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.
Modan, who is of Polish descent on both sides of her family, had very little interest in Poland growing up. Like all Israelis, she knew that Poland was the land of the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But after receiving warm reactions, from Jews and non-Jews alike, to autobiographical strips featuring her almost stereotypically Polish grandmothers, she decided to explore her family’s origins. Around the same time, there was talk of retrieving lost property, something that for many years, under Communist rule, had been out of the question.
With her grandmothers long dead, Modan never went on a journey like the one portrayed in her book. Besides, she said, “my grandmothers never wanted to go back. They had no interest in seeing how the city had changed. For them it was one giant graveyard.” For Modan, “The Property” was an opportunity to imagine what such a trip might have been like. Regina, a grand Polish matriarch of the sort that has become a veritable institution in Israeli culture — an object of both ridicule and admiration — is in many ways an amalgamation of Modan’s two grandmothers.
Stemming from her ambivalence to the Holocaust-centric tours of Poland that so many Israelis take, Modan pledged that on her research trips to Warsaw she would avoid the concentration camps and memorial sites, and seek out the Poland of today. But those sites quickly caught up with her. On her first visit to Warsaw, her younger sister suggested a hip-looking café she’d spotted in a guidebook. “We took a cab there,” Modan recounted, “and discovered that the café was right in the heart of the old Jewish ghetto.” They chatted with an Israeli couple that warmly recommended a visit to the Majdanek camp, “because it’s much scarier than Auschwitz.” That line found its way into the book.
The more Modan learned, the more Poland, and Israelis’ perception of it, fascinated her. “We are angrier with the Poles than they are with the Germans,” she said. “The Germans share our version of what happened, and that makes it easier to move on.” But the Polish narrative was completely different: “They play down their history of anti-Semitism and cooperation with the Nazis, which are the main things we remember about them. They view themselves as the victims, and that makes it that much harder for us as Jews, as Israelis, to get their story.” Tomasz, a cartoonist who befriends Mica in the book, is at work on a comic-book retelling of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, a subject of national pride, while Mica, like most Israelis, is only familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. Despite the different narratives, Modan felt comfortable in Warsaw, which reminded her of the Tel Aviv of her childhood. “But I felt no nostalgia there,” she said. “I have no trouble giving up Poland, it isn’t my lost homeland. But perhaps that’s because I’m not a very nostalgic person.”
The book’s epigraph is a quote by Modan’s mother: “With family, you don’t have to tell the whole truth and it’s not considered lying.” Modan says that her family’s secrets inspired her story. Her maternal grandfather abandoned the family when her mother was very young, and growing up, Modan had never met him, until, when she was 13, she attended a family wedding. “We were standing by the buffet and suddenly my mom pointed out a man and said, ‘You see him, that’s my father.’ After my mom introduced us, he nodded and walked off. That was the one time I saw him. It was a defining moment for me, because it was then that I realized that blood relations can sometimes be meaningless. That a family member loving you is in no way a given.” Modan said she had no qualms about exposing family secrets in her work because, she said with a smile, her relatives usually have trouble recognizing themselves.
There is a rare humanness to her characters that Modan says she can’t take full credit for. After storyboarding her book, she hired local actors to play out the scenes. The actors’ body language was incredibly helpful in conveying subtleties, particularly in a medium where facial expressions are usually limited to a few basic emotions. Dvora Kedar, the octogenarian who played the part of Regina, gave a particularly powerful performance. Kedar is beloved by Israelis for her role in the hit ’70s film “Lemon Popsicle,” in which she portrayed what was to become the quintessential Polish mother in Israeli cinema.
These days, Modan is on a “vacation from creativity.” She said the year she spent working on the 220-page book felt more like two, because of the 12-hour days she spent working on it. She is hopeful that despite the book’s specificity, readers around the world will be able to understand. After all, she said, “Everyone has grandmothers. These sorts of relationships, that kind of nostalgia for the past, the drive to get rich quick — are things everyone can relate to. Questions about loss and how we remember lost loved ones are universal.”
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer and law student living in Jerusalem.