If you don’t yet know the work of comics artist Rutu Modan, now is the perfect time to become acquainted with it: The Tel Aviv-based Modan is in New York this week to promote her latest graphic novel, “The Property” (Drawn & Quarterly). Translated by Jessica Cohen, this book—beautiful both in story and in images—depicts Regina and Mica, a grandmother-granddaughter pair on a journey from Israel to the grandmother’s native Warsaw. Their ostensible purpose: to investigate the reclamation of the grandmother’s former home.
Supported by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the New York leg of Modan’s current tour began Tuesday evening at the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan. In conversation with Liza Donnelly, Modan traced her artistic development, discussed the ways in which politics appears (or doesn’t) in her work and responded to questions about her process and practice.
Elements of “The Property” find echoes in Modan’s own history and experience. Both of her grandmothers, for example, came from Warsaw. But the book, which Modan said took four years to complete, is fictional—as well as extraordinarily powerful.
We expect comics to be funny, and humor indeed abounds in the panels that comprise “The Property.” But some of the humor is mordant, as when a fellow passenger on the flight to Poland—a man leading a group of Israeli teens on trip to visit the concentration camps—responds to Mica’s disclosure that her grandmother found refuge in Israel before rather than after the Holocaust. “That’s a pity. I thought she could talk to my group a little.” He continues: “It’s hard to get through to the kids without a personal story.”
But “The Property” may also make you cry. In Tuesday evening’s conversation, Modan echoed a memorable statement uttered by one of “The Property’s” characters, Tomasz, who is himself a comics artist (when he isn’t guiding tourists through Jewish Warsaw): “Comics don’t have to be funny.” Combining character, color, action (including body language and facial expressions), and words, “The Property” offers long moments of poignancy as well as a number of good laughs.
If you missed Modan at the Society of Illustrators, you can still catch her at Bookcourt in Brooklyn on Thursday, September 19; at the New York Art Book Fair in Long Island City on Saturday, September 21; and at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 22 (see www.drawnandquarterly.com/newsEvents.php for details). Of course, you can immerse yourself in “The Property” at any time. In case you can’t tell, I recommend strongly that you do.
Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories” (Last Light Studio), an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal honor title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature.
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