In Israel — a country almost entirely bereft of homegrown graphic novels — Rutu Modan is a one-woman industry. Her new book, “The Property,” published in both Hebrew and English, follows Mica, a young Israeli woman on a trip to Warsaw with her grandmother Regina, ostensibly to track down and reclaim the property owned by Regina’s family before she left for Palestine, the Nazis invaded Poland and all was lost. But Regina’s motives soon turn out to be more complicated, as a decades-old love affair is slowly revealed, with startling repercussions for Mica.
Modan, who is in her 40s, brown-haired and blue-eyed, spoke with me on a Saturday afternoon at a café near her home in central Tel Aviv. “The Property” is the latest in a long line of work. In fact, she was well on track to becoming a cartoonist before she was even aware that such a medium existed. She started drawing at the age of two, realizing only in retrospect that her pictures always had characters in them, and told stories. “But,” she said, “there were almost no comic books around — a Tintin book here, a Tex book there — and so I never understood that this was considered a separate medium. For me it was just the way I expressed myself.”
During her military service, which she spent as a youth counselor, a friend introduced her to the work of Edward Gorey, whose grotesque, faux-Victorian style was an early influence. Later, as a student at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design — where she now teaches — Modan encountered Art Spiegelman’s Raw magazine. Her mind was blown. “I fell in love,” she said. “I knew that this was what I wanted to do.” Two months later she had a weekly strip in a local Jerusalem paper; the strip was fairly experimental and populated by oddball characters, and it whet her appetite for longer and more intricate stories. She was a founding member of the avant-garde comic artists collective Actus Tragicus, and collaborated closely with the writer Etgar Keret, with whom she shares a taste for the macabre, on a number of projects.
As Modan’s thematic scope — and the sheer length of her work — grew, she refined her draftsmanship, incorporating a realistic style more reminiscent of Hergé’s Tintin than of Gorey’s ghoulish drawings. A full-blown graphic-novel was only a matter of time. “Exit Wounds,” published in 2007, was the bittersweet tale of a taxi driver on a search to uncover whether or not the unidentified body of a terrorist attack victim was that of his estranged father. A breakout hit, it won the Eisner Award from the comic industry for Best Graphic Album and was translated into 12 languages.
As in “Exit Wounds,” where deeply tragic — and unique — circumstances served as the backdrop for an exploration of universal themes, “The Property” boldly takes on Big Themes — the Holocaust, efforts to reclaim long-lost property and what Poland means to Israelis, to name a few — only to use them as a launch pad for a sometimes scathing, but always loving, examination of family.