The Realist is the first collection of Israeli cartoonist Asaf Hanuka’s (pronounced just like Hanukkah, he says) single-page comic, which debuted in Israeli magazine Calcalist back in 2010. This volume, bound in an attractive hardbound edition and high-quality reproductions of the comics (translated into English) was originally published back in 2012, in French, under the title K.O. À TEL AVIV, the K.O. standing for knock-out, which helps explain the pugilistic cover.
Hanuka remains relatively unknown outside his native Israel, though some westerners may be, familiar with his artistic contributions for the Oscar-nominated animated film Waltz with Bashir. His style is a mash-up of the immediacy of commercial art mixed with the intimacy found in the best biographical comic strips, a mark of a great storyteller.
The backdrop of modern Israel is ripe for interpretation, especially by western readers for whom the country’s very existence is an issue pushed onto them almost daily. But Hanuka is anything but political; he just wants to survive his own life, thank you very much, and doesn’t seem to care for the constant protests outside his window and psychological damage resulting from his existence as a dualistic person in a blended world.
A constant and persistent theme in The Realist is paranoia, in both Hanuka’s professional and family personas, intertwined and inseparable. As the son of Iraqi immigrants he laments how troublesome just getting through airport security is for people like him, with his ‘middle eastern look’. But, as a justification, he reminds us “I’m not complaining. After all, I want to live in a safe world too. The price is being the usual suspect.” He does his best to escape the realities of his situation, escaping into his own self-created cartoon universe where he’s superhero, savior, and survivor.
But that reality is clearly visible in the wreckage and rubble glimpsed in civilian backgrounds, in the weathered army helmet sitting innocuously in a cubbyhole alongside family mementos, or in the shadows of missiles hovering just above the clouds.
Apart from the focus on Hanuka himself, storylines usually involve his wife, son, twin brother, and later, his newborn daughter, documenting his existence as both a cartoonist and dedicated family man. His comic work is often compared to indie comix darlings Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Daniel Clowes (it says so right on the back cover!), and it’s not difficult to see why. Like them, Hanuka practices comics as self-therapy, visually interpreting his inner thoughts and anxieties through a series of surrealistic and often comical vignettes.
But where Crumb and Pekar used their comics as a way to defuse their own anxieties of lower middle-class survival amongst the slums and concrete jungles, Hanuka’s Realist documents life in modern Israel, a place where “the existential threat” of total annihilation is a never-ending reality.
His dualism is present in every aspect of his personality, such as his growing technophobia, yet reliance on computers and graphics tablets to create his comic. Late-night hunger pangs turns Hanuka into a ravenous werewolf that devours everything in the fridge, or in how his son’s weak attention span renders his parent’s faces sliced up ala Fruit Ninja. Another shows Hanuka rendered as bearded Anne Franke (“something seems off”, he says), personifying his own guilt for being unable to identify with his fellow countrymen on Holocaust Memorial Day.
One panel shows him attempting to explain the contrasting skin colors of his white-skinned wife, Ashkenazi, and his own as a brown-skinned Sephardic, to his curious son (also white-skinned); he’s shocked to hear the boy comment “Can’t you see it’s just a zebra??”
Each single page comic measures a trim (and printer-friendly) 6.875” x 10.1875”, and there’s a lot packed into its trim 192 pages. Unlike those artists his work draws comparisons to, Hanuka’s artwork is completely digital, lacking the chunky black lines and distinctive hatch-shading found in typical Spiegelman or Crumb panels. Most striking is his beautiful coloring, which alternates between broad swatches and heavily nuanced shades, depending on the situation.
Many of the best panels are blissfully silent, almost pantomime, as Hanuka’s sequential art is enough to tell the story, no further explanation necessary. Favorites include he and his wife rendered as boxers, or puppets, their marital battles taking on literal manifestations, or his son’s ecstasy of opening a box containing his favorite robotic toy, juxtaposed against the sadness of those foreign children laboring to make them.
The best, and most encouraging, shows Hanuka’s head a jumbled mess of scribbles, only clear when he’s managed to get the idea down on paper. His son sees the work, his head becoming a jumbled mess as well. Likewise, his idea, when safely rendered on paper, goes on to infect his classmates and so on. If there’s a better representation of the power to invoke creative chaos, I can’t think of it.
The closest the book gets to having a consistent narrative is the 10-page future-nostalgic “Tel Aviv, 2013” story tacked on at the end. Here Hanuka picks up a touchscreen tablet, a collector’s item from 2012, for his son’s birthday. But everyone in this future only has eyes for “the egg”, a mysterious holographic everything-device (think smartphones on steroids) that can pretty much do anything you want. The tablet screen cracks, leading Hanuka on a wild journey through the slums of Tel Aviv South to find someone who can repair it. After discovering that his scooter has been stolen, he’s left to fend for himself while crossing paths with angry protesters, and even angrier police, while trying to get home.
The Realist is often provocative, at times terrifying, but always entertaining. Cartoonist Asaf Hanuka wears his insecurities openly and without regret, crafting an intimate comic strip experience that entirely familiar, yet still comfortably distant, from what most readers would consider normal. His biggest gift, apart from a wicked sense of the surreal, is how apolitical he renders the dynamic reality of cause and consequence facing modern Israel and its citizens, his included. That he employs humor to bridge the gap is commendable; that he effortlessly succeeds is extraordinary.