July 2007

Josh Cook

fiction

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan

In Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan displays great potential as a graphic novelist. Her use of detail in text and art is both subtle and evocative. Her panel layout is sophisticated and communicative. Exit Wounds itself, though, is mediocre despite the obvious talent Modan demonstrates.

Koby Franco, a cab driver in Tel Aviv, has been estranged from his father Gabriel for two years. One day, a young woman named Numi, hires him as a cabby and tells him that she thinks an unidentified man in a recent suicide bombing is Koby's father. Koby and Numi's exchange is a high point in the story. Numi says, "Remember that suicide bombing in Hadera three weeks ago?" Koby responds, "Hadera? You mean Haifa." Numi concludes the exchange saying "No, not the one at the restaurant. The one in the bus station cafeteria." Without carnage or grandiose statements Modan shows us how violence has become mundane in Israel.

This idea is reinforced when Koby and Numi go to the morgue for a DNA test on the unidentified man. Without drenching the scene in the blood of a recent attack, Modan shows a work place with its own rituals and its own boring relationship with its task. The exchanges, postures, and gestures of the workers, are the familiar casual of any work place, showing how a task becomes "just a job" when one does it enough.

Her skill with subtle detail continues throughout the story. In one scene, the plight of immigrant workers is hinted at. Koby and Numi are told that the cleaning woman at the bus station cafeteria was a witness to the explosion. When Koby and Numi ask her about it, they find out that the cleaning woman who actually witnessed the attack went back to the Philippines and was replaced without anyone really noticing. In a scene in the cafeteria, the damage from the explosion hangs at the top of a panel there to remind the reader without distracting from the story.

Modan's use of panels and gutters can be exquisite, often being more visually communicative than the art itself. The best example of this is when Koby speaks with his sister who is living in New York. The panels are arranged so a gutter runs from the top of the page to the bottom of the page separating the two characters. It's a perfect visual cue for a moment when the characters are failing to communicate. The pattern only breaks, when his sister ends the conversation by asserting her own position. Her panel stretches across the page reminding us exactly which character dominated the conclusion of the conversation. The spatial relations of the panels is one of comics unique tools for communication and Modan has mastered it. The art itself though, doesn't measure up to its layout.

The style is heavily influenced by Herge but is slightly more realistic. The result is a stilted middle ground. The characters all lean awkwardly. Their hands are poor. Their faces are incapable of complex expression. Unfortunately, she has many panels where her characters attempt to emote with their hands and faces. Given how good she is at using detail, pacing, and layout, she could have communicated these emotions within her chosen style.

The story also inhabits a middle ground in terms of narrative length. A shorter piece could have drawn a tighter focus on the mystery and amplified the effects of Koby and Numi's struggle to figure out whether the John Doe really is Koby's father. A longer piece would have allowed the subtle details of character and hints at background stories build into powerful portraits. At the length, neither of those things happen. The intensity of the mystery is diluted by the interludes of characterization. Events in the plot happen before the characters are fully realized, making some occurrences less believable. Scenes that could have been shocking are drawn out. Tensions in the plot don't build to an exciting level.

Exit Wounds is worth picking up at your library if for no other reason than to introduce yourself to Rutu Modan. Ultimately, I was left unsure how I was supposed to grow as a person from reading this, or even which of the emotions I did experience were most important to the text. Whether you decide to read this work or not, fans of graphica should keep Rutu Modan on their radar, as she has all the potential to produce something special.

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN : 978-1897299067
168 pages