The Divine is a graphic novel published in 2015 by First Second (originally in French by Dargaud) illustrated by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka and Boaz Lavie. I remember seeing prints and illustrations from it at a gallery show way back (it was a gallery that interestingly enough, was hosting a live draw event by Kim Jung Gi, so I kind of forever associate the artwork together in my head.) At the time, I was enamored by the beauty of the artwork–the fluid lineart, the detailed depictions of nature contrasted with stylized, supernatural gore, the limited green and pink palettes and beautiful mythological creatures striding across the landscape and dwarfing the figures within. I kept a postcard from the exhibition for a long time on my wall because it was intriguing and beautiful to look at and feel that sense of grandeur.
And then I finally got my hands on a library copy and had an incredibly irritating time. I was able to be somewhat forgiving in the moment, but it’s one of those works that continue to plague me over the years since I first read it. As a comic artist myself, I have a deep appreciation for the craft and labor that goes into making a comic and graphic novel. It’s a process that requires a ton of skill and energy and planning and time. Because of this, it is frustrating to see work clearly made with great skill and passion, but woefully void of consideration for the people and subjects represented or depicted.
(Contains spoilers for the comic)
The Divine takes place in Quanlom, a fictional war-torn Southeast Asian nation, where Mark, an explosives expert pulled into “one last job” by an old army friend is pulled into a conflict led by supernaturally-powered twin child soldiers. The Divine is a very short comic, around 160 pages only, and thus the story and characters it contains seem simple almost out of necessity. Mark is conflicted in his complicity in corrupt military business, but ultimately thoughtful and sympathetic, while Jason is the muscular jingoist who ultimately must be defeated. The premise itself is certainly intriguing, and I was initially wondering if it was going to emphasize more surreal or magical realism elements. It sort of reminds me of when I was first taking introductory Southeast Asian history classes, a thing that was briefly brought up was the influence of various native spirituality/magical beliefs and how it sometimes informed military or resistance movements, such as in Indonesia. It’s definitely a concept that has a lot of potential and something I find intriguing myself, but the usage and reference to contemporary and historical context falls short because the creators seem more interested in the shallow intrigue that Quanlom can offer to an outsider protagonist, than understanding them and their situation as people.
The simplicity of the story is not what I have a problem with, as there are many stories that address or tackle similar grim subjects in short or simple ways. What infuriates me is that The Divine follows in the long tradition of stories centered around Westerners or non-Asians who use an “exotic” Asian locale as a fantasy place to further their own character development, personal transformation. Mark moves from the grey, almost monochrome landscape of his dull personal life, to the colorful, magical land of Quanlom where he encounters the supernatural, and then in the end brings a domesticated, small token of that back to his own home, in a scene that was probably meant to feel like closure but to me personally felt…tacky. His experience of Quanlom is meant to be a life-changing, transfiguring experience, encountering the titular Divine power in contrast to the cruelties and greedy exploitative nature of American imperialism, but Quanlom itself, and the children therein who make up most of the marketing and aesthetic and visual appeal of the book, are presented more of an experience of the Other than a place, which feels incredibly sour to me considering that the story itself is inspired by the real life (still living) Htoo twins and bases the designs of the characters off their likenesses.
In the interviews about the graphic novel, the creators are very uninterested in fleshing out a history of Quanlom or of its people. As Asaf notes in this interview, “We’re not really interested in describing in detail this third world. Just enough there so it’s believable.” It’s true that sometimes with stories, less is more, but unfortunately the way this manifests in The Divine is that it ends up being a caricature of how western people view “third world” countries and people, a caricature of a place in a similar way that the Asian characters are drawn with very caricatured features. It’s true that in this style bodily and facial features are often distorted to create an effect, but it’s disturbing to me how they look very reminiscent of racist political cartoons that deliberately seek to portray Asians as monstrous and “other.”
In that case, it’s fitting that Quanlom is a fictional generic Southeast Asian country–it exists only for its Western, American perceptions–either as a source of fictitious resource exploitation (“lava denuding,” something entirely made up), as well a source of catharsis for Mark. Quanlom exists for the West, for its characters within, as well as for its creators. Lavie and the Hanuka twins may not be Americans, but they are still very much choosing to create and present this work from an American perspective, American as “a default for someone who represents a Western approach to things,” and the limitations of that are unfortunately evident all over The Divine. It’s not a bad thing to be limited in one’s perspective, but the least one can do I think is be aware of that limitation, rather than trying to take “inspiration” based in other people’s very specific, very historically contextual experiences to make grand, fictionalized, generic statements about human nature, especially if heavily relying on the imagery of people whose lives were and continue to be impacted–in this case, the Htoo twins and the Karen people themselves. It would certainly be different if the story had been something completely separate, like a second-world fantasy, but in my opinion trying to merge a fictitious third world country as a contrast to the “west” just does not really work, especially when the people creating the story are not familiar with the experiences of the culture they’re depicting.
There is a quote in another article that seems to encapsulate the sentiment of The Divine, where the creators are quoted saying that the Htoo twins “will always be 12-year-olds in a photo we’ll never quite understand.” The Divine builds itself upon this idea of singular mystery and allure, separating its story from its original context into one of abstracted and cartoonish forces of good and evil. Even though Lavie and the Hanukas emphasize that their take of the story is original and fictitious, it is still uncomfortably exploitative. Not in the obvious, violent way that Jason and the “lava denuding” military forces are exploiting the land, but it still takes the very real imagery and pain and history of children forced into violent conflict, and packages it into a gruesome, but overly simplistic and easy-to-digest narrative. One that, like the god’s statuette that Mark takes home at the end of the story, can sit neatly–and unthreateningly–on his mantelpiece.
Anyways, have a series of non-consecutive panels in light of what I’ve discussed.
Conclusion and Further Reading:
I feel like I’m intrigued by The Divine, and my own adverse reactions to it, particularly because I definitely was attracted to its beauty and craft, and because it touches on themes I myself am curious about reading and possibly exploring in my own work. In some ways, I do take inspiration from a lot of elements of this comic–the use of color contrasting panels and monochromatic color schemes, exaggerated, twisted body shapes, and an effective use of simple and detailed panels. In the EvilTender interview, it’s also fascinating for me, as an artist, to see the sketches and process of Tomer and Asaf’s artwork and how they develop their concepts and compositions. I guess I also am faced with a lot of angst about my own work, and what I feel like I am “allowed” to explore and address as someone of specific ethnic background but who is incredibly and deeply American culturally. So it’s just frustrating to see work that touches upon those interests, but in deeply othering ways. It’s just….sad, to me, to see stuff that has a lot of care put into it in some aspects, while being incredibly careless in other ways.
Because of this, it frankly drives me up the wall reading accounts of Western non-Asian people from early reviews talking about The Divine saying “It’s so accurate!” when what they actually mean is “it lines up with my preconceptions of what exotic, impoverished, third world locations are like.” When I say this, it is not to say that I am not immune to these kinds of preconceptions myself. One reason I remember being hesitant to take a Southeast Asian history class despite having been peripherally interested in the subject for a while was that I dreaded an entire semester of covering grim and depressing war and colonial atrocities. And while that part of history definitely is important, it is not the only aspect of those cultures. There is a richness in the different types of experiences, and the joy of the landscapes and people and identity that exists on its own, outside of American perceptions and framing of suffering. I am not Burmese or Vietnamese, and I don’t like the practice of “don’t read this, read this” kind of culture, since every book has something different it is trying to accomplish and trying to offer. That being said, it feels amiss to end a negative review without at least thinking about or considering further recommendations as comparative, works that may seek to give a better breadth of work and experiences, and not necessarily as replacements for an experience. Also, it’s AAPI month so why the hell not.
While it is about an entirely different history and different cultural context with its own separate strengths and weaknesses, I feel like works like Gene Luen Yang’s historical-magical duology Boxers and Saints was a work that managed to balance its gruesome war and Chinese spiritual magical-realism themes in an interesting way that centered the experiences of young people searching for meaning and trying to survive in violent conflicts. It has its own issues, but it’s something I couldn’t help but be reminded of while reading The Divine. There’s also works like Heart of Keol, which has a white American protagonist traveling to and becoming involved in a Korean-fantasy world, but in a way where the characters of the fictitious world are treated with respect as full characters, and while the protagonist is processing his own personal familial issues (also in a way that has military background), he does so in tandem with the other characters, and is not the one who is centered throughout. Of course, if we are talking about things that discuss Southeast Asian and Vietnamese history, it would be remiss to leave out Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, which is non-fiction memoir about the creator’s experience with family and motherhood, but is specifically a work that was made to both tell her own story, but to serve as at least one story (of many) that exists to challenge the American popular media presentation of the story of the Vietnam war and warfare abroad with the personal experiences of her family.
These are very basic references, simply drawing from things I am personally connecting in this moment. And once again are not meant as “replacements” for an experience, but ones that I immediately thought of because their stories overlap interestingly in my head in their different thematic approaches and executions and relationship to the subject matter. As usual, I would be interested in hearing more thoughts and suggestions on further readings, especially on works that deal with or are inspired by Asian and Southeast Asian History and the supernatural. It’s not perfect, and I don’t want to say that it’s always the burden of art and media to carry the responsibility of changing mindsets, but it definitely is good to look at work that is not only beautiful, but takes different perspectives and approaches than ones that are taken for granted. That is one thing that I am at least grateful for–while there are works like The Divine that stumble in its limits of perspective and consideration, there will always be work from others that may add to a more richer experience as well.