EXIT WOUNDS reviewed by Jewish Quarterly

“Ariel Kahn on Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan’s searing new work” / Jewish Quarterly / Jewish Quarterly Staff / October 25, 2007

There is an image in Rutu Modan’s new graphic novel, Exit Wounds, which sums up her vision of Israel today: a makeshift memorial to the victims of a Tel Aviv bus bombing is made out of a Coca-Cola stand and placed in front of violent graffiti. In this single frame she highlights an uneasy fusion of American culture, brutal violence and traditional Judaism.

‘To draw allows you to think and see very slowly, to rediscover the strangeness of a cosmopolitan city with an army base at its centre,’ stated Modan, in an interview at the ICA, describing Exit Wounds as ‘a homage to the way I see my city’.

Exit Wounds is the story of a young man’s search for his father’s corpse after a bus is blown up by a suicide bomber. Koby’s journey takes him across the social and religious divides of Israeli society, accompanied by his father’s young lover. He discovers on his quest commonalities of loss and longing and, despite all disappointments, an insistent hope. After numerous encounters and a visit to a morgue he learns that his father, Gabriel, is not dead, merely absent.

The search for his absent father shapes the narrative, becoming a search for all that is lost in both self and society. It also becomes a quest for love, something which Modan’s Israel has in short supply.

‘For me,’ Modan commented, ‘the drama is always behind the words. No one mentions the word “love” in the novel, even though it is a central focus for all of them.’ Indeed, love shapes the journey of both major and minor characters, as the promise of something endlessly withheld, only occasionally experienced. Why is it never spoken? Modan suggests that in the fraught society of contemporary Israel, a sense of detachment is required to survive, making love even more problematic.

The connection between Koby and Numi, Gabriel’s lover, unfolds slowly. Modan’s own creative process and her gradual involvement with her characters is similarly tentative: ‘The novel changed a great deal, as although I had story-boards for the whole work, I didn’t know how it would end or who the characters really were. I didn’t know at the outset if they would be together or not.’ For Modan, the most difficult section of the novel, both to draw and to imagine, was a moment of sexual intimacy between Koby and Numi. ‘I wanted to make it real. Not pornographic but still sexy – involving, not ironic or detached. So I left this scene until late in the novel, when I felt I would be able to engage with it.’

She depicts the characters with their eyes closed, as if even close up they are unable to see each other. This scene runs wet with the tears that flow throughout the whole book and the world it depicts. ‘Ultimately everyone cries for themselves,’ says Modan.

In her interview with Maisoneuve, Modan said, ‘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.’

If Exit Wounds dramatises the silences that shape our speech, it also captures the way we use language to define each other. The graphic novel is unique in its ability to replicate simultaneous speech. In one double spread, four people conduct simultaneous, parallel conversations that circle around their common loss, interweaving and shaping each other. Modan is clear: we need others to help us define ourselves.

The relationship to death and the dead is central to the novel. Israeli society distances itself from death, dehumanising it even at the morgue where corpses are kept out of sight and relatives identify their deceased through televised images of body parts.

Modan argues for the need to include the invisible foreign worker and the Palestinian – the normative Other in Israeli political discourse – in Israel’s self-definition. This is a challenging task for as exclusivist an ideology as Zionism, but Modan suggests that it is vital to the state’s continuing vitality. She goes further by suggesting that it is the living outsiders within Israeli society, the unseen and invisible, rather than the dead, that reflect the absence at its heart. In a particularly uncomfortable scene, Koby tries to speak to a Filipino cleaner. He follows her into the toilets and witnesses her invisibility: men urinate, oblivious to her, leaving dirty footprints on her clean floors.

'Even superman flopped here!' Modan once said about the lack of any comics tradition in Israel. Introduced to them by a teacher at Bezalel School of Fine Arts, she soon realized that this was what she wanted to create. Together with her classmate Yirmi Pinkus, she founded Actus Tragicus, a fertile comics co-operative that has produced outstanding themed anthologies. The next book, also focusing on the theme of love, is due out later this year. They made the conscious choice to produce their work in English to appeal to both a local and international audience.

This has created problems for the forthcoming Israeli edition of Exit Wounds from publisher Am Oved; if the pages are simply flipped, as they are in Japanese comics in translation, Koby will appear to be driving on the wrong side of the road. Modan will have to redraw much of the novel. 'I actually hate drawing cars,' she says. 'So why did I make my main character a taxi driver? I finally found an old Renault that I loved drawing, but wasn’t sure whether it was realistic to use as a taxi in Tel Aviv. Then one day in Tel Aviv I was picked up by a driver in exactly this car. I went on at length about how much I loved his car. He must have thought I was crazy.'

This realistic approach is a crucial part of her technique: 'I take photographs of everything and always work from them. The imagination needs these tiny details in order to believe in the world I create.'

The influence of two significant graphic novelists is evident in Modan’s style: Hergé (Tintin) and Windsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland). The first is a celebrated proponent of the Ligne Claire, the clearly drawn line with no shading that represents a clear moral universe. Modan is a gifted expositor of the Ligne Claire, but the clarity of her line is set against the realistic, morally ambiguous adult world of her characters. McCay’s magical world – 'too powerful a shaping force on me simply to be called an influence' (Modan) – is the world of dreams more real than life.

In her collaboration with Etgar Keret, Nobody said it was Going to be Fu and other earlier work, 'my line was thick, almost grotesque, to reflect my subject matter.' Exit Wounds, according to Modan, reflects her maturation both as a person and an artist:

'The innocent quality of the drawings creates a haunting contrast with the content that they depict. My line holds the melodrama at bay, creates a certain distance from the events I depict for the reader to inhabit. Someone once told me something attributed to Stanislavsky that resonated for me: when the actor cries on the stage, the audience doesn’t cry. The audience can only cry when the actor refuses to.'

Similarly, Modan directs the reader’s eye to the emotional centre of each image but allows him to experience the emotion for himself. She adapts Herge’s brilliant sense of page construction using key colours to create a musical rhythm across each double spread that underscores the emotional dynamics it portrays.

Modan’s tender evocation of these characters involves us deeply in their fate leading us to an evaluation of the wounds of the society of which they are so clearly a part.

Ariel Kahn is a lecturer in creative writing at Roehampton, and currently collaborating on an exhibition of Israeli graphic artists to coincide with LJBW next year. He is also a contributor to The Jewish Graphic Novel, published by Brandeis UP next year.

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