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Tag Archives: Rotu Modan

Rotu Modan’s 2008 graphic novel 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.

[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

 

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