Israel’s Contradictions, Drawn With a Palette of Primary Colors

By Gal Beckerman

The story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rarely told with much economy. Just the question of where to begin can stop things before they start. 1917? 1948? 1967? But the Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan managed to grasp what often gets left out entirely — the emotional truth — and did so in a simple 11-page comic.

“Jamilti,” first published in 2003, begins with a woman and her boorish fiancé fighting over his refusal to participate in wedding preparations. Soon they’re in a taxi, and the fiancé is commiserating with the driver, who — and this is not atypical for Israel — is assuming the role of the country’s prime minister: “We should just bomb them all to hell.” The woman, disgusted, demands to be let out. And just as she slams the car door, a nearby cafe explodes in a burst of fire and glass. She runs toward the blast, where she encounters a horrific sight. A man is lying in a pool of his own blood, both his legs blown off. She takes off her hair tie and makes a tourniquet, then gently cradles his head. She performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, though in Modan’s close-up it appears more like a passionate kiss. The man opens his eyes and says one word, “Jamilti.” By the next page the woman is sitting at home with her shirtless fiancé when she learns from the television that the dying man was actually the suicide bomber. “What does ‘Jamilti’ mean?” she asks. “My beautiful one,” her fiancé tells her. We tighten on her face as she sips her coffee, eyes closed, and they return to talking about their wedding plans.

What is that kiss? A hatred that has become a kind of codependency. The corruption of all things, even love, by violence. The stupid certainty of politics and ideology versus the pathos of seeing a dying fellow human. The whole bloody conflict.

Modan began making comics in the early 1990s, almost single-handedly bringing the form to Israel, where, she says, even Tintin and Superman were strangers. At one point she helmed a Hebrew version of Mad magazine. Her three graphic novels, including her most recent, TUNNELS (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95), out this month, have all been published in English and have established her as her country’s most renowned comics artist.

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    “Jamilti” was a turning point for Modan. She had previously resisted depicting the particularity of Israeli reality. Born in 1966, she is part of a post-Six Day War generation that, at least among her cohort of Tel Aviv urbanites, has drifted far from the unquestioning Zionist fervor of her parents and grandparents. “I love Israel and I also hate Israel,” she said in a 2013 interview.

    All Israeli artists confront a burden of expectation that their work must not only address politics, but also contain some kind of answer key to the country’s existential dilemmas. This, of course, can be a killer to creativity and a road to propaganda. The greatest of Israel’s writers have found ways out of this trap, and revealed their greatness in the process. This is true as well of Modan.

    Her first full-length work, EXIT WOUNDS (Drawn & Quarterly, paper, $19.95), remains her most affecting. Like all her comics, it is brightly colored and perfectly paced. Modan’s books often read like mystery novels, filled with strange characters and missing people and a protagonist — always an awkward but determined woman — on some kind of quest. “Exit Wounds” unfolds after a suicide bombing in a bus station. One of the victims has remained unidentified, and a tall young woman named Numi (nicknamed “the Giraffe”) is convinced that it is her older, secret lover who died. She finds his estranged son, Koby, a surly taxi driver, and the two commence an investigation of sorts — an uncomfortable one, as he hates his neglectful father and she is grieving her loss. Their search takes them to various corners of the country as they collect clues, and the plot and their relationship deepen.

    The story is dark but Modan’s palette resembles a bag of Skittles. Her people have the pleasing cartoonishness of Hergé’s characters — when they shed tears, they appear as waterfalls cascading down their round cheeks — and her pages follow his ligne claire style. Each panel is full of movement, which has at least partly to do with an unusual process she has developed for her graphic novels: She “casts” actors whom she photographs playing out the story and then uses the images as a basis for her drawings.

    It would be a distraction to locate the Israeliness of Modan’s books in their settings — in the suicide bombings and cursing taxi drivers. Rather, it’s in their recurring themes: missing fathers, the search for a sense of self, inherited trauma. These are of course universal concerns, but they ping-pong aggressively in such an unsettled country, one that doesn’t even have clear borders. The same preoccupations show up as well in Modan’s second book, THE PROPERTY (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95), the story of a woman who makes a trip to Poland with her grandmother to see about recovering the family’s apartment building, lost during the war. Wandering Warsaw’s hotels and city streets, the protagonist, like Numi and Koby in “Exit Wounds,” is looking to reconstitute herself, to find the pieces of her family’s identity that history swallowed up.

    “Tunnels,” Modan’s newest book, is also her most overtly political, though at first it doesn’t appear so. We meet another agitated adventurer, a latter-day Indiana Jones with khakis and tousled black hair named Nili, the daughter of a famous archaeologist intent on finishing her father’s greatest expedition: finding the ark of the covenant. It’s going to be a “treasure hunt,” she tells her young son. But by Page 55, Modan has us visually slam right into the gray concrete slabs that make up the separation wall skirting the occupied Palestinian territories. It turns out that the possible site of the ark, revealed in an ancient inscription, is on the other side, and Nili must start digging.

    Modan never stops being entertaining and drawing on genre — in this case, an absurd “Seven Samurai” plot — as Nili pulls together a motley crew for the job, including a bunch of goofy young settlers and a Palestinian man named Mahdi whom she met on childhood digs with her father. There are conflicts and subplots (including another kiss, a subversive one underground between Mahdi and Nili’s brother), and though the idea of a group of people who all want to lay claim to the same land — who bore through the earth together with pickaxes and shovels — might seem heavy-handed, Modan brings a lightness to it and escapes, as usual, any didacticism.

    Everyone has a reason for taking part in the dig. The settlers want to find the ark so that its holy powers may help them vanquish their enemies. Mahdi is trying to smuggle goods from the other side of the wall back into the territories. And Nili mostly wants to avenge her ailing father, whose discoveries were stolen from him, and bring him glory before he dies. It’s a mix of motives that leads to near disaster, but also shows the ways Modan understands her part of the world: a place that must learn to better live with the friction of competing narratives.

    “Couldn’t I suggest that we write one story from all the old stories, a story that will be bigger than all combined?” Modan writes in an afterword. “A terrible and wonderful and turbulent story full of holes and contradictions? One that people can live inside.”

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