by Pedro Moura
We have been witnessing an international trend of titles that present, time and again, well-rounded and beautifully crafted books, with solid writing and artwork and with grounded premises that, to a certain point, aim at a crossover audience, both in terms of age-range and genre preferences. The authors of these books are not looking for experimentation with the form, I believe, nor with the invention of new genres, but are more focused in mishmashing previously separated territories in order to create wonderfully dynamic and thrilling tales. Curiously, First Second has been the American publisher that has been pursuing this production more attentively. The Divine is a book that can be put in the same line as Paul Pope’s Battling Boy and related titles, Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies, Cory Doctorow’s books, and Bastien Vivès et al.’s Last Man, among others.
As is the case with those titles, The Divine plays considerably with the contemporary dissolution between fiction and non-fiction, genre and so-called “serious” literature (or other media), acknowledging how addressing human experience necessarily entails dealing not only with “just the facts,” but also with one’s fantasies, desires, and dreams. After all, if we follow post-Lacanian discourses, there is nothing beyond the phantasmatic reality of desire. It itself is constituent of that reality. Or, as is usually phrased in that framework, reality is always already informed by desire. Nevertheless, one could think about this breakdown between two seemingly clear (yet always unstable) territories – fantasy vs. realism – as the prototypical bipolarity of post-modernism.
The Divine starts as a realistic book. The high-octane opening scene does not divulge too much to prevent us from thinking we are within a diegetic universe fairly like ours, and the domestic scenes that follow, even if they involve top-notch scientific research and militaristic purposes, do focus the relationships of human beings mired by daily routines and common anguishes. Mark is a newlywed, the promotion he was expecting didn’t come through, and so he takes up his friend Jason’s offer of accompanying him to a secretive military mission somewhere in South East Asia. What ensues is a plunge into an increasingly weird world of ancient magic, beliefs, and hopes, coping mechanisms and choices. The book, then, follows an ages-old, but always efficient structure: it starts off within a framework that makes the reader believe that we are within a familiar, realistic world, dismissing the opening scene as the rambling of the unreliable militarist friend, and then when we are comfortable with that reality, we’re pushed into fantastical territory.
As explained by the authors at the end of the volume, the idea that sparked this book was a 2000 photograph by Apichart Weerawong of the Htoo twins, two twelve-year olds who fought against the Burmese army in an outstanding yet actual action-packed episode of contemporary history. Whereas there are several references throughout The Divine that do point to certain geopolitical and economic issues — the poverty of the masses in the country the characters visit, the intervention of the US army, the idea that countries are explored for their resources, and so on — and to a certain extent we can imagine that actual facts about the Htoo twins played a part in its writing, all of that is but an excuse to create a fantastical story about redemption, family, and individual priorities. It is somewhat tempting to read an autobiographical layer into the text. After all, it’s a book by twins about twins. But then again, taking in consideration the collaboration with writer Boaz Lavie, who directed a short movie in 2009 about two brothers in search of a mythical creature, The Lake, we could go elsewhere. Given the fact that we may abhor biographist readings, we will stick to the text itself.
Ever since the publication of Bipolar, a five-issue comic-book anthology featuring the two Hanuka brothers and published by Alternative Comics between 2000 and 2004, most readers were half-expecting to see a full-book project. The magazine published short solo stories by both Tomer and Asaf, and, in the case of the latter, an adaptation of a novella by Etgar Keret, a favorite writer of other Israeli comics artists of the time, if one recalls the Actus Tragicus collective of the late 1990s. Both brothers dedicated themselves mostly to other media instead of comics, or at least long-form comics, so it was with some expectation that I got news of this project. I also read recently Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist, which is a book-length collection of one-page stories dealing with daily life but transfigured quite often by fantasy. By contrast, The Divine is a confirmation of the authors’ strategy of expression – genuine real life through the prism of the absurd and oneiric fantasy – and their flexibility in exploring diverse themes and storytelling forms.
I do feel sometimes that the book follows Manichaean dualism a little too much. The Divine incessantly underlines dichotomies, such as the ones between nature and civilization, West and East, and mostly through the affect distribution between the male characters. Sometimes it seems a little too much, opposing Rambo-like Jason to the meek, gentle, understanding Mark, and never allowing for one to cross, even if slightly, to the other’s perspective or sentiments. Still, that is precisely the point and mechanism of this sort of stories, which are focused on the action, and how all the elements come together in an elegant developmental storyline.
The art is both stoic and highly stylized. If the character’s necks are rendered uncannily long, their capacity for expression, sometimes in overdramatic tones, is quite nimble, vivid, and plastic. The authors use fine ink lines in order to create enclosed areas, clearly delineated objects but also enmeshed textures, especially noticeable in the forest scenes. Page composition follows mostly classic regular gridlines, always within orthogonal relationships, in order to infuse more power and impact whenever splash pages, page-bleeding, double spreads or, within the panels, oblique perspectives, dramatic close-ups, or silent details are employed.
The use of color is also quite significant. While at first it may seem the authors are following rather classical rules of the ligne claire, with swaths of flat color, they do pursue specific palettes that underline whatever ambience they wish to create. This is particularly visible whenever there are two complementary or even opposite yet connected spaces, as, for instance, linked via a telephone conversation. We have the subdued electrical blues and indigos of an interior at night, conveying a detached sense of protected isolatedness, against the rich yet dull browns, blues and greens of the South East Asian forests, speckled with little dots of light that crosses the canopy, instilling a fresh but enclosed and eerie ambient around the characters. The authors sometimes pursue non-natural effects, such as the bright pinks and purples to signal the presence of magic or the sudden red of a violent action. A particularly beautiful example is page 33, where the small details of a lively red (the planes’ tails, the stop sign) not only strengthen the bleak urban landscape, the isolation and painful separation of Rachel and Mark, but they also echo an earlier episode when the protagonist cuts himself while shaving and becomes the harbinger of the violence to come.
Returning to the opening remarks: perhaps we could call The Divine a “Western shonen comics” project, or something like that. The international trend I mentioned has been common fodder within the highly stratified Japanese pole of comics production for years, but perhaps less so within the West, where, despite it all, the tension between “mainstream genres” and “alternative scenes” is still in place, and that has been precisely eroded by efforts such as these (but also within other realms, such as the crossing of writers such as Brandon Graham and Ales Kot over the divide, or the “art comics” of people like Michael DeForge, Simon Anselmann, Johnny Negron, Olivier Schrauwen, etc.). Perhaps a gender studies perspective would be warranted here, as these are indeed “boys’ adventures,” working within certain unwritten rules and expectations that are explored differently from alternative positions. (See the Tamaki cousins, the Luna brothers, Gene Luen Yang, Derek Kirk Kim, G. Willow Wilson, Noelle Stevenson, and many others as examples of this.)
The Divine is an action-centred book that nevertheless wishes to convey a story about the internal, psychological growth of its main characters via relationships with their close loved ones, but also with overwhelming, fantastic realms. Excellent in its balancing act of domestic, calm scenes and fast-paced development, employing its realist settings and artwork for otherworldly adventures, this book will surely lure younger and older readers alike.
Get your copy of The Divine as well as other comics from Asaf and Tomer Hanuka: