“For me, a father is supposed to be someone who loves you,” says Israeli author and comics artist Rutu Modan. But, she says, “being a father is a choice you can make, it’s not necessarily somebody who’s close to you.” Modan is talking about her family’s fraught relationship with her grandfather, which partly inspired her new graphic novel, The Property, due out next month from Drawn & Quarterly.
Modan, a pioneer of alternative comics in Israel, is best known for her graphic novel Exit Wounds (Drawn & Quarterly, 2008), which introduced her work to readers across the globe and earned her the 2008 Eisner Award for best new graphic novel. Her comics and illustrations have been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Le Monde, and other publications. What’s intriguing about Modan’s work is her ability to translate specific experiences into stories that feel universal.
The Property began with the author’s own family conflicts and history. Modan’s mother grew up without a father. He left home when she was seven and moved to another country. “When I was 13, I went to a family wedding with my mother. Then suddenly, my mother pointed at some old man and said, ‘That’s my father. This is your grandfather.’ He was standing there, drinking orange juice. And I was shocked. He was a stranger.”
Modan started to develop the idea for her graphic novel over four years ago. The haunting moment with her grandfather influenced her, as did her family’s complicated ties to its homeland: Modan’s grandmother came from Poland, but she turned her back on her native country when she fled to escape from the Nazis.
None of her family spoke Polish anymore, no one wanted to return, and no one discussed it. “My grandmother referred to it as ‘the land of the dead’—‘one big cemetery,’ ” Modan says. “And I wasn’t interested in Poland. Which is strange, because all the family came from there.”
Inspired by her family origins and family secrets, she wanted to write a story about a Jewish grandmother who, with the help of her granddaughter, reclaims her property in Poland that was seized during the war.
But when Modan embarked on a novel about her family’s country of origin, she needed to learn about Polish history and culture. She knew so little about the land that the first thing she did was turn to Wikipedia for answers. She also spoke with Polish folks in Poland and in Israel, read books about the conflicts between Jews and Poles, and visited Poland herself.
In fact, this nuanced, touching story took Modan more than two years just to develop. She describes her process (after the research is complete): “First I write the whole script. I know what’s going to happen in the story; I write the dialogue. Then afterward I make the storyboard and start drawing. And then it took me another year to draw it. So it was a very long and quite painful process. And also fun, really.”
In the book, grandmother Regina and her Israeli granddaughter Mica return to Regina’s hometown, Warsaw, to reclaim the property that her Jewish family had to abandon when they fled the Nazis. But while Mica assumes that they’re there for her family’s land, her grandmother has motives of her own—motives that unearth her hidden past during an era of Jewish struggle in Poland.
“For me, it’s about many things,” says Modan. “It’s about the relationship between [the two women], and the relationship of the grandmother and her past, and Mica and her past. Mica’s father is dead—he’s the generation between them. So it also involves Mica’s personal history, the grandmother’s personal history, a generation gap, and the relationship between Poles and Jews—which is very complicated.”
In the ’90s, Modan self-published her comics in Israel through Actus Tragicus, the comics collective that she cofounded with Yirmi Pinkus. There was no alternative comics scene in Israel so they created one for themselves.
Although they published in English rather than Hebrew and attended the annual Angoulême International Comics Festival in France in order to court a global audience, her readers were few. She says she only had about 500 readers back then: “It was people who liked alternative comics, people who were interested in international stuff—it was a very small circle.”
But honing her voice and her drawing style for years, she hit her stride with Exit Wounds. That novel takes place in present-day Tel Aviv, where Koby meets Numi, a woman who claims that the unidentified victim in a recent terrorist bombing was Koby’s estranged dad—and her lover. But rather than explore violence in Israel, Modan chose to focus on emotional violence—Koby’s hatred of his father, Numi’s self-loathing, the pair’s complex relationship as they learn more about Koby’s father—against the backdrop of political conflict.
“Exit Wounds was a big break for me for sure,” Modan says. It was her first full-length graphic novel, and it came out in Israel as well as in Europe and the U.S. and was translated into 10 languages. “I was hoping people would like it, but I didn’t have this kind of expectation.”
Modan’s voice stands out, not only because there aren’t many Israeli comics artists—or many female comics artists—but also because she deals with complex issues of self, family, and culture.
Françoise Mouly, art director of the New Yorker and founder of kid’s comics publisher Toon Books, published Modan’s children’s book, Maya Makes a Mess, in 2012. She says of Modan, “You get a sense of the ambivalence of a contemporary person in Israel.... She’s an Israeli artist accepting conflicting feelings that have more questions than answers.” In Modan’s graphic novels, what’s terrifying isn’t terrorism, it’s the more subtle strife that we inflict on ourselves as a result of, and in spite of, what’s going on around us.
The appeal of her work comes not only from the intricacy of her characters’ relationships, which are set against rich cultural backdrops; it also arises from what Mouly calls Modan’s “inviting and pleasing” visual aesthetic—in particular the line of her drawing: “She uses ligne claire—the clear line—to deal with storylines that are murky and ambiguous, which lends power to her work.”
Indeed, her simple style emphasizes her subjects’ facial expressions and body language, which throws their subtle emotions into bold relief. This creates an intimacy with the reader that comes not just from Modan’s skill as an artist but, above all, from her keenly sensitive observations. Mouly says, “Usually the amount of skill an artist has is inversely correlated with what he or she has to say. But Rutu, she’s a skilled artist and a great writer. I see a lot of artists who draw well, but that’s not enough.”
Modan’s influences come from art, literature, and film alike. “I’m interested in Daniel Clowes and Edward Gorey,” she says, pointing to artists of contrasting styles. “But influences are not always direct. For example, Edward Gorey—I used to do comics in his style. But now my style is very far from that. But the influence is still there—the humor.” Certainly The Property contains its share of darkly funny moments, including Mica getting caught in the middle of a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising reenactment—and being saved by a man who slaps a Nazi using his shopping bags.
In addition to illustrators and comics artists, she’s a big fan of Hitchcock. Her love of cinema shapes the way she approaches her work: “I usually prefer to tell the story through the dialogue or through the actions of the protagonists, and not so much through what they have in their heads.” She says her choices also stem from literature, and that she’s inspired by Italian antifascist novelist Natalia Ginzburg—“the way she tells a story about big things, through regular people.”
“Except for one project that I wrote—family stories for the blog on the New York Times Web site—my work is always fiction,” Modan says. It’s true that, while The Property is based on her own struggle to understand her lineage and Exit Wounds originated from an attack in Tel Aviv portrayed in David Ofek’s documentary No. 17, her personal experience and the events going on around her are merely inspiration for her fictional narratives.
“The fact that it’s fiction allows me to invent it and make it more like a story and not just a documentary of what really happened—which is not always dramatic enough,” she says.
For Modan, fiction is also a more comfortable way of telling a story. “I don’t want to expose my family or myself,” she says. “I don’t want to tell my family secrets.” So instead, it’s her characters who reveal their secrets—whether they want to or not.
In Exit Wounds, Koby and Numi are forced to confront the life that Koby’s father hid from both of them. And in The Property, unfinished business propels Regina to return to her “dead” homeland, the site of her dark secret.
In both novels, Modan’s subjects avoid the truth until it becomes inescapable. But when they finally reveal what they’ve been evading, life doesn’t become any more clear; everything is not illuminated. Modan says, “In my experience, nothing is completely serious, nothing is completely sad, nothing is completely funny.”
It brings to mind the incident with her real-life estranged grandfather at the wedding. She says that when her mother spotted him, he came over to meet them: “He said ‘hi,’ and we said ‘hi.’ And that was all.”