The mists of intrigue surround the story of Johnny Htoo and Luther Htoo, twin brothers who, at the age of 12, jointly led the God’s Army guerrilla group in Burma during the late 1990s. As the tale goes, it was in March 1997 when a local pastor brought the two illiterate 9-year-olds—real names Bu Lu and Bu Kyaw—to the local military chief and said the lord had spoken to them and they would save the Karen people. The Karen and Burmese army had been embroiled in various battles for more than 50 years, with the former seeking autonomy from military rule. In the early ’90s the Burmese army launched a major operation to secure the route of an oil pipeline through the area. God’s Army was a rebel splinter group of Karen National Union, formed by locals who viewed the existing Karen National Union as corrupt and ineffective. And thus, the legend of the Htoo twins was born.
It’s not just the tenderness of age and the extraordinary nature of the situation that captures the fascination, or Apichart Weerawong’s famous picture in which a long-haired Luther insouciantly puffs away on a cigarette while Johnny’s gaze trails endlessly off into the distance. Rumours swirled about the twins’ supernatural powers: that they were invulnerable to bullets, that they could walk on landmines without them detonating, that those who followed them were similarly immune from hurt, that they could produce “magical” bullets. One such whisper suggested that they could kill simply by pointing a rifle at the ground and concentrating.
The Htoo twins surrendered to Thai forces in 2001, but it’s easy to see why their story remains a compelling one, and one that serves as the fertile bedrock for The Divine, the new comic book from the combined formidable—and yes, twin—talents of Asaf and Tomer Hanuka, with writer-director Boaz Lavie. Published by First Second, Lavie stresses that The Divine is by no means a historical account of the Burmese brothers. “I had only one thing that I wanted all of us to agree on before jumping into writing,” he told The A.V. Club. “It was not going to be a historical piece about the Htoo twins. We’re going for pure fiction, with the real story used as inspiration only.”
Instead, The Divine broaches the story from the outside: former military man Mike finds his civilian life interrupted when Jason, an old army friend, persuades him to take on a covert, lucrative contract in Quanlom. Desperate to move out of the state, and with a baby on the way, a reluctant Mike agrees to undertake the operation in the obscure, civil-war ridden, South-Asian country. But the job turns out be far from simple in ways beyond the realms of Mike’s anxieties: the tense choices of war embroiled in superstition, strange events, superpowered twin child-soldiers, and dragons.
It’s sublimely and evocatively brought to the page by the masterful Hanukas, who are reuniting on a long-form comic for the first time in more than a decade. While Asaf Hanuka has been creating his ongoing powerful and often surreal docu-comic The Realist, in addition to illustration work, Tomer Hanuka has forged an award-winning illustrative career, producing stunning covers and editorial work for publications including Time, National Geographic, and The New Yorker, as well as film posters—notably a brilliant ongoing Stanley Kubrick series. Both worked on the Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir. Which is all to say that The Divine, produced in collaboration with Israeli director and writer Boaz Lavie, has been highly anticipated since the moment of its announcement.
The A.V. Club spoke to the Hanukas and Lavie about the process, themes, and ideas involved in creating their latest work, and here presents an exclusive 11-page preview of The Divine, which releases on July 14.
The A.V. Club: How long has The Divine been in the works? What was it about this project/story that made it something you wanted to be part of?
Tomer Hanuka: The initial encounter with the real-world story of the Htoo twins was back in 2007. It sat there for a while, in the back of our heads. By 2009 we had a pitch, sold the idea, and started working on it. There is something about the original story that has all the beauty and tragedy of mythology. It reflects on the narratives we’ve consumed as teens, but it crosses over into a very adult reality, where escaping into fantasy isn’t about fighting boredom, it’s a survival mechanism in a reality where there is ultimately no escape.
Boaz Lavie: Asaf and Tomer approached me in 2008 with this amazing photo of the Htoo twins, and some initial, beautiful, concept art of the twins. Very abstract stuff at that early point. We had known each other for many years, and I think we all felt that this was our opportunity to finally collaborate on something big. The stars lined up, so to speak.
AVC: How did you approach what could be a potentially difficult subject of child soldiers?
BL: It is a difficult subject. Right from the get-go it was clear that it needed to be handled very delicately. My personal approach when thinking about the story was that as long as we don’t try to forcefully “say” anything from a distant moral standpoint, don’t try to preach, or convey some banal message about how horrible the whole subject of child soldiers is, we’ll be able to get our readers to feel it for themselves. To freely reach their own conclusions about it. Our job is simply to tell the most compelling story we can, whether the subject is difficult or not.
AVC: One of the themes of The Divine is fatherhood and the concept of family. It’s what sets Mark on the path to Quanlom and affects the decisions he makes once there. How integral is it to his viewpoint, and as a larger theme?
BL: It’s definitely one of the most important themes in the book, and something that sets the tone emotionally for a lot of what happens in the story. It’s not only integral for Mark’s viewpoint—it’s something that’s crucial for the book, to reach its peak. Mark must be confronted with his greatest fear. When we usually think of fears, in comics or in films, it’s most often fears on a relatively superficial level: fear of murderous insects, of ghosts, of zombies, or even fear of dying. In The Divine it’s fear of becoming a father. Fear of being part of a family. Not something that is normally considered as horror films material… and perhaps it’s an unusual fear to use as a setup for a fantasy or an adventure comics book, but for me, it’s much more real than fear of zombies, for instance. Although I do fear zombies.
AVC: In Mark and Jason, you have two very different portrayals of masculinity—opposing characters—roughly, the tough, macho guy, and the more sensitive, smart one, although neither is that black-and-white. To what extent is it imperative to present nuances and absolutes via characters and concepts?
BL: We had many conversations about creating comics before and during our work on The Divine, and one of the things that really stuck up in my mind was that Asaf told me how, when illustrating characters in comics, one doesn’t have the freedom of using too many nuances. Characters should be very easily recognized, and more importantly, easy to tell apart from each other. In a way, characters should be “absolute,” visually. I took this concept into writing Mark and Jason as characters. So of course, there are many nuances, but there’s also something archetypal about both of them. They are right in the middle between being humans and caricatures. It’s a tricky spot to be in as a character, I guess, but it’s not very different from how characters in Greek drama, for instance, are depicted. So there’s a long tradition here.
TH: This is something I’ve seen a lot in my 20s—male pairing, “buddies,” where there is a leader-follower dynamic. One is dominant and a bit of a jerk, and the other introverted and “nicer.” It’s only a matter of time before this structure breaks down, but it serves something primal for a while, maybe exactly that—pushing someone to the edge, so they confront their assigned social station.
AVC: An aspect you touch on in the book is how the state of mind of soldiers is affected in war situations. Do you think the reaction of being in such extreme situations is dependent on the individual, or are there certain shared commonalities in that response?
BL: It’s a combination of both. Being in a war situation is probably the most extreme situation for a human being to be in. The fact that there are children who are pretty much born into or grow up in such situations is horrific. But many people who get to that situation are adults, or young adults at least, which means they already have some experience, values, education. They supposedly know the difference between good and bad. The problem is that abstract knowledge is not enough. At the end of the day, it’s about how one reacts to circumstances in an extreme real-time situation. In The Divine, Mark and Jason react very differently, even though they’ve both emerged from the same American culture and share the same initial values. Human beings’ suffering touches them at different places, and they’re eventually forced into direct mutual confrontation. Which also happens a lot, I assume, in war situations.
AVC: Much of the real world seems to be constantly mired in war. Do you think it’s something people who aren’t affected by it, but read about other countries in the news, have a grasp on what it’s like? Or is it another thing that’s become desensitized and “normal” for those who haven’t experienced it?
BL: As Israelis, we live in one of those parts of the world. A place where war is a constant situation, where occupation takes place, where old people, young people, and children suffer daily from these devastating circumstances. It’s a tragic situation that has become “normal” as years go by. The problem with international media is that it’s not interested in the anomaly of such situations, in the suffering and the pain of ordinary people, but only in the “story.” When there’s no “story,” no big climax of ritual confrontation to feed on, they’re not really there.
AVS: Asaf, Tomer—it’s been a while since the two of you have worked on a comic book together. You’re both acclaimed and successful artists in an individual capacity—what is it that you glean from collaborating with one another?
Asaf Hanuka: For me it’s a great relief. When I work alone the entire responsibility is on me, but in this sort of collaboration I know that even if my work in the sketching stage is half baked—the proportions are off, or the facial expression doesn’t work—Tomer will fix it once it’s in his hands.
TH: When the work gets to me it’s basically already there. You can read the story and enjoy it. My part is very specific in taking the story into its final production stage, and the difficulty is doing that without ruining what’s already there. It’s like being in a conversation, or playing in a band; a big part of it is being able to listen.
AVC: The art in the book is stunning. Can you talk a little about your process—how do you divvy up tasks to create something that’s so unified and seamless in appearance?
TH: We think of it this way: Skeleton/Boaz [to] muscle/Asaf [to] skin/Tomer.
After Boaz is done writing, he and Asaf discuss the scenes and what would be a visual flow through the narrative. Asaf then creates the layouts. When that is done and we have a rough version of the book everyone is happy with, Asaf re-draws the layout tightly, which Tomer then inks and colors. The entire thing is digital, though some of the layouts are in pencil. There is some connective tissue, or overlaps, where hats are switched around.
AVC: Your coloring work is something that’s distinctive and outstanding—the manner in which it’s used to evoke emotion, render light, etc.—and The Divine is a particularly superb example. It has a whole array of rich, bright, and lighter shades side by side, and unexpected choices that affect tone, e.g., a panel with a sudden block of bright orange background. How do you approach coloring choices? How intuitive, or how much thought goes into that, and the impact it will have?
TH: An aspect of the story is the way fantasy invades reality, and the approach to color explores that relationship. For example: In a deep green jungle environment, encounters with the fantastic are lit through neon, alien (to the local palette) hues. It’s a disruption, breaking the surface of the “real,” but also needs to operate in some sort of harmony so as to preserve the world of the story. It’s a tightrope act, you never really know.
AVC: I really loved the special effects here—the way it’s onomatopoeic in visualization and yet not intrusive. Is that something you have fun with?
TH: It’s directly based on some of the things in I Am A Hero, a Japanese horror manga by Kengo Hanazawa—a series I love. The special effects punctuate the action like music, and move in the three dimensional space of the story, not on top of it.
AVC: There are many immediately striking pages and panels in the book. Do you know when you’ve created something that’s visually arresting—a feeling of, “Yeah, that’s good, that works”? Are there any key elements to creating a strong image?
AH: I rarely get the “yeah, that works” feeling regarding the work. It’s a lot of compromises and frustrations most of the time. But I do know that it usually works well when all the elements are serving the purpose of the story. We treat every scene like a short story that has its own rhythm, climax point, page design, etc. If an individual frame stands out it could be a problem since the flow of the reading is the top priority. On the other hand, Tomer and I have been doing commercial illustration for 20 years. It’s a completely different approach because when creating a single image the purpose is to tell and entire story in a glance. The tension between these opposing methods is present in the book.
AVC: How did the design for the fantasy elements—the dragons and huge metal soldiers—come about?
TH: During the research stage we developed a small library of reference books documenting the culture and landscapes of Southeast Asia and particularly Burma. Objects are shaped and decorated in a way that isn’t part of the Western visual vocabulary. One can feel the definition of “aesthetic” slowly widening.
AVC: It’s left to the third act to reveal what is real and imagined—is that “leave ’em guessing” build-up a deliberate effect?
BL: The tension between what’s real and what’s imagined is built throughout the book. In a deep way, these two aspects reflect the myth of the Htoo twins, who were our inspiration for the story. They were believed to possess magical powers, and the mere fact that people around them believe they possess such powers made them the heroes they were. Was it real? Was it a fantasy? Either way, it was already part of history, part of the story of who they were.
AVC: Tomer, Asaf—which one of you has the frighteningly awesome telekinetic powers? And being twins yourself, why do you think the idea holds so much magic and interest?
TH: The process of working on the book, the long years in a dark tunnel—that is the magic. Or rather, that is where communication breaks down or succeeds. It’s an abstract thing in the room with three people pushing against each other.
AH: Tomer and I grow up together drawing comics. When we had to choose schools we decided on a different path, and after 23 years of living in the same house each of us went to a different continent—Tomer to New York and myself to France. For 20 years we lived completely separately, each doing his own work. I guess looking back we needed that break to figure out who we are and develop an independent artistic identity. In many ways, The Divine is our first major collaboration after that long break.
BL: Asaf is the one with the telekinetic powers. Tomer can only see through your soul.