Sitting on Lucca benches… Rutu Modan

A Rutu Modan ArtThanks to the new urban location of the Lucca Exhibition, the interview was held near the publishers’ pavilion, sitting on a stone bench trying to protect ourselves from the northern cold wind, heating our bodies at the pale winter sun. Alberto Casiraghi spent the night reading Unknown/Sconosciuto in order to better better prepare himself for the meeting with the author, unpublished in Italy and little known outside of Israel. As we later found, Modan has produced comic strips for more than 20 years and we are now sure that this book is just the beginning of a new adventure on the European comics scene.

In preparation of the interview, we searched for other works of yours, but we haven’t found much. Talking about the book presented at “Lucca Comics and Games”, Unknown/Sconosciuto, is it your first approach to the ninth art?
It is not, definitely. I have professionally produced comic strips for more than 20 years. I published strips on newspapers, I wrote short stories and, together with other authors in Israel, we founded a the small independent firm, that has published our works. However, this is my first graphic novel.

Have you published your works only in Israel so far?
With my group we have produced a book which has been translated into English and distributed in the United States and in Europe.

What’s your group’s name?
Actus. Here’s the link: www.actustragicus.com/outofdate

Can you tell us something about the Israeli comic scene, something new?
There is not much to know, since nothing exists. When I began writing comics, there were only 5 comic artists in Israel. Some of them were publishing strips on the dailys, one author produced a few books and another one was only writing comic strips for children. In my country, working in the world of the comics was very uncommon. Consider this: Israel is the only place in the whole world where Tin Tin has failed, they published the first book and it went unsold!
Superman does not exist, they do not translate comics. I found comics strips in some magazines for children.

How would you explain this absence?
I don’t know. Every journalist asks me this question during interviews. During the last years more and more authors have been producing comics even if there is not a specialized publisher, except for the one who edits children comics.

You mean that 20 years ago there was no space for comic strips, they wern’t published?
Well, though, as absurd as it may seem, it has been much easier for me to get started, since there was no competition when I began in the 80s. I used to go to the newspapers chief editors, show them my strips and have them printed immediately.

How did you begin producing comics? You did not know much about this world.When I began, I was skilled enough about comics but I was not perceiving them as a real media. I knew Superman but I was not reading it since, as a girl, super-heroes were not appealing me. I was not very familiar with comics, but in my opinion they were a natural mean to express my inner self. I wouldn’t know how to explain it. While attending the kindergarten I already wrote a few stories infedele by images, without realizing of the fact that they were comics. This is my way of thinking.
However for many years, while attending high school and the civil service, I completely stopped drawing. After the civil service I came to Europe, in Spain, it was 1989 or 1990. There was an exhibition of independent productions of Gabriella Giandelli and other artists. I fell in love with them as soon as I saw them! “This is what I want to do, it exists, it is possible“, I thought.

We mentioned Tin Tin before: is French style with its “ligne claire“a model for you?
In my works there are many references, it’s impossible to single one out. From a certain point of view, it has been an advantage that there was no comics tradition in Israel, since I could take ideas from everywhere. “Ligne Claire”, for instance, resulted from the teachings of my Fine Arts Academy master who was Belgian. He introduced me into European comics, but I’ve been influenced by several American independent comics artists, by Raw Magazine, by Daniel Clowes, by artists not related with the comics scene. My favourite writer, Natalia Ginzburg, inspired my way of writing and telling a story. She influenced me more than any other comics author.

Why this title, Unknown/Sconosciuto?
Ask the publisher! (laughing)

Has it been a publisher’s choice?
Sometimes a story begins from the title, other times you write a story but you are not able to find a suitable title. You provide a list of names and the publisher is the one that makes the decision, and each publisher in each country chooses a different one, picking it up from the list. About the double English-Italian name choice ask the publisher, from my side I can say that I prefer the Italian word “Sconosciuto“.

The title gives a good idea of the book.
The novel is about a love story that begins and another one that ends, but everything starts from a tragic event: a bomb in a service area. Is it an aware choice to recall the political context or is it a natural consequence of the danger that is perceived day by day?

I like a lot this description of the plot (laughing). I’ll take a note for next interviews! Unfortunately political facts are strictly connected to everyday life in a place like Israel. Nevertheless I didn’t want to tell a political story, I just meant to tell a story. I just wanted to talk about this boy, this girl and their story, they are not political characters. I just wanted to talk about the human being and to tell what can happen when political facts suddenly break into his private life, changing things and shaking day-by-day life. They do not necessarily produce negative effects. They just cause a change. Stop. It is something that can throw into confusion.
However I tried to shape real characters. For instance, the boy protagonist of the story is not interested in what happens around him. And I know people who try not to be involved in the political situation. While the girl is interested but it’s not one of her priorities. These are persons you can meet in real life. I did not want to take a side, since that is not art in my opinion.

In fact, in the story it is possible to see that the characters are not involved in the political life of their country.
At least they try. But they can not truly succeed. Rutu Modan draw in his stand

Therefore you did not mean to produce a political work, but maybe this is an even more political way to tell a story.This is exactly what I wanted to do. I do not want to talk about how the story ends, just know that the protagonist takes a risk to abandon the past and all the rest. It’s exactly what would be desirable for the country and for the people too. To drop the past behind and to stop arguing about who is right or wrong in order to finally live together.

We understand that you did not want to write a book about these facts, but what do you think about the political situation? Why?
Good answer!! (laughing)
I have an opinion concerning the political situation, but why is it relevant for you to know it?

Because we would like to understand the feelings and the point of view of someone who is involved in such a difficult situation.
I asked “why” not because I wanted to attack you, but because I didn’t want you to label me as “ok” because of what I think.
From my point of view, the situation is really frightful and it could get even worse. Last summer it was terrible and I’m still very sad for what happened. It is not easy to tell my thoughts. When you live in a situation like this one, you can experience the absurdity of every single event, you see a lot even if you can not see the whole thing. You understand how it is all complicated and stupid at the same time and how easy it could be… I would like that they would start thinking about real solutions for example if I need a visa to visit my relatives in Jerusalem, I will ask for it. Not a religious solution, not some other type of solution, just a practical solution to stop all of this, so terrible and sad.

What amazes us, having the luck of not living something so horrible, is how can life exists while those tragedies happen and, most of all, how can art exists. We wonder how important and stimulating it can be to express oneself in such an harsh situation.
I think that life is complicated everywhere. Anyway living on such extreme situations makes you able to see life more clearly. You realize that life is not a cliche’. It’s not only the war, but also the death of someone you love or someone you fell in love with. In extreme situation, after the strong initial pain, after some time has passed, you can see things more clearly.

Like in the book, where a bomb starts everything. This tragic event shakes and starts everything…
Exactly. You may have a clear idea, but stereotyped, about love, death, war, peace, everything. But when dramatic event happen to you, you realize how everything is different and you start observing life in a different way. I’ll make a very personal example, that involves me in first person, because I can’t thing of something else at the moment: she died some years ago, she had a cancer. We stayed close to her until the end sitting next to her bed. We talked to her and if someone would have filmed or told about this situation it would have seemed kitsch, out of the line. But when you live it, it’s real to you. It’s complicated to tell how we laughed, how we cried, how we talked about what we were going to cook. It’s in situations like this one that you can see beyond the cliches.

Maybe it’s the way that we represent these moments, that’s kitsch, not the way we live them.
Yes, if you live these situations, rather than talking about them, you can try to express what you feel through your art and try to avoid cliches.

Has “Unknown/Sconosciuto” been published also in other countries?
It has been commissioned by Drawn & Quaterly to be published in Canada. Somehow Coconino was my first publisher. Drawn & Quaterly will publish the book in the US in 2007, then it will be published in Spain and, the next year, if everything goes smoothly, maybe in Switzerland, translated into German.

Not in France?
Not yet, I’m working on it! (laughing)

During the exhibition we saw you drawing being inspired by old photos. What do they mean to you?
They are very important for me, I will try to explain why. Old family photos are very intense. As if they could bring back the dead, I observe them and I can get back in touch with them. I feel deeply bound to the people shown in the photos.

Is it something emotional or artistic?
Both. It is touching because I feel as if, by drawing, I can bring them back to life: I won’t forge them. Artistically, on the other hand, I an not drawing the generic image of a man or a movement. I draw the specific face, the specific person. Everybody has a different way of standing, of moving. Everybody has a different posture. Through pictures I can find the specific way to represent a character. In our head, we have a generic way of thinking of someone standing. While observing a picture you can observe that specific way of standing and it helps me in giving more depth to my characters. Because tha way he sits, he moves, he gesticulates tell something important about a character.

Is there anything autobiographic in the story?
It is not an autobiographic story at all, but I’ve drawn from the my life’s experiences, as well as from those of other people I know.

That’s all, thanks a lot.
Thank you.

Links
Coconico Press: www.coconinopress.com
Actus: www.actustragicus.com/outofdate
TheArtWoks, which contains an art gallery of Rutu Modan:
www.theartworksinc.com/folio/modan/modan.htm

ITALIAN VERSION: www.lospaziobianco.it/?p=3986

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