Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Comics Review: Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The most impressive aspect of Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds is its evocation of contemporary life in Israel. Modan’s visual style is strongly influenced by Hergé and Tintin--she shares his simple “clear line” approach to rendering, as well as his love of heavily articulated backgrounds--but she has a command of social detail worlds beyond anything seen in his work. She gives every setting in the story a remarkable degree of authenticity. The streets of Tel Aviv, a bus-station cafeteria in Hadera, the apartments of the various characters--these locations and others are precisely and acutely observed. Modan’s storytelling also presents several other fresh details, such as the matter-of-fact, life-goes-on attitude of the characters towards terrorism. And through the conspicuous absence of Palestinian characters and their culture, she draws attention to the ethnic segregation in Israel and the homogeneity it imposes on the Jews who live there. This and the lifelike pacing of the story give Exit Wounds a you-are-there quality that is unusual and fresh.

The two main characters, both Israeli Jews, are Koby, a thirtysomething Tel Aviv cab driver, and Numi, an affluent woman in her early twenties. They meet at the tail-end of Numi’s military service. Numi confronts Koby with the possibility that his father, whom she’d been having an affair with, might have been killed in a suicide bombing in the city of Hadera several weeks earlier. There was an unidentified victim at the scene, and she wants Koby to submit to a DNA test to ascertain whether the body is his father’s. He is resistant to this--he and his father have been estranged for some time--but he eventually agrees and accompanies her to Hadera. A number of complications ensue, Koby and Numi both come to terms with their relationships with Koby’s father, and the two fall in love. Modan provides the set-up and outlines of what looks to be a promising story.

One only wishes that the narrative she develops was worthy of that promise and her considerable cartooning skills. Everything about Exit Wounds is first-rate except the script. The plotting is reasonably deft, but Koby and Numi are unappealing, poorly realized bores. The only time they command interest is when they’re reacting to the story’s twists and turns. Most of the time, though, their behavior falls into a pattern that becomes grindingly familiar as the book goes on. One of the two approaches the other to go along with some idea. The other stubbornly resists at first, only to relent in short order. They then crab at each other until one says or does something the other takes offense at and stalks off. However, they’re soon back together again, and the cycle starts over. There’s no wit or drama in the way these two gripe at each other; the reader is left marking time until a raw nerve inevitably gets hit. The love story is unconvincing; a beach interlude notwithstanding, there’s no sense of rapport between Koby and Numi. One self-absorbed pill falls for another, and for no apparent reason beyond the other being unusually tolerant of the other’s unpleasantness. Modan can’t build any narrative momentum out of their relationship--the story's emotional core--and the book ultimately comes across as a lavishly realized nothing, albeit one with a topical setting.

Exit Wounds, though, has garnered raves throughout the comics industry and the mainstream press, with the characters being treated as a particular highlight of the book. One has to wonder if the book is being praised more for what it isn’t than what it is. In sharp contrast to the stereotypical comic book, the pacing is deliberate as opposed to headlong, the approach to dramatization is understated instead of hyperbolic, and the characters seem rooted in observation rather than stereotypes. A naturalistic tone is unusual for comics, and perhaps that’s what these reviewers are responding to. But naturalism is nothing without dynamism--the various facets of Koby and Numi’s personalities, as well as their relationship, never add up to a whole greater than the sum of the parts. And the most acutely observed characters become hackneyed if they’re put through the same paces over and over again. Exit Wounds, for all of Rutu Modan’s visual prowess, is an eminently forgettable book. It reminds me of the award bait that litters movie theaters in December and January: topical, ambitious, and technically accomplished, but celebrated far more for intentions than achievement. A year or so down the road, no one will remember anything about it.

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