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An interview with Rutu Modan

Maisonneuve Magazine: Tell us about comic book culture in Israel.
Rutu Modan: Actually, there is no real comic tradition in Israel. When I was growing up there were no comics at all, perhaps with the exception of a comic strip for children that advertised milk. There was some effort to translate comics like Tintin, Popeye, and Superman—and I remember reading Superman at my dentist's office as a child—but Israel is the one place in the world where Tintin and Superman were a commercial failure. In fact, I think I made comics before I read comics. By the time I was a teenager there were a few comic artists, but you can't really speak about a comic 'scene' or industry.

There was one famous comic strip artist, Dudu Geva (1950-2005), who died recently. Geva had a weekly comic strip, which was mostly influenced by the American underground comics style inspired by Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Geva's work was very successful.

MM: Are comics and graphic novels becoming more popular in Israel, as they have been in Europe and North America? 
RM: When I started, there were no comic strips in newspapers. While I was studying in Jerusalem at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, I was looking for a job while I studied, and I published comic strips in the local newspaper, which was easy to do, as there wasn't very much competition!

During my third year at the Academy in the 90s, I had a professor from Belgium who taught a course on comic art. This was the first time that Bezalel had a course like this, and there were only six students in the class. Because this professor was from Europe he introduced us to comic artists from the Continent and many others that we had never seen or heard of before—Jacques Tardi, [Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's] RAW magazine, Spiegelman's MAUS, Asterix, and all the alternative comics coming out at that time. It was like a culture shock for me to realize there was more than just the mainstream comic art I had been exposed to, and that comic books could be so diverse . . . they could be anything. 

MM: You co-founded, along with Yirmi Pinkus, Actus Tragicus Comics Collective. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you started this collective?
RM: In Israel in 1995, Actus Tragicus started self-publishing in English and distributing our work abroad. We are all illustrators; we were already in our 30s and 40s, and established artists, and we started up with our own money. Founding a collective made it easier for us to work financially as well as fostering encouragement amongst ourselves for our artistic work.

You could say that Actus Tragicus triggered a wave of development and more international attention [for Israeli comic art], because we started attending independent festivals and events as well as having our work sold locally at the few comic bookshops in Tel-Aviv and Haifa. Before we started, large bookshops in Israel were still not selling comics, and no one was really publishing them. But now the scene is really starting and there are other groups, like Dimona Comix Group producing their own work as well. 

MM: What inspired your new graphic novel, Exit Wounds?
RM: I was looking for elements of a story, and I saw this documentary film—a wonderful documentary called No. 17 (2003) by David Ofek. Ofek's film is about a suicide bombing on a bus, in which seventeen people were killed. However, only sixteen of the seventeen bodies were identified. One body was completely destroyed and could not be identified. Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time that a body had been burnt beyond recognition. What was special in this case is that no one came forward to claim it. This was unusual. Most of the time, family members get worried and come forward but in this case, no one did. The director decided to find the identity of this body and to determine whether it perhaps belonged to a foreign worker or a tourist. The film primarily revolves around this search.

Ofek put an ad in a newspaper hoping that someone would come forward and claim it. What I found really interesting, and very sad, was that a few people started calling, including a father who had completely lost contact with his son and did not know where he was. It was really sad, that it could have been his son, but that the father had lost touch for so long that he would not have even known whether he was dead or not.

Also, I remember when I was in my twenties I once dated a guy who never called me back. After a few days, I decided that he was probably dead. I couldn't understand why he hadn't called me. Eventually I called him, and of course he was still alive. But this situation was sort of like the character Numi’s situation in Exit Wounds. She preferred to believe that Gabriel, her ex-lover, was killed in the suicide bombing than that he had left her.

I also wanted Exit Wounds to be structured like a detective story, but I wanted to explore the theme of confronting death. We live with death everyday, but sometimes in extreme political situations, you cannot ignore death, or the fear of death, anymore. It has to be confronted. But you also develop ways of dealing with it, including irony and dark humour and simply closing yourself off. For example, the character Numi explains that usually when she sees footage of suicide bombings she just switches off the TV.

This happens in Israel. People close themselves off from the political situation in order to cope. But in the process of hermetically sealing yourself off, you do so—not because of a choice you make—because you just do it. Israelis don't speak much about politics. I used to, but I stopped. It feels useless. People just stop thinking about it, but as much as you try to ignore it, it increasingly becomes part of your private life.

People find ways of rationalizing things. For example, when there were small suicide attacks, less than five people or if there was an attack in the settlements (communities in territory that came under Israel's control as a result of the Six Day War in 1967), you say to yourself that it happens somewhere else, far away. You find ways to distance yourself and explain why it did not happen to you. I tried to make Exit Wounds reflect some of these aspects of life. 

  MM: You've mentioned elsewhere that Exit Wounds was a different experience than your previous work. What were the challenges of writing a full-length graphic novel?
RM: [Producing] Exit Wounds was completely different to writing short stories. The longest stories I had written before were thirty pages. But my approach here was obviously more like that of a novel. In a shorter story, the focus is more about the idea and the situation. But when writing Exit Wounds, I had to focus on the protagonists and what happens to them, what makes them interesting. And in terms of how long it took me to complete, it took me two years, during which I spent one day per week teaching. But I left all my freelance work to focus on the book. It was a real commitment to work and finish this one project, which required a lot of patience and dedication.

An illustrator is used to short projects. But this was great and I learned so much about writing. I also found that while you are writing you start to really feel like you get to know your protagonists, like Koby. I actually identify with him. Here is a guy who thinks he is untouchable but who really has been hurt a lot. On the other hand, Numi is sweet but she is one of those people who are used to getting things her way. She's a rich girl, and she has the traits you find in rich people—they think they deserve everything. 

  MM: Does your relationship to the drawings change in a longer work?
RM: Usually when I start writing, I basically know I am going to draw it. But this time, because this was such a larger project, I had to learn how to draw certain things for the book. I had to rely more on photographs of people, posters, buildings, both in order to establish continuity of the illustrations and also because there are so many frames. I also did not want certain things to get in the way. For instance, cars were an issue: I don't like drawing cars but Koby drives a cab. I found an old car, a Peugeot that I really liked to draw. However, I did not know if these types of Peugeots were used as taxis in Tel-Aviv and so I wasn't sure if using it would be realistic. I was lucky. One day I hailed a cab in Tel-Aviv and it was the Peugeot that I liked to draw. I told the cab driver that I loved his car with such enthusiasm that he thought I was crazy. 

  MM: Exit Wounds was first commissioned to be published in English by Drawn & Quarterly (Canada). Can you tell us about the process of modifying Exit Wounds for a translated version into Hebrew, with an alphabet that reads from right to left?
RM: I found an Israeli publisher, Am Oved. I am happy about the quality of their printing, which is important for a graphic novel. Exit Wounds was drawn for an English publication, and I wrote it in Hebrew but it was translated into English. However, in order to publish Exit Wounds in Hebrew which has an alphabet that reads left to right, I will have to flip the pages. Since the protagonist, Koby, is a taxi driver, I will have to change many of the frames so that he is not driving on the wrong side of the road.

I think there will be some other interesting—and frightening—things about publishing Exit Wounds in Israel. First because people there are familiar with all the places I describe. It's such a small place. Also, it's a story about an estranged father and son. The idea of family is very strong in Israel; it's an institution. It is very common, even as you approach your forties, to see your family frequently, and see your aunts, uncles, and have close relationships with them. Of course there are exceptions to this but the estrangement of Koby and his father in Exit Wounds is more extreme in the Israeli context.

MM: In Newsarama you describe the story of Exit Wounds as a few "parallel journeys": it is a detective story about the search for the true identity of a destroyed body after a suicide bombing. It is also about the relationship between Koby and his estranged father, Gabriel, whom he searches for with Numi, the young soldier. Isn't Exit Wounds also a love story?
RM: Yes, of course, it's mainly a love story. But I did not think I had to say it or expose this aspect of the story. One reviewer, the comic book artist Matt Madden, called Exit Wounds a 'romantic comedy'. It's true that it has the structure of a romantic comedy: Koby and Numi don't get along at first and then they gradually start falling in love during their search.

I deliberately chose to explore this theme in such an extreme atmosphere to show how all these feelings—love, anger, and romance—keep going. Your life keeps going despite the political situation. This is so, because this is how people are. Everything keeps going, and in a way this is sad and in a way it simply gives us the strength to cope with a terrible reality. You can get used to anything. You just keep moving.

MM: Exit Wounds deals with a suicide bombing, an aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which most readers are familiar with. But the story concentrates more on the effects of tragedy and loss at a personal level, not on politics. Did you deliberately refrain from talking about larger political issues?
RM: I wanted to write a story that takes the perspective of everyday life. Art is not for telling your opinions. Art is not good for this. Usually when someone tells you their opinion, it's not very interesting. But almost anyone can tell you about their personal life, and most of the time it will be interesting. I wanted to tell the truth, but I did not want to talk about my opinion of a situation that I am not capable of explaining. Not that I don't have opinions, but I did not want to share them here.

Stories and art should be truthful to life, and usually life is more complicated. And this is what I describe in my book. I also wanted to explore an aspect of personal life beyond the labels we assign to others, particularly in political situations, such as "Father", "Son", "Lover", "Soldier", "Bad" or "Good". I wanted to look beyond these one-dimensional labels, and explore how these roles become more complex.

MM: You've mentioned elsewhere that the 'goal' of Exit Wounds was not intended to 'send a message about life in Israel' but to tell a story. However, can you tell us how you think the Israeli reality affects artistic life?
RM: I think Israel is a very interesting place. It's full of tension, when you live in such an extreme situation. In some ways these extremes help you see life a little more clearly. This feeling also happened when my mother passed away a few years ago. Dealing with adversity helps you understand things.

But sometimes the political situation makes it hard, it becomes possible to doubt art's importance, something that is felt by other Israeli artists. You can start to feel 'selfish' by focusing on artistic pursuits in the face of all that is going on. I think this is true for every society. There is always some kind of pressing political situation that calls the values and motives of artistic work into question.

Usually I don't feel this way. I feel art is important, and people should do what they want. Art is a necessity. It's not just ornamentation. But it's not that I am doing what I do because other people need it. I need it.