Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan won America’s top honor in comics this summer. Her illustrated novels depict everyday life in Israel, which to her, is the backdrop for extremely unusual events.Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan is in a very good place right now – and that is no easy feat for anyone in her chosen profession. This summer, Modan’s book Exit Wounds won the American comics industry’s top honor, the Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album. She’s been named a Chosen Artist by the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation (IcExcellence) for three years running, and she’s busy turning out installments of her new 20-part comic series, The Murder of the Terminal Patient, specially commissioned by the New York Times Magazine.
While mulling over ideas for her next project, she says, “I’ve finally reached a point where I can concentrate on one thing at a time. That’s really fun,” she tells ISRAEL21c.
Like other Israeli cartoonists of her generation, Modan grew up in a country that was practically comics-less. “There were very few comics in Israel,” Modan recalls of growing up in the early 70s. “Very little, sometimes in children’s magazines. I think Israel was the only country in the world where Tin-Tin and Superman didn’t succeed, though there were some attempts to translate them.”
Without knowing it, little Rutu started drawing comics. In a TV interview with the UK’s British Broadcast Corporation (BBC), she recalled a kindergarten sketch of a girl she didn’t like, being attacked by a giant cockroach: “I liked to create things that were a combination of text and graphics… my thinking is visual from the outset. But it was only at Bezalel [Academy of Art and Design], when Michel Kichka opened the first comics course, that I understood this is what I was meant to do. That was half an hour after the first class started.”
Caricaturist Kichka – who gained fame in the mid-70s with a popular series of posters depicting the Israeli milieu in all its hairy, overcrowded, noisy glory and now head of the Federation of Cartoonists Organization in Israel – opened his students’ eyes to the graphic novel form through underground comics like RAW magazine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
By the early 90s, the world of alternative comics was exploding, and a group of budding Israeli cartoonists, viewing the alternative world of comics as the norm rather than the exception, were ready to make their mark.
After graduating cum laude from Bezalel in 1992, Modan got a job co-editing the Hebrew edition of MAD Magazine. The absence of a comics culture also played in her favor — Modan never suffered at the hands of an old boys network: “Because I came from a world where there was no tradition of comics, I didn’t know that it was considered a man’s profession – only when I began going abroad did I realize that being a woman who drew comics attracted curiosity.”
In 1995, she was a founding member of Actus Tragicus, or Actus Independent Comics, a collective and independent Israeli publishing house for alternative comics artists: “At the time, Israeli newspapers were becoming more open to comics – although there’s still no newspaper that publishes funny pages – and we were five artists who wanted to publish these sorts of stories,” she says. “So we decided to put out an annual anthology, and we decided to do it in English because we realized from the start that Hebrew wouldn’t have enough of an audience. It was successful enough artistically – what they called ‘critically acclaimed’ – to keep it going.”
Modan also began doing comic strips for the Israeli newspapers Yedioth Ahronoth and Ma’ariv and illustrations for The New Yorker, Le Monde, The New York Times and many other publications. In 1996, Modan and prominent Israeli author Etgar Keret collaborated on a graphic novel, No One Said It Would Be Easy, and a children’s book, Dad Runs Away With The Circus, in 2004.
She also began winning awards in Israel and abroad. In 1997 she was named Young Artist of the year by the Israel Ministry of Culture. She is a four-time winner of Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award, from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004). In 1999, Modan and the other Actus artists were final nominees for the Eisner Awards for the Best Comics Anthology of the Year. In 2001, she won the Andersen Award for Illustration from the International Board on Books for Young People in Basel, Switzerland, and was a final nominee for the Best Story and for the Promising New Talent Award of the Ignatz Awards for the finest American alternative comics. In 2006, she received Israel’s Ministry of Science, Culture & Sport Award.
It was through Actus that Canadian publishing house Drawn & Quarterly contacted Modan and commissioned Exit Wounds, the story of Koby, a disenfranchised young Tel Aviv cabdriver, who suddenly finds himself embroiled in a search for a long-absent father who may or may not be the unidentified victim of a terrorist attack. Exit Wounds, which came out in 2007, received awards and excellent reviews. To date, it has been published in nine languages, with Hebrew due out this fall.
Also in 2007, Modan was invited by The New York Times magazine to draw a monthly column, entitled Mixed Feelings. Humorous, sometimes sardonic, the series was also very personal with Modan revealing bits of her family history and ‘slice of life’ insight into day-to-day Israeli reality. Modan’s second New York Times series, The Murder of the Terminal Patient, like Exit Wounds, is set in Tel Aviv and has the guise of a murder mystery. In some ways, she says, the non-autobiographical works are even more intimate.
“I know it seems like ["Mixed Feelings"] is personal because the stories are told in the first person and they’re about my relatives. But someone who has a bit of respect for his family can’t tell the most personal stuff. The murder mystery is an excuse for telling a very personal story. For example, my mother died of cancer 15 year ago and a lot of what goes on in the hospital [in "Terminal Patient"] is what I experienced – but I couldn’t tell it as is. And there are things in “Exit Wounds” as well, that are stories from my life and from other people”s too. I think it’s that way with any author.”
The mother of two, Modan and her husband currently reside in England. Has exposure to Diaspora Jewish culture made her more aware of grand tradition of Jewish humor, and her part in it? “I certainly feel Jewish. I grew up in a traditional Polish-Jewish immigrant family and it’s part of my culture, but what that means is hard to say. My humor could be women’s humor, too. But humor is definitely part of my worldview, how I experience things. It’s an absolutely necessary spice or – more than that – a magnifying glass through which to see the world.”