Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why Rutu Modan Matters

Here's the reason I still read graphic novels, Rutu Modan's The Property.

The term, "graphic novel" is evidently almost as old as I am.  That half century however doesn't really describe much.  I don't remember hearing the phrase  until around the time of Art Spiegelman's Maus, or maybe when Alan Moore's The Watchmen appeared in hardcovers -- say, late Eighties, or early Nineties.  Spiegelman's may have been the first graphic novel I remember being described as such by mainstream reviewers and the general public.  It has really only been since the turn of this century that I've seen graphic novels become a category in general bookstores.

I dislike the term as it is now used; to mean any damned picture book presumably intended for adults.  (There is of course now a sub-genre of kids' graphic novels, like Jeff Smith's Bone, but let that pass.)  But what if not "graphic novel"?  The recent reissue of Lynn Ward's wordless novels by The Library of America reminds us that, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. That's ancestry though, not a very useful name for the contemporary form, usually.  Will Eisner's A Contract With God, from 1978 (and later reissued) is widely considered to be the first graphic novel of the modern era.  I've read it, enjoyed it, but even here; it's a collection of short stories, not a novel.   It isn't told in chapters but in "issues," originally each was presumably an individual comic book, and each is a discrete story -- related by setting and period, etc. but, still not a novel.  It has the seriousness of theme, and the ambition in both the writing and the graphics, to deserve something better than the term "comic book," already a misnomer, but not perhaps this modern hippogriff, "graphic novel."

Seems we're stuck with it now, so graphic novel it is.

I've been reading this stuff for a long time now.  I enjoy it, the best of it anyway.  I must say, however that for every Fun Home or Louis Riel, there has been, a lot, and I do mean a lot, of just -- stuff.  Not every story benefits from a pictorial telling.  Not every literary classic requires a retelling in comics.  Not every cartoonist is meant to take on a longer, narrative form.  Not every sketchbook needs to be made into a book.  That said, I also think we are lucky enough to be living in something of a golden age.  So many really beautiful, and interesting graphic narratives!  So many genuinely good books. 

I don't mean to review the whole history of the form. Honestly I don't.  The subject tends to get me a bit exercised, is all.  As a fan, I do get frustrated by all the bad or indifferent stuff being published as graphic novels. More to the point just here, not in the whole length of my adult reading life have I seen a more consistently and absurdly inflated criticism than that with which graphic novels, and comics in general have increasingly come to be encumbered. What a lot of bullshit of late has been wrapped in the funny papers!

I hesitate to contribute to the pile.

And then, a graphic novel so superb appears unexpectedly among the new arrivals, and I forget my impatience with all the pretension and inanity on the subject now cluttering up scholarship and the Internet and the Arty Comics section at the bookstore where I work, and I just want to spread the good word.

Rutu Modan's first graphic novel, War Wounds, won the 2008 Eisner Award.  (Joe Sacco was a big fan too.)  It's the story of two unlikely allies: a Tel Aviv cabdriver and his father's Israeli army girlfriend, investigating the father's disappearance and possible death in a bombing at a train station.  It deserved the award.  The mystery was compelling, the characters and their relationship was believable and poignant, and both the narrative and setting were handled with a rich but beautifully restrained taste all too uncommon to the form.  I loved it.

Other than a few things in anthologies, it was the only example of Modan's work I'd ever read, until the publication last year of The Property, by Drawn and Quarterly.

Modan's story this time also has a reassuring reality to it, as well as a central mystery, though this time the mood is more reflective and less frantic.  A young woman accompanies her grandmother to Poland to reclaim the titular property the family lost in the War. Again, there is a love story here, two in fact, one clouded with both nostalgia and regret, the other also, in a complimentary way complicated by history.

History, in many senses being the inevitable preoccupation of both the characters and their author here, this book, even more than the last, has a richness of reference rare in graphic narratives.  This is not an artist just writing about being an artist; this is not a woman who only looks up from her work to maybe glance out of a studio window.  Place is real.  Her characters travel, not just literally through her story, on foot or in a taxicab, a plane or a tour-bus,  but across fully realized space, as well as through time and memory.  These characters are not, as so many, less mature, more confessional graphic memoirs for instance can feel, immune to external realities like weather, money, a head-cold, but neither is this the kind of digressive meditation that justifies slack story-telling as more "real" for being all but incidental to the artistic enterprise.

Modan's graphic style can be incredibly detailed, particularly in grounding her scenes in what looks and feels like a very particular space and architecture, and she obviously understands how much can be communicated in framing the information and the emotion she wishes to convey.  The effect is obviously cinematic, but nonetheless charmingly drawn for that.

The artist also understands, and quite impishly plays with the irrelevance of words to much of the story she's telling.  The confusions of conducting a conversation for example, and a flirtation, however imperfectly in more than one language offers an opportunity to a certain wry comment on not just the events described, but also on the conventions of cartooning.

The pages above are also representative of the brilliant discrimination of the artist's line and color.  The faces have more than a suggestion of Herge's Tin Tin about them.  And not unlike that master of his craft, just look how much information and emotion she can show, how efficiently she covers exposition and mood in the deceptively simple telegraphy of features reduced (and amplified) into just half a dozen dots and dashes. Note the sophistication of her semaphore of warm colors and a foregrounded conversation to say everything her characters can't.

This is not only a visual narrative of a real sophistication, but also something far more rare in a graphic novel, genuine humanity and honest emotion.

What makes Rutu Modan's work so satisfying to a man who has spent a substantial part of his adult life reading serious literature -- a term that should not be translated to mean dull novels -- is that, like many of the best contemporary graphic novels, Rutu Modan's work is not yet another exercise in graphic reference.  I am reminded of earlier comics artists, but this is not a comic book.  In large part, this is because, unlike the great master, Herge, Modan's work is not of necessity confined to telling adventure stories for children.  For all the astonishment and delight still to be discovered in the pages of Tin Tin, the adult reader, if he or she is being honest, must sooner or later admit to at least a grudging acknowledgement that as literature, and as humor Herge's books never grew up.  There's a great charm to that, and a certain boredom as well.  Clearly, here is a contemporary artist interested in more adult preoccupations, by which I obviously do not just mean sex and relationships.  Modan's characters are presented in relation not just to one another, as I've already said, but to history, religion, politics, geography, and yes, the means and the need of storytelling.

I can't remember the last time I read a graphic novel this satisfying on so many levels, or one with page after page, panel after panel crowded with such depth of feeling, and such memorable, and artful poise.

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