Tomer Hanuka in front of a display of ‘Bipolar’. “It’s the background of my life.”The direction of the lives of identical twin brothers Tomer and Assaf Hanuka was set into motion on the day when a package arrived at their quiet suburban Israeli home in Kiryat Ono.
The package that arrived for the two small boys came from an aunt living in Los Angeles and it contained comic books. The excitement they felt poring over Batman and Superman set the stage for two successful careers in illustration and cartooning spanning three continents at the tender ages of 29.
Tomer, who is based in New York, is one of the most successful illustrators on the U.S. scene, having won the Gold and Silver medals from the Society of Illustrators for his work. He regularly draws for publications like The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, and Entertainment Weekly and has worked on animation for MTV and Warner Brothers, and creates covers for paints lush covers for DC Comics.
In April, he drew the cover, a full comics page and two additional illustrations for the New York Times Magazine for Sunday, April 27, 2003 of the on the subject of North Korean teenage refugees.
His twin Assaf lives in Tel Aviv and travels frequently to France, where he creates ‘graphic novels,’ as comic books are known there, as well as illustrating for major U.S. publications long-distance. In Israel, he collaborates with writer Etgar Keret on a comic book series entitled Pizzeria Kamikaze.
Together, they have collaborated on a U.S. comic book series called Bipolar, for which Tomer Hanuka was just nominated for ‘Best Short Story’ for the 2003 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The series is published by Alternative Comics. Typical to the comic book world, their work contains bizarre fantasy worlds involving the past, present and future and the afterlife, and characters with superhuman powers.
“Bipolar is the work that is the most important and personal for us,” Assaf told ISRAEL21c. “Both because we collaborate on it and because characters in the stories are our friends and family and the background are the backgrounds of my life. But overall, both of us are just thrilled that we are able to make our living doing something we love so much.”
On the day when that fateful package arrived from Los Angeles and the twins entered the world of comics “suddenly life was exciting and full of color,” said Assaf.
“I was interested in comics as far back as I can remember,” he recounted. “I think that when we talked about comics no one really understood what it was about, since the people around us, such as friends and family, didn’t care about it. So we were completely sucked in to this universe, which was very foreign to an Israeli middle class environment, and became weird kids. As a result we discussed superpowers and pop mythology only between ourselves.”
And they drew – constantly and obsessively. As schoolchildren, their artistic skills were recognized and admired, and they were permitted to miss classes in order to decorate their school with murals. Cleverly, they chose a controversial motif – a picture of soldiers wielding guns. When the mural was completed, and the school principal ‘predictably’ objected and demanded that they redo their work, they were able to miss more time in the classroom.
After graduation, they were recruited into the Israeli Defense Forces, which put their talents to use. Tomer worked as an illustrator in the IDF educational publication department, and Assaf at the army magazine B’Machane where he began publishing a comic series on army life which was his first collaboration with budding author Keret.
After the army, the twins continued on their separate paths. Tomer headed to New York to launch his career. Assaf discovered the world of comics in France, after he traveled there with a delegation of young Israeli illustrators.
“I discovered French comics when I was 17 and was completely blown over. The detailed drawings, the research behind them, the variety of styles and themes, the level of craft, all inspired me to move to France.”
He studied for three intense years at the Emile Cohl art school in Lyons, found a publisher, and became immersed in the world of French ‘graphic novels, as comic books are called there. He continues to work in France, though homesickness brought him back to Tel Aviv as a home base.
“Comics for me is first of all a way of communicating something that wouldn’t translate to any other medium. It has the intimacy of a book with the dream-like spell of a movie. The heart of that magic is in the way the text interacts with images. A marriage of two well respected traditions of signs give birth to a third. A bastard child. The graphic novel.”
Their sensibilities reflect where they have trained and grown as artists and defined their identities – following his formal training, Assaf has a more intellectual and disciplined European style, while Tomer in New York, has developed in a more freestyle — and more commercial — environment.
In order to support himself, however, Assaf also draws for major U.S. publications from Israel with work that his brother finds for him – mainly business publication such as the Wall Street Journal. He jokes that he is an expert at cartoons involving laptops, business suits and airports.
He gets his artistic satisfaction from his work in France, and particularly from his collaboration with Keret, where he is able to create a uniquely Israeli comic book world. The work that the two do is also incorporated into the Bipolar series in the U.S.
Though his books with Keret have been praised critically, the comic book genre has yet to catch on with a mass audience the way it has in France and the United States. The pair speculate that perhaps Israelis are “too cynical” for comic book heroes – and since they have so many national myths and heroes of their own – need them less. As Keret noted in an interview with the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv, “Who needs Superman when you’ve got Yoni Netanyahu?”
The Hanuka twins feel that their pattern of periodic collaboration while working separately is a successful formula. “We like putting our work next to each other and seeing the effect it has,” says Assaf. “We share similar styles but we are also aware of the differences we have. Although we have always worked independently, of course we are always each other’s strongest influence.”