The Comics Journal | Joe Sacco | February 15, 2008
RUTU MODAN interviewed by Joe Sacco
American followers of alternative comics probably first became aware of Rutu Modan with the publication in 1999 of Jet Lag, an Eisner-nominated anthology of work by the comics collective Actus Tragicus, founded by Modan with fellow Israeli Yirmi Pinkus. She had already been recognized as a national treasure in her home country, having been named the Young Artist of the Year by the Israel Minister of Culture in 1997. She went on to win four Best Illustrated Children's Book Awards in Israel, and today, at age 41, there's no denying that Modan has fulfilled her early promise with the publication in 2007 of Exit Wounds (Drawn & Quarterly), a graphic novel of crystal-clear cartooning that transforms current events — turbulence in the Middle East, suicide bombings — into an intimate tale of human longing, self-deception and resilience.
Numbered among her fans is award-winning comics journalist Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde), who seemed like the ideal person to talk to Modan about the intersection between cartooning and reality in the Middle East. Luckily, both were able to find the time in their busy schedules to make this interview happen.
I conducted this interview with Rutu Modan (who is currently living in Sheffield, Great Britain with her husband and two children) by e-mail. Full disclosure: I wrote a favorable blurb for Modan's book Exit Wounds before being asked to do this interview; I agreed to interview Modan because I believe Exit Wounds is a truly remarkable, insightful work of comics that deserves significant attention.
Exit Wounds is your first book-length comic. If you don't mind my simplifying the plot, it's about a somewhat awkward young woman, Numi, who believes the unidentified victim of a suicide bombing is her elderly lover, Gabriel. She tracks down Gabriel's estranged son, Koby, and he reluctantly gets involved in her effort to prove the body is Gabriel's. This certainly seems like the sort of story that could be based on a real incident. Was it?
The main plot is based on an actual event, a body that was destroyed in a terror attack on a bus. This has happened before, unfortunately, but this time no one claimed the body. It seems it was a body of someone no one missed. A wonderful documentary was done on this event (No. 17 by David Ofek). The director tried to find the identity of the body. I saw the film and it was so strong. We would like to think that if we disappeared at least someone would notice — a relative, a neighbor, at least the vendor at our local shop. Although I've not experienced a terror attack myself, it was happening a lot around me a few years ago, and it did affect my everyday life and feelings. But sudden, brutal deaths are actually around all of us, anywhere, anytime, not just in Israel. (Every death feels sudden and brutal, even those called "natural.") I tried to describe this in Exit Wounds, and not just the dramatic side of it, but also the matter-of-factness of death and the everyday aspect of it.
Another experience contributed to the plot: Many years ago I dated a guy, and he did not call me afterwards. After a week, I came to the conclusion this guy must be dead: Why else didn't he call me? I could not think of any other reason. Worried, I called him — he was perfectly all right. (Now I can be happy about it.) That gave me the idea of this girl who prefers to believe her lover was killed rather than thinking he abandoned her.
The characters, the love story, everything is invented, but I did use a lot of events, anecdotes that happened to me or people I know. For example, when Koby goes to his father's apartment (his childhood home) after it was sold, the new owner tells him about the flea-market people who emptied the place. I based that on my own experience after my parents had died. I was there when the flea-market people came, so I could identify with Koby's emotions about the experience. Or the relationship between Numi and her mother: That's based on a friend I had in my childhood. Her mother was a very beautiful woman who married a short, bald millionaire, and my friend looked more like her father (though she wasn't bald). Her mother couldn't stand it. She made her life miserable. She forced her to have a nose job when she was 16 and a few years later made her marry her first boyfriend. The mother convinced her daughter that no one would be interested in her besides him. Actually, I had to reduce the abuse from reality for the story. Numi is not really my friend from school. But using her history made it easier to give Numi a feeling of a real person (to me and hopefully to the reader).
Exit Wounds is also a rather grim portrayal of a society almost inured to violence. Suicide attacks are discussed without much emotion or sympathy for the victims. The forensics people make jokes and in one scene a family member who retrieves the body of a loved one is particularly callous.
When the reality around you is so complicated or too frightening, people tend to detach themselves from it. We cannot live our lives fearing what's going to happen next; we have to protect ourselves. Ignoring it is one way. Macabre humor is another. It is like a shield you build around yourself. The problem is this shield becomes part of your personality eventually. You can't take it on and off like a shirt. Koby, who was hurt by his father, by the death of his mother, by living in such a violent country, becomes an untouchable person. He fears getting close to people. As an opposite to him, there is this girl, Numi. Maybe because she is younger, she lets herself be more vulnerable, which is dangerous but also, I believe, rewarding in the end.
What's interesting, too, is Palestinians are never even mentioned. It's as if the attacks have become such a part of life that their context is no longer of interest. Am I on the right track? How much of this jibes with your own experience?
I know it seems strange that the Palestinians are not mentioned in the story. You are right. Israelis prefer not to think about the context of the terror. For most of them the Palestinians are those bad people living far away who try to kill Israelis just for the fun of it. (The common belief is that "they are crazy.") It is too complicated to think of the context (the context depends on who you ask) and depressing, too. At the time of the Oslo agreement, things were different. Israelis had hope and were more willing to be politically active. There was a feeling that peace was near. Since the Second Intifada and the assassination of Rabin, people lost hope in finding a solution or at least understanding the political situation. So they refer to it as if it were some bad destiny that you just try to live with somehow with as little contact as your fortune allows. This is a very sad and dangerous situation. It is also not so comfortable to think about the context. It is difficult for us (Israelis) to stop seeing ourselves as the innocent victims, a role that we love so much and are such experts at being. (To be just, I will mention that historically we are not completely responsible for becoming such experts in being the ultimate victims.) We would have to see that we have responsibility, and then we would feel that we should — God forbid — do something about it! No, we much prefer to go and have coffee with friends, or do some comics.
Forgetting the context is very human. For example, when a beggar asks for some change many people think — "Why can't he work like I do?" — and keep going, ignoring him. They don't think of the whole economic system that put this man on the street. Having said that, it is strange how much Israelis ignore thinking about the Palestinians and the Palestinian problem. There are huge political forces that make sure to detach Palestinians and Arabs from the Jewish Israeli population. It is amazing that in such a small area, where 20 percent of the population are Arabs (not including the occupied areas) — and without any laws [causing] it — there is a complete separation between the societies. Mixed marriages are rare. We live in different cities and areas. You can live your whole life and not have one single acquaintance, not to mention friend, who is Arab.
In Exit Wounds I tried to reflect this reality, not explain it or say what I think should be — just to show it. As Susan Sontag once said: Art should tell truth not opinions.
Is there a Hebrew-language edition of Exit Wounds?
I am ashamed to say there is still not a Hebrew edition and it is completely my fault. The book was commissioned by Drawn & Quarterly, therefore, even though I wrote the script in Hebrew and had it translated (which was done wonderfully by Noah Stollman), I "made the drawing in English" — which means from left to right. Hebrew, like Japanese, is read from right to left. For the Hebrew edition I have to flip all the pages. That wouldn't be such trouble if I didn't make my main character a taxi driver. If I flip the pages he drives on the wrong side. In a realistic story that takes place in Israel, I think it could be quite irritating for the readers. And I have 150 frames where Koby drives his taxi! I have to draw many frames again, and it is quite boring to do so. For me this project is finished, and it is difficult to go back to it.
What's been the reaction to it in Israel? The book seems to scratch at a number of Israel's sore spots.
There is an Israeli publisher for Exit Wounds and probably, hopefully, the Hebrew edition will be published sometime next year. I hope it will be well received, but I do know that when people are close to the subject they can tend to be more critical.