War is real, even when there's magic and dragons involved.
The new graphic novel The Divine mixes real-world drama of war, child soldiers and military subcontractors with ideas of mythology, religion and magic. The magic doesn't dull the mesage however, as The Divine tackles a number of true-to-life problems occurring throughout the world: Western interference in the domestic affairs – and conflicts – of other countries, the moral quagmire that corporate mercenaries create, as well as the problem of child soldiers in some third world countries.
Originally published in Europe earlier this year, :01 First Second has brought Boaz Lavie, Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka's wartime OGN to America with its release July 14.
Newsarama spoke with both Boaz Lavie and Tomer Hanuka about what inspired them to create The Divine as well as the process behind bringing this book to readers all around the world.
Newsarama: Boaz, what led you to these themes and issues?
Boaz Lavie: The single most important thing for me is always the story. The only relevant criteria for deciding whether something should be in the book, is only if it's working for, and with, the story. The issues and problems in it, complex and difficult as they may be, serve as building blocks for creating a personal conflict, that of the hero. I believe that if the story is well built, there's no real limit for how many issues a book can deal with. Sometimes, when you deal only with one "issue," it's actually easier for the story to become artificial and didactic, which we all hate. There are always so many problems around us. It's never just one or two. And the global problems in the book are something all three of us are deeply concerned with.
Nrama: I understand the inspiration for this darkly fantastical narrative finds its roots in the real world? Can you talk a little about what you've mentioned as influencing this: Apichart Weerawong’s photograph – and the subsequent story about the two Burmese twins?
Tomer Hanuka: The original news item on NPR already had the stuff of legends: a group of teenagers, running loose in the jungles of Burma and literally kicking the butt of the Burmese army, which is a giant military machine. How could that be? Here is where it gets even weirder: The rebel force was led by pair of pre-teen, twin brothers, allegedly possessing super powers.
As kids, we too wanted to run in a jungle and have magical powers, but we fantasized about it from the safety of our middle class lives. The story of Htoos was a distorted reflection of an interior child, managing to embody our biggest fantasies and our deepest fears, all in a single package.
Nrama: As you mentioned, part of the story behind the real life twins were the supernatural powers they were supposed to possess. How did you go about conducting research for this story and deciphering the urban legends that grew up around these two child soldiers?
Lavie: We read what we could. There’s not a lot of literature about their story - it’s not a classic historical event that too many historians wrote about. So, we put our hands on anything relevant and created our own version of their myth. We’ve knowingly decided to take a few steps away from the real thing. We’ve invented something that is only very loosely inspired by the real Htoo twins story.
Nrama: In some instances, I felt like I was picking up on some connections to Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with the antagonist, Jason, and the parallels of the white man’s exploitation of developing nations between the two are fairly pronounced. Was Conrad’s novella a source of inspiration for you, and if so, in what ways?
Lavie: Conrad for me is a great inspiration, and Heart of Darkness has its echoes in The Divine. The cinematic version of Francis Ford Coppola is also there, somewhere. But there are differences. The main one being the way our protagonist is drawn into this journey. He is tempted into it in a way that is very different from Heart of Darkness, and his development in The Divine can be described as going from "passive" to "active", pretty much the opposite from the way it is in the great novella by Conrad. There we see the western protagonist realize the utter futility of "action", or "ambition", in its typical western sense.
Nrama: Some parts of the comic are exceptionally grounded and feel quite realistic in their depictions; on the other hand, there are moments that are surreal and incredibly visceral. Can you talk a little bit about the influences working their way into this piece along with some of the challenges you faced in blending these two artistic styles to create one cohesive visual narrative?
Hanuka: The book, in part, is a meditation on the very thing you’re describing-- the way sometimes reality cracks, and suddenly something alien erupts through the polished surface of the familiar. My responsibilities were around color, which was designed to both heighten and camouflage this conflict -- to have the mythology exist comfortably, and believably, within a rather brutal reality.
Lavie: As a writer, I'm always looking for ways to make the readers lose balance. But in order to do that, you need to create your own unique balance. In The Divine, the way, for me, was first to establish a highly realistic, mundane, world. There's no hurry to get to the fantastic part. And when we do get there, it is so confusing, I think, because it arrives at a stage you normally know exactly how the story is going to develop, which is true for 99% of narrative art. It is supposedly way too deep, too late, into the story to change tone. But we still do it. We put everything in creating a certain kind of world, then we demolish it. That's my approach to balance.
Nrama: First Second is known for producing only a short number of books from year to year compared to other publishers. What can you tell us about working with them (from initial contact and pitching to the editorial process)?
Hanuka: They’re great. We worked closely with the team at First Second. The pitch consisted of concept art, a short comics ‘trailer’ and an outline of the story. The process of creating the book itself took a good 5 years, in which we got lost and found and tried different things. Calista Brill, our editor, steered us through some rough water, especially in the early stages of constructing the narrative.
Lavie: One of the most fascinating things about the process is that it was done over an extremely long distance. We had many email exchanges with Calista. For instance, we would be sitting in Tel-Aviv while she worked in New York, and personally, I have never met her! Comic-con International: San Diego 2015 has been the first time we’ve met the First Second team we’ve been working with and talking to online for the past 5 years. It’s insane.
Nrama: Although the book it's available in bookstores until July 14, you premiered it early at SDCC: a very mainstream choice for a story that bucks more conventional narrative and artistic sensibilities. Why do you think comic readers need to give this graphic novel a chance?
Hanuka: We intended The Divine to be a high-adrenaline, moving and resonant piece of visual fiction - the type of book that is exciting to read, but also sticks around as you turn it over in your head. It’s themes are universal, and we hope readers find their way to it.