“And we live by the side of the road on the side of a hill as the valleys explode”
My latest review is about The Divine, which is published by the good folk at First Second Books and costs $19.99. Boaz Lavie wrote it, while Asaf and Tomer Hanuka drew it. They’re twin brothers, and I have no idea who does what in this book.
The art is very uniform, so maybe their styles are just so similar that it doesn’t matter? But that’s not important right now – let’s get to it!
In the back of the book, the creators mention the photograph of the twelve-year-old twin brothers who, in 2000, became the face of child-soldiers the world over (this famous photo, in case you’re wondering). The creators decided to take that photograph and the legends that had accreted around the brothers – they had magical powers and were impervious to bullets – and make it literal, giving us a book with child-soldiers who work in concert with actual gods and dragons. That, in itself, would be a fascinating comic, but Lavie has even more on his mind, as he takes that central plot point and gives us a deep book about patriotism, fatherhood, imperialism, and belief. It’s a far more interesting book than even the core would suggest.
Lavie sets up an interesting dichotomy early in the book, when he gives us the two main characters. Mark is an explosives technician and his old friend Jason tells him about a job in the Southeast Asian country of Quanlom, an easy job for easy money. This is, of course, a major red flag, but Mark’s wife is pregnant with his first child (a son, as it has to be for reasons I’ll get into below) and he doesn’t get quite the promotion at work he thought he’d get – instead of moving to Dallas and a nice office, he gets shipped off to Eden, Texas, which, as his wife points out, is not a very nice place (there’s a detention center in town, and she calls it “Jailville”).
So he’s desperate for easy money, and he reluctantly takes the job. Lavie sets the two men up in a fairly clichéd way – Jason is the gung-ho warrior, while Mark is more thoughtful – and so we expect that Jason will be a douchebag and Mark won’t, and it does work out that way, but Lavie never quite falls into rote when it comes to the two men. The job Jason wants Mark for is “lava tube denuding,” which sounds vaguely dirty, but just means they’re going to blow up a mountain. Before they can, however, Mark sees a wounded boy and wants to take him back to his village. The natives warn him against it because the gods don’t want him to go to the village, but Mark, naturally, doesn’t believe in that stuff. So he takes the boy alone, and discovers the child-soldiers, who claim they are protected by the gods and that destroying the mountain will unleash the dragon that lives inside it. They want him to disarm the bomb he placed, which hasn’t exploded yet because the army wants to do it remotely and their helicopter needs repairs. Mark agrees to disarm the bomb, but he does have a timetable. Plus, of course, Jason and the army don’t want him to.
There is, of course, a lot of action in this, but as I noted, it’s more than just a big adventure. Jason might seem like a bad guy, but he points out that the job will help the locals, and there’s no reason to disbelieve him.
He doesn’t like the children not because he’s an asshole (although he is an asshole) but because they’re trying to stop him doing his job for something that he doesn’t believe in. Lavie does something clever with him, though – in the beginning of the book, he’s telling Mark about a previous time he was in Quanlom and how he faced a dragon and shot it in the eye. He gets a tattoo of the dragon, and this symbol becomes important later. Belief works both ways, and the kids respect Jason even though they hate what he does. Jason’s all id, too, and of course he and Mark are opposites, and we’re supposed to relate more to Mark than Jason. Like the rest of the book, however, it’s not that easy. Jason is perfectly suited for war, and Lavie doesn’t pretend that he’s anything but a great soldier (Lavie is Israeli and served in the military, so I imagine some of this is at least drawn from his own experience), which might make him unfit for living in the “civilized” United States but makes him perfect for the job in Quanlom. Mark is the conscience of the book, of course, as he decides that the kids are the “good guys” and that he needs to help them, but he does it only under duress, and he still doesn’t believe in the gods even after seeing some strange things. Jason knows exactly what’s going on, and he doesn’t care. Mark is a “civilized” skeptic, but to survive, he needs to tap into his savage side, not unlike Jason does with his without worrying about the consequences.
Mark’s impending fatherhood is important in the book, too.
It’s always on Mark’s mind, and it’s easy to see that Lavie gives him a surrogate family when he gets captured by the soldiers – there are girls, it appears, in the army, but they’re definitely background characters, and Mark’s wife exists simply to chide him for leaving her to fly off to Asia (although she does alert the media about the situation there, but she doesn’t really need to do much for that). This is a comic about fatherhood and masculinity, as Jason is not a father, would probably be a terrible one if he had children, and thinks religious relics are something that will impress “chicks” back in the States. Mark sees the wounded boy as his own son, so even though that boy betrays him (by leading him into a trap), he still understands that these are children who need a father figure, and he provides that. His “failures” as a “father” in Quanlom affect his relationship with his own son, which we see in a brief coda when the boy is a few years old. Mark understands that masculinity is not just firing a big gun or blowing shit up, it’s taking responsibility for what you do and fixing things when they go wrong. Jason is perfectly happy to leave and let the army blow the mountain whenever they feel like it (he explains how to do it, which is all they need, he says), but once Mark hears the story of the children and why they’ve been orphaned, he can’t just leave. Lavie doesn’t make this as obvious as you might expect, but it’s an interesting commentary on fatherhood and being a responsible adult. Jason certainly isn’t, and Mark may or may not be before arriving in Quanlom, but he certainly becomes one during his time in the country.
Lavie also gets into imperialism, which isn’t surprising given that this story is about Americans going to another country and assisting that country’s army. Mark even tells his wife that he’s going to Vietnam instead of Quanlom, to make the connection more explicit.
The army killed the child-soldiers’ parents, we know that, but that’s all we know about them, and the children say they’re fighting for freedom, but we don’t really see that much, either. Lavie leaves it very obscure, which is probably for the best – it’s sure to be messy, and that’s part of what makes the book compelling, as Jason and Mark, with their typical American forthrightness, think they can waltz into a war zone and not be affected by it. Jason, as noted, says that the job is for the good of the natives, of course we don’t know if he’s telling the truth and if he even cares if it’s good or not. Mark throws in his lot with the children not necessarily for altruistic reasons but because they’re about to kill him. He eventually comes around to their side not because he believes in their cause but, as I mentioned, he looks upon them as a father of wayward sons. In one funny scene, Mark tells Jason that the soldiers understand English even though Jason’s been using a translator, as Mark knows that Quanlom was a British colony and they still use English as a semi-official language. The idea that the “colonized” are far smarter than the “colonizers” give them credit for is an old idea by now (obviously, when the “colonizers” were seen in a better light, it wasn’t as common), but Lavie does a nice job introducing it. A lot of the imperialist criticism in the book is subsumed by other themes, which is probably smart, but it’s also nice that Lavie brings it into the comic.
Of course, religion plays a huge part of the book, and it gets back to the difference between Jason and Mark. Jason certainly believes in the “Divine,” as the kids call their gods, but as a gung-ho Yankee, he just wants to figure out ways to kill them. Mark takes more convincing, but when he starts to believe, he just wants to figure out a way to get out of the gods’ way (although there’s a clever bit at the end with his own son where it’s clear he takes the child-soldiers’ claims about the gods seriously).
The kids are devout, naturally, and Lavie adds a nice few lines about how they have faith without proof, even though we see the gods and the dragon clearly. There’s nothing ambiguous about the gods and one kid’s magical powers, so unlike some stories about religion where people need to have faith, it’s clear that we’re dealing with actual beings. That’s not the point, though – Lavie is making a connection between religion and culture, as the kids are not only fighting for their gods but for the preservation of their way of life against the modernizing efforts of the army and, by extension, the Americans. If we believe Jason that the “lava tube denuding” will help the natives, Lavie brings up an interesting and ultimately unresolved point – is it better to retain your culture even if it means your life will be harder, or should you embrace modern life but perhaps leave behind what makes your culture unique? The book, obviously, seems to come down on the side of retention of culture, as writers tend to do, but it’s interesting that Lavie brings it up and, even though he seems to give us an answer, it’s not like the kids get their parents back or even defeat the army. Will they eventually win the war? We don’t know, because it’s not important.
Through all this, we get the Hanukas’ terrific art. It’s a very ligne claire kind of style, which gives us clean, gorgeous landscapes that look plucked from Japanese nature paintings. They do a great job with the characters, too – Jason is a hulk of a man, while Mark is a bit more slight, and Jason’s crew cut is contrasted with Mark’s longer hair very deliberately. They’re also fitter than the Quanlom natives, even the soldiers, as the Hanukas do a wonderfully subtle job contrasting the standard of living in the two countries.
The kids are very nicely drawn, too – they’re scruffy and ugly, beaten up and unkempt, which we would expect them to be, but the Hanukas do a nice job making them defiant and unbeaten. When Thomas – the one with the magical powers – is turned loose, he becomes a terrifying avenging angel, and it’s really well done. The artists do a great job making Jason more monstrous as the book moves on, too – early on, he’s just a good-looking douchebag, but as the book moves along, he becomes more at home in the jungle, until he becomes almost completely unhinged. The gods are wonderful, too, as they tower over the humans and are colored in eerie unnatural pinks and greens, making them stand out among the more natural green of the jungle. The violence in the book is horrific, which it should be, and it taps into the vein of ancient religions and gods demanding sacrifices that Lavie lines the book with. The colors are great, too, as we get beautiful lush greens in Quanlom, contrasted well with the duller, more modern U.S., and the artists use shading really well to add to the natural feel of the landscape. When the gods appear, the coloring becomes more lurid, as if we’ve moved into a strange new dimension, and even the blue sky of the following day seems too intense. Lavie needs artists who can easily show the contrast between Mark’s rational world and the kids’ mystical one, and the Hanukas are very good at that.
The Divine is a well done adventure, and if it remained that, it would be a neat book to check out. The fact that Lavie adds so much more makes it a more compelling book, and it loses none of the action, which is both beautiful and horrific, as so many war stories are. It’s a gripping read, and I encourage you all to check it out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
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