EXIT WOUNDS reviewed by PLAYBACK:stl

“A young Israeli hunts for the truth about his estranged father with the help of his father's last girlfriend in this excellent, in-depth character study.” / PLAYBACK:stl / Steve Higgins / January 4, 2008

Critics from Time to Entertainment Weekly to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have lauded Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds as one of the best (if not THE best) graphic novels of 2007, and had I read it a few weeks earlier, it would surely have ended up on my list of best comics of the year as well. As it is, I can only add my voice to the chorus of those who sing the praises of this book.

Set in present-day Israel, the book's central character is Koby, a young man who lives with his aunt and uncle while trying to scrape by on the meager wages he earns as a cab driver. One day his life takes a strange turn when he meets Numi, a girl who has been dating Koby's estranged father Gabriel. Gabriel has recently disappeared, and Numi believes he might have been a victim of a recent bombing in a bus station. Her request for Koby's help in identifying the body turns into a quest of sorts, as the two work to piece together the clues of what happened to Gabriel.

That description might lead you to believe Modan emphasizes mystery and intrigue, when that couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, Exit Wounds is less about finding out what happened to Gabriel than it is a character piece about two complete strangers linked by their relationships to the same man. From their first meeting, Koby and Numi are at odds, clashing over their different ideas of how to handle the situation, and this conflict between them is a direct result of how they connected, or failed to connect, with Gabriel himself.

Comics such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or the works of Joe Sacco have been designed to give readers an insight into another culture, and from that summary you might be fooled into thinking that this book's purpose is similarly informative. But Exit Wounds is about people in general, not just Israelis. The book is more universal because it doesn't emphasize the details of the plot or setting and instead focuses on the strained relationship between Gabriel and Koby, between a father and son, which anyone can relate to no matter their nationality.

Yet in a way, the book does subtly show the Israeli experience; it treats the setting as a background element that not only drives the plot but also impacts the behavior of the characters. Koby meets Numi while she's serving her mandatory service in the army, and her indecision about what to do next with her life is a driving force for her character. Gabriel's behavior at Koby's bar mitzvah is mentioned as an example of the trouble in their relationship. From the location of the unidentified victim's burial plot to the nonchalance with which several characters treat the news of the bombing itself, every aspect of this story is affected by Israeli life in some way, like Israel is the elephant in the room. No one discusses Israel directly but everyone feels the influence of this country in every aspect of their lives.

Like many other aspects of Exit Wounds, the art too is deceptive. Modan's drawing style is very European, at times reminiscent of Herge's Tintin, and at first glance she tricks the reader into thinking there is very little to the art. People's faces are the simplest arrangements of dots and lines you can imagine, but the beauty of Modan's artwork is how expressive she makes those lines become. The emotions they show are palpable, especially the varied shades of anger that Koby expresses. In one panel he might merely be feeling mild annoyance and in the next outrage, yet the nuances of Modan's art illustrate the differences in his moods perfectly.

Exit Wounds has all the technical elements an excellent comic should contain: art that is minimalist yet incredibly expressive, colors which seem to adjust from muted to vibrant with the tone of the scenes, and panel layouts that guide the reader through the story at a perfect pace without ever feeling the need to overly spell things out. Beyond all that is a great story, a gripping read that holds your interest through a twisting plot, an intriguing setting, and subtle character development. All of those details add up to a truly brilliant graphic novel that deserves all the praise it has received.

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