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The Realist: Plug and Play creator on balancing his anxieties and writing the personal

Writer-illustrator Asaf Hanuka discusses his latest collection of strips.

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In The Realist, his first collection of strips from his autobiographical webcomic, Asaf Hanuka mined his feelings and family life as he expressed and explored his anxieties about money, parenting, politics, and a host of other worries.

And now, in his latest collection, The Realist: Plug and Play, the writer-illustrator is back at it again — only now his family’s a little bigger, his scope a little wider, and his art a little more evocative.

“We were looking for a name that helped readers understand it’s not a sequel and that you don’t really need to read the first one,” explains Hanuka of his latest collection’s title. “I also wanted to maybe relate a little bit to this technological world a little bit. There’s lots of similarities between people of my generation, their emotional state, and the way, for example, an operating system works. All the pings, and the likes, it becomes part of our flesh somehow.”

But as with most of Hanuka’s work on The Realist, there’s a more personal reason too: his young daughter.

“She’s at the perfect age where kids are speaking dolls, so they’re very cute, but they can say really full sentences and talk about complicated stuff,” muses Hanuka. “Seeing something like that, it’s so cute that I feel like even though I’m trying to be a tough guy, it makes me softer. In a way, I’m like a doll she plays with. So she plugs and plays with me in a way.”

Given the depths Hanuka is plumbing in his latest work, EW caught up with the man behind the Eisner-winning series to discuss what it’s like getting personal in your work.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s a lot more connectivity between each story in this volume. What inspired that?
ASAF HANUKA: For the six-page story I wanted to do something about the war that was in the summer. There was this major attack on Tel Aviv, and we had pretty complicated situations with the children because we had to run down. We watched it on TV and it had a lot of mixed emotions. Obviously, it’s a complicated situation. With all that, it’s very easy to fall into political propaganda. I didn’t want to try to explain either side or say who’s right or who’s wrong, just really my point of view as a helpless citizen stuck in the middle of that. So I felt I needed more length, more time, more pages.

In your work, you express a lot of anxieties. How do you balance something like this as a very real anxiety about a life-threatening situation while also telling stories about some of your more personal anxieties?
For me, comics are a language, which allows me to deal with everything. So nothing is not good enough or too small or too big to put in nine panels. I have these nine panels or just one big illustration. This is the space I have. And I have my experience in illustration so I know I can create some kind of imagery. It could be fantastic, or realistic and slice of life, or something on a timeline. I just try to express whatever feeling I feel towards whatever is happening. It helps me look at that situation from the outside because when I draw it and I have to think of it, or find some kind of logic, then my thoughts are in order, and after I’m done I feel better. I feel like I’m free.

So it’s like therapy in a way.
Every creative act is sort of therapy. Of course, if it’s personal, I gain something. It works for me. I hope readers enjoy that.

Does it get easier telling these kinds of personal stories with each strip you do?
It’s interesting. I really think it’s by period. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes I have a million ideas and I just need more time… But there is one thing that’s getting easier, just the act of drawing. I’m drawing maybe professionally for 25 years, and I’ve been doing The Realist for seven years. So, of course, I can draw these characters in my sleep. They’re like puppets on my hand. I can do everything with them. If I have to do Batman now it will be a problem because he has muscles and it’s a different aesthetic, but as long as it’s this bald guy with glasses, I can do everything with him.

You talk about technology in your work, and obviously, a lot of people have various thoughts about different aspects of technology itself. How do you come up with a way so that your view is very original when you’re expressing it?
It’s always a feeling. The starting point has to be a feeling. It’s never a thought or a conceptual idea or a philosophical approach. Feeling is something that comes from the flesh. It comes from the body. It has a form. If I feel addicted to Facebook likes, and I post a nice drawing and I get 200 likes, I feel this high for two seconds, and I feel like, “Wow. It’s amazing. Everyone in the world loves me.” And then after five minutes, I feel depressed because there are no more new likes. So the way my body feels is really like a drug, so I know that I need to find some kind of metaphor for enjoying it like drugs. So really my starting point is very abstract, it’s something that I feel, and then I try to use commercial tools of self-expression and visual communication because I’ve been working as an editorial illustrator for 15 years.

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How would you compare this volume to the first one?
In what I do, honesty is the most important ingredient. I hope I’m getting better at that. That I can really be honest and can really put down these walls of self-deception and all these illusions we force ourselves to live just so that we can support everything. So I feel that in this, there’s a door that I can open, sometimes I cannot, sometimes it’s closed, but I feel that it’s more often open in the second volume and that maybe I managed to create maybe more complicated work, that it has more ideas in a way. I hope the drawings are better.

In the first one I was really happy to have this story like, “Yeah, I have comics every week. I can do whatever I want,” so I tried all this crazy stuff and just was playing around with it and in the second volume, said, “Okay. Now it’s enough. Now I have to do something serious. I want to really use it in a smart way and do some original stuff with it.”

What were some of the comics or graphic novels that influenced you when you were growing up?
Mostly Marvel and DC Comics, Daredevil and X-Men, but also Batman and Superman. The classic superheroes. I grew up in the ‘70s, beginning of the ‘80s with Tomer Hanuka, who’s my twin brother and he’s a very famous illustrator. We grew up in this kind of gray neighborhood and comics were amazing. They were so colorful, so fun. So we just obsessed over superheroes, and I was sure I’m going to become one at one point. It never happened. I just stayed a geek with the glasses and everything, no superpower. But for me, there was always this gap between very gray, average, ordinary, Middle Eastern life and this big American colorful dream of superpowers, and I think the tension between this reality and the dream is really the basis of everything I do in The Realist.

What are your influences now that your work has become more personal?
I grew up reading people like Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown. All these classic alternatives, as it was called in the ‘90s. I don’t know if it’s still considered “alternative.” But for all this personal stuff, it was a Daniel Clowes book, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. It was a very strange book and I read it when I was with this girl and we broke up, and there was a big mess. I still remember reading and how it gave me hope in a strange way. I don’t know why, because it’s a very depressing book about a break-up. But in a way, it captured that moment and it filled my head with ideas and I was grateful to the world that made me read this book at that time in my life. I felt like maybe I could do the same for someone else if I create good work.

The Realist: Plug and Play, pages from which you can read below, is currently available for purchase. Order it here.

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