Newsarama | Michael Lorah | March 8, 2007
Rutu Modan interviewed by Newsarama
Comics are taking over the world. We’ve all seen the cultural inroads being made by American comics into pop consciousness, and the explosion of Asian comics onto the world map needs no more press. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Virgin Comics is building up the Indian presence, the European scene is as strong as ever, with trans-Atlantic hits like Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat and more, and Marjane Satrapi has even managed to land Iran on the comics map. Well, don’t look now, but Israel is making a play to get into the game.
If you’ve been paying attention, the Israeli comic scene has been lurking on the fringes of the American comic market for a few years now. Actus Tragicus, a collective of the Israeli artists Rutu Modan, Itzik Rennert, Mira Friedmann, Batia Kolton and Yirmi Pinkus, has placed several projects with Top Shelf comics, including Jetlag, Happy End, and The Actus Box: Five Graphic Novellas.
Actus co-founder Rutu Modan has also worked with writers Tamar Bergman and Etgar Keret on two well-received children’s books, and she’s won Israeli several awards, including “Young Artist of the Year” and “Best Illustrated Children’s Book.” Now she’s about to step out of the band and take the spotlight on by herself.
In her first full-length graphic novel, Modan tells of Koby Franco, a young Israeli man who receives a call from a female soldier and learns that his estranged father may have been the victim of a suicide bomber. Tackling the harsh realities of senseless death and familial destruction, Modan’s Exit Wounds promises to give readers a more personal insight into the state of modern Israel than is found on most evening newscasts.
We had the chance to speak with Modan about her story.
NRAMA: I think that most Americans know a little bit about the Israeli political landscape, but probably less so about the day-to-day culture. What sort of comic book industry and community do you have in Israel? What other types of comics are published in Israel?
Rutu Modan: In fact, there is no comics industry at all in Israel: no comics publishers and distributors, no funnies on weekends, not even translated Superman and Batman comics. There were a few publishers in the past that tried to translate Tin-Tin, Tex, etc., but it always turned out to be a commercial failure, so they stopped trying years ago. Comics fans are used to self-importing comics they like.
As for original Israeli stuff, until 15 years ago (about the time I started working) there were only three active comics artists. One of them could be described as a mainstream artist who did stuff for kids, and the other two were more influenced by the American comics of the 70s (Crumb, etc.). Doing comics and consuming comics was considered a strange, personal obsession.
This was the situation when we established Actus 11 years ago. Since then, things have changed slightly: there are a few comics shops (so far only in Tel-Aviv) and small comics events, and the scene is growing all the time. There are more people doing comics nowadays, but it is mainly fanzines or self-published Xerox comics. This is quite typical to Israeli culture—that the underground scene is bigger than the mainstream scene. Just not enough people for developing mainstream rich industries. It is the same with the music and film industries.
NRAMA: Can you tell our readers a brief preview of the story and tone of Exit Wounds?
RM: Exit Wounds describes three parallel journeys. The first is kind of a detective one: looking for the true identity of a destroyed body. The second is the story of the relationship between Koby (the main protagonist) and his missing father, which occurs mainly inside Koby's head since he has not seen his father in a couple years. The third is a journey in the Israel of today—a place were the aggressive political reality is mixing with personal life on a daily basis—meeting all kinds of characters that are affected with this reality.
NRAMA: All of your previous work that has been published in the United States has been short form, under 40 pages. Exit Wounds is over 170 pages. What compelled you to tackle such an emotionally challenging subject in such an ambitious format?
RM: Since Israeli publishers refused to publish comics books, I was self-publishing my stories for many years. So it was mainly for economic reasons that I published only short stories in anthologies with my Actus partners. When Chris Oliveros approached me to do a book for D+Q, at first I was so terrified by the new challenge I wrote to him saying I doubt if I could do it, but of course, in the end, I couldn't resist. After all, creating a "real" graphic novel was my life-long dream.
Writing and drawing 170 pages is a completely different experience than creating a short comics story. Short stories are based more on an idea and a punch line. A novel is based more on the process your characters are going through. You find yourself involved in deep relationships with the people you invented. This is very weird sometimes.
And devoting yourself to one project for such a long time is also not easy. I wasn't used to it as a comics artist or as an illustrator.
NRAMA: Has your work been published in Israel first and translated into English. Exit Wounds is being published in English first, and I’m wondering why you’re bring this book directly to the American audience?
RM: Maybe it sounds weird, but most of my comics books were all published first in English. Because of the Israeli comics market being so small (if existing at all), Actus was always publishing in English so that we could get a larger audience. Israeli comics fans are used to reading in English anyway. After awhile, when we started distributing our books and got some attention, we found it was also fun being a part of the international scene. Some of our more successful books we translated later to Hebrew.
Exit Wounds was a commissioned book by D+Q... If Chris Oliveros wouldn't have asked me, I think it would have taken me a few more years to write it. One reason, as I already mentioned, is that I couldn't publish it myself or get an Israeli publisher to invest in it. There is another reason, though: writing and drawing a graphic novel takes so much time and effort that you are alone in your studio for days and months, and you don't even know if anyone would be interested in what you are doing. Most of the time, you think they won't. It is easier to do it if you have someone who believes in you enough to publish it when you finish.
NRAMA: Your sense of color seems to be a huge element of your work. Do you always work in color, and what do you feel that you’ve been able to bring to your work through your colors?
RM: Since I have started as a newspaper comic columnist, for the first years of my career I was working almost only in black and white. When I started working in color, I struggled hard with the color concept, because I did not want color to be just a fill-in between the black lines. Color can give atmosphere of place and space, represent time and weather, and the mood of the story and characters.
In Exit Wounds, I use color to establish a new scene as well. By changing the palette at the end of every scene, I was trying to create the feeling of a "cut" in a film. New place, new time=new color system.
What I found out color cannot do, is turning a lousy composition into a better one. When the composition of the frame is not good, no bright, beautiful color combination can solve it.
NRAMA: Exit Wounds deals with the one aspect of Israeli life that everybody around the world seems to recognize. Was choosing the topic of suicide bombings and family loss intentional? Or simply unavoidable?
RM: A few years ago, suicide bombing in Israel happened on such a daily basis that I felt it could happen to me any time I went out of the house. I remember being afraid to sit in restaurants and I stopped riding buses. At the same time, being close to death made life seem clearer somehow. There was a hectic energy in the air. That is why many people like going to funerals—it makes you feel very alive.
In fact, we are all (not only Israelis) on the verge of death all our lives. We are going to die and we don't know when or how, so we pretend death is something that will never happen to us.
Every death is violent and sudden. Death is like a bomb, even when someone is dying slowly: one moment he is still there and the next second he disappears forever. I find it strange and tragic. Both my parents died from "natural causes," but for me there was nothing natural about their deaths. On the other hand, death for political reasons is a personal experience like any natural death. The loss is the same.
So, picking up the subject of suicide bombing was a personal need to deal with death surrounding us all.
The trigger for the story of Exit Wounds came from a wonderful documentary I saw called No.17 by director David Ofek. It is about a terror attack in a bus, and one of the bodies is so much destroyed that it can't be identified. Well actually, that happens a lot in bomb attacks—what is less ordinary is the fact that no one comes to claim the body. It seems to be the body of someone nobody misses. The director is trying to find the identity, so he publishes an ad in the newspaper, asking if anyone knows someone who suddenly disappeared. I remember one man shows up there who did not know where his son was for a long period (in the end, it turns out that it wasn't him after all). That made me think, there can be certain cases we would prefer to think someone is dead than to believe he just doesn't want any contact with us.
Once, years ago, I was waiting for a telephone call from a guy I dated. After four miserable days, I came to the conclusion that he must be dead or else he would have called me. (I called him. He wasn't.) Exactly like Numi, in Exit Wounds.
NRAMA: You’ve done many projects with the Actus Tragicus collective. What are the benefits of collaborating with those colleagues?
RM: We founded Actus because we realized it would be easier to print and distribute as a group than as a single artist. Easier both financially and in terms of the time and effort you spend on external work that is not making your art. It was also easier to get publicity attention as a group, and easier to promote a group than to promote yourself (which always makes you feel stupid).
As time passed, the greatest benefit of working in a group became helping each other with our individual projects during the hard process of creating. Making comics is lonesome work, and when it is finished, the last thing you want to hear is bad criticism. But when you are still in the middle of creation, and you can still fix things up, it is so helpful (even if not always pleasant to hear) to have colleagues whose work you appreciate and whose judgment you trust, to tell you where to go when you are lost. I consult my Actus friends in every phrase of my comics, from ideas through script, drawings and coloring. I know I will always get an honest but respectful answer. I am lucky to have them as friends and partners.
NRAMA: What do you feel that each of you brings to the collective Actus team?
RM: We all share a similar taste in comics and illustration, so in general we agree with each other in artistic matters. When we enter a comics shop together (usually when we're abroad) we tend to buy five copies of the same book. On this basis of agreement, the differences and disagreements make Actus more interesting and inspiring.
Yirmi Pinkus, for example, and myself are more into storytelling—we tend to like stories that have a strong storyline, and we are more into the "classic" attitude of comics being a story made of frames and speech bubbles. Batia Kolton hates balloons, because they destroy her compositions, so she finds other ways to combine text and images. She and Yirmi used to have real fights over this matter. Batia was always more avant-garde, and is always very creative and innovative. She enormously influenced my drawings and method of work. Mira Friedmann was an established cartoonist by the time the rest of us came out of art school, and is the final judge of any drawing. She's also a great help if you have problem drawing hands and feet—her expertise. Itzik takes care that we won't take ourselves too seriously—a danger for every artist. He has great sense of humor, but also is in charge of mental breakdowns of Actus' members.
NRAMA: Is it strange to have only your name attached to this book?
RM: Actually it is great. This book was such a huge effort. I worked two years like a slave, from morning till very late at night, day after day, putting my soul in it (and enjoying every minute). So seeing it finished and printed is a delight.
NRAMA: What sort of comics do you read?
RM: I like mostly alternative. My favorites are Seth, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet. I like the Crumb couple. Anders Nilsen is a genius, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman—of course. I love Mark Beyer, too. Lately I have discovered R. Kikuo Johnson.
I adore the American cartoonists of the beginning-middle of the 20th century. Winsor McCay, Gluyas Williams, McManus, Webster. My parents spent the sixties in America, and my mother had a big collection of cartoon pocket-books. She was a scientist, not an artist, but she liked those books and brought them with her when she came back to Israel. I believe this collection was one of the reasons I became a cartoonist. As a child, I sat for days looking at these books again and again until they fell into pieces. Few survivors are still in my library.
My main problem is that I am detached from any major comics scene. I read what I hear about from friends or from my students, or what I see in shops when I go abroad, but this way I am exposed only to established artists. Another problem is that I read only English, so I cannot read French comics, for instance. This is very sad—I feel I miss a lot.
Lately, I started being interested in alternative Manga, like Maruo or Taniguchi.
NRAMA: What other projects are you working on, either with Actus or alone?
RM: We are now planning a new Actus anthology, to be printed this summer. The subject is love.
I am already writing notes for my next "big book." Hopefully I will start writing the script soon. But the subject is still a secret.
NRAMA: Finally, anything concerning Israel is always going to be a touchy subject for certain factions of the audience. What do you hope that readers are able to take away from Exit Wounds?
RM: In Exit Wounds I tried to express how personal lives are influenced by an aggressive political situation. To look at the situation from a humanist point of view, look through the labels we tend to put on people like "Father," "Son," "Lover," "Widow," "Terrorist." It is amazing how we see ourselves as complicated creatures but at the same time prefer to see "the other," any "other," as a stereotype: bad or good, white or black.
Then, when catastrophe comes, we say to ourselves, "Maybe I could do things differently, maybe I could compromise more." It goes the same way for personal relationships and relationships between nations. Why must we wait until after the catastrophe to understand it?
In Exit Wounds, Numi, who is not much more than a teenager, asks Koby if he thinks we can treat people who are close to us as if every time we meet them is the last one. This is a very naïve question, and of course the answer is no, but I wish we could try more.