There is a panel in Rutu Modan’s graphic novel, Exit Wounds, that depicts a woman cleaning up a public bathroom. As she mops the tiled floors, men walk past her leaving only darkened footprints behind. The panel fixes in on the checkered tile, the woman’s mop, and the footprints. Men walk along the barren landscape, paying no mind to what they leave behind, to what must be cleaned up. They see no connection to those who must mop up behind them, ignorant to the connectedness between them, the connection etched like grout in the bathroom tiles.
The whole book can be read just this way. Tel Aviv-based Modan’s first graphic novel for an American audience is a journey amidst a disconnected people tied together by the chaos they make. The narrative plays out in all too stark a detail for its simple lines and flattened colors.
The characters are simple enough. Koby Franco is a young taxi driver, as damaged as they come by an absentee father and a dead mother. Nuni is an Israeli soldier, a bit too frumpy, a bit less beautiful than her mother would prefer. She too is damaged, by those who treat her as less than she is because she isn’t as pretty, and by the sudden end to her relationship with Koby’s father.
She is convinced he is an unidentified victim of a suicide bombing, and she finds Koby to enlist his help in identifying the remains. Thus begins the plot, which seems simple enough, but meanders instead across the scarred psyches of its protagonists and the equally scarred landscape of Israel. The conclusions reached by the end of the book are messy and painful, but that doesn’t stop Modan from creating a hopeful denouement.
It’s a bit, forgive me for saying this, Jewish of her. Or perhaps it’s a bit Israeli. To be honest, it’s hard not to read the intensely personal story of Koby and Nuni as something other than a parable for the Israeli (or Jewish) plight. That so many of the characters have been wronged is less significant than their refusal to let go of their victimhood and get on with their lives. The lesson of the parable can be summed up thusly: “How long can you wait, alone in the dark? How long can you put off living until all your unfinished business is resolved?”
Bravo there. It’s a cliché, of course, but in Modan’s hands it is rendered with such tension and sincerity that it comes across as a plea worth listening to. The unfinished business will never really be resolved, will it?
That Modan pulls off this little parable without once invoking the Arab-Israeli conflict directly is even more impressive. One panel, fleetingly tucked into a three-month montage, shows Koby apparently cursing a group of left-wing protestors against the Israeli occupation. That’s as close as the story ever gets to a Palestinian, Arab or anything remotely related to the central conflict of Israel’s history. If you’re reading Koby as symbolic of Israel’s refusal to get beyond the sins inflicted upon it, the panel becomes a subtle and clever jab. More heavy-handed storytellers wouldn’t have been able to pull off the trick.
Even the art displays the fine tension motivating the characters. It’s a colorful bombast, but rendered in flat, untextured shades and minimalist lines. You might read it as hopeful vibrancy set against a bleak reality, if you’re into such interpretations. Who’s to say if that was Modan’s intention, or just her style? The effect remains the same.
This isn’t to say the art is simple line drawing. It’s hard to go more than a couple pages without noticing a rather brilliant bit of detail emerging out of the otherwise simple images. Fans of the independent comics will be more apt to appreciate the style. Superhero followers of the cult of Marvel (or the disciples of DC) may chafe at the plain strokes of Modan’s pen. Both camps should put aside their preferences and recognize instead how effectively the art services the story in Exit Wounds.
Of course, the reader would be missing a larger point if they mistook Modan’s work as mere parable for a larger conflict. Her characters come very much alive, and in so doing, they remind us that the world is largely not about the great conflicts and large figures who animate them. As much as Koby can be seen as an archetypal victim, unable to move forward until those things inflicted upon him are resolved, he is still just a man who struggles to trust, to care. Nuni is the ugly duckling, of course, but she’s also just a girl trying to maintain a sense of dignity and pride in the face of humiliation.
That these two figures can heal each other, even a little, and find something worthwhile in each other, is enough of a story for any reader. It is, in fact, the only story that really matters in life. So kudos again must go to Modan for giving us the parable and a reminder that the parable isn’t the thing. Our cake is before us. We can eat it too.
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