Reviews: family life & fantasy, The Realist returns with Plug & Play
I’ve been following Israeli creator Asaf Hanuka online for a good while (well worth following his Twitter feed), and was delighted when Archaia released a collection of his work with The Realist (reviewed here on the blog), so naturally when I heard Archaia had a second Realist collection coming this spring, with Plug and Play I was keen to grab a read, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.
As with the previous volume this is a highly enjoyable mixture of comics about the every day of life – especially family life – and some wonderful, and often insightful flights of fancy and fantasy. And sometimes those everyday family moments and the fantasy collide, with interesting results. One of the aspects of Guy Delisle’s works I’ve enjoyed is how he incorporates the passage of time in his life, seeing his children a bit older in a later book, and the effect this has on his and his family’s life; it’s quite satisfying and also something pretty much all of us can empathise with easily, and it’s something I think Hanuka does very nicely too.
Children getting that wee bit older means they become more questioning, and while it may be rewarding to see their intellectual development it can quickly lead to questions parents simply don’t know the answers to (and of course the kids assume their parents should know everything, surely???). A question about “what’s nothing made of?” sparks a serious trawl through the web trying to find answers, tying poor Asaf’s mind into knots in the process. I was reminded of the late Robin Williams talking about his child “why is the sky blue?” “Because of the atmosphere” “What’s atmosphere?” “It’s the air we breathe…” “… why do we breathe??” “Last week you were still in nappies, this week you’re Carl Sagan???” Children are naturally curious, programmed to learn – it’s a good thing. But, man, it can drive you round the bend too…
Other strips deal with something sadly far, far too familiar to many – trying to hold a normal family life (if there is such a thing!) in the face of terror attacks which can erupt at any moment. Asaf economically uses just a few panels to show preparations when a possible attack is announced – grab some food, the baby milk, couple of children’s toys, shoes by the bag of supplies near the door, all ready to go. It’s almost like preparing for a family trip somewhere, except here it is to the bomb shelter in the basement, while the panels project a sense of almost-routine; this rocket attack is something they’re used to. Another stories interleaves panels of Asaf worrying over news bulletins of a new trend of terrorist attacks with him trying to calm his wee girl and get her to sleep, even noting “the Israeli security forces can ‘handle’ the terror. As if terror was a child having a fit and that – if we just hug her tight enough – she’ll calm down and fall asleep” as we move from new bulletins to family life.
That familiarity with something so awful and the similarity to preparations for a family trip underscore how horribly routine such events can be for some. And later scenes as they return to their home and put the kids to bed again underline that – as does the horrible question of how do you explain what is happening to a child? Sadly something too many have been wondering again just after event in Manchester. It’s all done in a few panels, but there’s a real, wrenching sense of worry – how do you protect your family? – and then that equally difficult task of how to tell a child about what’s going on, why are people trying to kill them? This dovetails well with the earlier questions the kids had been asking him and it also shows that side of the author, the dad, who hasn’t just himself to worry about but a whole family.
While it touches a number of times on such heavy subjects and how they, rather horribly, intersect many lives, most of the collection is just damned funny. Sometimes it is a single image splash page (a great one of Asaf drawing a strip, one arm mutated horribly, like something from Tetsuo or a manga, following a trip to Japan, for example), others ruminate on Asaf and his own insecurities, both current and what he was like when younger. Throughout there is a sense of him knowing how fortunate he is that despite any problems he’s lucky to be in a good place, with a wonderful wife who takes him as he is, flaws and all, and their kids, and the effect they have on him.
For me the most enjoyable revolve around his family life and concerns, some taking to flights of fancy (young daughter exploding into fire-breathing rage) others more mundane, everyday events (getting the kids to the school bus on time and making breakfast) and the humour that comes out of general life in a way any of us can recognise. Meanwhile the art takes in all sorts of references from superhero comics to Maurice Sendak. Funny, gently thought-provoking and an utter delight.