”
Lavie: Exactly. There’s a greater ego here. There’s no room for your ego and your baby’s ego. There’s a hungry ego and you have feel it. End of story.
CB: Gina [Gagliano, publicist at First Second Books] told me that The Divine has been one of the best-selling books on the table this week at least so far.
Lavie: We are happy about it.
CB: Is there is anything you hope the readers take from the book and kind of see their life?
Hanuka: I hope they will be open to read it in more than one level. I think it’s very easy to read it as an adventure story with magic. This is the first level and I hope it will be enjoyable at this level. But I hope the readers will be reading to look to what’s underground.
Lavie: There’s a lot, yeah. I think I would like to add the book is not easily categorized. It takes some generals. It mixes up elements from different kinds of comics and literature and filmmaking. Some people read some times expect a very certain experience when they open a book and are going through it. “Is it action? Is it fantasy? Tell us what it is.”
As Asaf said, we believe that if our readers will open up their minds to the experience, which is not a specific one. It’s something else, something new. Also it’s an adventure that also is a book. The reader is going through something which I believe is unusual and I think it pays off.
CB: Much of American fictions are handing you the same thing in different formats or different presentations. This is different. Maybe that’s what I was getting at early on about this having kind of a different view of things.
Lavie: Yeah, I think the fact that we are not Americans and we are not French; we are Israeli. We are outsiders. We are aliens. It gives us more of an advantage. We are not limited. We are not used to anything in particular. We can create very freely, mix stuff. And of course anyone can do that, but grew up in a place where there is no book culture, no genres, nothing. You can just create whatever you do. That’s because it’s like a desert. We feel like pilgrims to our own kind of storytelling in comics making. That’s The Divine.
Hanuka: You know, when I was very young and we had these Spider-Man and Avengers and X-Men comics in the house because we had family in L.A. that sent us, I didn’t know to read English. I looked at the pictures of the superhero jumping from the roof and had my own stories inside this weird world of buildings and superpowers. It was me with the guy I hated in the neighborhood or my friend. I injected my own story and life into this comics imagery. I think The Divine uses all the language of comics that I adore and I learned and research, but with a different content. I hope it’s something chewable and edible for an American reader.