January 21, 2019

‘The Property’: Graphic in gray areas

Rutu Modan’s recently released graphic novel, “The Property,” is the latest in a long line of works using the medium to express the Jewish experience.

In 1978, Will Eisner began popularizing the long-form comics format with Lower East Side Jewish tales in “A Contract With God.” By 1986, Art Spiegelman legitimized the genre with his Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust account “Maus,” paving the way for more Jewish book-length comics, such as Joann Sfar’s “The Rabbi’s Cat” (2007).

And yet, unlike its predecessors, “The Property” uses its Jewish themes almost as a prop, an engine humming in the background intended to propel the complex, sometimes dysfunctional dynamics between her characters.

This isn’t the first time that Modan has done this. In 2007, she used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backdrop — albeit distant — for a brilliant relationship yarn in her critically acclaimed debut, “Exit Wounds.” Now, after some illustrations, short stories and a children’s book (“Maya Makes a Mess”), Modan is back with her official follow-up, released May 14. In “The Property,” Poland’s Holocaust past sets in motion another set of complicated relationship dynamics. 

Modan said she cannot help but react, even indirectly, to situations affecting her country.

“I have a very strong identity as a Jew and as an Israeli,” Modan told the Journal from her Tel Aviv home.

[See a page from the graphic novel at the bottom of this article]

“Identity” has a strong hand in “The Property,” in which Polish Jews and Poles intersect in a tale rife with forbidden love and the heavy burden of the Shoah. Young Mica Segal accompanies her grandmother Regina to Poland, where the latter stands to lay claim to her late husband’s property, which, since World War II, has been converted into a hotel. Of course, ulterior motives abound, from Regina’s reason for visiting Warsaw to Tomasz, the non-Jewish concentration camp tour guide for whom Mica falls.  

After working on it for three years, Modan wrapped “The Property” last November. She researched the Warsaw Uprising, traveled to Poland and hired actors to photograph posing as her characters to help her storyboard out her graphic novel.

“It made the story better,” the 40-something artist said of the latter. “Cartoonists are like monks. It’s solitary work. With comics, it’s like a movie or play, but you don’t have to be around anyone.

You are the director, actor, scriptwriter. Letting strangers [give life] to the characters [was rewarding].”  

Visiting Poland, Modan found dealing with the country’s past complicated: “I felt that the Poles have a different story about what happened in World War II than the Jews. Even in Germany, people my age know Nazis were evil, Jews were victims. It’s easier to communicate, they have the same story. We can make a relationship based on starting a new page. 

“In Poland, it was really difficult for me to accept their story: The Jews live happily in Poland; then, suddenly, the Nazis came [and] killed Jews. The Poles helped the Jews, they tried to hide them. There was no anti-Semitism, everyone loved the Jews. The pogroms were in Russia, not Poland. It was even better for Jews than in other countries. I wanted to ask everyone, ‘OK, what really happened?’”

With Tomasz, an aspiring cartoonist, Modan keeps his intentions during his tryst with Mica ambiguous, even suspect: Is he sincere or a con artist?  

“We are suspicious of the Poles,” she said. “At the same time, he is me! It’s also a joke about me being a cartoonist.”

Like Regina, Modan’s grandparents came to Palestine before the war.

“I didn’t want to make Regina a direct Holocaust survivor or a victim,” Modan said. “When you say Holocaust survivor, you can’t say bad things about this person. I didn’t want to make anyone too bad or too good. Jews and Israelis are experts in being victims. Their reaction to the whole world, if someone criticizes Israel, is that they are anti-Semitic. If someone is a victim, they cannot be an oppressor, but the truth is, you can be a victim and an oppressor at the same time. Polish people also feel as if they were victims of World War II.”

In most of her work, including her 2008 collection “Jamilti and Other Stories,” Modan acknowledges her heritage. However, she said, “I’m interested in the drama in between people. I’m just a confabulist, and I have a very safe life. I sit in my room in Tel Aviv, and I have my kids.”

Comics-industry critics have attributed her aesthetic to the influence of “Tintin” creator Hergé, who cast the largest shadow on European comics. But Modan rejects the suggestion that she is a disciple of ligne claire (a clean, graphic style employing bold outlines).

“It’s really overstated,” she said, crediting Americans her mother collected when Modan’s parents lived in the United States in the 1960s: Charles Addams, Jules Feiffer, Shel Silverstein.

Long active in Israel’s comics-creating scene, she became an editor of the Hebrew version of MAD magazine in the mid-1990s. Soon after, she helped found Actus Tragicus, a group of Israeli comics artists in the spirit of Spiegelman’s RAW anthologies and German and French cartooning groups. For the past decade, Modan has taught cartooning and children’s book illustration at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. 

Promoting “Exit Wounds,” Modan made her first extensive North American tour in 2008, capped by Comic-Con International in San Diego, where she inspired a spotlight panel and long lines at publisher Drawn & Quarterly’s booth. Predictably, her nationality made her a magnet for political discussions.

“Because I write not just for Israel but for a foreign audience, I don’t feel it’s easy for me to play this part,” she said. “I want peace, and my political views are from the left. Because I’m critical, it’d be phony for me to just be the good Israeli.”

Modan fancies herself an observer, not an ambassador.

“In politics, you have to choose an opinion,” she said. “When I go to vote, I have to decide who is bad and who is a good guy, but when I write I can support the Poles and the Jews. I’m much more interested in the gray areas. They’re more closer to reality.”

A page from Rutu Modan’s graphic novel “The Property.”