EXIT WOUNDS reviewed by Haaretz

Comic milestone

Haaretz    |    Rachella Zandbank    |    October 20, 2008

Rutu Modan's debut graphic novel, "Exit Wounds," originally published last year in English and now out in Hebrew translation, is first and foremost a spellbinding tale that is filled with passion - concealed and overt, restrained and free-flowing. Modan belongs to the category of comics artists who are also "film directors." She knows how to tell a story and how to use all the visual means at her disposal to convey to her readers the full meaning and complexity of the universe she constructs and the narrative she relates. Just as in filmmaking, one must approach comics with an open mind, constantly paying attention to what the image on the page is doing to the story, and what it says that the text omits.

The plot of "Exit Wounds" centers on Koby Franco, an Israeli cab driver who meets up with a tall, gawky female soldier named Numi, who has a rather odd agenda: "Remember that suicide bombing in Hadera three weeks ago?" she asks him. "Hadera? You mean Haifa," Koby replies. "No, not the one at the restaurant. The one in the bus station cafeteria," Numi explains. She tells him that she thinks that the unidentified man killed in that attack was Koby's father. How does she know this? She saw an item belonging to him at the blast site on TV, and has tried unsuccessfully to reach him since the bombing.

Modan rightly credits the initial idea for her story to David Ofek's amazing documentary "No. 17," which recounts the fate of a bombing victim no one could identify. Ofek began filming on the assumption that the victim was a migrant worker. From this premise, his film takes off on an astoundingly powerful journey of encounters with Israel's haves and have-nots.

By way of free association, Modan was also inspired by her recollection of a guy she dated in her youth. When he had neglected to call her for a whole week, she was sure he had died. In the end she called him, only to find out that he was perfectly healthy, just not interested in seeing her again.

Modan merged Ofek's film and her personal experience of rejection to arrive at her novel's starting point: It turns out that Numi had been having an affair with Koby's father, and she is convinced that the bombing explains his sudden disappearance. From here on the story focuses mainly on Koby, whose relationship with his father has been rocky for a long time; Numi's theory reignites tremendous rage toward the man who always managed to let him down. This longing for a loving father figure is a powerful motivation for Numi, too. In their shared quest, both characters have to bid farewell to all sorts of primal needs to make room for something else, more mature and liberated, to grow.

Modan's drawings bear the clear influence of the "clean-line" method adopted by Herg? (the creator of Tintin) and other European comics artists, but using more realism and emphasizing the nuances of body language, gestures and relations between characters that become sharply evident in the way the scenes are designed. Her characters' facial features are "Tintin-like" to the extent that she frequently makes do with dots for eyes or lines for eyebrows and mouth. For the most part, however, she demonstrates well how much such markings can in fact contain.

As Modan herself admits, the novel's "narrator's voice" is expressed through line and style: It is a gentle voice, full of understatement, that views each one of the characters at eye level, never ridicules them or jokes at their expense. Even though her backdrops - the streets and homes that constitute the setting - accurately portray Israeli reality, the soft colors deliberately ignore the harsh Israeli light; it is also likely that the choice of winter for the temporal setting seeks to somewhat soften the events recounted.

Modan is an expert at spreading panels on a page and knows how to direct the readers' eyes to the important frames, the dramatic moments. She switches between points of view, just like a director with an omniscient perspective does, whenever she wants to present an event from various angles, covering each of her heroes' emotional reactions.

Like David Ofek's pursuit, Koby and Numi's quest takes them to assorted nooks and crannies in Israeli life, from the home of Koby's aunt and uncle - who are substitutes for the parents he lacks, where a photo of their son killed in a war hangs on the wall - through Numi's wealthy home, with a mother and sister who seem like caricatures out of an American soap opera, to the people at Hadera's central bus station, including the Filipina cleaner, who is utterly anonymous to everyone around her.

Whoever is familiar with Ofek's film will recognize direct influences here and there, such as the portrayal of proceedings at the forensics institute, where lunch is discussed while people handle a fresh body; or the character of the older woman, salt of the earth, an old flame of the father's youth, whom Koby and Numi unearth in their search. But their quest is primarily a deeply personal one, and the reality in which they live serves as a backdrop to which Modan gives real presence, while at the same time accepting that private daily life is usually overpowering.

"Exit Wounds" recently won Modan the U.S. comics industry's Eisner Award for best graphic novel - a great honor. The responses this award elicited among those unfamiliar with Israeli reality were interesting: Readers waxed enthusiastic about Modan's ability to convey a complicated reality in which terror attacks and other types of murderous violence have become a routine part of life.

A serious shortcoming of the Hebrew translation (published by Am Oved) lies in the banal choice of title, "Karov Rahok" (a Hebrew idiom which has several meanings), compared to the lovely English original, which was put out by Drawn and Quarterly. Aside from that, the book's transformation into Hebrew is almost flawless (almost, because even though numerous frames in which Koby is driving were redrawn to avoid creating a situation in which switching linguistic direction, from English to Hebrew, would turn him into a British driver, a few frames were overlooked, including on the first page of the book). The dialogue sounds natural and a great many nuances of Israeli reality find their rightful place. It suddenly seems strange that an outsider could be able to get it.

The lettering, that crucial concept in comics, deserves special praise here: The manual drawing of the text was done by hand (by Ishai Mishory), and perfectly, in a manner that illuminates why lettering is an inseparable part of comics and how it contributes to the ambience - in this case to the intense intimacy the text conveys.

In case it is still not clear: "Exit Wounds" is a moving and extremely beautiful work of art, a milestone that will hopefully become the "pied piper" of Israeli comics, in whose wake all of the mice who draw will emerge from their holes, and create, with blood and sweat, more and more works of this caliber.

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