Eisner Winner Rutu Modan on Jamilti and Other Stories

Modan on Jamilti and Other Stories

While she’s just won the Eisner for Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan isn’t about to rest on her laurels. In September, Drawn + Quarterly will release Jamilti and Other Stories, a collection of the creators short stories.

We spoke with her about the upcoming volume.

Newsarama: Rutu, all of the stories in Jamilti and Other Stories pre-date Exit Wounds, correct?

Rutu Modan: All except “Your Number One Fan,” which I wrote after Exit Wounds for the new Actus anthology, How to Love, which was published in January 2008. (Newsarama Note: How to Love was recently released in the U.S. by Top Shelf) It was created after I moved to Sheffield, England, and the story is located in my new hometown.

NRAMA: “Jamilti” was previously in Drawn & Quarterly vol. 5. Excepting that story, have any of them been published in English before?

RM: Except "Jamilti" all the stories appeared in Actus anthologies that were originally published in English and distributed in America and Europe as well as in Israel, but their distribution was quite small and most of the anthologies are out of stock already, so I hope the stories might get a second chance to reach new readers.

NRAMA: You say in the author's note that many of the comics are inspired by old family photos. I can see the family influence in several of the stories. What is it about the photos that gets you thinking about telling stories?

RM: A family photo is a condensed story. Looking at one, you have characters, you have location, relationships, time—everything you need for a story. Somehow it is easier to notice that in old photos. It might be because the photos then were better—people used to choose what they were shooting, and then couldn't delete so easily, compared to how most of us use digital cameras nowadays.

The world (or life) is too loaded; it is difficult to concentrate on the essence of each detail. A photo is like focusing on one moment, which represents a certain idea, a certain truth—exactly what a story does.

I have a large collection of old family photos, most of it my own family, but I also go from time to time to flea markets and look for other families' old albums. When I am out of ideas for an illustration or a story, I often turn to the collection to look for one.

NRAMA: Do you base any panels on those actual photos?

RM: “King of the Lilies” is actually based on my grandmother's album from her teens in Poland of the 1920s. Lily, the heroine, is based upon her image. In “The Panty Killer” I used for the location my Mother's childhood apartment. Also, there are family photos that I used in Exit Wounds. (See attached photos and relevant frames above.)

NRAMA: Getting in to the actual stories, I particularly liked the duplicitous motivations of the daughter in “Energy Blockage,” working to see her father again. I noticed that “Bygone” also has a search for a lost parent as well. What inspired those stories?

RM: There are quite few absent parents in my stories—it wasn't a conscious decision to write about this subject, it just happened. I can think of 2 main reasons. (It is quite personal to answer, like giving myself an analysis.)

1) I lost both my parents some years ago; I miss them a lot, and probably cannot stop waiting for them to come back somehow.

2) The search for lost parents (usually a father) is an archetypal subject in our culture and you have thousands of versions of this subject in literature, from Oedipus to The Darjeeling Limited.

Having said that, in the stories you mentioned (“Bygone” and “Energy Blockage”), the absent parent is only a background theme. “Bygone” for me was more about my own struggle with the new experience at the time of becoming a mother myself, trying to understand what this role actually means. “Energy Blockage” was inspired by an ad I saw in the paper for Luna the Electric Woman. Apparently her powers were able to cure maladies where conventional medicine failed. The advertisement featured a big woman with many spoons and forks sticking to her face, hands and leg. That image was the inspiration for the story.

NRAMA: “The Panty Killer” is very violent compared to your other comics. How did that tale evolve?

RM: Actually, the story is based on a personal experience, which is one of my darkest secrets. I never told anyone till now: it was my high school graduation, a big ceremony. My mother was on the stage giving the parents' speech, which was bad enough, using all the clichés and giving parental advice that no one was interested to hear, and then… she burped! Loudly, into the microphone, in front of the teachers, the parents, not to mention my fellow students. Everybody started laughing, of course, the combination of her pompous speech and the burp was hilarious—not for me. I was devastated. You know how it is with parents when you are a teenager. For years it kept jumping into my mind at unexpected moments, making me red and uncomfortable—even though I knew probably no one remembered it except me.

I found out that miserable moments are good material for stories, especially if they happen to be ridiculous too. So I wrote this script about a woman who is trying to destroy all the people who were witnessing what she thinks was her mother being humiliated. Writing this story really made me feel better, and it was far less violent than murdering all my high school friends.

NRAMA: That’s hilarious! And I was curious about why you approached “Homecoming,” one of the book's best stories, I thought, using only full-page images.

RM: In each of the Actus projects, the first thing we decide on is the format. Each time we change the format, to make it interesting for us. “The Homecoming” was published in an anthology called Happy End. It is a small-format book, 4.5" x 6.5", one panel per page.

All the rest of the comics we did were in more conventional formats, so when the collection was made by Drawn and Quarterly, they had to enlarge the frames to adjust this story to the rest.

NRAMA: Have you re-read most of these stories in the time between them being published and their inclusion in this book? Do you have a favorite?

RM: Usually during the process of creating the story I love it, and after it is published I hate it and cannot look at it without seeing all its faults and all I could fix. The problem is when you finish a project, the minute you finish it you can do it a lot better, because you improved while working on it. After a year or two of estrangement I can start liking the story again—but a bit of a detachment is healthy with one's stories, like with one's kids.

The stories in the collection were picked from stories I did over the last 10 years, and there is something I like in each of them. In “Homecoming”, for example, it was the first time that I managed to put Israeli reality into the comics without making a blunt political statement. “Bygone” is the first story in which I found my own style of writing. In “The Panty Killer” I like the freedom of the drawings, and “Your Number One Fan” is the latest—so it's the one that I stand behind the most.

NRAMA: How do you feel your work has evolved over the course of these stories and into Exit Wounds?

RM: As a young artist I felt the stories has to be “weird”, write about the extreme, and my style was more grotesque, but during the years I learned—the hard way—that life is much more grotesque and weird than anything I can invent. My stories became more realistic, and this influenced the drawing style as well. When writing, I find myself reducing real life, which is often too dramatic or too symbolic to be a good story.

Van Gogh wrote in one of his letters: “I exaggerate, I sometimes change a motif, but in the end I don't invent the whole painting. Instead I find it ready made in nature, though I still have to extract it.” I copied this sentence and glued it above my desk, because it represents so well what I try to do in my stories.

NRAMA: What are you working on next?

RM: I am now working on a serialized comic for the “Funny Pages” of The New York Times Magazine: “The Murder of the Terminal Patient”. The story location is an Israeli hospital—the same hospital my parents worked at, and where we lived. There was a small neighborhood in the hospital area for the staff to live in, which is quite strange to think of now, and, come to think of it, might have affected my art.

I am still not sure what my next project will be—maybe another serial for another magazine, or starting a new graphic novel like Exit Wounds. Anyway it is going to involved writing and drawing—I really feel terribly lucky to be able to do both and call it my day job.

Jamilti and Other Stories will be released in September. More information is available at Drawn and Quarterl

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