RUTU MODAN interviewed by Publishers Weekly

Meet the Joie de Tel Aviv: Graphic Novelist Rutu Modan

Publishers Weekly    |    Nisha Gopalan    |    November 10, 2008

At age 42, writer-illustrator Rutu Modan has been creating comics for over a decade now, amassing a hipster following in her native Israel. But it wasn't until she released her graphic-novel debut, last year's coolly complicated familial drama Exit Wounds, that she finally earned international praise from both the comics cognoscenti and the ever-discriminating literati, which culminated in her original blog ("Mixed Emotions") and strip ("The Murder of the Terminal Patient") for The New York Times. Modan, however, is still making up for lost time. That explains why her recent release, Jamilti and Other Stories, is actually a collection of tales—among them, stories about a nurse at a suicide-bombing and two lovesick sisters with a complicated past—written throughout her comics career. It's a fascinating document of how she's gracefully honed her knack for subtle, unresolved, melancholic storytelling. PWCW spoke to the thoughtful, self-deprecating artist—currently residing with her husband and two kids in Sheffield, England, while he completes his post-doc research—about relating to American audiences and living down Exit's hype.

PW Comics Week: What are the differences in the ways Americans and Israelis receive your work?

Rutu Modan: There's an exotica Americans find in my stories that's lost on Israeli readers. Israelis can be—and are—more critical. They know how things look, they know the reality I am describing. For example in Exit Wounds, Numi—the female soldier—serves in a base in the middle of Tel-Aviv. Every Israeli knows that those who serve in that particular base are usually from well-connected families; it's considered a good job compared to others. There is no way you can translate that. Or in Jamilti, the story "Your Number One Fan" talks about the ambivalent relationships between the Israelis and the Jewish communities abroad. These themes might be lost on a foreign audience.

PWCW: Looking back at your old work in Jamilti, how would you say your style has changed?

RM: I came from non-comics culture—I started becoming interested in comics relatively late, in my mid-20s. I had a few comic strips in newspapers, and the style of both narrative and drawings were macabre and grotesque. The oldest story in this collection, "The King of the Lilies," was the first long story that I wrote, and I thought I needed to make everything extreme and spooky in order for it to be interesting. Time passed and I learned that reality is grotesque and extreme enough—especially in Israel—and that I didn't have to try so hard. So in my later stories, I tried to be more and more simple. That influenced the style of the drawings, too. They became more realistic, more connected to my surroundings—people, places, colors.

PWCW: Why do family and family secrets play such a big part in your work?

RM: You can witness all human interactions on the largest scale in a family: love, hate, jealousy, disgust, power, control.... And every family has secrets. You cannot live so close to other people and tell each other everything; it would be a disaster. It is the subtext: the thing no one talks about but that influences everything. And when the secret is revealed, usually the fear was greater than the [secret] actually is. My family was especially secretive. My parents hid things from us, from each other, from their brothers. It was mainly to try to pretend that their life was perfect, that they were perfect. Being secretive became a second habit in all the family—never tell where you are going or where have you been. Even if it is completely unimportant, like the supermarket. Maybe it is a way to have some privacy in the suffocating atmosphere of a family.

PWCW: How personal, then, are the stories in Jamilti?

RM: Jamilti and Exit Wounds were based on real events that I read in the newspapers. I mixed them with personal experiences and the experiences of people I know…and invented things around them. Like, "Your Number One Fan" [in Jamilti] was based on this time I was invited to have an exhibition in Sweden, and no one came to the opening. At the time my ego was really hurt, but when I told my friends about it they all laughed. And I had to admit to myself it was funny. I find that the lowest points in life are the best material for stories, and humiliation makes for the funniest stories.

PWCW:In your stories, you seem to treat bombings as an everyday reality—is this to say the Israeli people have resigned to the fact that violence is simply a way of life?

RM: In the last decade—following the disappointment from the Oslo agreements, the second intifada, and the Rabin assassination—many Israelis regressed into pessimism. They didn't believe in a solution anymore. The common and fatalistic point of view is that "this is the situation, and we just have to learn to live with it." It's both depressing and dangerous because it brings passiveness and apathy: You retreat into your own little life just hoping nothing bad will happen to you personally. "The enemy" becomes like an abstract demon, you don't even try anymore to think about him as a person—it is too complicated to do it, anyway.

PWCW: But would it be incorrect to view the title story, "Jamilti," as a compassionate view of a Palestinian?
RM: In "Jamilti", the TV broadcaster announces that "No one was wounded in the attack," even though someone was killed [in the suicide bombing]—the terrorist. Rama, the heroine of the story, doesn't know the guy she was trying to save was a terrorist, and she's only able to see him as a man because of this. My intentions were not to criticize this, or to approve of it. But I wanted to shed light on this point and maybe remind myself that even those who want to kill us are people. The compassionate view is not only for Palestinians—though I do not approve of terrorism or its motivations—but I was expressing my sorrow for that tragic blindness we insist to share with those we call "our enemies."

PWCW: Why do many of your stories end on notes of uncertainty?

RM: Usually the main issue is somehow [resolved]—but only "somehow," because I believe that in real life nothing is ever completely closed. "They live happily ever after" is not even a beginning of a new story—it is just in the middle of one. At the end, I don't try to solve everythingin my protagonist's life. There is not a final solution for anything.

PWCW: You've spoken about the lack of comic books growing up in Israel. What is the comics scene like now?

RM: It has developed rapidly in the last decade. There are many young artists around, more comics events—which are still much too small to call festivals—and the number of comics shops in the country has increased from one, five years ago, to the impressive number of four. The scene is mostly independent—90 percent is self-published, but more established publishers are willing to consider publishing comics. What I think is a pity is that as much as the scene grows, it becomes more mainstream in nature and more male dominated. It used to be almost 50 percent women and more underground in style, which is more my taste.

PWCW: Whose work most excites you right now?

RM: Beside the comics artists I work with in Actus [a collective of which she's a member], I like the work of the Hanuka brothers [Asaf and Tomer], the creators of the Bipolar series, which did well in America, too. They are very talented and serious artists, and their work is evolving all the time. I am also interested in the work of Jiro Taniguchi, a wonderful alternative-manga artist. He has a wonderful sense of pacing and rhythm in his stories, and the drawings are amazing. His books are finally being translated into English [from Japanese].

PWCW: How much of a mixed-bag are those Exit Wounds reviews? Do you ever fear your future work won't live up to these high expectations?

RM: I won't deny it was very pleasant that Exit Wounds was received so warmly. I was surprised that it attracted any attention at all; it is still a bit unbelievable to me.… Sooner than expected, the feeling-good-about-myself morphed into anxiety, stress, and pimples. It is a scientific fact that success is not good for your skin. But I am 100 percent sure that making graphic novels is all I want to do.… And there are some fantastic skin products out there nowadays.

PWCW: What can we expect from you in the future?

RM: I just finished a serial-comics story for The New York Times Magazine, "The Murder of the Terminal Patient," and I am working on a new story for The Times of London in the same format. After I finish that project, I might start a new graphic novel or take a break for a while and do something completely different, like illustrate a children's book, which is another passion of mine.

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