The Divine is the story of duality. The transportive graphic novel from writer Boaz Lavie and illustrators Asaf and Tomer Hanuka takes two tragic, real-world figures—the Htoo twins, Myanmar refugees who spurred a rebel movement of children soldiers—and injects them into a technicolor fable of jungle magic and spiritual warfare. The twins fight to repel a U.S. military operation to blow up a sacred mountain in their fictional home of Quanlom. A lone contractor, Mark, ventures into this tense battleground where Western politics clash against ancient gods and abandoned sons.
A litany of contrasting themes wind throughout The Divine: Pragmatism vs. Mysticism; Nature vs. Industry; Young vs. Old; Suburban vs. Exotic; West vs. East; Life vs. Death. But the Hanuka’s focus on binary relationships started off on a much more fundamental observation: Tomer and Hanuka were also twins who spent time in the military, having served the three years of mandatory service in their home of Israel when they turned 18. The pair also first met Lavie during this period.
The resulting work pivots from brutal depictions of realpolitik apathy to candy-colored fantastical ultraviolence, striking an intoxicating balance between Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), Katsushiro Otomo (Akira) and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.
Though the Htoo twins ceased their rebellion against their native country in 2011 after a democratic government replaced military dictatorship (the pair briefly reunited in two years ago), their mythology and universal lesson live on in this book. Tomer (Bipolar) and Asaf’s (The Realist) vivid renderings turn these hushed legends into an often brutal and alluring fever dream informed by Asian history. Paste sat down with Boaz and Asaf during San Diego Comic-Con to discuss how their experience influenced the book, the otherworldly world creation and whether child soldiers can ever be heroes.
Paste: How did you first conceive The Divine?
Boaz Lavie: It happened in 2007 when Tomer Hanuka listened to an NPR radio show about these twins fighting in Myanmar, having this small army of kids—God’s Army. They supposedly possessed magical powers and everyone treated them like religious figures. We were really amazed by the story and we found this photo by Apichart Weerawong [for AP], which is in the book. It’s from 2000, right after they tried to take down some hospital in Thailand. They held hostages there. The Thai army captured them and that was the end of that army, pretty much.
The photograph was the first inspiration for starting the long process of research. Tomer did most of it. Reading and buying books about Myanmar and about those kids, and creating some early concept art. And then he started working on it with [his brother] Asaf for a while. And then I joined in and started working as a writer on this project. In 2009, we sold the pitch to First Second and started working on the actual book. It took us five years to complete. That’s the story.
Boaz Lavie & Asaf Hanuka
Paste: Did your time as soldiers in the Israeli army make you feel empathy for these two child soldiers? What’s the emotional connection?
Asaf Hanuka: I think that personally for me and maybe also for Tomer—though I’m not going to speak for him—I guess the twins is a much bigger concept for the identification we felt. We are twins also, and we were growing up with certain beliefs. We were very different from the environment. We were joined all the time and reading comics all the time. In Israel, in the ‘80s, nobody understood why we did it. We had our own universe.
After the army, [Tomer] went to New York and I went to France, and each of us developed in a different way. And we started more commercially, but we always had this dream of one day doing something together, like we did when we were kids: drawing together. But we knew it had to be the perfect subject because this is a dream project. It’s not something you’re going to compromise. Everything else is a compromise in a professional career. So this was something else.
Tomer found the story and the minute I read about it, I felt also that it was the perfect theme for us as twins to try to understand these twins, and maybe understand something about ourselves.
Paste: So what did you learn about yourselves?
Asaf Hanuka: [Laughs] Wow. That’s a big question.
Boaz Lavie: I think they learned that they need me to give them some perspective about themselves. [Laughs]
Asaf Hanuka: There’s something about being a twin; we are the same age and we do the same profession. I think the choice, at the age of 20, that we decided to live in a different continent so we’re not too close, because we were so close growing up. We were almost the same person. And when two people believe in the same thing, it becomes reality. And when two people believe in something and then the group around them also believes, then that’s the reality.
So I think that this is what I learned maybe—a little bit about the power of being in a unit with someone. And having the same beliefs.
The Divine has an ecology vs. military conflict. Israel and America are both tied at the hip. Was your characterization of America reflective of the political and military relationship Israel has with America right now?
Asaf Hanuka: That’s a very, very charged question. And I think you’re going to have to discharge this one [laughs]...
Boaz Lavie: I think that America has so many sides and so many aspects. It deals with so many issues all around the world and is involved in so many conflicts in so many ways. Many of them are in a good way, many are in a bad way. I think the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is also, of course, something that goes a long way, and is also being criticized by many people in the U.S., also in Israel. And it’s also something that we lived our whole life, with the idea that the U.S. will always be there for Israel, but on the other side…having such a strong and huge and powerful ally can also have negative aspects. You don’t feel that you’re independent. People always relate the things that you do to this huge guy that protects you. It’s a very, very complicated relationship.
I think in the book, we discuss a much more simple relationship than Israel/U.S.’ relationship. It’s a relationship of ‘the U.S. goes there, supposedly helping someone, but it’s actually an American colony.’ They have interests there, they do bad stuff; it’s pretty clear cut that what’s going on in our imaginary country is bad. That situation is not very complex. But, the complexity is the decisions that two heroes—Mark and Jason—have to make. That’s the tough moral issue.
Asaf Hanuka: I’m going to say something a little risky. I feel as someone from Israel, that it’s impossible for me to criticize Israel. If I’m going to do a story that deals directly with the conflict Israel is in, I’m going to be judged as a traitor, or as someone who doesn’t see the truth. Or someone who is immoral, so the judgment will be related to how I present the story of he Palestinians or the Israelis. In that way, you’re not able to criticize all our stories. So [as an] Israeli, I feel that even if there is some kind of commentary about war, and children in war, and abusive power, I have to go very, very far to this imaginary jungle and tell an imaginary story. Otherwise, we would have been judged as some kind of political commentary. And we’re not doing it.
The Divine Interior Art by Asaf & Tomer Hanuka
Boaz Lavie: It would be very limiting for us to discuss in the book or to tell a story that is too close to our own story in Israel…
Asaf Hanuka: It’s easier to criticize America than Israel for us, as Israeli. I’m not saying we’re criticizing America, but we are using America as some kind of metaphor for Western power.
Boaz Lavie: Exactly. That’s a good way to present it.
Paste: Did the three of you go to South Eastern Asia to research? It’s such a sweltering, individual place, and your portrayal is so accurate.
Boaz Lavie: You know we would have loved it, but we never did it.
Asaf Hanuka: Tomer invented this method of drawing the first half of the story that happens in Texas, and then the jungles. So for Texas, we really used the reference photos from Google Street View, and then for the jungle he decided it’s going to be based on Japanese prints—hokusai, specifically.
Paste: I felt like there was some Chinese influence in there, as well. Especially in the giant, mechanical soldiers.
Asaf Hanuka: And there’s another effect—it’s based on something that’s two-dimensional, and not three-dimensional, like a photo. So all the style, and even the color palate…it’s an imaginary place, but it’s built on Asian aesthetics.
Tomer ordered something like 50 books on Amazon—everything he could read on Karen people, which is the original story of the Htoo twins. It’s called Karen, these are villagers in the Burmese jungle. They have three religions: animism, which is the religion of animals. Everything in nature has a spirit. So the mountain has a spirit, the river has a spirit. Then they believe in Christianity and Buddhism. Everything is mixed—the sculptures and little figurines. It’s a mash-up of colonialism, a few languages, and everything is a mess in the jungle, so it’s chaotic.
But still when [Tomer] designed the dragon, for example, or the giants, he really used their mythology. So he based it on their animals and their statues, so it’s not just a generic monster, but something that really comes from the jungle.
The Divine Interior Art by Asaf & Tomer Hanuka
Spoiler Alerts From Here On Out
Paste: The way I internalized The Divine, we’re in an extinction event of biodiversity. What were you trying to portray in the end when, ultimately, we lose the entity that’s being fought for the entire narrative?
Boaz Lavie: The mountain is destroyed, but it’s not the ending. Stuff is still going on. In order to save something, something has to go to an extreme. So we have to make something really extreme there. The mountain presents their homeland. Their place of birth. Their history, their mythology…everything. And the dragon, in a way, is the essence of the mountain. In a very general way, for someone to go through a journey and change, you have to lose something also. I think losing or destroying the mountain is something that was critical for us to go through also as creators, and also for the story to come to its climax.
Asaf Hanuka: It’s really fun to draw also.
Boaz Lavie: Bottom line: huge explosions. [Laughs]
Paste: In the end, are the twins heroes? Or is ‘heroes’ a term we can even use in a story like this? Does it matter?
Boaz Lavie: There are two colors here. Two negating ways of looking at things. In one perspective, they are heroes. They are amazing heroes. They are almost gods. But in a different in a different perspective, they are two very poor, miserable kids, who have nothing and will have nothing to grow up to. I think, in a way, hero is almost always the opposite of a hero. We also tried to portray the idea of being a man—a brave man, being an alpha man. Everything is also the opposite of itself. Otherwise, those heroes in the book also mirror each other. For the hero Mark to go through the way something very radical has to happen with regards to…I won’t say it, OK [laughs].
Asaf Hanuka: For me, the twins are not really heroes, but a symptom of grown-ups who are not doing what they should be doing, making bad decisions. And then something that should be pure and simple and innocent, becomes a monster because an adult person doesn’t take responsibility for his action. An adult person could be a Western force that—due to economic decision—decides to wipe out a village. Then that’s being irresponsible. As a father, the thing about children is that if you don’t give them safety and take care of them, they will become monsters.
The Divine Interior Art by Asaf & Tomer Hanuka