07 March 2008

Love in the Time of Suicide Bombings

Exit Wounds
By Rutu Modan
d + q (Drawn & Quarterly)
Pages 172
Rs 690

Rutu Modan is an Israeli illustrator and comic artist whose work has appeared in the New York Times. Her frames seem to be drawn and coloured by a HergĂ© (Tintin’s creator) touched by the chic neurosis of our times. The lines are precise and unbroken, giving her frames a buttoned-down neat look; the colours are muted yet evocative.

Yet Modan’s world is seen through a wide-angle lens that is edgy with distortions. Exit Wounds, her first full-length graphic novel, is a gritty, hard-bitten love story complete with sex, as well as a novel of quest. Two young Israelis are looking for closure over the fate of an old man both of them knew. Koby Franco, a young cabbie in Tel Aviv who resists the slightest change to his humdrum life, finds himself dragged by a headstrong, klutzy young girl Numi to the site of a recent suicide bombing at Haifa to determine whether an unidentified, unclaimed body that had been recovered from there, and now interred anonymously, was of Koby's estranged father's. Koby discovers Numi was his philanderer father's 'last' love interest before he disappeared.

An angry young man harbouring deep resentment against his father, driving the old man’s squeeze in his taxi through an Israel always-but-distantly threatened by Muslim Palestinian suicide bombers, gives the story enough angles to make it bristle with complexity. Modan is not here to make you feel comfortable. Even the sex, though graphic and detailed -- Numi inelegantly removing her panties (striped) and her subsequent pilates-like coupling, complete with a flash of pubic hair, with Koby -- is little eroticised. Modan tells a lot through her uncluttered narrative, capturing the whirl of contemporary Israeli life -- including an unforced and oblique look at how Middle East politics impacts everyday life in Israel: going by Modan's account, it does so only obliquely and distantly. In an interview to the BBC, Modan expressed her irritation at people who expect her to clarify that she had not intended to give a lecture in Middle East politics. The only political statement she has made or would ever bother to make, she said, was that Israelis should stop seeking closures -- and get on with their lives.

Modan’s unhurried pace of telling the story, combined with frames and layout that do not exert to impress but honestly communicate all this clearly and efficiently, give her graphic novel the feel of cinema veritĂ©.

A good number of more literary of the graphic novels in the West seem stuck with certain themes, like father-son relationship, adolescence traumas, and romance, which make many of them read like clones of each other; they are maudlin and common, like Craig Thompson’s overrated, weepy bulk Blankets. Also, the graphic novel has yet to achieve a compression and an inwardness -- Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan could be regarded as an exception -- to emerge as a genuine literary form, not mere illustrated novels, or worse, an early 21st century trend that will whimper out soon.

Yet the jaunty, unsentimental, clear-eyed Exit Wounds is an antidote to Blankets and its clones, and hence serves this form, which is at once literature and art, well. Like a piece of art or a well produced book it is very possessable. Indian graphic novelists and publishers should respectively envy and hang their heads in shame at the thoughtful editing and slick production values that have produced this very readable, browsable, clutchable volume.

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