Michael Cavna Interviews Rutu Modan, Revisiting “The Property”

SHELFIES: Revisiting Rutu Modan’s new Eisner winner: Post-Holocaust longings in ‘The Property’

The Washington Post    |    Michael Cavna    |    August 7, 2014

ED. NOTE: Last month, Comic Riffs launched an occasional feature, dubbed “SHELFIES,” in which we pull a favorite graphic novel or other comic off our personal shelves that’s ready for a fresh close-up. Here is our second installment.
– M.C.

EVEN IN Rutu Modan’s comedic work, there is the spectre of death.

Last year, Modan published The Property (Drawn and Quarterly), a beautiful graphic novel that mines emotional humor from the competing motivations and agendas and secrets of people seeking something in Poland — a half-century after the Holocaust upended the lives of the elder generations.

“What is more mysterious and dramatic than death?” Modan told The Post’s Comic Riffs.

Last month, The Property  won an Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album at San Diego’s Comic-Con International — even as in the Mideast, the Tel Aviv-based Modan faced her homeland’s current spectre of death. It is a through-line that resonates.

“Personally, I was always attracted to the subject, as much as I had/have a strong preference to black humor,” the Israeli cartoonist told Comic Riffs. “I do see the connection, though, to my personal history.

“First of all, where I come from,” she continued. “This country of mine doesn’t let you ignore the facts of death too much, and from a very early age. Maybe the fact I grew up in a hospital didn’t help, either. My parents were both doctors, and as a child we lived in a neighborhood that was in the hospital area for all the doctors and nurses and their families to live in, so I was exposed to things that maybe other kids don’t see. Especially during wartime, when the helicopters with wounded soldiers were landing right near our building.

“Nothing was hidden. Everything was out there.”

Given both her history and her region’s current events, this seems like a telling time to revisit Modan’s The Property  — her clear-line, clear-minded 2013 work — through her words:

MICHAEL CAVNA:  The Property occurs in “seven days” that for you [took] years to realize. How do you feel about the result — and have you been able to get enough “distance” from the work to appreciate what you’ve accomplished?

RUTU MODAN: Compared to Exit Wounds — my previous graphic novel — The Property  was a much longer process. Maybe because the subject was more complicated — a comedy with the Holocaust as a background? — or because I had more characters to develop, or maybe because I chose to write, and draw, a book that takes place in a country I never been to, and didn’t know anything about. … Anyway, it took me more than four years to finish the book, and more than once during that time, I thought I would never be able to make all those bits and pieces of notes and ideas and images that I had into something coherent.

It happened, in the end, somehow, and it’s still a kind of a miracle for me.

MC: I’ve read that [the character] Regina is partly a composite of your own grandmothers. Can you speak to some of the elements of your own life that make their way — in some form — into “The Property”? For instance, I kept wanting to view [the granddaughter character] Mica as a 20-something version of yourself — and certainly [the love interest] Tomasz feels like a refracted version of yourself as artist and storyteller…

RM: Regina is based quite heavily on both my grandmothers — both were originally from Warsaw, both lost their families, homeland and properties during World War II. They were very strong, stubborn, amazing and, many times, quite irritating women. It was a pleasure, and it was painful, to try to revive, through Regina, the way they used to talk, to dress, to behave — and through that, to understand them, at last, as human beings and not just through their Grandmother role.

Yagodnik, the “bad man” of the book, is based a little bit on one of my uncles. Well, my uncle is much nicer than Yagodnik, but like him, he is this kind of person who likes to meddle in everybody’s business and give advice when no one asks him to.

Mica is much more beautiful and witty than I am — maybe she is the young woman I wanted to be. She is the only one in the story that is not interested in the past, which you cannot say about me, or I wouldn’t write this story. And Tomasz is definitely a joke [at my own expense] — a comics artist who dreams of writing the “Polish Persepolis” and, on the way, uses other people’s lives as material to fulfill this ambition.

Many little facts and stories in the plot were borrowed from life — not necessarily my own. During the research, I interviewed many people, Jewish and Polish, and sometimes I did feel, a little bit, like I’m using them for my purposes.

Usually, I don’t use the [real-life] story as it was, but mainly [instead] its essence. An example: I never knew my grandfather from my mother’s side. He left his family when my mother was 7 and moved to Europe. He didn’t stay in touch with my mother and for that he got the nickname “The Evil Dwarf” from his ex-wife [my grandmother].

When I was 13, I went to a family wedding with my mother. I remember, we were approaching the buffet, and suddenly my mother pointed toward a short, bald man who stood there drinking soda and [she] said calmly:”Look, girls, this is my father.” The man noticed us and came over, my mother introduced me and my sister to him. He nodded. I remember asking myself: “Am I supposed to love this stranger? Am I suppose to kiss him or something? And what will happen next?” Then he said goodbye and left. I never saw him again.

I understood then that family relations are not something that you can take for granted — not even parents’ love! It was quite shocking for a 13-year-old. And to imagine how my mother must have felt at that moment! This experience is the basis for the meeting between Mica and Roman in The Property. Maybe if I didn’t have this meeting — if I had a normal relationship with my grandfather — I couldn’t have imagined that Mica and Roman [wouldn't fall] into each other arms like in a Hollywood movie.

MC: Could you talk about your apparently recent real connection to Poland? Although your own family was from Warsaw, I understand it was an especially foreign place to you until recently. And Warsaw seems to be changing so profoundly in the past 20 years– as history is both bulldozed and burnished simultaneously.

RM: Although my family is originally from Poland, I knew nothing about it, I hardly even thought about it as a country, only as how my grandmothers referred to it as “just one big cemetery.” They both agreed — and they never agreed on anything – that they [were] not interested [in going] there for a visit, to the country that they grew up in, [and where they lived] till they were almost 30! I guess it was too painful for them — too full of memories.

My father was 8 when he left Poland, and like a typical immigrant child, [he] tried to become more Israeli than Israeli. As a young girl, and many years afterwards, I accepted this attitude, which was the common attitude toward Poland in Israel. I think I knew more about the history of Rhodesia than about the history of Poland — besides the Holocaust, of course.

When I first had the the idea to write “The Property,” I was curious to find out about Poland: What is there besides concentration camps? I started reading about its history — not just about the Jewish history — and finally went there in 2009. When I went, I deliberately did not “Google-Image” Warsaw. How many opportunities dp we have, in our time, to go to a place without knowing [what] it looks like?

MC: What’s the origin story, creatively, of “The Property,” because the central real-world linchpin in the narrative seems so much of “the now.”

RM: The Property is completely fictional, but the background — the world that I tried to describe — is real. Unlike countries in the West — where after World War II, survivors could get their property back — in Poland, due to the Communist regime, all the properties were nationalized and until the beginning of the ’90s, it was impossible for survivors to get their properties back.

Furthermore, because of the extent of the horrors that took place mostly in Poland — where most of the concentrations camps were located — the country was boycotted for many years by survivors and their relatives.

With the fall of communism, the property was privatized again, and it also became possible to travel and, theoretically, reclaim property. Both nostalgia and the passage of time tend to intensify the wonders of the past and create fantasies of legendary treasures that supposedly awaits overseas.

So: History, families, money, tragic past — all these themes seemed to me [to be] great material for a story.

MC: Could you go into some detail about your visual process? Because every two or three panels, there is a pose or posture or muscle movement that “reads” as so uncannily real and true to the eye — Regina’s swigging of a water bottle, or Mica’s seated legs with a lifted, turned-in boot, or Tomasz’s reclining on a sofa — that I presume you use photo references. Do you use models? Because the effect on the sense of realism — that just-right line — is amazing.

RM: I started to use models about eight years ago — one or two projects before Exit Wounds. In the beginning, it was only to help me with complicated postures. Than I was starting to rely more and more on body language with a combination of dialogue to tell the protagonist’s story. I seldom use captions or thoughts balloons; I love the gap created — as in life — between what people say and how they act, and to let the reader understand what goes on in [the characters'] heads.

For each character, I used a different model, to get different kinds of body expressions. At this point, I was asking friends to model for me. Then, for one of the short comics ["The Murder of the Terminal Patient," which ran in the New York Times in 2007], I worked with a friend of mine who is a professional actress. It was then that I found out how wonderful it is to work with actors.

As an illustrator, I’m an observer. I see how certain people dress, or do their hair, or walk, and portray it in drawings. As a writer, I can go into their head and tell what they think. But actors — they become the person they act. This is what they are trained to do — this is their skill. My actress friend brought such a rich and wide range of movements that I could never come up with. She made the story deeper and funnier.

Besides, actors are willing to do really embarrassing stuff. They are shameless. This is another great advantage. I decided that for my next project, I [would] use professional actors.

After I finished writing the script, I made a full storyboard of the book in rough sketches, and then I hired actors, dressed them up and they acted [out] the whole book while I directed them and took photos. It was like a low-budget film. Then I went to Poland and took pictures of the locations and then combined everything in the final drawings.

Comics artists are usually control freaks — we like to do everything by ourselves: writing, drawing, directing, art directing. By letting the actors into my story, I had to let go, and give them the freedom to influence it. Even though I told them what to say and what to do, there was still enough freedom for them to make interpretations, and I believe it made the story much deeper and livelier than I could make it without them.

MC: Could you talk about your palette choices? For one thing, the tints often felt more heavily saturated in scenes when the characters were dealing in deception, or half-truths, or obfuscation; by contrast, the moments of honest communication read as lighter visually. But that totally could just be me as just one reader. But what *was* some of the thinking behind your color choices?

RM: I don’t think I am so sophisticated in my color selections as you describe — maybe subconsciously — but colors are a very important tool for telling the story. The “real” color of an object is only one of many options to use color. Colors are time of day, atmosphere, focus in a panel or in a scene. Color can be used also as a means of rhythm. In “The Property” [in "Exit Wounds," too], each scene has its own palette. So when the reader turns the page and there is a new palette, [the reader] immediately knows he is in a different location, before he even starts to read. This helps with the flow of the story, which is one of my biggest interests in creating comics.

But, I don’t want it to sounds too rational a process. There is a lot of [trial and error] and negotiations between the differemt roles of the colors that I described above — before I decide on the final result. Sometimes it just happens, and sometimes I can struggle for a few days on finding the right palette.

MC: You said somewhere that there is always a dead person in your story — even if that event is off-camera or precedes the narrative we see. Can you speak to that as a constant in your work — is that a product of your writing about families, and multiple generations, or cultural and personal history? What’s the thinking and theme there?

RM: Well, death is not such an original theme in art…or in human experience. What is more mysterious and dramatic than death?

Personally, I was always attracted to the subject, as much as I had/have a strong preference to black humor. I do see the connection, though, to my personal history. First of all, where I come from. This country of mine doesn’t let you ignore the facts of death too much, and from a very early age. Maybe the fact I grew up in a hospital didn’t help, either. My parents were both doctors, and as a child, we lived in a neighborhood that was in the hospital area for all the doctors and nurses and their families to live in, so I was exposed to things that maybe other kids don’t see. Especially during wartime, when the helicopters with wounded soldiers were landing right near our building. Nothing was hidden. Everything was out there.

MC: I’ve interviewed a few cartoonists who were distinctly affected as a young person by [their] discovery of Edward Gorey. How did coming upon his work affect you as an artist/writer and creative mind?

RM: I wasn’t interested in comics so much when I grew up. First of all, there were not many comics around. And superheroes were never a subject I could relate to, maybe because I was a girl. On the other hand, [as far back as I remember], I was drawing stories.

The first time I saw Edward Gorey’s work, it was a revelation. His style, his stories, his layout, his humor — everything was so different from what I knew as “comics.” It showed me that there are unlimited options to the medium. That comics can be anything, both in content and format — that there are unlimited ways to tell stories through visual images. For quite a few years, I was inspired to the degree of copying Gorey’s style. And to this day, he is in my “top five” list of cartoonists.

MC: So I understand you were editor of the Hebrew edition of MAD magazine for a bit more than a year. Beyond the fact that early MAD relied on so much Yiddish-isms — and faux-Yiddishisms — I can’t imagine that American brand of satire translating [correctly] to the ear much beyond English-speaking nations. What was that like — and can you characterize what the Israeli comics market was like 20 or 30 years ago?

RM: It is not such a big story as it maybe sounds. It was in 1993 or 1994, MAD was selling the rights in many countries. The contract was to use 75-percent American material and 25-percent local material. I was a young cartoonist, and was offered the job by the Israeli publisher, together with my friend and colleague Yrrmi Pinkus. At the time, there was no comics industry at all in Israel. Not that it is much different today, but there is an improvement.

In all Israel, there were maybe five professional cartoonists, and not one publisher or one comics store. There were few failed attempts before MAD to publish comics in Hebrew. I think Israel is the only country in the world [where] Superman and Tintin were commercial failures. Our attempt was no different. In part, it was our fault. We were the editors of MAD, but really, we wanted to be the editors of Raw magazine. The Israeli material we commissioned from local artists was in the alternative style, and so was the graphic design of the Israeli MAD.

The result was that readers who like MAD hated the Israeli material, and those who liked alternative comics hated MAD’s part of the magazine. Nobody bought it and after 10 issues, it was closed down.

But it was a great experience; I had fun and learned a lot about editing, printing — and [about] the difference between making and selling.

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