The Comics of Rutu Modan

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Kevin Haworth, The Comics of Rutu Modan: War, Love, and Secrets (University of Missippi Press, 2019). $30 pb.

Kevin Haworth’s The Comics of Rutu Modan begins with a chronology. Moreover, that chronology begins in 1882, which Haworth tells us is the “First Aliyah (immigration to the land of Israel) begins. An estimated 25,000-35,000 Jews immigrate to Palestine, many of them fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe” (xiii). It is fitting that this timeline of Rutu Modan’s story starts with the story of Israel, because this book is really only partly about Modan herself. It is a story of an industry, of the development of a national identity, and of the woman who threw the Israeli comics scene on her back and carried it from humble beginnings to the burgeoning market we know today.

Modan herself was born in 1966, which anyone familiar with Israeli history recognizes as a pivotal moment. Between June 5th and June 10th, 1967 Israel fought what is usually called the Six-Day War. This war was unlike those in Israel’s past (or its future) because in this war Israel attacked first, catching Egypt off-guard. For a week in June Israel fought not only Egypt, but Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and when the war ended on June 10th and the dust settled, Israel had more than doubled the size of its borders, claiming control of East Jerusalem, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the entire Sinai Peninsula. Many of those place names will sound familiar to those even passingly familiar with the contemporary Israel-Palestine situation, as they are the areas still contested today.

This is the Israel into which Modan was born. She grew up in a time and a place where war was a routine occurrence, and where the memorialization of the military dead occupied the national imagination. Modan entered her compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Force in 1984, and in 1987 the Palestinian uprising known now as the First Intifada began. In 1995, just days after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Modan joined Yirmi Pinkus to create the Actus Tragicus comic collective, which published its first comics in 1996. No analysis of Modan’s work can ignore the militarized society in which she was formed, because to understand her groundbreaking first graphic novel Exit Wounds you have to understand why Israelis of Modan’s generation are often inured to the banality of war. But in this book Haworth goes a step further by weaving together not only Modan’s career and the culture of war that shaped it, but also the ways in which Modan forced the existence of an Israeli comics scene on a society that seemed, for a long time, uninterested in the art form.

Haworth has structured his text in a way that allows the past and the future to bookend his look at Modan’s career. His first chapter, “The Tradition of No Tradition,” depicts the bleak wasteland that was Israeli comics before Modan. He situates Modan as an artist who grew up with European and North American influences because there were so few home-grown examples of sequential art in her childhood. The second chapter, “Actus Tragicus and the Making of an Israeli Comics Scene,” follows Modan as she and a handful of other young Israeli artists attempt to create an audience for comics. Modan was part of the disastrous attempt to create an Israeli edition of the popular American humor magazine MAD. The project failed in a matter of months, because by the 1990s MAD had already lost its edge, even in America, and that style of humor simply did not interest international audiences. Modan and Pinkus (who had also worked on the MAD debacle) still wanted to work together, but they knew that the MAD-style satire, “critiquing the political scandals of the moment,” was not for them. “They wanted to … create visually and narratively complex comics. The problem they faced: Israel had no infrastructure to support the kind of work they wanted to produce” (34). Actus Tragicus becomes that infrastructure, not only for Modan herself but also for scores of other Israeli artists who want to make comics.

Influenced by, and to some extent following the model of Art Speigelman and the underground comix scene of the 1970s, Actus Tragicus was trying to create an identity for a national art form. If Israelis were not interested in MAD, what were they interested in? Haworth describes Modan as “like most, if not all, prominent Israeli comics artists … , secular, a subject position that foregrounds Israeli national identity over religious identity and has its own complex relationship to Jewishness” (6). Modan realized that Israeli comics were going to need to speak to Israeli sensibilities if Actus Tragicus was going to survive, and for the fifteen years before it was dissolved in 2010, that is what she did. The time she spent honing her voice to speak a uniquely Israeli truth is what made her debut novel Exit Wounds such a phenomenon in 2007. 

Exit Wounds, as Haworth outlines in Chapter 3, follows a soldier in the IDF and a young man, strangers when the book begins, as they embark on a quest to determine if his father was one of the victims of a suicide bombing in a café. The dispassionate, matter-of-fact approach to the realities of Israeli life in the 21st century, and the violence that mars the everyday existence of Israelis, forced audiences in other countries to recognize that the perception of Israelis as maudlin, scared, scarred, and traumatized by war was entirely false. They are resilient and adaptive and can make jokes in the face of extreme tragedy, according to Modan. 

Fittingly Haworth’s 4th chapter is called “After Exit Wounds,” because Modan’s career really can be divided into “before” and “after.” After Exit Wounds she returned her attention to growing and shaping the Israeli scene, focusing on titles for children. Actus Tragicus and Exit Wounds were decidedly adult in content, and graphic novels are often seen as being more “grown-up” than serialized comics, but young people remain the primary consumers of sequential art, so Modan returned to serialized comics and titles aimed at children and adolescents. That is what gave her the space and time to write her second novel, The Property, which Haworth describes in Chapter 5. The Property carries Modan’s signature art style and muted color scheme through from Exit Wounds (although I would argue with more blues and greens to Exit Wounds’ pinks and oranges), and applies them to a story about intergenerational memory and the Holocaust. Although The Property has not been as successful as Exit Wounds, it solidified Modan’s place as the Grand Dame of Israeli comics, despite having done all this before age 50. 

Haworth ends with a look to the future, and Chapter 6 is called, “The Return of Uri Cadduri and the Future of Israeli Comics,” and while his guess is as good as anyone’s where this nascent industry will go, the idea that Modan will continue to be the driving force behind it for decades to come seems right. Haworth’s narrative is disjointed at times, as the book seems to struggle with whether it is about Modan, or Israel, or both. Haworth’s instinct that you cannot tell the story of one without the other is correct, and while it may have been possible to weave the two together in a slightly more harmonious fashion, he has nevertheless given us a book that looks at an important figure in comics, and has situated her within the extremely complex social and political environment that made her, and her art, what they are.