Writers & Company

Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan finds inspiration in current realities and family secrets

Rutu Modan's Tunnels mirrors the complexity of contemporary Israeli life. The award-winning artist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about creating a witty, dramatic adventure story involving an archeological dig in the West Bank.
Rutu Modan is an Israeli illustrator and comic book artist. (Dominika Weclawek)

The search for a sacred biblical artifact was the real-life spark for Rutu Modan's latest graphic novel, Tunnels. A witty, dramatic adventure story about an archeological dig in the West Bank, it features rivalries and conflicts that mirror the complexity of contemporary Israeli life. Her most ambitious work to date, Tunnels has been described as "a brilliantly daring satire" by the Guardian and was on many best-of lists for graphic novels in 2021. 

Modan was drawing comics from an early age — never imagining that she might make a career from it. Her cinematic, multi-layered stories are distinctive not just for their playful, colourful artistry, but for their intelligence and emotional depth. Her first two novels, Exit Wounds and The Property, both won an Eisner Award, considered the "Oscars" of the comic book industry.  Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, le Monde and other publications.

Modan spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Tel Aviv.

Rutu Modan's self-portrait. (Rutu Modan)

The occupation of art

"I'm the first artist in my family, although my little sister is also an artist. She's a scriptwriter and an actress. Art wasn't considered a profession. It was maybe a hobby. If you don't have job, then maybe you do [art], like, if you are a housewife or something.

"For my father, there was one profession in the world, which is being a doctor. If you are not so talented, if you are not so smart, you are going to be a dentist or maybe a lawyer, if it's really a bad situation. All the rest wasn't really considered something serious. My parents used to take me to museums and concerts. They liked art. They even collected art. But it wasn't considered maybe a prestigious enough profession for the daughters.

For my father, there was one profession in the world, which is being a doctor.

"For my father, the fact that I went to art school was a tragedy. He really tried to make me not go there. Even my mother, who was more open and always encouraged me to express myself and pick a profession that I love, when I went to study graphic design, she thought it was very strange. When I told her, she asked me, 'So what is this profession? What are you going to do with it?' It took some time until they accepted it completely."

Falling in love with comics

"I think [comics] were made for me ... but it took me time to understand it because in Israel there were almost no comics around me when I grew up. There was one Tintin book that was translated. The rest of the books were not, probably because it wasn't a success. Even Superman comics didn't exist. People who read comics just brought them from abroad. I had a collection of paperbacks at the time — a collection of cartoons from The New Yorker that my mother, for some reason, bought me when my parents did a fellowship in the United States in the 1960s. I almost ate these books. I still have some of them. I know them page by page. 

"But I didn't know it was a medium. Certainly I didn't think it could be a profession because I didn't see a lot of comics, and for me it's difficult to separate comics from regular literature — for me, it's the same. I was quite surprised when I went to the States — I went to bookshops and the comics are on separate shelves.

"It was only in art school, one of my professors — he was an immigrant from Belgium, a comics artist named Michel Kichka; he is very famous in Israel — he opened the first comics course in Israel. There were six students in the class. For the first lesson, he brought many books from his collection. I think there were probably more than 50 books. Since it was 1990, it was a very exciting time in comics. Maus was published. Raw magazine. He also brought mainstream comics. It was the first time I saw Watchmen.

I was quite surprised when I went to the States — I went to bookshops and the comics are on separate shelves.

"And he said, 'OK, you don't know anything about comics. Just sit and read and then we'll discuss it.' I remember this because it was like falling in love for the first time. After one hour, I already knew that this was what I was looking for and this is what I want to do. I think two or three months later, I already had a comics column in a local magazine."

An excerpt from the graphic novel Tunnels by Rutu Modan. (Rutu Modan, Drawn & Quarterly)

Tunnel vision

"It was 2013. The Property was published and I was looking for a new story. This is the time when I'm the nicest person to have [around] because I speak with people. I'm very friendly because I don't know where the story is going to come from. So I speak with strangers in the street, and cab drivers. I was talking with one of my friends. He's a designer, he did a website for the Israeli Antiquities [Authority]. He told me about it and all the strange people he was working with. And then, suddenly, this reminded me of this guy that I knew when I was a student in the art academy.

I didn't intend to write a political story. It came to me.

"This guy, he and his father dug illegally for years, looking for the Ark [of the Covenant] in the West Bank. At the time he told me about it, it was already over. They stopped in 1987 when the First Intifada started and it was too dangerous. The father took his son out of school to dig in the mountain for years. I didn't think about it more than that, but then a few years ago when I remembered this story suddenly, it was the first time I said, 'Why did they do it?' It's a really crazy thing to do. It's really hard work going to dig into a mountain."

An excerpt from Tunnels by Rutu Modan. (Rutu Modan, Drawn & Quarterly)

Reflecting reality

"First came the story. When I had this memory about this guy, it sounded like a story, like a treasure hunt, like Indiana Jones. The themes came afterwards through the research, through trying to study history. I understood quite early that this story would take place in the West Bank because, first of all, this is where they were looking in real life for the Ark, and also, because the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in the West Bank, according to archeology.

"So, if the story is taking place in the West Bank, there are going to be the Palestinians, settlers, the army. They have to be there. And also, because the story is about archeologists, you have people from academia. The story led to it. I didn't intend to write a political story. It came to me.

"And then, if they have to be there, then this is like a metaphor for all the Israelis, the area, all of these groups of people — each of them so different, with different interests, with different beliefs, sometimes enemies. And we are all stuck here in this small piece of land. Basically, we have the same target. I believe that most of the people living here want to live happily ever after. But the interpretation of the way to go there, to get to this perfect future, the ways are really different.

I believe that most of the people living here, what they want is to live happily ever after.

"I want to represent everyone, and everyone to be involved or responsible for the events. I deliberately crafted the story to a point where, when there's an explosion, every one of the groups has some responsibility. It is a combination of all of them together in this small place, stuck together, because they have to work together to find the treasure.

"So in a way, it represents living here together. What I wanted to express is first, the absurdity of the situation; and second, to try to understand everyone. It doesn't mean that I agree with them, but to try to understand other people who think differently from me. And just maybe to show it, more than to judge it."

Rutu Modan's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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