Rutu Modan’s devastating, understated comics
By Jascha Hoffman
“Reality is more grotesque and strange than anything you can invent,” says the Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan. “Sometimes life is too much, you have to tone it down to make art.” Modan’s own work has evolved over the past fifteen years from rather strange and grotesque fables into some of the strongest graphic fiction on the planet. Like the novelists David Grossman and A. B. Yehoshua, and young filmmakers such as Hilla Medalia, Modan has found ways to tell stories that use the flood of bad news in Israel as the backdrop to subtle stories about ordinary people learning how to live.
Modan, who moved to England last year when her husband accepted a post-doc position there, has recently been cultivating an international following. Last year her graphic novel Exit Wounds was released in English to widespread acclaim. This year she drew two very different series of comics for The New York Times. Her memoir blog, “Mixed Emotions,” ventured into the realm of autobiography with illustrated stories about her family, such as the fallout from her youngest son’s obsession with a pink tutu, in an ingenious vertical format that would have been cumbersome on paper but worked perfectly online. Her serial mystery “The Murder of the Terminal Patient,” which follows an underemployed Russian doctor as he navigates the hierarchy of an Israeli hospital to investigate a suspicious death, is one of the best comics to have appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
Modan’s visual style may at first appear somewhat plain, but she has a masterful skill for pacing and perspective, a keen eye for postures and facial expressions, and a command of composition and color that rivals the old masters of Sunday comics. Her illustrations recall the whimsical work of Little Nemo creator Winsor McKay, or, as Douglas Wolk has suggested, the “clear line” style of Tintin creator Hergé, where simple characters stand out against finely drawn landscapes to make for an oddly affecting sense of reality. One might wonder how such talent was incubated. Part of the answer arrives this month in the form of Jamilti and Other Stories, a collection of Modan’s early comics released by the Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly. Over a decade’s worth of genre experiments veering from fairy tales to crime fiction, Modan emerges in its pages as a storyteller of rare insight and restraint.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1966, Modan’s career has run parallel to the rise of a serious independent comics scene in Israel, which in the past fifteen years has grown large enough to provide a decent market for domestic graphic fiction. Months after first seeing Art Spiegelman’s outlandish magazine RAW as a student at the Belazel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, Modan began to publish comic strips that ranged from the absurd to the macabre in local papers. “Since there was no comics tradition” in Israel at the time, she says, “I could do anything I wanted.” In 1993 she was hired to edit the Israeli edition of MAD magazine, along with artist Uri Pinkus. When it folded, Modan and Pinkus decided to start their own comics collective. “If we were going to lose money, better to do exactly what we like,” she says.
The first meeting of the Actus Tragicus collective was convened, as chance would have it, on the evening in 1995 that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The group stayed up all night concocting conspiracy theories in which Rabin survived the shooting. It would be too simple, though, to conclude that this founding trauma set the artists on a path to darker or more cynical work. “This event didn’t change our art,” Modan says. “Israeli reality gives you so many opportunities to be macabre.” Her story-length comics, published in a series of Actus anthologies over the past decade, appeared to seize as many of these opportunities as possible. An early one reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm features a forlorn plastic surgeon who tries to rearrange his patients’ faces in the image of his lost love. In a later story, as hardboiled as it is preposterous, a series of dead bodies turn up bearing the signature of a new serial killer: a pair of panties on the head.
In recent years Modan’s work has become more understated and more revealing as she has grown to engage more fully with contemporary life in Israel. Refusing to shy away from the catastrophes in the headlines, she also refrains from commenting directly on pressing issues like war and terrorism. Instead, Modan tells stories about ordinary people who are confronting their own emotional weaknesses, even as they project strong exteriors to the rest of the world. “In Israel we try to live like political events have no influence on our lives, and most of the time we succeed,” Modan explains. “But it’s a delusion, even if we are not at the center of the drama.”
How thick a skin must you have when you live in a society under siege? This question lies at the heart of Exit Wounds. It follows a bitter young taxi driver as he searches for his deadbeat father, with the help of his father’s wealthy, estranged girlfriend. Its earth tones and mellow pace have a lulling effect on the reader, even as the prickly dialogue reveals enough emotional damage to leave a metal tinge in the throat. The book draws much of its power from the particularly Israeli confusions that drive the story. Was the father tragically ripped away from his son by a suicide bomber before they could reconcile, as it might first appear? Or does the bombing merely give him an alibi to escape from the demands of his own loved ones? In refusing to uncover the truth about what became of his father, is the son succumbing to the fantasy that his life is immune from political events? Or is he simply refusing to give in to the terror-induced hysteria around him? The book offers no clear answers.
The threat of suicide bombings, and the unexpected ways they can twist the mind and the heart, are also central to a pair of the most haunting stories in Modan’s collection. Both are based on real events. In “Jamilti,” the new collection’s title story, an Israeli woman, on the eve of her wedding, rushes to the aid of a man wounded in a suicide bombing. She later learns that the handsome man to whom she gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was the bomber himself, his own sole victim. Though the plot may sound contrived, Modan has adapted it from a true story, in which a medic found himself questioning his conservative beliefs after reviving a man who turned out to be terrorist.
“The real situation was too political,” Modan says. “I wanted to turn it into something more personal and less clear, without a message.” The reader comes away from the story with a strong sense of the heroine’s confusion, and the anger and pity—perhaps even intimacy— she feels for a man who moments earlier would have been willing to kill her. It is a feeling that is both sobering and dizzying. Although the moral question of whether it was right to revive the bomber is in the background of the story, she says, “my heroine doesn’t think about it. When she kissed this guy, she felt the possibility of a connection with a human being—and she cannot erase it because she found he is a terrorist. Confusing? I think it should be.”
Such retrospective games of conscience continue in her story “Homecoming,” in which a small airplane begins to circle around the shore near a northern kibbutz. Since the pilot does not identify himself, the crowd that gathers cannot know whether he is an airborne suicide bomber or a missing soldier coming home. Their hunches reveal their own needs: the father of the missing solider is sure his son has returned, while the suitor of the soldier’s girlfriend is confident that the pilot must be a terrorist.
When the plane is finally shot down by the air force, leaving an unidentifiable corpse on the beach, the bystanders swap positions instantaneously. The father clings to hope by proclaiming that the dead man was not his son, while the suitor asserts that he probably was the soldier coming home after all. The tone is wry, but the message is unsettling. As a demonstration of the idea that, as Modan puts it, “everyone has their own self-serving reasons for their political beliefs,” the story does its job. But there is also a rich irony in the fact that, from the ground, one cannot tell the difference between a murderer and a prodigal son. And the confusion is mutual: a Palestinian militant might consider his aerial mission to be a perverse sort of homecoming.
In the years since she drew these fables of war-torn Israeli life, Modan’s focus has shifted from the moral to the psychological. Since Exit Wounds, her stories have tended to home in on smaller accounts of ordinary Israelis at war with themselves. “Your Number One Fan,” the only comic in the collection that was published after Exit Wounds, deals with a smug Israeli rock musician invited on his first international tour, which turns out to be nothing more than a pitiful slot at the social hall of a small synagogue in Sheffield, England. The visual style is crisper than ever, but the plot itself might seem rather slight, a step down from the dramatic turmoil of her previous subjects. From this tale of small-time narcissistic delusion, though, Modan has brought out truths about the Israeli artist abroad: the inflated expectations of international fame, coupled with a love-hate relationship with the diasporic Jewish communities (often the most loyal foreign public for Israeli culture).
Cultural criticism aside, “Your Number One Fan” is ultimately the story of a man who goes looking for swarms of admirers but unintentionally finds something more rare and valuable: a single person who likes his music enough to accept him despite his indecent behavior. As the story ends, it is not clear whether he will ever realize the importance of this, perhaps because that lone admirer is a middle-aged British divorcee without a shred of indie credibility.
In the not-so-gentle downshifting of one wannabe’s artistic expectations from the stadium to the kitchen table, the story might also say something about Modan’s own recent shift from addressing major events to describing more intimate ones. She is surely capable of harnessing her talent in pursuit of an epic that would reveal something profound about what it means to be an Israeli. Instead, she’s stubbornly trying to understand her characters in a personal way, making the point that their dramas are not disconnected from the fraught context in which they’re set.
Jascha Hoffman has written for Nature and The New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn.