The Realist: Plug and Play continues the journey of Eisner-Award winning, husband, father, and ordinary Israeli citizen Asaf Hanuka as he plumbs the depths of human existence with humor and melancholy, imagination, and quiet desperation. This new volume of the series brings the mix of pathos and politics that makes Hanuka a modern master of cartooning.
A fascinating read for so many reasons with art that’ll leave you lingering on the page, both volumes of The Realist are must gets for fans of cartooning and comics.
I got a chance to talk to Hanuka about the series, going from webcomic to print, and the presenting a non-Western perspective in comics.
Graphic Policy: So, let’s go back to the beginning. The Realist began as a webcomic. Where did the idea for it come from and how’d you decide on it being a webcomic?
Asaf Hanuka: The Realist started because I needed a job. I was asked by an editor of a weekly newspaper, Calcalist, to do a comic strip in the last page of the paper. I always liked autobiographical comics because it creates instant intimacy with the reader, so I decided to try it out. Comics is really just doodles on paper, and if it is done well, the personality of the author is felt in every line of every character and object presented. It’s easy to draw what you know best but sometimes it can get confusing to constantly look at your life from the outside.
After a few months, I started posting the pages online in a blog and then on Facebook. I think that anyone who creates art is hoping to reach the largest audience possible. The internet allowed The Realist to reach readers outside of Israel and that was the major motivation for me in posting it online.
GP: When creating it as a webcomic, did you ever think it’d be in print? If so, did that impact what you created at all?
AH: I never imagined the strip would be followed by so many people and that in seven years, it will be collected into a series of books, translated into 11 languages, and win an Eisner Award [in 2016]. The stories are very personal and a big part of it deals with local life in Israel. I’m still amazed when someone from Korea sends me a message saying he felt his own life reflected in the stories.
I can’t deny that posting my comics on social media doesn’t change the way I work. The “like” system is very addictive. It pushes for a simplified message, which in my case isn’t what I do best. I don’t have classic “punch lines.” There was a point in time where it started getting to me—I wondered why a specific work was popular while another work wasn’t—but eventually I realized it’s not something that contributes to my creative process. That was part of my decision to lower my posting rate dramatically.
GP: There’s lots about your everyday life and it involves your family. Do you ever worry about how they might react to what you’ve created?
AH: Of course. My family is more important than my comics. I will never put anything in one of my comics that might offend anyone. I typically ask my wife to approve her dialogue. The work is collaborative in the sense that we as a family usually discuss ideas during dinner and everyone participates in the brainstorming.
GP: Being Israeli and of an interesting background, how important to you as a creator to get your experiences out there?
AH: Israel is usually discussed in international media in the context of war/conflict zone/terrorism. I feel my contribution is to show that there is normality behind the headlines. People are just trying to live an average life and raise kids, but some are struggling to make a living. It’s exhausting to pretend your life is normal when there is only an illusion of safety. This disaster waiting to happen is an endless supplier of creativity. To simplify, if it all ends tomorrow, I should try my best today.
GP: I noticed when you do touch upon Israeli politics and what it’s like to live there, you don’t take much of a stance, it’s just your experience. Is that on purpose?
AH: I’m not interested in political messages because I don’t have any. In the political discussion in Israel, people are either on the left or on the right, they are against the occupation or they are for the settlers, and there is no real discussion since each side is sure of their opinion. If my work is just a front window for a political agenda, it will instantly get tagged as propaganda. I try to create work that is relatable even for people who don’t agree with me. I try to tell a small personal story that offers a reflection on the larger problems. It’s a way of saying something under the radar, because people usually just want to read a joke. They want to get to the punch line, and they can’t stop looking until they reach the bottom of the page. Under that little visual slide, I will suggest a bigger story or a metaphor that will be visible in a second reading.
GP: As an Israeli creator do you feel any pressure on presenting something from a non-Western viewpoint?
AH: My mother emigrated from Iraq to Israel in the ’50s as part of a large movement of Iraqi Jews who came to Israel at the time. My grandmother never spoke Hebrew, so in the house, I would often hear them speaking Arabic. The culture, the food, and the music was Arabic. At the same time, my brother Tomer [illustrator Tomer Hanuka] and I loved superheroes and obsessed over American comic books. The dominant culture in Israel was Ashkenazi, meaning it was dominated by the Jews who came from a European background. I felt alienated in that culture because it dismissed my Arabic roots. Reading Spider-Man and hearing mom speaking Arabic in the background sums up my childhood and explains my fascination with superheroes: They have a secret identity, making them different than everyone else. That’s how I felt.
I think The Realist allows me to create this mix between Western idols and Middle-Eastern reality.
GP: You’ve done longer narrative and then these shorter comics, do you approach them differently? Is there one you enjoy more so than others?
AH: The one-pagers are weekly. I’ve done and continue to do a page every week for the last seven years. It’s a moment amplified by narrative flow or illustrative approach. I basically choose a doodle from my sketchbook and throw it on the page, hoping something good will happen. The longer stories are more like films I will never make. I have an idea for a few scenes, maybe a bit of dialogue and I try to put that in order. I feel at this point in my professional life that I’m ready to produce longer narratives and hopefully I will be able to.
GP: Have you gone back at all to some of your earlier webcomics and come off as surprised as what you created?
AH: Yes! I’m always surprised at how my drawing style changes without me noticing. It evolved and got simpler yet more controlled over time. There is a lot of theory about the “how to” in comics but the truth is that you just have to do it every day and then you “get it.”
Sometimes I read an old strip and I’m embarrassed, like watching myself naked. It’s a form of mental and emotional strip-tease. It can only work if there is a huge amount of honesty. I try not to fake it, even when the deadline is near.
GP: I notice there’s a theme throughout a lot of the comics that mix flesh and technology. Where’d that focus come from?
AH: From me and my old age: I’m 43. We got our first color TV when I was in high school. I used Photoshop for the first time when I was 24. I remember how it was before smartphones, and maybe that’s why I’m so aware of how technology has invaded our personal space and made us addicted to a never-ending flow of photos and information. In my work, I just push it a little bit forward into surrealism but I’m really aiming at realism.
GP: What else do you have on tap for the year that you can tell us about?
AH: I’m working on a graphic novel with Italian writer Roberto Saviano (writer of Gomorrah, which was made into a film and was recently a Netflix series). It’s called Still Alive and it’s a reflection on the paradoxes of the life of a writer living under constant police protection. It will be released by Bao Publishing in Italy. It’s one of the most interesting and ambitious projects I’ve ever worked on. I hope it will be published in the beginning of 2018.
GP: Sounds really interesting. Can’t wait to read that! Thanks so much for chatting.