Rutu Modan, Jamilti and Other Stories (Drawn and Quarterly 2008) $19.95 Hardcover
By Matt Dube
When Drawn and Quarterly published Rutu Modan’s graphic novel Exit Wounds last year, it made the Israeli cartoonist into something of an alternative comics star in the United States. Exit Wounds, the story of a young man drawn into searching for his philandering father by one of the older man’s newest conquests, appeared on a number of significant 2007 “Best of Lists,” and Modan was awarded an Eisner this past year for the “best new graphic album.” Now D & Q have published a collection of seven of Modan’s short stories in the collection Jamiliti and Other Stories, giving us a chance to appreciate more fully Modan’s talents and interests.
Short stories in comics suffer the same neglect short stories face in traditional literary circles, seen as ancillary to longer works, whether its the graphic novel or novel. This neglect of the short form is even more pronounced in comics, where the nature of serial publication means that a reader can go through his or her whole reading life without reinvest his or her attention and affections in a new cast of characters, a new narrative ground zero. The risk of this neglect, though, is that it might lead us to overlook a substantial talent, like that Modan shows in her collection. It’s true that the title story and Modan’s celebrated graphic novel both concern that aftermath of a suicide bombing, but the way that material is treated is very different: in Exit Wounds, it was an invitation to adventure, of a sort, but in “Jamiliti,” it triggers analysis that leads to the end of a love affair. The range of stories collected in this volume allows us to get a greater sense of Modan, to show what is really in her as a writer as opposed to what the terms are of a particular story. She has a deft hand for comedy, especially the black comedy of complicated adult relationships. So, in maybe the collections most successful piece, “Homecoming,” a woman’s present day romance is threatened by what might be the return of her husband after eight years in Lebanese captivity, flying to her in the cockpit of a Lebanese warplane! Or maybe it really is a Lebanese suicide bomber, coming to destroy a kibbutz mostly populated by senior citizens. Whatever the truth, the story forces an inward shrug of stunned disbelief. Modan’s stories braid together the really terrifying and the unsettlingly unreal in ways that feel like her signature, her style, her peculiar and satisfyingly idiosyncratic vision of the world.
There are other elements, of course, that we might note as characteristic of her style: many of her stories feature medical services in one way or another, whether characters are ambulance drivers, or as surgeons, or the setting is a hospital. Likewise, even though the style of representation in these stories varies widely, from the crude anatomy of “Energy Blockage” to a clair-ligne style like that seen in “Your Number One Fan” and familiar to readers of Exit Wounds, Modan always dresses her characters with care. However distorted or unreal the bodies might look, the clothes the characters wear are always telling. It’s an added treat, then, that the story “King of the Lillies,” about a plastic surgeon who is part-Pygmalion, comes with a paper doll you can cut out and dress how you’d like.
Modan, I hope you see, shows an equal interest in the visual and the verbal; her vision applies to plotting and her visual choices. In this collection, that interest in the visual lends the stories different color palettes, from the speckled water color tones of “Jamiliti” to the flat colors of “Your Number One Fan” to the almost smudged black and white lines of “Bygone.” Poe said that the short story peculiar strength was in its ability to shock, something we felt most clearly when we came to the end of the story, and Modan’s endings deserve attention on a visual as well as a verbal or plotted axis. In many of the stories, Modan exploits that kind of compressed snap that Poe looks for in the successful story ending. Visually, this means that Modan recurs to using what film scholars would call “the reverse shot” as a closing image: she will use the final page to establish a focal point of view, a character who serves as our eyes, and then, in the final panel, she will break that shot, to disrupt the visual rhythm either for a reaction, as is the case in the tart put-down at the end of “The Panty Killer,” or else the story will stay behind as the focal character moves away, as is the case in “Bygone” which allows Modan to extend the story past the boundary of the page, leaving us with a sustained lyrical note. The range of Modan’s skills as a storyteller and visual artist should establish her as a serious comics creator, one who has a distinctive voice, one who can draw upon varied opportunities in terms of how to structure and present a story. These skills transcend any single story, long or short, and can be best recognized in a collection like this one.