by Matt Reingold
Israeli artist Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist is a collection of previously published web-comics gathered together for the first time for an English audience. Within the book, each comic totals one page with the number of panels on each page ranging from one to nine. The comics do not tell one cohesive narrative; yet, there is a relationship between the strips that form a loose connection, both in terms of plot and theme. The characters that are constant throughout the work are Hanuka’s wife and young family, and one of the consistent refrains that is presented throughout are the challenges that Hanuka and his wife have communicating and relating to each other. Another is how Hanuka tries to find ways to make the physical and psychological challenges and dangers of life in Israel fun and safe for his son.
Thematically, the work strikes a dark tone despite Hanuka’s attempts to mitigate the circumstances and insulate his family from the dangers of the modern world. One of the issues Hanuka directly addresses is the limitation that technology has as a tool for simplifying life. Hanuka repeatedly stresses how it is ironic that instead of making his life easier and facilitating better communication, it actually makes it more difficult to relate to and communicate with others. This is evident in multiple strips including one where his wife turns into a monster demanding Apple products from Asaf, another where his son imagines killing Asaf in a game on an iPhone, and another involving Asaf addicted to Facebook “likes” as evidenced by the intravenous line he has set up between himself and his Facebook page. Throughout these panels, Hanuka critiques society’s emphasis on technology and the ways in which people relate to it and make use of it.
Another theme that is present throughout is how humans find creative ways to ignore or distance themselves from the challenges surrounding them. Whether it is Hanuka pretending to be a superhero nursing his crying infant daughter, or as an Olympic athlete for being able to pay his monthly bills, or his son frolicking in a gas mask during a nuclear winter, all three of these scenes present characters ignoring or making light of different difficulties that plague his family and society. At times, however, Hanuka acknowledges that even the blinders we put on cannot make all of the problems of the world go away. This is particularly evident in one of the more powerful strips in the work. Entitled “Underworld,” the page is divided in two, and the top panel colorfully depicts Asaf’s son excitedly opening a box with a Transformers toy inside. The bottom panel shows twelve Asian kids, roughly the same age as Asaf’s own, assembling the toys on a line. Other than the toy itself, the children and setting are muted greys. Part of the strength of the work lies in Hanuka’s use of color and space to clearly demarcate the inverse worlds that the toy has inhabited, and the viewer is left questioning in which world the toy would be most useful and at what cost are we enjoying the things around us.
Despite the negativity, there are some poignant scenes shared between Hanuka and his family. Even though Asaf and his wife have a marriage that is at times strained, they share vacations, bring two children into the world, and experience moments of intimacy together. Asaf is devoted and dedicated to his children, willing to go to great lengths to protect them, no matter the danger or the childish behavior they exhibit in public.
In order to best appreciate Hanuka’s work, it is important to read through it in more than one or two sittings. Beyond the fact that it would be a quick (and pessimistic) read, the panels will blend together and subtle messages will be lost if taken in quickly, all at once. Instead, by proceeding slowly and methodically, and taking the time to digest the pages, a more nuanced analysis of society emerges. Hanuka is a thoughtful practitioner of his craft who is adept at exploring some of the challenges affecting his home nation, like a nuclear Iran, but he is equally capable of sounding the alarm bells of global awareness. Standing near the precipice and what is, to some, the center of the conflict by being located in Israel, Hanuka cautions us against oversimplifying the myriad of obstacles around us or, even worse, willfully choosing to ignore them. Instead, Hanuka offers a sustained statement about the importance of human contact and that, despite its difficulties and dangers, it is, perhaps, the only way out of the challenges that exist around us.
Check out the work of Asaf Hanuka (and his brother Tomer):