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Books

'Exit Wounds': On the Haunting Presence of a Missing Lover

An abandoned lover enlists the help of an abandoned son to identify the corpse of the terrorist victim who betrayed them both.


Exit Wounds

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 183 pages
Author: Rotu Modan
Publication date: 2008-12
Amazon

Rotu Modan’s Exit Wounds is an unusual and unusually effective variation on traditional detective fiction. Numi, a wealthy young woman completing her mandatory service in the Israeli armed forces, enlists Koby, a young man driving a taxi for his family’s business in Tel-Aviv, on her search to discover the identity of a corpse unclaimed after a terrorist bombing. She believes it was her lover, Koby’s father. A DNA test will prove it, but Koby, who hasn’t seen his father in years, thinks he abandoned Numi as he abandoned Koby’s family. Before agreeing to exhume the body, Koby needs evidence, leading the unlikely partners into a personal investigation of the bombing and its surviving victims and witnesses.

While Numi drives the plot, Koby is its reluctant narrator. Modan uses captions boxes for Koby’s internal speech, blurring the lines between thought, recollection, and omniscience. The novel opens with the caption: “Tel-Aviv, January 2002, 9:00 AM”, a standard convention for establishing scenes, which she repeats at least six times, including for minor time leaps: “Next morning” and “Two hours later”. The brief, impersonal statements of fact imply a remote narrator, but Koby’s language dominates other captions, as established on the fifth page when he reflects on the differences between his aunt and his “pushover” mother: “How different can two sisters be?” The present tense is significant as it establishes narration linked to the moment of the images, as when Koby enters his father’s abandoned apartment: “It’s been years since I was last here.” When captions appear during scenes of dialogue, they serve even more fully as thoughts balloons.

Numi’s speech bubble: “I haven’t heard from him since.”

Caption box: “That sounds like Dad all right.”

Koby’s speech bubble: “How do you know the scarf is his?”

At other times, Koby’s narration is free to shift forward in time, implying retroactive narration, with the words and images occurring at different moments. After their investigation reveals an unwanted truth and Koby and Numi depart estranged, Koby opens the next chapter: “I worked like crazy for three months,” with the images depicting the past relative to his speech.

The variations seem practical rather than experimental -- especially in the case of substitute thought balloons, since thought balloons have largely fallen out of fashion in the comics lexicon. Modan’s overall visual approach is accordingly understated. Only speech bubbles break frames, and foregrounded subjects are brightly colored, as backgrounds fade into undifferentiated grays.

Layouts follow a three-row norm, punctuated with occasional two- and four-row pages and paired sub-columns breaking Z-path reading without suggesting thematic significance. Koby and Numi’s first meeting is an exception. Their full-length figures appear in the novel’s first paired sub-column, creating a brief N-path, before returning to standard left-to-right reading in the bottom row. Their shared panel is striking both visually and narratively, as it reveals that Numi is slightly taller than Koby, a repeated fact central to the romance plot and the novel’s conclusion.

Though Modan draws in a minimally detailed but naturalistic style, she also employs standard non-naturalistic effects: emenata lines of surprise radiate from characters’ heads; diagrammatic arrows indicate movement direction. Though her artistic choices emphasize story clarity over form, her most significant visual effect is what she does not draw. While the comics form itself relies on juxtapositional closure to imply undrawn narrative content, Modan heightens this quality by never depicting the novel’s most central and plot-driving character: Gabriel, Koby’s estranged father and Numi’s missing lover. Whether he's just below the surface of the burial plot that Numi cleans, or just minutes away from returning to his apartment while Koby sits with his new wife, Gabriel’s absence is omnipresent. He's part of the white space defined by the unbroken gutters.

Modan also never depicts Palestinians. Their presence is felt in the aftermath of multiple terrorist attacks, another core but unremarked omnipresence of the novel. Gabriel is a villainous character, one who simultaneously woos and abandons multiple women, including Numi, and yet Modan also offers multiple redeeming qualities: his visits to his first wife’s grave, the checks he mails to Koby and his sister after selling his apartment, his new religious devotion, the love of his new wife whom, unlike Numi and his other lovers, he has actually married. And though ultimately he was not killed in the bombing, Numi’s belief emphasizes his role as victim for most of the novel. The split characterizations prevent Gabriel from resolving into any simple category -- victim, hero, villain -- and so suggests a similar attitude toward Palestinians.

Gabriel and Palestine further coalesce through the novel’s two most central yet repressed events: the bombing of a station cafeteria in Hadera, and Numi and Gabriel’s sexual relationship. Both haunt the story, with literal glimpses and verbal reports slowly bringing the bombing into retroactive focus. The sexual relationship, however, receives no direct acknowledgement until the novel’s most pivotal moment. After Numi rages at herself for not realizing sooner that Gabriel had never intended to move to Canada with her, she and Koby kiss.

The following six-page sex scene features Modan’s most formally significant image. While every other panel juxtaposition involves some degree of temporal and spatial closure, Modan depicts Numi and Koby’s intercourse in the novel’s only use of Gestalt closure: though divided by a white gutter, their two bodies are continuous across adjacent panels, implying a subdivided but single image. The effect is especially striking in a novel so much about the emotional isolation of surviving victims. For a single moment, Numi and Koby not only break the white borders that define their worlds, but they do so together.

The moment is brief though, because Numi then acknowledges the novel’s most taboo event. As Koby kisses her nipple, she says: “Like father like son.” Her speech bubble appears in a panel that nearly achieves the Gestalt effect of the preceding page, but this panel pairing is slightly misaligned, with Koby appearing continuous but Numi partly doubled. The doubling is also psychological: she's recalling sex with Gabriel as she's having sex with Koby. For most of the novel, Numi believes Gabriel’s body has been burnt beyond recognition. Now, after revealing that Gabriel is alive and continuing a sexual relationship with a new woman, Modan evokes Gabriel’s body through Koby’s. The two taboo images -- a burnt corpse and a naked 70-year-old man having sex with a 20-something woman -- merge, too. When Koby angrily stops, rolls off of her, and dresses, Numi explains: “He’s there … I just can’t erase him.” It's the defining sentence of the novel.

Modan doesn't end the story so bleakly though, allowing Koby his own redemption and at least the possibility of him and Numi continuing a relationship in their mutually haunted world. The final image is an almost literal cliffhanger. Having trapped himself in a tree while attempting to reach Numi on her family’s private estate, Koby has no way to get down but to leap into Numi’s outstretched arms. Modan appropriately ends the novel with Numi’s view of Koby’s falling body.

8

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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