In 2000, the Associated Press released a photo of two child soldiers, 12-year-old twins Johnny and Luther Htoo. The brothers led a group of right-wing guerrilla soldiers, called “God’s Army,” against the Burmese military who were forcing the Karen people from their lands to secure the route of an oil pipeline. Recruited by a local pastor when they were just 9-years-old, the brothers quickly became the figureheads of a revolution, and as their following grew so too did the fantastical, fanatical stories surrounding them.
The brothers were believed to possess numerous magical powers, including invulnerability to bullets, the capacity to kill their enemies with a thought, and the ability to walk on landmines without them detonating. The photo of these Burmese twins and the stark contrast between the legend of their powers and the reality of their powerlessness – children robbed of their childhood by war – struck a chord with another set of twins, Asaf and Tomer Hanuka. Along with writer/director Boaz Lavie, the Israeli artists looked to AP photographer Apichart Weerawong’s haunting image as inspiration for their stand-alone graphic novel The Divine.
The Divine starts out firmly rooted in reality, introducing us to Mark, former military explosives tech turned civilian consultant. Driven by the promise of easy money and the dual stressors of a demotion (disguised as a promotion) and impending fatherhood, he agrees to join his ex-Army buddy Jason on a secretive government mining operation in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Quanlom, where civil war rages. Realism gives way to mysticism when Mark’s compassion for an injured boy leads to his capture by “The Divine” – a child army led by 10-year-old twins with supernatural powers.
It’s a compelling premise, using a single, haunting photo as the launching pad to cross a massive expanse of ideological ground, touching on the brutality of war, the loss of innocence, the balance of nature, post-colonial arrogance and the dangers of a military industrial complex driven by profit over protection. The Divine isn’t afraid to face down dragons both figurative and literal; there is an actual dragon spirit slumbering in the mineral-rich mountain Mark has been hired to blow up. These deeper themes are the connective tissue holding together all the gorgeously inked and colored helicopter explosions, golum attacks, and telekinetic Mortal Kombat-esque massacres.
Unfortunately, this same depth doesn’t translate to the characters, who – aside from (maybe) Mark – are disappointingly shallow. Mark’s wife and the twins, Luke and Thomas, are one-dimensional; they feel like placeholders for ideas rather than portrayals of actual people. And Mark’s army buddy Jason is painted with such broad strokes he borders on caricature, the stereotypical trigger-happy, ‘Murica-lovin’ xenophobe. The Divine opens with Jason telling Mark the story of how he once fought a dragon in Quanlom. It “has a piece of [him] in it” because he put a bullet in its eye, a bullet fired from what we are pointedly informed was “an American-made gun.” He is literally trying to destroy Eastern mysticism with Western science. A nuanced character, he is not.
Where The Divine achieves transcendence is in the artwork; the moments that speak loudest are those where there aren’t any words, where the themes that drive the narrative are subtlety conveyed, not rammed down your throat in one of Jason’s heavy-handed, dick-swinging imperialistic diatribes. This is an absolutely gorgeous book. The lines are wispy but precise, packing in an incredible amount of fine detail into a small space. The solid, bold backgrounds and super-saturated colors not only make the panels pop, they help tell the story. From a fuchsia-soaked chopper raid to the cold blues of an airport lounge to the lush greens of the jungle, the use of color to convey both a sense of place and mood is masterfully executed; it grounds even the most shocking supernatural elements, giving that much more emotional impact. If only the reader had more time to parse those emotions. Once the magic starts, the story seems extremely rushed, speeding past at a blur. But what a beautiful blur.
The Divine is a beautiful, ambitious graphic novel whose reach exceeds its grasp. As cool as towering totemic warriors and slumbering smoke dragons are, I was more interested in the twins wielding these godlike powers than the powers themselves, but we never really dig beneath the surface. Just like the real life Htoo twins, they are dehumanized, their story lost to legend. If the narrative and characters weren’t so shallow, this book truly could have been divine. But even in this humble, flawed form, it is a gorgeous and emotional work, well worth reading.