A Necessary Distance from Reality: An Interview with Rutu Modan

Rutu Modan is a rarity. One of the few established comics artists in Israel, she is also one of the few established female comics artists in the world. After graduating from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, Modan began writing and illustrating comic strips and stories for Israel's leading daily newspapers, as well as editing the Israeli edition of MAD magazine with Yirmi Pinkus. In 1995, she and Pinkus cofounded Actus Tragicus, an internationally acclaimed collective and independent publishing house for alternative comics artists. Drawn and Quarterly published her full-length graphic novel, Exit Wounds, in 2007 and her collection, Jamilti and Other Stories, in 2008. Exit Wounds was also published in England, France, Italy, and Spain and was named Best Comic of the Year by Entertainment Weekly. In 2007, the New York Times ran Mixed Emotions, Modan's visual blog about her family.

I met with Modan in her home in central Tel Aviv in May of 2011.

Meg Storey: Which comes to you first—the images or the story?

Rutu Modan: It’s difficult to say. I think the main reason I became a comics artist is that I always drew; from a really early age, I was drawing all the time, but it was always connected to some story. So for me, comics is really the perfect medium. Sometimes, the inspiration comes through an image and sometimes through a story or an idea. But usually I write the whole script; I don’t draw before I finish writing. I write descriptions of what I’m going to draw, but I don’t make any sketches, though in my head, I already see it visually. But it really depends. The book I’m writing now is a combination. It started with an idea to write a story about a grandmother and a granddaughter who are going to Poland to look for the property the  family had before World War II. I had never been interested in Poland, and I didn’t know anything about it [Modan's family is from Poland]. My grandmother never spoke Polish; my family completely erased Poland from the map. I was talking to a friend of mine whose husband was in the embassy in Warsaw, and I asked her, “If I go there, what do you recommend?” And she told me, “Oh, there is one thing that is incredible that you must see. It’s All Souls’ Day, and the cemeteries are full with people. They stay there all night and light candles; it’s beautiful.” And the minute she told me about this, I knew that I must see it and that it would be connected to the story I was going to write. So I went to Poland to see it, and it was mystical and touching. So I imagined this image, and somehow I knew that it must be part of the book.

MS: Your work is often based on autobiographical or real events. One thing I noticed is that Mixed Emotions is very funny—you’re making fun of your family and yourself—but the humor in your fictional work tends to be more absurd or dark. Is there something about autobiographical writing that alters the role of humor in your work?

RM: I hope that each of my stories has some humor in it, because it is part of how I see the world. And I think that living in Israel is the influence of macabre humor in my stories. This is part of Israeli life. You can be depressed, or you can choose absurdity and use humor to live, to stay sane. It was a different experience writing Mixed Emotions. The tone was different. I didn’t write a script; I wrote a story. And I guess the fact that it is funnier is connected to the fact that it is more autobiographical, because maybe humor was a good way to deal with the fact that I was writing about my family and I knew that they were going to read it. And when I write fiction, maybe I allow myself to be more serious, and also more absurd, because I can invent whatever I want, and with my family, I can’t invent too much.

MS: Has that experience made you want to do more blogs?

RM: At the time it was very difficult for me, not writing with drawings, but writing with words. I felt like it was going to kill me. But now I do regret that I didn’t continue writing a few more of those stories, because I got some very touching reactions. When I publish a book, I rarely get reactions from the public. But on the Internet, it was so immediate, and people wrote such personal comments, not just “Oh, I like it” or “It’s funny,” but really personal stories, and it was like talking with people. The first time I read the comments, I was crying. It was incredible. I felt a connection with the readers. It was very rewarding.

MS: Reunion and connecting with a lost relative or someone who’s missing is a constant theme in your work. Do you think that this is a result of the world you live in—Israel—or is it a consequence of the world we all live in?

RM: It might be strange to say, but I didn’t notice that the theme of the missing person, especially the missing father, is so prevalent in my work until a few years ago. I’m not 100 percent sure why it’s so strong in my stories. In the past ten years, it’s probably because both my parents died, and this is one of the biggest influences on my life. They disappeared. But I think that for me the main theme in my work is family and the connections within the family. And when you take someone out of the family, it’s a good way to explore the connections. What happens when you break up the family? What still keeps it a unit? What makes it continue to function or to stop functioning?

MS: “Bygone” is the first of your stories set in Israel. Was it a conscious choice before that not to set your stories in Israel? And later a choice to do so?

RM: It was conscious in that I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to put the location into the stories without losing the personal. I didn’t know how to combine them. This place is very complicated. To be an Israeli artist means you are always expected, not only by the audiences abroad and in Israel but also by yourself, to take a stance, to say what your point of view is on events. It’s difficult and it’s also frustrating, because there are so many things that you want to talk about before you speak about politics. So I wrote stories that are set in Sweden, or in a place I’d never been, or the time was Victorian, or no time at all. Setting stories in Israel was influenced by my work with Etgar Keret, whose stories are very connected to Israeli culture and to Israel as a location. But it was something that I developed slowly.

MS: There isn’t much of a tradition of comics in Israel. Do you feel that is changing? And if so, did Actus Tragicus play a role in that shift?

RM: I believe we did, yes. You cannot compare it to what’s happening in Europe or the States or Japan. But when Actus Tragicus started, there was nothing. There were no comics shops, there were no comics conventions. Now, many young people are doing comics. But the main thing is that Israeli publishers started to publish comics and to translate comics, which they didn’t really do before. Maus was published here a few years after it was published in the States, and it wasn’t very popular. I don’t think it was even because it is about the Holocaust; it was just that people didn’t know how to read it. It was like the first time people saw films and ran away from the cinema. They didn’t know how to handle it. Even today, there are people who ask, “How do you read it? Do you look first at the pictures and then you read the text?,” as if it’s a very complicated process. When Exit Wounds was published in Israel, I did get some reviews, but not by anyone who writes about literature. It was always either an illustrator or someone who’s interested in comics. But I was happy just to have reviews, because when Actus published books, it was very difficult to get reviews, because people didn’t know how to read comics, and I think that’s changing.

MS: You were a little nervous what the reception to Exit Wounds, which revolves around the mystery of an unidentified victim of a suicide bombing, would be in Israel. Did people have a strong reaction to the storyline?

RM: No, I think I had good reactions. People weren’t upset.

MS: What about the story “Jamilti,” in which you portray a not-very-likable Israeli whose fiancée has an encounter with a Palestinian suicide bomber? The story puts the bomber in a sympathetic light and makes the reader wish that, in another world, the bomber was the fiancé.

RM: For me, the main thing in that story is the people we miss, that maybe we have the opportunity to meet really wonderful people, but we cannot because we have decided we hate them—and it’s not only Israelis, I’m talking about Palestinians as well—and since I have this privilege to speak about the personal life, about feeling, I do not have to take everything into consideration. I don’t have any illusions that I can go into the head of a bomber and see what he thinks, and I don’t have any illusions that my stories are going to influence anyone to change his political stance, and by all means, I don’t think that it’s good to bomb people anywhere, but I want to explore this idea of missed connections. The story is based on something I read in the newspaper. There was a bombing in a falafel shop in Jerusalem and an Israeli went inside because he was a paramedic, to see if there was someone to save, and he gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a guy lying on the floor and afterward he found out it was the bomber. And what happened in the real event was even more powerful than what happens in my story. The paramedic lives in a settlement and he is right-wing and he is religious and it was an Arab man he was giving mouth to mouth to. And when he wrote about it, he didn’t see what I saw; he wrote about how he was horrified by this and the first thing he did was go to the hospital to see if he had caught some sort of disease from the bomber. If I were to write that as the story, it would be a terrible story! Also, it would be too much. So I had to cut out quite a big piece of it and change it and make it more subtle in order to say what I wanted to say, what I saw in this story, and what this man wasn’t aware of, that it was a wounded person, and it was a person, and if you don’t know who it is, you want to save him. This is the first reaction. And then when you know who it is, suddenly everything changes; you want to kill him, bomb him.

MS: You wrote in the author’s note to that collection that at some point you realized life is bizarre and grotesque enough to base a story upon and this insight and understanding affected your drawing style as well. How so?

RM: When I started doing comics, I was still at the art academy. It was the late eighties, and I was really influenced by Raw magazine and by the graphic design of the era, the very grotesque drawings, so my stories and my characters were very exaggerated and ridiculous. And little by little, my stories became more realistic, because I realized that I don’t have to exaggerate anything; in fact I have to do the opposite. For example, the death of my mother and her sickness—there is nothing to exaggerate there. In order to make it possible to handle it or speak about it, I had to do the opposite. And it was the beginning of 2000, the first Intifada, I had a small kid, and I felt very vulnerable. So the stories became more mature. I didn’t feel that I had to shout in order for people to hear me. Also, after drawing for so many years, I became a better draftsman, I could draw more realistically, so other things started to become interesting to me rather than making things even more grotesque.

MS: Do you feel that your style is not locked into a specific look, that it varies and can shift from story to story?

RM: Yes, and I think this is also connected to living in Israel—in a good way, for a change. Since there is no tradition of comics, you don’t have to decide what style you are. I know from friends who work in the States that art directors want to know what your style is and you have to stick to your style, and if you have two styles, you make two different portfolios. But when I started, illustration in newspapers and magazines was something new here, so they would give me the dimensions, and I would do whatever I wanted. I couldn’t laugh about the Holocaust and I couldn’t laugh about dead soldiers. These were the two things that I was not allowed. There was no tradition, so I didn’t feel that I had to follow anyone. I was influenced by American artists, I was influenced by European artists, I was influenced by what I happened to see in shops when I went abroad. But I think that was good. One of the things I didn’t know, for example, was that it’s a male profession. I didn’t have any idea that it’s unusual for a woman to do comics. When I started going outside of Israel and telling people I am a comics artist, they would say, “Wow, it’s a profession of men,” but I never thought of it as a feminist step. On the contrary, it almost doesn’t pay, it’s something you can do at home, you don’t have to go outside, you don’t have to yell at anyone. And I think it makes you freer if you don’t make a conscious choice to go in a direction that you’re not supposed to. I wanted to do comics, so I did comics. I didn’t even question if it was art or not, if it was mainstream or not. I didn’t like superhero comics, but I didn’t think that what I was doing, that what Raw magazine is doing, is different than Superman. I didn’t say, “This is comics and this is not comics.”

MS: That’s interesting, because I think in the States there is somewhat of a distinction: “I write graphic novels, not comics.”

RM: Yeah, or the opposite: “I’m interested in comics, what is this artist stuff?” So when you don’t have a tradition, sometimes it’s an advantage. You can decide what your tradition is by yourself.

MS: The last thing I wanted to talk to you about is the piece that was published in Words Without Borders, "War Rabbit," which is more of a journalistic piece and which you wrote while you were living in Sheffield, England. I’m curious why you decided to write a journalistic piece and whether living abroad had any influence on it.

RM: I don’t think it’s connected to the fact that I was living in Sheffield at the time. We came back to Israel for the Christmas holidays, and the Gaza War had started. I was against the war. A few months before, I had received an invitation to do comics journalism for a French publisher that was publishing an anthology of comics journalism, and I said that I wasn’t interested, because I wanted to do personal comics. I didn’t think comics journalism was for me. Then I went to Israel and there was a war, and I suddenly felt that it was possible to do journalism. Not because my ideas on the war were so important or so unique, but because it would be published by a French publisher, and I would have a chance to say something about what was happening that was more complicated than what I assumed the French saw on TV—or even what Israelis saw on TV.  So I asked a friend of mine who is an old-time journalist who goes to Gaza and Ramallah and meets with the scariest terrorists and interviews them to take me with him to see people who live near the border. At the beginning, I didn’t want to do the piece with him; I just wanted him to take me there. But he said, "Maybe we could do something together," and I said, "OK, why not?" We went twice, and it was very interesting for me to watch him work. It was an adventure. And everything in the story is true: the story about the rabbit and all that happened with Bibi. We didn’t invent it.

MS: Do you think that there was something about the fact that you were making a comics piece that allowed you to go to a war zone and meet these people? For instance, I found the movie Waltz with Bashir very moving, but it’s not a movie I could have watched if it wasn’t animated. Or reading Joe Sacco’s work, Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza

RM: Or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

MS: Yes, exactly. There’s something about having it be a comic that does make it easier to read about difficult things.

RM: This is what art can do: detachment from reality. You must have this detachment in order to make you able to take difficult things in, and that is something that art can do. Marjane Satrapi can show a person cut into pieces and so you know that in Iran they cut people into pieces. And what was even more genius about Waltz with Bashir is that Ari Folman put in real footage at the end to say, “But remember. It’s not an animation. People died. It’s real violence.”

MS: Will you do more collaborative work?

RM: It was a very interesting experience to go to talk to people. But as much as it was fun working with Igal, it immediately affected the style of the drawing in a way I cannot control. Life is so short and there is so little time and everything takes me so long, and there are so many stories I want to do. I know there are people out there who can make a book a year. Unfortunately, I am not this kind of person.