'The Divine' features a great deal of magical power condensed into the small frame of a nine-year-old boy called Thomas. It could easily be argued that this graphic novel also features a great deal of magical power condensed into the small frame of a book only a little larger than a trade paperback, but I disagree.
I don't disagree about its magical power, though I'd certainly have liked to see it expanded far beyond the 150 or so pages it runs because there's a lot more that writer Boaz Lavie clearly wants to say than he manages to cram into the space.
I disagree about how well it's condensed. The art, by twin brothers Asaf and Tomer Hanuka, is attractive in the truest sense of the word, namely that it draws us in to its depths and makes us feel part of the world it depicts. It deserves a much larger page size to adorn than it gets here, something backed up by the speech bubbles which are perfectly proportioned to the art but feel shrunken nonetheless. I wish I could have read this instead as a large format hardback; it cries out for that sort of treatment. I could see many of these frames blown up to poster size.
So it's not big enough and it's not long enough. Other than that, it's great.
The story follows Mark Enelow, an explosives expert stuck in a dead end job that doesn't pay enough and is all set on moving him to the dead end town of Eden, TX. With a young wife and a baby on the way, he decides to bolster their coffers by taking on one last job with an old army buddy. Of course, there are catches or we wouldn't have a story.
For a start, that old army buddy, Jason by name, is a stereotypical nuke 'em all sociopath, an unworthy soul stuck in an unworthy character. He didn't need to be this bad just to highlight how Mark is good and it does stretch the credibility that the two would be friends.
The next is that, while the job he signs on for involves setting explosives inside a volcano in the imaginary south-east Asian country of Quanlom, the country is embroiled in a bloody civil war. That's good because it adds a lot of hazard pay but it's bad because it brings in complications. I liked these complications a lot but there was very little war in this story. It's an annoyingly distant background.
Finally, with all those explosives set and ready to be blown, Mark spies a young boy in the danger zone and sets off to get him out. Here's where he comes into his own as a character, putting another human life before either his mission or his own safety, but it's also where Jason loses credibility. A true sociopath would just have shot the kid and left, but he doesn't. He just vaguely ignores everything, thus weakening himself into a character of no real interest.
Fortunately, Mark attempts to take the kid home and wanders right into the real story, which surrounds a pair of nine-year-old rebels and the dragon that they believe lives in the volcano. Here's where things really start to get interesting!
These two kids, Luke and Thomas, twin brothers like the artists who drew this story, are based on real people and the note at the end of the book that identifies them and briefly outlines their real story makes it very clear that they're why this book exists.
The real basis for these two were Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twelve-year-old twins who led God's Army, a Christian revolutionary group fighting the Burmese army from rainforests on the border between Burma and Thailand. Stories of their magical powers were boosted by the local populace who saw the Karen National Union, from whom God's Army had split, as ineffective.
It's easy to see why characters based on the Htoos would work so well in a fictional setting. A famous photograph of them, taken in 2000 by a Thai photographer for the Associated Press and reproduced at the end of this book, is a mixture of the sacred and the profane, angelic children fighting the good fight for God but looking older than their years, possibly because of what they'd been through and possibly because they chain smoked.
Boaz Lavie changes their names and places them into a fictional country at a similar time of civil war, but plays up their magical powers. Mark isn't a believer initially but soon changes his tune as Thomas pulls off miracle after miracle. I thoroughly appreciated how these characters were given Biblical names but believe not in Christianity but in an animalistic sort of religion rooted in south-east Asian culture. The dreamlike approach to the story emphasises the exotic setting and aids our enjoyment.
I've reviewed a few books now from First Second for the Nameless Zine and I've been fascinated by their diversity. This is as different from 'Mike's Place' as it is from 'Exquisite Corpse' or 'The Sculptor.' They're putting out great material in quality editions, albeit often expensive ones. You get what you pay for though; I haven't been disappointed with any of them.
Well, until now. This is another quality edition, but I never got past the feeling that it was presented in miniature. It's over too quickly and it's much too small in the hand. It should be a lot bigger than First Second allowed it to be.
Books like 'In Real Life' and 'Mike's Place' work well in small format because the art is primarily there to provide a visual element to the stories, which tellingly existed before their adaptation into graphic novels. This original story could well stand on its own; but it's dwarfed by the art. The Hanuka brothers clearly responded to Lavie's fictional country by trying to paint it so broadly that we might believe it real. Attempting to compress these vistas into pages this small is confining. Maybe there will be a larger format version coming. I hope so. ~~ Hal C F Astell