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The Realist: Plug and Play (2017)
Book Reviews

The Realist: Plug and Play (2017)

The second Realist collection continues to prove Hanuka’s gifts as a masterclass storyteller, comic or otherwise.

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The Realist: Plug and Play is the second collection (in English) of cartoonist Asaf Hanuka’s comic strip K.O. À TEL AVIV, though I’ll forgive any confusion over where it belongs in the order of things. Truthfully, I don’t really know myself, as the included notes tell me that it collects material from K.O. À TEL AVIV Volumes #1-3 originally published in French (not Hebrew) back in 2015, and includes some bonus material to sweeten the deal.

So, instead of getting easily numbered like Volume [Insert Number] or similar to help keep track of things, publisher Archaia had to get all creative with things. Even that beautiful cover is taken from the third published volume, K.O. À TEL AVIV 3, released last year. While this may not represent the most chronologically accurate compilation of the comic, some Realist is better than no Realist at all.

For those of you that read my review of the first collection, simply titled The Realist, you’ll know I was a big fan of what Asaf Hanuka was doing. Everything I wrote then applies here, maybe even moreso. The world of comics, comix, sequential art, or whatever you want to call them is littered with biographical storytelling, a great deal exceedingly dull. I need a job; I hate my job; I need a girl/boyfriend; I broke up with my girl/boyfriend; I draw comics; I don’t make much money drawing comics; I’m a loser; I wish I weren’t a loser. Lather, rinse, repeat. Bleah.

A great Disney animator once said that animation is about movement, and to just show talking heads was to prostitute the medium. Unlike most cartoonists, Hanuka expertly uses his chosen craft to visually interpret not just actual situations and moments, but also their essence, illustrating the flavors that arise from everyday conflicts of identity, mortality, and life’s miscellany of small joys and annoyances.

Also, his artwork is better than just about anything out there. These aren’t the muddied, ink-stained lines triumphing over a lack of talent or discipline; Hanuka is a sophisticated digital artist, fully capable of photorealism when necessary, or hyper-stylized abstraction when the mood calls for it. He also knows when to be delightfully icky, with just the right amount of gross, like when vomiting rainbow ‘creativity’ or rendering his and his wife’s heads as dripping ice cream being devoured by their kids. It’s little touches like these that make The Realist so much fun to just look at. His style of visualizing pathos and internal angst is unmatched in cartooning, the best since the days of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.

There’s no real overall narrative or plot; instead we get singular works of comic art rendered however Hanuka feels like it. From the real to surreal, these vignettes offer readers tidy morsels of not just his domestic, but internalized, worries and struggles to survive in the modern world.

Technology itself is a constant stressor, especially when vying for his kids’ attention from smartphones and iPads. Hanuka often uses his own face as the canvas, transforming into a cassette player, kicking his own head into a goal, or debating the robot demons of banks and ATMs. Is it just a coincidence that a black shirted, straight-legged jean wearing Hanuka is the spitting image, albeit slightly huskier, of the late Steve Jobs?

Superheroes play a sizable role in these selections, which suits the comic’s goto framing device – the introspective reflection – perfectly. Often we see the cartoonist (and family) transformed into urbanized heroes making their way through the tyranny of domesticality, suited-up as needed. This history of these masked avengers with Jewish lore isn’t lost on him, either, and we often see the artist transformed into the ultimate hero: husband and father, always there to save the day.

Often this means helping the missus or comforting his brood, others it’s heroically squashing cockroaches. Or fighting the good fight against the unfairness of male pattern baldness: “we’re talking about a basic human right: the right not to shine.

They say the mark of a great satire is being able to identify with the subject matter, to recognize those universal themes humanity collectively share. One moment we see Hanuka stressing over house chores, laundry, and making awesome pancakes, the next a panicked phone call gets him scrambling the family towards the nearest bomb shelter. How does one ‘identify’ with IDF soldiers charging through the streets, the threat of annihilation and murder very real possibilities on a daily basis?

Take “Je Suis Charlie”. For any other comic, in any other context, the pairing of an exasperated cartoonist staring down the barrel of a (literal) machine gun as an extension of his pen might be interpreted as a visual metaphor for a missed deadline. ‘Under the gun’ you could say. However, this clever juxtapositioning takes on a terrifying new dimension when considering the 2015 massacre of cartoonists, office workers, and police at the Paris office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine by Muslim extremists. Or “Good Morning Paris”, which contrasts Hanuka at an airport terminal against the most vile of possible reflections: as an orange-suited hostage by a knife-wielding executioner.

Recent stabbings force him to confront his mixed Arab/Mizrahi heritage; “I’m a walking target, twice.” Afraid of being mistaken for a terrorist in his own country – or worse, an Arab terrorist – he feels safer just saying home.

At one point Hanuka contemplates the unthinkable; that continuing to live in Israel would put his children in danger. This means moving away to a country “with no territorial conflict enhanced by religious beliefs.” It’s called ‘descending’, though Hanuka considers such a change “an ascent in all areas of life.” For a cartoonist the obvious choice would be France, or even England. Recent uptick in terrorist acts, especially against cartoonists, have made both poor choices. Seems like America it is, then, though he contemplates this with a (metaphorical) knife plunged in his back.

A trip to Japan has him contemplating the differences – and similarities – between the Japanese and Israelis, the effects of isolated cultures struggling to forge their own identities as islands unto themselves. As a cartoonist he’s able to identify with how such pathos could manifest visually, as when suggesting the Japanese love for cute characters may be a reaction to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which begat more than just a city stompin’ Godzilla. “I wish collective traumas were translated into something huggable in Israel.” The trip also results in wry observations on Japanese toilets, proper finger etiquette, and the one-off comic “Obsession”, his tribute to the great manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira).

As before, many of the best comics here are without accompanying text, which surely must’ve made the translation easy. Hanuka is a masterclass visual storyteller, which means he knows when to let his visuals take center-stage and do the talking. If you loved the original collection of The Realist, you’ll love The Realist: Plug and Play, because it’s mostly just more of the same. No modern artist illustrates the surprising comedy / tragedy of modern existential crisis quite like him.

About the Author: Nathan Evans