Saturday, February 28, 2009

Family Ties: Jamilti and Other Stories

Rob reviews the career-spanning collection of stories from Rutu Modan, JAMILTI AND OTHER STORIES (Drawn & Quarterly).

Rutu Modan's EXIT WOUNDS was one of the best-reviewed comics of 2007. I didn't get to read it until fairly recently, and while it has many virtues, it didn't strike me as book-of-the-year material. Reading JAMILTI AND OTHER STORIES, I was struck by the raw energy in her earlier work. Her draftsmanship is considerably more crude in her older stories, yet the power of her line in depicting pain, loss and loneliness is almost visceral at times. Modan zeroes in on family and the ways it can fall apart as her primary theme. The ways in which we idealize our concept of family and the ways that this image is inevitably shattered and trusts betrayed are centered around little mysteries in each of her stories. Those mysteries are there to hang a plot around but also as a way of exploring how we try to understand the motivations of our own family members--especially our parents.

Modan also ties in this concept of family with life as an Israeli. It's clear that the concept of Israel as a nation is one that fills her with pride and affection as well as a feeling of disappointment and betrayal. The title story is about a woman marrying an oaf who learns that her fiance is more of a right-winger with regard to Palestinians than she thought. When she tries to help what appears to be the sole victim of a suicide bombing, she is overcome by all sorts of feelings for the dying man. When she later learns his surprising identity, those feelings become all the more complicated and ambiguous. That sense of ambiguity of identity is Modan's greatest strength as a storyteller. What's interesting is that the more specific she allows herself to become with regard to setting, the more ambiguity she adds to the story itself. That level of detail gives her a foundation to explore certain ideas without worrying so much about the backstory of her characters.

For example, in "Your Number One Fan", the central idea of the story is the tension the protagonist has in centering his identity around being an Israeli singer and his intense intuition that success will only come when he is validated by someone outside of Israel. Finding himself performing at a Jewish community center in England is humiliating to him and his concept of success, and it causes him to want to lash out at himself and the woman who brought him there. He had hung his identity on this very Western concept of rock 'n roll success, and an understanding of the dilemma that so many Jews face (assimilate vs isolate) gave the reader a sort of instant shorthand on how to read this story. Like most of her stories, this one has a climax without a real resolution; the character faces a crisis point and passes through it, but nothing is neatly tied up despite the central mystery of each plot being resolved.

"Homecoming" taps directly into the angst and paranoia surrounding terrorist activity and the way loved ones can simply disappear. It's about a woman, her boyfriend and her father-in-law. The latter believes his son is still alive despite being shot down over Lebanon. The boyfriend thinks her father-in-law is crazy and wants her to move in with him on their kibbutz. For her part, she's trapped between reality and fantasy until the day a plane starts hovering over the farm. Most people think it's piloted by a terrorist, while the old man thinks it's his son. The boyfriend thinks (and is backed up by radio) that it's a terrorist. The standard is-he-or-isn't-he-alive homecoming story is given a good and horrifying twist with the terrorist angle, a detail that's simply part of the background of daily life.

The intersection between sex and death and the ways the mysteries therein haunt us as children is another subtheme in JAMILTI. "The Panty Killer" is the story with the most literal application of this idea, done in a grimly humorous fashion. A serial killer is murdering seemingly unconnected victims using the same MO: putting a pair of panties over the heads after they are killed. The identity of the killer is revealed halfway through to the audience, though the signficance of this character is left vague until the very end. Modan stunningly reveals that the whole story was an elaborate joke of sorts on the readers, complete with a one-liner of a punchline. That said, the repressed nature of the killer reveals Modan's understanding that one's sexuality is a living, fluid experience that can't be contained for long without dire consequences.

All of the stories in the book touch on family in one way or another. "The Panty Killer", for instance, marks one person's exciting but inconsequential public sexual humiliation as fun but also marks it as traumatizing to her daughter. The relationship between daughter and parent is discussed more explicitly in "Bygone" and "Energy Blockage". Both stories are about families who have had to resort to gimmicks in order to survive the absence of one or both parents. "Energy Blockage" is about a family where the matriarch fakes having spiritual healing powers and her daughters run the practice. One day, she zaps one of her customers with too much energy, who happens to be the current wife of the father who left them all behind. It's a clever story with all sorts of twists and turns around its central mystery; many of its themes would pop up again in EXIT WOUNDS.

The narrator of that story is hard-edged, cynical and a step ahead of everyone else. In contrast, "Bygones" is told from the point of view of a 16 year old who has little life experience and only a dawning sense of what the outside world could offer. Working in a bizarre "theme hotel" with her caretaker older sister and younger sister she falls for an older photographer until her older sister steps in. The sisters had been together until their parents died in a hotel fire. At least that's the story we know about until her sister's sometime lover gives her much more information. In the end, while she is still angry at her, she doesn't want to upset the status quo for her younger sister.

Comparing these newer stories to "King of the Lilys" is not flattering for the other works. Sure, it's still thematically interesting with some grotesque thrills thrown in, but it lacks the more personal touch of his later works. Anchoring his characters in Israel doesn't make them seem "more real"; this isn't a very interesting concern. Instead, providing a certain level of detail about time, place and setting that act as static characters in their own right, giving the antagonist and protagonist something to bounce off of.

Modan's art changed over the years as she was compiling strips for the book. She starts with a sort of polished-looking crudeness reminiscent of Olivier Schwauren's comics. The figures themselves are lumpy and often grotesque, but they move through space gracefully. Later strips play up this sense of the grotesque even more, even as her line takes on a "clear-line" quality. A story like "Jamilti" is a sort of compromise between the two styles, with grotesque and simply rendered characters done with flat coloring and a clear-line style. The grotesque figures in "The Panty Killer" are played for humor value, while the black & white figures in "Bygones" have a sloppy awkwardness to them that reflects the sloppiness of their lives. Reading this book made me instantly want to see out EXIT WOUNDS again, a book I sense I will read with new eyes thanks to how Modan showed the reader her development in JAMILTI.

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