When the artists Rutu Modan and Yirmi Pinkus formed the publishing house Actus Tragedus in 1995, it was, in Pinkus’s words, “an effort to find ourselves readers outside of Israel” for their comics and illustrations. Actus published books in English, an act that Modan and Pinkus said was seen at the time as snobbish and unpatriotic, even anti-Zionist.
But for Modan, publishing in English found her an international audience for her two graphic novels, “Exit Wounds” — published in the early 2000s, a love story whose themes reflect the impact of the Second Intifada on Israeli society — and “The Property,” which takes a young Israeli woman and her grandmother to Warsaw, ostensibly in order to pursue the restitution of lost property.
“In Israel — a country almost entirely bereft of homegrown graphic novels — Rutu Modan is a one-woman industry,” Tal Kra-Oz wrote when he interviewed Modan for the Forward in 2013.
“I wrote what I consider to be my first graphic novel when I was in second grade during the Yom Kippur War,” Modan said at London’s Jewish Book Week earlier this month. “I grew up in a hospital because my parents were both doctors. During the Yom Kippur War, soldiers were coming back from the front, with the helicopters landing in my neighborhood.” Her drawings were generic, rather than of that war Modan was too young to comprehend, but they depicted “dead people and wounded people, as seen through the eyes of a child.”
Miss Lasko-Gross’s shrewd, poignant “Henni” (Z2 Comics) arrives at a charged moment for cartoons and religion. In the graphic novel — a marked departure from Lasko-Gross’ acclaimed autobiographical comics “Escape from ‘Special’” and “A Mess of Everything” — the female lead abandons her village in a quest for knowledge. The blind followers, cynical leaders, and “disruptors” she meets along the way enact a sly parable for the chains of religious absolutism — and the book sounds a call to reject mindless submission to dogma of any kind.
Lasko-Gross’s painterly style and unflinching eye make “Henni” as hard-hitting as it is heartrending. And like all of her work, it avoids easy answers to complex questions. The artist spoke to the Forward from her home and studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Full Disclosure: Lasko-Gross is one of the artists in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” the traveling exhibition which I curated, and the Forward sponsored.
Michael Kaminer: Resistance to religion is at the center of “Henni”; has the Charlie Hebdo attack galvanized your feelings around the message and the medium?
By Rutu Modan, translated by Jessica Cohen
Drawn & Quarterly, 232 pages, $24.95
The past takes many forms in Rutu Modan’s graphic novel “The Property.” There is Regina, an elderly woman returning to Poland from Israel for the first time in over 60 years; overzealous re-enactors encountered by her granddaughter Mica on the streets of Warsaw; slides of far-off nations that Roman, a novelist, looks at as he recalls his youth; and a graphic novel with its roots in Polish history being written by Tomasz, who becomes smitten with Mica while working as a tour guide.
The premise of the book is ostensibly simple: Mica and Regina are visiting Warsaw to inquire about property owned by their family that was confiscated during the war. But nearly every character has secrets, desires, and information that they withhold from others. The weight of history is nimbly evoked here, but Modan’s most impressive feat is numerous plotlines using art, dialogue and language.
Characters in “The Property” communicate in Hebrew, English and Polish, but few speak all three, leading to isolated revelations in public settings and confessions in unlikely locations. Modan uses different text styles for each of these languages; in scenes from the perspective of specific characters, unintelligible languages are rendered as a kind of scribble. This can easily lead to comic misunderstandings or jarring revelations, and Modan makes use of both.
Earlier, Boaz Yakin wrote about empathy and conflict. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
In New York City, in our Upper West Side apartment, my little brother and I watched my father act out the events and characters of his youth in British Mandate Palestine. He was a pantomime by trade and a teacher of physical acting, and when he told a story he didn’t just relate it with words— he performed it with every muscle in his face, with every physical gesture in his vast repertoire. And even then, though I thrilled and laughed at his exploits, I suspected that perhaps there was something exaggerated, slightly of the grotesque, in his portrayals of the multifarious denizens of that remote, ancient city; a city on the one hand so tiny and provincial, on the other so vast and timeless and redolent of eternity. A city against whose harsh, stony face the human dramas enacted by my father stood out in sharp, colorful relief, like a commedia dell’arte performance. Tragic, hilarious, and surely daubed with a huge dollop of fancy.
Boaz Yakin’s most recent graphic novel, “Jerusalem: A Family Portrait,” illustrated by Nick Bertozzi, will be published later this month. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It seems to me that it’s hard for a feeling, empathetic person to know where to place himself in the midst of conflict. Since most people possess some degree of feeling and empathy, in order to live with themselves they don’t necessarily divorce themselves from these senses as they make decisions as to how and where to direct them. These decisions are determined by a host of factors — different in each individual and situation.
The bravest among us, of whom there are few, courageously allow their empathetic sense to extend outward in a manner that generously encompasses a wide variety of people, perspectives and feelings that might be in violent, seemingly intractable opposition to one another — and even more courageously allow their practical behavior and decisions to be strongly influenced by that understanding.
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