The Daily Crosshatch | Brian Heater | October 22, 2007
RUTU MODAN interviewed by The Daily Crosshatch
A co-founder of the art collective, Actus Tragicus, Rutu Modan has been a fixture in the Israeli comics scene since the mid-90s, receiving all manner of praise for her work in that medium and for the magazine work that she has been producing for more than 15 years. Released earlier this year, her first graphic novel, Exit Wounds, has been translated into several languages (including English, thankfully) and has garnered her nearly universal acclaim, helping to land her a gig blogging for the New York Times.
I had the opportunity to it down with Modan at SPX, last weekend. I had plenty of serious topics I was hoping to broach over the course of our conversation, including the ways in which the Isreali identity and Jewish religion play roles in her work.
And then there was the fact that Modan helped run the short-lived Israeli version of Mad Magazine. Naturally, we had to tackle that one first—a blog’s gotta have priorities, after all.
How long are you in the States for?
What are you doing to promote the book?
It’s my first book tour. From here, I’m going to Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francicso, which I’ve never been to. So it’s really exciting.
Have you been to the States before?
Yes, many times, but just to the east coast—I’ve been to New York. I’m going to New York [on this tour], but only for two and a half days.
Where else will you be going? Europe?
My book was published in Italian, so I went to Italy and Spain. It’s been fun. It’s the bright side of making comics, going to places and meeting people.
How well known is your work in Israel?
Well. Israel is so small that the comics scene is really tiny, and I’ve been doing illustrations for magazines for 15 years now.
You were at Mad for a while.
Yeah…it’s really funny that people know that—I didn’t know that it would be so important in my biography. Here it sounds very impressive, but the truth is that it’s not really that impressive. It was in the middle of the 90s and Mad was over its peak, so they started selling rights all over the world to publish local editions. The format was supposed to be 75-percent American material, and 25-pecent original local material. I was just out of art school at the time, and the publisher suggested that I edit it.
Afterwards, we co-founded the comics group, Actus. The great side of it was that we could use any material from the history of Mad Magazine. We could use things from the 50s. We asked them to send a lot of old magazines, and we were reading them and choosing what we really liked for the magazine. It was a lot of fun.
It must have been tough translating the Mad sensibility for a different culture, especially content from the 50s. Were you focused on what you thought the readers would like?
We were trying to think about what would be relevant. There were all of these parodies of TV shows, and you have to know the show to understand it. But we were more interested in alternative comics, for the original comics, we asked all of our friends from the alternative scene to contribute. It was a chance to get paid for doing their comics. We also got a hip designer, so we completely changed the design of Mad Magazine. The result was that people who liked Mad Magazine hated the material. They thought it was terrible. And people who like alternative comics hated the Mad part.
So, nobody was happy.
Yeah. Nobody was happy and everyone criticized it. Nobody bought it. We did it for a year, and learned a lot from it. Then it closed down.
There’s no Mad Magazine in Israel, right now?
No, no. But then we understood that, if we were going to lose money, we’d better lose it with something that we liked to do. So we founded Actus, and started self-publishing.
How many people are involved in Actus?
Five—there’s actually a very funny story involving Mad—we had to send the American publisher the cover. Just the cover. They wanted to see it, because we had to use Alfred E. Newman. So, one of the covers we did was by an artist who drew Alfred E. Newman like a skinhead. It was cancelled. They didn’t let us publish it, because they said that hurt Jewish people’s feelings.
There certain neo-Nazi connotations to aspects of the skinhead culture.
Yeah, but we didn’t have the connotation because in Israel, there are no Nazis. But they didn’t understand that, so we had to use a different cover.
A renowned graphic artist, illustrator of children’s book, and cofounder of the collective, Actus Tragicus, Rutu Modan has been a well-known fixture in Israel’s relatively tightly-knit comics scene for several years now.
Released earlier this year on Drawn & Quarterly in the States, her first full-length graphic novel, Exit Wounds, has largely been lauded as one of the year’s best works in the medium, exploring difficult questions about family, identity, and politics, in a war-torn Tel Aviv.
In the first part of our interview with Modan, conducted at SPX, a few weeks back, we discussed the artist’s work as one of the founders of the ill-fated Israeli incarnation of Mad Magazine. This time out, things take a bit of a turn for the serious, addressing some of the questions of Jewish and Israeli identities that are proposed in Modan’s powerful book. That and more, after the jump.
When the majority of people in Israel are Jewish, how large of a role does that aspect play in the larger Israeli identity?
It’s very important in certain ways, and now people are trying to go back to it, because, suddenly the Israeli identity became much more complex. When I was in my teens, people would say that they felt much more Isreali than Jewish. But now it’s become fashionable to feel more Jewish than being Israeli, because suddenly being an Israeli is very politically complicated.
The one point in which the Jewish identity comes to the forefront in the book is the scene in which they’re burying the bodies. It’s one of the most powerful moments, when they’re separating people based on religion.
It’s crazy. It’s crazy that the Jews are doing it. I wasn’t aware of it, until a few years ago. Most of the cemeteries in Israel are religious. They have state cemeteries—if you are a citizen, you are allowed to have a grave in the state cemetery, and it doesn’t cost you anything. Most of the people are buried there. There are very few private cemeteries.
All of the state cemeteries are run by religious management. It’s part of the deal. They made the decision years ago, to have control over death and marriages. There are many problems with that—people are fighting to change it.
Are all of the state cemeteries Jewish?
No, there are Islamic cemeteries, and other religions run by the state. It’s the same cemetery, but a different section in the same cemetery. I didn’t know about this, until I heard about a soldier. He died in action. He wasn’t Jewish—he was Russian. He immigrated to Israel—he was a citizen, but he wasn’t Jewish. He was killed defending the country, and hi family wanted him buried in the state cemetery, but they wouldn’t allow it. It was a big scandal. So the question arose.
The book was based on a documentary—a real thing that happened. There was an attack in a bus station, and one body wasn’t identified, which happens, sometimes, when there’s a bomb. Nobody came to claim the body. It was a body that no one missed.
This was the idea for the book—how can it be that there’s a body that nobody misses? So, the director made a film about trying the find the identity. Because they didn’t know if the body was Jewish or not, they buried him in the cemetery of the non-Jews, because they didn’t want to take the risk. This is really extreme. It was likely that he was a Jew, but they didn’t want to take the risk, because they weren’t sure if he was a tourist or foreign worker.
It made me understand what a crazy place it is, where you can’t even die peacefully. Many questions arose about being Jewish and being Israeli and this ghetto that people built. They were trying to free themselves, but they built another ghetto.
So I put it in the book. Numi and Koby are not deeply concerned about it. This is the attitude of most people, as long as its not their relatives. It was a way to point out, not just what’s unjust about Israel, but how people react to political issues.
What about that documentary made you want to base your first book on it?
It seemed like it could be a detective story—an investigatation. And it was very emotional. The director was trying to find the identity, so he put an ad in the newspaper, so if someone was missing one of their relatives, they could come forward. And then some people called. A man who didn’t see his son for a few years.
It was very short—maybe 20 seconds in the film, because it wasn’t actually him. But I know where my children are, and I hope I always know where they are. So it’s about this feeling about someone who is supposed to be very close, but is a stranger. There are so many people who can’t communitcate with their parents. I thought it would be very strong to use that for the film.
When I reviewed the book, I off-handedly made a comment about the father being important in these characters lives, but someone pointed out to me that he wasn’t really that important, which I think is very pertinent. In many ways, it’s a book about absence. He should be important, but he’s not around.
He is important. He’s important to them, but I’m not so sure that they are important to him, at least not in the way that they think they think are important to him, or they think they think they should be important to him. It’s a one-way relationship.
I mention in the book that his father is planning to run a cab with him. The father probably has some story. I this happens a lot, where we have a relationship with somebody, and we have this conversation in our head and we’re sure that, from the other direction it’s something, but it’s really just in our head.