RUTU MODAN interviewed by Haarezt

Funny girl

Haaretz    |    Kobi Ben Simhon    |    August 28, 2008

There was a great deal of confusion on that festive evening last month in California. The auditorium filled up with people as she sat behind a round table, not believing it would happen to her. Actor Samuel L. Jackson went onstage, followed by a dancer and 12 actors dressed as characters from "Star Wars."

"In the midst of all that, it didn't enter my mind that I would win," says illustrator and artist Rutu Modan in embarrassment, after winning the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for the best graphic novel of the year. "But then they called my name, and from that moment on I didn't feel a thing. I went onstage to receive the prize, but my only desire was to leave the stage as soon as possible. My legs were trembling as they did when I delivered my first child."

"Exit Wounds," Modan's latest book, released this week in Hebrew as "Karov Rahok" (distant relative), reached second place six months ago on New York Magazine's list of the best graphic novels of 2007. Time Magazine also included it on the list of the 10 best graphic novels. Winning the prestigious Eisner Prize, the Oscar of the comics community, was only another high point in an impressive series of successes that have made Modan, 40, the leading Israeli illustrator and comics artist.
On a summer morning, amid the media uproar that surrounds her these days, Modan is trying to maintain inner serenity. "Comics is very lonely work," she says. "Work suitable for a monk. You sit alone in a room for days on end, writing and drawing, torn between a feeling that you're a genius and a feeling that you're a worthless worm. When the work is finished, the last think you want to hear is criticism. You only want people to tell you how wonderful your work is."

Following its critical success and her receipt of the prize, the book has sold over 25,000 copies and it has been translated into 10 languages. "This is a new status with which I'm unfamiliar," says Modan. "On the one hand, until now, when I published my books - independently, of course - I managed to sell 500 copies. On the other hand, nothing has actually changed, I continue to work and to bang my head against the keyboard. But now more people are listening to me, and this is actually the moment I was waiting for. Suddenly all the distractions I had before have disappeared and I can start to work in earnest. For that reason I feel that only now is my career beginning."

Modan was here on a visit in advance of the eighth Comics, Cartoon and Animation Festival, held earlier this month at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. For the past year she has been living in England with her husband, Ofer, who works in computers, and their two children, Michal (13) and Hillel (5). The Hebrew version of "Exit Wounds" was launched at the festival. It is a detective story set on the Tel Aviv-Hadera axis and centering around a shy taxi driver, Koby Franco. One day, an unusually tall female soldier gets in touch with him. She tells him that his father, from whom he is estranged, may have been killed in a terror attack in Hadera. The two then embark on a search.

"This is the first time I have referred to the political situation in Israel in my work," says Modan. She started searching for a story about five years ago, after the Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly asked her to write a book. She found the solution by chance. "One day I saw the documentary by David Ofek, 'No. 17.' It's about a victim of a terror attack who was not identified after a terror attack," says Modan.

"What was strange was that nobody missed him, nobody looked for him. I was grabbed by a moment in the film when a man thinks it may be the body of his son. Of course it wasn't, but he thought that might be the reason why his son had not been in touch with him."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict exists in the book only vaguely, and this was a deliberate decision. "It's very Israeli, the way we treat the situation in which we live," she explains. "We've become accustomed to living in catastrophe but to ignore the danger. I remember that while I was writing the book, I was late picking up my daughter from kindergarten. At the traffic light on Rothschild Boulevard I ran into a friend who told me that terrorists had taken over the Central Bus Station and were shooting. I told him that what he was saying was very interesting, but I had to run to the kindergarten because my daughter was waiting. That was of greater concern to me. And that's crazy. But that's how we live here, in a kind of lunatic divorce from our surroundings."

And how does life infiltrate illustration and writing?

"For me it stems from a desire to explain the disorder in which I live. There is no logic, after all, in all the events that befall us, and I have this desire to organize everything into something coherent and meaningful. The story takes reality and organizes it. I underwent a process until I arrived at this point, where I dare to tell the story. At first I illustrated the stories of others, and slowly but surely I gathered courage and began to write my own story. My sister Dana underwent a similar process. She began her career as an actress and then began to write film scripts. Just as I got tired of drawing for others, she got tired of playing roles that others had written and began to write on her own. The desire not to be only an instrument, but to tell our own story, is something we have in common."

A weakness for pens

Modan was born and raised in the doctors' residences in Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. "It was a neighborhood for employees within the area of the hospital itself," she recalls with nostalgia. "All the children in my kindergarten were children of doctors and nurses. In kindergarten we drew on yellow X-ray paper. It was a protected environment, a neighborhood without roads; the doors were open, like on a kibbutz. I loved to visit my parents in the lab because they gave me access to the office supplies cabinet. Already then I had a weakness for pens. The path to their office passed by the geriatric department; all the old people sat outside, and that sight seemed completely normal to me."

Her father, Prof. Baruch Modan, did cancer research, and in the 1980s he served as director general of the Health Ministry. Her mother, Prof. Michaela Modan, was an epidemiologist who did diabetes research. Modan describes her parents as opinionated and tempestuous. "They didn't conform, they were very ambitious and our home was very achievement-oriented. They were both workaholics. My mother was an old-style feminist, one of those who fought on the barricades for all of us. On the one hand she was a career women who was always fighting to prove that women are equal to men, and on the other hand she bore the burden of the home and the children almost singlehandedly."

The house was almost always a mess, says Modan. "Except for Fridays, there were no orderly meals," says Modan with a smile. "Once the electricity broke down and we lived for three weeks by candlelight, only because nobody had the patience to contact the electrician. I always returned home from school to an empty house, but I loved that. I loved the independence and the freedom, and I admired my mother."

The drama series "Lost and Found," written by your sister, deals with three sisters who take care of their father, who is in a coma that continues until his death. How similar was that to your lives?

"Our parents died years ago. Mother 15 years ago, after a long bout with cancer, at the age of 57. Father, unexpectedly, from a heart attack, almost seven years ago. I think about them every day. It is no coincidence that this misfortune is reflected both in Dana's TV series and in my book. The hero of the book, Koby, is full of anger at his father. When he is convinced that his father was killed, he understands that the estrangement between them existed only in the belief that reconciliation would always be possible. But it isn't. The relationship between me and my father was actually very close. Nevertheless he got on my nerves in thousands of ways. After his death, many of the things about him that drove me crazy suddenly seemed amusing and even sweet. I was full of regret that I couldn't demonstrate that same forgiving attitude when he was still alive."

When Rutu was 10 her family moved to Afeka, in north Tel Aviv. As a child, drawing was a significant part of her daily routine. "I don't remember myself not drawing," she says. "I started to draw before I learned to talk. It became a central part of my identity. Like being tall, or Bulgarian. Not something that one can give up. I was singled out as being talented and therefore I also received a great deal of encouragement from the surroundings to continue to draw. My drawings were mainly graphic stories. Every drawing was a story accompanied by a text that I dictated to my mother. In effect I began to draw comics before I began to read comics."

During the 1970s, comics were almost totally absent from the Israeli experience. Even an attempt to translate Tintin into Hebrew failed. Modan became addicted to the illustrations in advertisements, like the character of Yoav Ben Halav (Yoav the Milkman), a kind of Israeli Popeye, who starred in Tnuva's advertising campaign.

"When I grew up, I got tired of comics; the content no longer interested me," says Modan. "I no longer found myself among the musclemen in underwear, and science fiction didn't speak to me. In terms of my fields of interest, I'm a classic girl, I'm interested only in emotions and relationships. Therefore as an adolescent I drew very little. I was more interested in reading than in drawing. At 13 I preferred reading 'Gone With the Wind' and stories by Pearl Buck. That was an age of a terrible inferiority complex and I decided I couldn't draw. Although I admired Dudu Geva, I didn't even dream of doing anything similar myself."

Dark romanticism

At Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Modan returned to her old love. During her third year of study in the graphic design department, illustrator Michel Kishka opened the first comics course in the history of the school. "For the first clause he brought us into the room, and there was a table with dozens of comic books, in many styles, including Tintin and Asterix, but also a lot of alternative comics, 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman, Raw Magazine, many modern Frenchmen," says Modan. Michel told us 'You have two hours, read.' I began to leaf through the books, and it was like culture shock. Suddenly I saw that comics can actually be any type of story with any type of drawing. Simply a story told with drawings instead of words."

For the first time, Modan felt she was in the right place: "It was like love at first sight. I knew clearly that I had found the ideal mode of expression for me. Perhaps out of this love I also loved the less pleasant aspects of Bezalel, like the competition and the criticism and the crazy work hours. I remember that in the second year we had a project, and I told Daniella London about an idea for some machine that I was planning to build. Something extraordinarily complicated. And then she said to me: 'What do you need all that for? You have to solve every project of yours in drawing, because that's where you stand out.' I understood that she was right, and from that moment I began to be an illustrator. It was a deliberate choice."

While still a student, Modan published comic strips and illustrations in the daily newspapers Maariv, Yedioth Ahronoth and in Haolam Hazeh, a weekly. That career lasted 15 years. In her work she presented ordinary situations with fantastic elements, with plots that were often paradoxical, bordering on the absurd.

"I think the expression that defines her work is 'dark romanticism,' says Eli Eshed, a scholar of popular culture. "Her stories have ostensibly been romantic, but in fact they weren't really. There was something bizarre about them, a type of hidden sarcasm. There was always something weird, even horrible, happening to the characters in her stories."

"At first she was very Victorian," adds Modan's good friend, illustrator and comics artist Yirmi Pinkus. "Her drawings and her stories were surrealistic and grotesque. For example, she had a story about a plastic surgeon who gave all the women who came to his clinic the features of a lover who had abandoned him. Over the years, the centrality of the grotesque elements in her comics declined, and now they are expressed in the secondary characters. In her new novel, realism is far more present.

"In terms of drawing she has undergone a similar process: distancing herself from the distorted and coming closer to more naturalistic drawing, based on nature. There is a more precise description of the scenes. Her style today is a 'crooked' version of the clean, classical French line. She has poured her own Israeli accent into the French language, a unique style that is rich and communicative. For that reason I think that she is today the most outstanding comics artist in Israel. In the 1980s Dudu Geva was in that place. Now it's Rutu."

Without meaning to do so, Modan succeeded in extricating herself from marginal culture at the beginning of her career. One of her first ambitious moves was the attempt to create a Hebrew version of MAD, the American satirical magazine. In 1993 her uncle, Oded Modan, a publisher and comics lover, decided to publish MAD in Hebrew and named Modan editor. Sales were low, however, and it folded after only 10 issues.

That adventure led Modan to a new and no less ambitious project: Together with Pinkus she founded the comics group "Actus Tragicus." They brought in illustrators Itzik Rennert, Batia Kolton and Mira Fridman, and since then they have been regularly publishing alternative comic books and series. "The attitude toward us was ambivalent," says Modan. "On the one hand, they were nice to us because we were an interesting comics group that came from the margins. On the other hand, they claimed we were snobs, maybe because we wrote in English. Maybe our group identity created an impression of that sort. But we first linked up in an attempt to overcome the personal financial problems each of us had with publishing our works. The fact that we have continued for 15 years testifies to the strength of our connection. Even though all the members of the group are very opinionated people, there are a lot of mutual influences among us. I was greatly influenced by Yirmi's writing, Batia was influenced by my drawing style. I think that the members of Actus are the people who most influenced my work. I'm in almost daily contact with them, they're the first people who see my work, and those for whom I write."

From the beginning, Actus has tried to be present at every international comics event. "Because there was not a sufficiently large audience in Israel to provide a financial justification for the books we wanted to publish, we decided to write in English," says Modan.

"The idea was that books in English would be accessible both to the audience of comics readers in Israel, who in any case read English, and to the audience abroad. We knew nothing about the international comics market, about worldwide distribution, about economic feasibility.

"With the first series ("The Little Series") we went to the International Comics Festival in Angouleme in France, pretending we were a full-fledged publisher. That was naivete of the first degree, and the best and most significant thing that I've done in my professional life."

Is it hard to combine a career and a family?

"It's an almost impossible combination. Even if you have a very egalitarian partner and the household tasks are divided between you, it's not easy. I work every possible moment, when the children are at school, at night when they go to sleep."

Does it interfere with your creative process?

"The moment I'm in a creative process, I'm in another world, and it's hard for me to tear myself away from it in order to pick up my son from kindergarten. When I'm in it I really don't feel like suddenly playing Monopoly. It seems so irrelevant to me, but one finds solutions. When I'm writing, I learned that as opposed to drawing, which forces me to sit at a table, I can do the writing in my head while I'm doing other things, while I'm walking to the beach with the children for example. That's why my career and my family intermingle and create a way of life that suits me: chaos."

Modan did not achieve recognition in Israel easily. "During the first years as an illustrator, I was not allowed to illustrate children's books," says Modan. "The fashion at the time was cute drawings at all costs, and my line was considered too grotesque and experimental. It annoyed me that they didn't let me draw, but it didn't stop me, I wasn't bitter about it. Over the years my style became more refined and the publishers raised a generation of editors who were looking for more varied styles."

The first children's book she illustrated, "Dad Runs Away With the Circus" (by Etgar Keret), paved her way into the first rank of children's book illustrators in Israel. That year, 2001, the illustration of the book led to the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration from the International Board on Books for Young People. Afterward began her important cooperation with author and poet Nurit Zarchi. The two created two children's books: "Bathnymph" and "Alma and the Sixth Day at School."

"You have to approach Rutu slowly in order to understand the secret of her charm," says Zarchi, who this week is publishing a collection of 10 of her children's books, re-illustrated by Modan. "She understood my stories thoroughly; she understands so well what the writer needs in the illustration. Because the words cannot create as strong a reality as drawing. Rutu gave my words a time frame, characters, an explanation. What's interesting is that she succeeded in placing a fantastic element within the reality. In the stories she creates a combination of a modern world with non-concrete freedom of thought. She speaks with the new line - comics, television - but does not lose her feeling and her independence. In her illustrations she creates a world rather than copying one."

The New York Times recognized the unique quality to which Zarchi is referring. For the past six months a weekly personal comics series by Modan has appeared in the online version of the newspaper. The series, "Mixed Emotions," has thus far presented personal stories from her life in an ironic light, such as her first visit to New York and the birth of her first child. But in spite of her achievements on the international scene, the significant achievement for Modan will be acceptance of her work in Israel.

"I have no idea what will happen to the book in Israel," she says with evident concern. "It's less important to me how it is received in Italy; I don't know Italians. It's interesting and frightening to see how it will be received here, at home. I would like people to understand that there's a love story here, that they shouldn't be put off by the medium. I hope that the book will arouse curiosity, although I know that it's hard for Israeli adults to get into a comics story. But that's how I tell my story, in drawings. Instead of writing a lyrical description of Tel Aviv, I draw it like that. I have no other choice."W

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