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A Striking Image Becomes A Gory Graphic Novel In 'Divine'

There are lots of different ways to smoke a cigarette. Some of them are as potent as the tarry concoction inside each little white tube. Every drag was suffused with irony on the notoriously cigariffic Mad Men. In The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus Waters made a spectacle of almost-but-not-quite lighting up. On the new hacker drama Mr. Robot, the techie savants puff offhandedly, indifferent to the vulnerabilities of the flesh.

Another powerful way to smoke is to do it when you're 12. Back in 2000, people around the world were struck by a photo of two Burmese child soldiers, the Htoo twins. They led a group of rebels, called "God's Army," against the Burmese military. They were believed by some to possess magical powers, to be invulnerable. And one, gazing into the camera, brazenly smoked a miniature stogie.

Something about that image stayed with Asaf and Tomer Hanuka and Boaz Lavie, the creators of the new graphic novel, The Divine. The picture was "an unparalleled image of childhood without childhood ... chain-smoking child-soldiers, their eyes as tired as if they were fifty years older," they write in the afterword to their book. "For several years we would take a look at [the photo] from time to time, trying to decipher it."

Those meditations have borne radiant but flawed fruit. The Divine throbs with supersaturated color and cleverly deploys myth and mysticism. But it stays at the surface, lacking dimensional characters or a compelling theme. It's all smoke.

Still, that smoke makes very pretty spirals. The story embroiders skillfully on reality, imagining a pair of child fighters who actually do possess the powers the real twins were credited with. Munitions tech Mark has never heard of the twins when he embarks on a government mining operation in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Quanlom, and he doesn't believe in the supernatural. But Jason, the military friend who brings him on board, tells Mark that once in Quanlom he battled a mysterious smoke dragon — and won.

"We see this thing coming out of the smoke ... something you won't find in the zoo," he says. "[I] put a bullet in its eye [and] it fell down into the smoke. It cracked the windshield with its shriek."

Mark shrugs off Jason's tale, but he soon finds himself confronting the mysteries that come out of the jungle. He and the team are about to blast open a mountain cave when he's abducted by the twins and their band of teenage soldiers, who bully Mark into helping them with their cause. In doing so he comes to question both the U.S. military's legitimacy and his own assumptions about the supernatural. He finds himself witnessing things he'd never imagined as 50-foot-tall totemic warriors, telekinetic massacres and the aforementioned smoke dragon join in a kaleidoscopic assault on Western rationality.

All the pyrotechnics are exciting and make up somewhat for the predictable story arc and one-dimensional characters (though not for the dopey symbolism, including particularly risible phallic imagery). Mark's conversion from rationality to belief is rote, Jason is a stereotypical trigger-happy xenophobe, and even the twins themselves have few facets.

The Divine relies on the Hanukas' gorgeous art for its appeal. The brothers racked up Eisner and Ignatz Award nominations for their comic Bipolar, and their talents are in full force here. Their renderings of the story's supernatural elements leave nothing to the imagination. Spidery, precise lines invest the characters with what depth they do have, and the color scheme is like a punch in the face. The artwork's flat style and overwhelming deep hues make the whole book seem to smolder.

It's not surprising, really, that a book based on a single provocative photo should be so shallow — particularly when it's this photo. The Htoo twins were children in a world they couldn't hope to control, so they lit up like the grownups did. In doing so they unknowingly created an indelible image that stuck with people far longer than the details of their cause.

has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.She tweets at @EtelkaL.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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