“Everyone is responsible for the explosion.”

A conversation with artist Rutu Modan about her 2020 graphic novel 'Tunnels', storytelling in comics, and the relationship between truth and ideology.

Rutu Modan’s books should be read at least twice. After devouring it for the first time, one has to turn back the pages and go over the main events again, to fully appreciate what transpired and the complexity of Modan’s deft touch . It’s only after a third or fourth reading, though, that the reader can focus fully on issues like pace, movement depicted on the page, the relationship between the text and the printed image, and other issues unique to the graphic novel .
Modan, who is 55, has won the Will Eisner Award twice, for her two previous graphic novels Exit Wounds (2008, translated by Noah Stollman) and The Property (2013, translated by Jessica Cohen). She has created two comic serials for the New York Times; and a collection of her short comics were published in 2008’s Jamiliti and Other Stories. Modan has also illustrated over a dozen children’s book, including one she wrote herself (Maya Makes a Mess). She is a co-founder of the Actus Tragicus group, which revitalized the Israeli graphic novel scene in the 1990s.

It was concerning my third and fourth readings of her latest graphic novel, Tunnels (Keter, 2020), that I went to speak with Modan one afternoon last December, at her studio in the Minshar School in Tel Aviv. After exchanging several text messages and going up and down stairwells and corridors, an unremarkable side door opened onto a colorful and richly detailed space, not unlike a vivid double-spread page of Tunnels, which will be published in English in October by Drawn and Quarterly. Our conversation, however, began at a more fundamental level of her work.

JF: This may be the most banal of questions, but what comes first, the text or the image?

RM: One must start with the text. Even in silent comics. Once you tell yourself “I am about to draw a tree,” the text is already there. Unless one is painting an abstract work, but there are no abstract comics.

JF: This means you first write the entire text and then begin to draw?

RM: Yes. However, I already know that this is a text for a comic book, so it is modified to serve that goal. I take into account that it is going to be drawn.

JF: Are you are already thinking in terms of panels and how the page will be structured?

RM: No, I don’t put it into frames yet. But the text is never removed from the drawing, because this is how comics work. Just as in film production, the script is written before shooting begins; but the [fact of shooting] is already present while the script is being written.

JF: So it’s not about hierarchy, but interrelations.

RM: Sure! Interrelations are what the story is all about. These parts come together, they can’t be separated. Writing might be the harder part, but drawing takes much longer. This is about the difference between writing the word tree and painting a tree. So, I first write the script.

JF: How much attention do you give to visualization during the script-writing stage?

RM: I think about it ahead of time. I know, after all, that the script will eventually be visualized. Since I have experience, I have a concept of what to write and more or less what I am aiming at. This is also true for the text. The script is shorter than some people imagine it is.

JF: I thought the standard is 25 words per panel?

RM: I do not work with rigid word quotas, because that is not a challenge. If I want a longer text, I will insert it. I am aware of how long the text is and what is meant to be drawn there. It is totally natural.

JF: You do pay a price though. If we return to the movies, speech is “cheaper” there. At the very least, it functions differently as “raw material” in film.

RM: In a comic, everything is more expensive. Every word, sentence, drawing, and frame carries a lot more weight, because there are fewer of them. Think about inflation: in a movie reel, because there are so many frames the value of each frame is different. I do not write something which is not vital to the story. It is possible that someone is just jabbering, but this has to be vital to the story. So yes, it does cost me. Not because it takes longer to tell the story, but because the reader will infer that this is important. Think about a man returning home. In the movies, we see him inserting the key, opening his front door, and stepping inside. We won’t see this in the movie and think, this is important. But if I break down the actions in a similar way in a comic, the fact the character inserted the key into the lock will be charged with added drama. It might be important to the plot—if, for example, he is breaking into a house that isn’t his. If that is not the case, then we do not need this. I always tell my students working on their comics this—we all know people go into houses through doors, you don’t need to draw that. Even if the page has a panel of a man getting off the bus and in the next panel he is home, nobody thinks that this is actually what happened. This is called the art of reduction. And it functions differently in comics than it does in the movies or on television.

JF: In Tunnels, the art of reduction does more than push the story forward. When Prof. Sarid seeks precious information from Broshi, I guess it is not by chance that when Prof. Sarid expresses his frustration, he does it in one line alone, gazing unto the reader.

RM: This is because this one line is important. This is the one place where the villain becomes human. This is why this one line is separate from the rest of the text and appears at the bottom of the page. As a close-up, without any background. The same line, if it had been used before, would have delivered a very different punch .

JF: We feel this heartbeat. Did it happen during the writing of the script?

RM: This can happen at any stage. The creation of such moments usually takes place when the script is being written. It can also happen on the storyboard level. The text is easy to alter. But in drawing, the more you progress the less of a range you have because I can’t redraw everything again. On the other hand, nothing is final until the book is printed. Things can always be changed if I see they do not work, or look differently in reality to how I perceived them in my mind. For example, I can see something doesn’t work with the pace. We think in movement because this is how reality is. So, when we freeze movement [on the panel], things can become murky if they lack their dynamic aspect, or when the pace of reading does not flow naturally. On pages 11 and 12, Nili visits the home of Abuluf [the antique collector in possession of the discovery that leads to the Ark of the Covenant], and originally this took one page. The text was good and it sat right, but it gave me the feeling of it all happening much too quickly. She visits a man she has never met before; they do not let her in, and only then he arrives and meets her? All this in one page? So to slow it down, I added more elements around the text, which was a complex thing to do. Sometimes it takes time to know how to arrange all that.

JF: Do you mean on the storyboard?

RM: The storyboard is the crucial part. Here is where I arrange this puzzle. On the one hand, I have the script, which was not written according to frames. On the other hand, there is the spread. I do not use half-pages. This is a strict limitation. Each scene must begin at the top of the page and end at the bottom. It matters to me that the reader always knows where he is. The story itself can have many surprises and include a bunch of people, but the reader must always know where he is. This, to a great extent, is done at the story-board level. Other things also add to this. The composition, the color. Take, for instance, a later scene which takes place at Abuluf’s home. Nili’s brother and Abuluf are the important characters. So Abuluf is clad entirely in black, and Nili’s brother is holding a red folder; this helps the reader find his way around, this is a very carefully planned move.

JF: I did not notice this earlier, but Nili and her brother are wearing the same clothes and are colored in the same manner as in the flashback panels, where they are depicted as children!

RM: I am very proud of the color employed for Tunnels. It is a complex book in terms of the color scheme because it has a lot of darkness in it. The issue is, how do you paint darkness in a way that gives a reader a path to see what is going on. The darkness is always relative; the reader should be able to see what is taking place without it being difficult. This is not one scene or two, there are degrees of darkness and I need to create them. This was an exercise for me, how much light can the night contain while we still see it as being dark.

JF: I didn’t even think of that while I was reading.

RM: See? It worked.

Another distinct feature of Modan’s art is how detail-oriented she is when directing her actors. In the 2013 book The Property [about an Israeli woman attempting to understand what happened to the home her family left behind in Poland before the Holocaust] she gathered the cast—including actors, colleagues, and creative partners—for ten days of directing and stills photography, with the entire text being performed.

“This process gives more than insights into how the characters look like,” Kevin Howarth wrote in the 2019 book The Comics of Rutu Modan: War, Love, and Secrets. “But also on how dialogs are divided in a panel…in such a way a graphic novel penned by one person can also be a project involving many persons.” This appeals to me, due to this system being similar to film production.

JF: Thinking about this method, I can’t help an allegedly “pragmatic” thought: if you already have a cast, a storyboard, and days on the set, don’t you ever feel like making a movie?

RM: I am not a movie-maker, I make comics. My medium is painting. Films are another medium. Even animation is another medium.

JF: Maybe this question could be asked in a more useful way if we ask what makes comics distinctive from movies?

RM: The main difference is time and format. Time, I think, is the most distinct characterization of the comic medium. It is also the most interesting. When films are created, the editor and director control time. The creator knows what the viewer will see at each moment. True, we can fast forward and rewind, but people seldom do so. When they do, it is because they have failed to understand something in the film.

You, the viewer, have no way to control how you observe the work. No way to play with its linearity. In comics, the author has less control. I do not know how much time you will spend poring over each spread, how much time you will take to examine each frame, how you will divide your attention between reading the text and seeing the art. The first thing people do with a graphic novel is something like this [Modan flips through the pages, mimicking looking through the spreads]—we read text slower than we perceive an image. So with a novel, this movement does nothing for us. But you can see a comic book.

Once you see a gun, the gun has been seen, you can’t undo it. When I began doing longer comics, I was very concerned with the question of when to place events in the plot. But in another sense it doesn’t matter. I want to insert the gun in one place, but anyone who picks up the book and flips through the pages has already seen it before he begins to read. What became interesting was how to set the pace. Given that the reader progresses at his or her own pace, how can I use the manipulation of setting my own pace?

Pace is crucial to a story. Take jokes for example. If you blow the timing of the punchline, the joke is ruined. So thinking is in order. There is a pace to be set that must take into account the fact that a reader goes at his own pace. This shapes how the storyboard is built. In the movies, you don’t see five minutes of the reel in one moment. You don’t see frame five before frame one. In comics, even when we follow the creator’s order, we never view things in a vacuum; we can always see the entire page, and I have to take that into account. If a gun is meant to arrive and I don’t want the reader to see it yet, even if the gun should be in the sequence I might pause [so the gun doesn’t appear on the page]. I constantly think in parallel about the text, the single panel, the page, and the spread.

JF: How does the digitalization of comics impact all that? On Kindle or comiXology one can see single frames and tap the screen to move between them. On a tablet or a mobile phone, the screen size promotes using this way of reading. Does this change your way of thinking about this issue?

RM: No. Those who want to do a comic which will be read panel-after-panel can make such comics, I have done it myself in the past; this is how such comics [and these alone] should be read. Not Tunnels.

A panel-by-panel display is not how I told the story, so that kind of reading would be wrong. Sometimes I use this method when I want to point out parts of the book during lectures, but it’s ugly and comes at a cost. I do not mean that it doesn’t work—only that this was not the intention. Such a solution is a technical one, and for a specific audience.

It is possible to make such comics, but they are not the comics I make. The fact you see the full page first and then read it frame after frame is totally a part of the storytelling process. This impacts how many panels are on a page and how they are arranged. I do not know what I would have done had I attempted to make digital comics. My books have been digitalized, but I never looked into its impact because I was not interested in it.

JF: Let’s go then to an issue that you seem to be interested in, at least as a writer. In all your novels there is a motif of passing the torch to a new generation. In Exit Wounds, Koby is somehow a stand-in for his father in the relationship with the female soldier protagonist. In The Property, Regina sends Micah and her local lover to an ideal Sweden that she was never able to reach herself. Nili, in Tunnels, takes her son to archeological digs much like her father did with her. Is this a conscious choice?

RM: I guess this interests me. This is not a defined action plan, to tell myself I am about to write a story about “how the torch is passed on between generations”—that sounds awful! But to say this motivation is totally outside my self-awareness would be false. The larger theme of history, family history, and how things connect to the past, both the recent and the long gone, interests me as a human being. One of my identities is the family one. Both the family I created for myself and the one that I came from. My sisters, parents, uncles. We don’t sit down and eat together all the time or anything like that, but I do feel the connection to them. This also arrives with feeling connected to this land, by the way. So, I did not pick this topic, but it is there. I always wait for a story; such relationships have a story folded into them.

JF: And then comes the theme where they can unfold?

RM: I ask myself, what is it that interests me and if these things motivate me to study them through the book. I spend five to six years working on a book, so it better be interesting! It is also good to know how much weight a theme can carry. A gag? A strip? Ten pages? A novel? It is good to get a feeling to how much potential there is to be explored. In Tunnels, I did not know at first if the story would be about a father and his children who go looking for the Ark of the Covenant, or if the protagonist would be a man or a woman. I did know that the story would be about the past. Family relations are always interesting. I did not know much more than that: all I thought of was the family.

JF: A family immersed in archeology.

RM: Yes. I began reading up on archeology and understood the “wow” aspect of it. History and Indiana Jones-style treasures, robbers and forgers and ISIS. And also academia, which I know as I am also in that field. Politics too, because in this country it goes hand-in-hand with archeology. So, I kept working on it and got to the point when I realized that there are many things here that could be turned into a novel. Both from my own point of view and also in general.

JF: How do you see the political aspect of Tunnels?

RM: It was important for me that the book would leave things undecided. I do not enjoy politicized art, nor do I wish to use my artistic work to promote my own views on politics.

Opinions are a very boring thing. To express them we have Facebook. To those who seek them out—the world is full of opinions. I think my own opinions are as valid as those of others. I do not think that my opinions are any more just or grounded in reality when compared to those held by others. I do not feel easy putting them out there in my work. Unlike the ballot box, where one must decide this way or that way and there is only one slip of paper to place it in, in art I’m interested in a worldview.

Each person has a way to look at the world. It is a complex and highly personal thing, if only because it is less one-sided than an opinion. For example, this is the difference between someone who tells you how to put your own children to sleep and someone who shares with you the issues he has had while putting his children to sleep and how he resolved them. I see myself as someone who offers testimonies, I do not judge. I present the evidence and you, as a reader, will decide.

JF: Does your creative work impact your opinions, “boring” as they may be?

RM: We form our opinions when we are roughly seventeen, and only change them if very significant things happen. This is why they are boring. Thanks to Tunnels, I learned many things I did not know before, as a person living in Israel. During my research, I spoke with archeologists, collectors, explosion experts, detectives specializing in antiques theft—and even a Palestinian grave-robber! The most interesting thing that emerged for me was to see how we are totally unaware of that exact moment in our educational process when the Bible morphs from tribal myths into history.

In the Zionist secular education system of the 1970s and 1980s, there was no doubt. When we studied the story of Cain and Abel or Noah’s Ark as second grade students, we did not understand it as a true story. But suddenly, the educators made it seem as though one was learning history, not myths . When they cover the Exodus or King David and King Solomon, these things are presented as history. Which means texts and events we can pin exact dates on, and find supporting evidence from other sources.

We know King Ahab really did exist and really waged war with the Assyrians, because their king also left a record of these events. If two different sources report that something has happened, there is a chance it actually did happen.

JF: Archeologists then step into the gap between myth and history…

RM: Exactly. Archeologists work diligently. While how we read things carries a lot of weight, they rely on actual findings. Adam Zertal was an archeologist who found an altar on Mount Ebal in the West Bank, and reasoned that this must be the altar built by Joshua when he entered the promised land. There is no conclusive evidence for this being the case, but as his reading became more and more accepted it became dependable. Regarding the Exodus from Egypt on the other hand, I am fairly convinced that it never actually happened. During the time period the Exodus was meant to have happened, the Land of Israel was controlled by Egypt, so where exactly did we exit to?

This, however, is a founding myth. To fully internalize that it did not happen, or that it happened in a totally different way, would be a shock. It would also shock those who are secular or agnostics. One could always argue, why is it even an issue? Nobody seriously thinks we are returning to Egypt any time soon. But this tension between history and myth is where archeologists operate, and that is what I wanted to deal with.

JF: The basic departing point of archology, both as a science and as an inquiry which shapes the political reality, is that the truth is out there, and that one can get to it. But this concept of “truth” changed radically while you were working on your book. There is something nearly nostalgic about an archeological finding that changes the world, at a time when we are still coming to terms with a US President who challenged all facts—from how many people attended his inauguration to him losing the elections.

RM: Correct. It simply got more and more extreme. This process was already under way, but the COVID-19 pandemic let the cat out of the bag big time. The numbers we have now are also yoked to our own perceptions of politics and interests. This is a very harsh process and very long. This constant destruction of truth, it has been in the works for more than a generation.

JF: Could a dramatic, truth-based change really impact a post-truth world? What would happen if one day the Ark of the Covenant was actually found?

RM: I discussed this option with someone during my research, and he said that archeologists actually resent the fact the Ark of the Covenant is seen as the most important find in history. They don’t think it is. The Israelis don’t know where it is and if it is even in existence. Most chances are it was destroyed.

The theory is that King Josiah burned it because he considered the cult around the object to be idolatry. Still, look at King David. For years there was no evidence such a person existed. We had no texts from that time, and some claimed he never lived.

Others argued that the word David is not a name, but a military rank used in the Jebusite army. All sort of ideas.

In 2005, which was not so long ago, they found in Tel Dan [in northern Israel, an important site for Biblical archeology] an inscription saying Here is Yehoram, of the House of David. So there, you have a David, carved into a stone that can be carbon-dated. Did that affect you? Did it affect Israeli society? Not so much. It was a very big deal to the scientific community of archeologists. These things have an impact, but they do not rewrite the world. So, if the Ark of the Covenant should be found, it would be a very big thing and then it is likely the archeologists would resume their arguments.

JF: How did archeologists find your book?

RM: I heard that they enjoyed it and the reactions were good. This was true for right-leaning archeologists as well, they enjoyed how I made the link between politics and archeology real. This is also a much more in-depth manifestation of the truth issue in Tunnels.

JF: How so?

I mean ideological truth. Jewish settlers have their truth, Palestinians have their stories as well. So, what do their—and our—archeologists do with that?

Some archeologists lean towards the science aspect of what they do, and some lean towards the story part. Archeology is a fact-based science. Not a single expert will tell you anything different, but the readings of these facts play a big role.

It is not quite an exact science, in the sense that you never have all the data. You find one thing, but what about all the things you never found? Who knows? In terms of ambition, the field is supposed to lean in the science direction. Especially so if there are contradictions between science and myth. I also think it is a matter of honesty: what does one do when the findings go against the narrative?

Let me tell you the story of a Palestinian grave robber, who does this for a living. You won’t be able to tell he robs graves by looking at him. They dig illegally, but he has a website and he sells to Jews as Jews are usually those who are interested in what he offers. We spoke in 2017, at the time of the riots following the police’s decision to put in place stricter security inspections at the entrance to Temple Mount.

This man knows the Bible better than me and you together. So, we talk about the kings that people are keen on and the kings that people are less keen on, and the like. He knows this like you wouldn’t believe. I said to him: “Here you are, a Palestinian, and you find evidence that the Jewish people really did exist [on this land]—how does this square with the riots on Temple Mount?” He replied: “There was a temple on Temple Mount, it says so in ancient Hebrew writings.” This is a form of honesty not all follow.

JF: Does this mean anything for him personally?

RM: No. He said there was a [Jewish] temple 2,000 years ago, and today there is a temple there which belongs to someone else, which is the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

JF: In Tunnels, this absurdity is at the forefront, while in your previous novels it was the background of a personal story. The drawings in this book are also wilder than before, maybe even grotesque.

RM: True. I would not say grotesque but yes, cartoonish. Yes, this matched the theme. This is the form that fits the madness which we have here. I told myself I wanted everybody to be inside this madness. Palestinians, Jewish settlers, the army, the leftists who vote Labor, the Jerusalem academics, archeologists. To put all of them in this bubbling pot, each with his total lack of self-awareness, that is the key. Everyone sees only his own interests. They work together but at the end it all blows up. It was important for me that everyone would be responsible for the explosion; that everyone did something to speed things in that direction.

JF: What are you working on now?

RM: I am now on vacation. This was a very self-aware choice. Previously I was stressed out over this, but now I have decided that for half a year, I do not want to muck about with any actual writing. Maybe even a full year. My partner does not complain. On the other books I was pulling a 16 to 20-hour workday. It was too much; I do not understand how I did it. On Tunnels I spent sometimes 12 hours a day. At some point he walked into my studio and said: “When you are done with this book I want a change, and I want some compensation.”

Translated from the Hebrew by Hagay HaCohen. 

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