Rutu Modan and Ben Katchor, Comic Book Artists

Interviews with two prominant graphic novelists: Ben Katchor on being a New Yorker in New York and Rutu Modan on  the burgeoning art of Israeli comics.

By Steve Korver, 05-06-2008, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly


AmsterdamWeekly_Issue22_6JuEver wonder what happens to those crumbs that collect at the bottom of your toaster? And then, if collected by specialists in the field, what the different sizes of these crumbs could be used for? The cartoonist   Ben Katchor (1951) has   pondered about such  a scenario  and  even wrote a comic strip about it.  

Katchor  creates deeply weird worlds: ‘I’ve done a lot of writing in bed between waking and sleep. I like stories that slip in and out of conscious logic.’ If you’ve read his ‘Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer’ or ‘The Cardboard Valise’ series of comic strips, that appear in weeklies across North America, you’ll certainly never be able to look at New York City as a non-surreal place again. And the beautiful thing is that he wins prizes for thinking very differently—including the ‘genius grant’ of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He even writes ‘comic book operas’, including one called The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, that deals with the chemical emissions and addictive soft drinks of an apocalyptic tropical factory-island.

Katchor’s  perhaps most ambitious work, The Jew of New York, was originally published ten years ago (its Dutch translation is being released this week). It was inspired by the real-life New York politician and amateur theatre writer Mordecai Noah who, in 1825, decided that all the lost tribes of Israel should gather on an island near Buffalo to form a Jewish state. He was not successful—unlike The Jew of New York, which is poetic, layered and deeply wacky. The book introduces us to a whole bevy of characters—an actress worshipping wild man who pays tribute to the mighty beaver before ending up stuffed in a museum, a man who wants to carbonate Lake Erie, to name just two—all of whom are united by a drive to find themselves a place in the New World. Welcome to New York as the wild, wild East.

What got you into comics?
I discovered comic books in my neighbourhood corner candy store. In these comic books, I discovered the Western tradition of representational art. I was amazed to see how space and figures could be description in a small three- or four-inch comic-strip panel.

How’d you make comics a career?
I drew and wrote comic strips for many fanzines as a child, but it did not become a career until I started a weekly comic-strip, ‘Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer’, in the late 1980s for a weekly newspaper in New York City.

Any key influences?
I saw that Jules Feiffer and Edward Gorey were able to use the picture-story form to tell more sophisticated stories than those I encountered in comic books. By the age of sixteen, or so, I outgrew comic books and looked elsewhere for aesthetic pleasure. The artists that most influenced me were not comic-strip artists. The visual artists were Poussin, Rembrandt and many other European painters. The literary artists were Nabokov and Saul Bellow.

You have an obvious passion for architectural detail and decor. You even do a strip for the architectural magazine Metropolis. City boy?
I’ve always lived in a city, with short breaks during the summer, and so most of my thoughts revolve around architecture. Like a scientist, I want to understand urban life on a microscopic level and so these details are simply obvious premises for stories.

What were the sparks that inspired The Jew of New York?
I wanted to research the origins of the market economy in New York City, circa 1830. Also, I wanted to think about what it meant to be a Jew in NYC at that time. Mordecai Noah was a footnote in many histories of Jews in America and I was interested in using his failed plan to establish a Jewish state in North America as the starting point for a new story.

How difficult is it to stretch from the single ‘strip’ format to producing a whole ‘graphic novel’?
Most of my books are accumulations of weekly strips. The Jew of New York is the only novel-length strip I’ve produced. I’m more interested in short form comic strips. The graphic novel appeals to book publishers who don’t know how to sell and package short form works—short stories, poems, etc. Most of my work has its real life in magazines and newspapers.  

While your illustrations exhibit mind-blowing technique, on first glance they can come across as, um, ‘messy’…
I try to cultivate the sketch aesthetic—the immediate realisation of a graphic idea through direct drawing in ink. That technique may strike you as messy, but it’s an honest result of the process I go through in inventing a drawing.

Your plots and story-telling have a dream-like quality.
I’ve done a lot of writing in bed between waking and sleep. I like stories that slip in and out of conscious logic.

On an average day, how many ideas come into your head? How many actually turn into strips and how do you know which ones to discard?
There’s no average day—some days many ideas, some days none. In some cases, it’s not clear how to make an idea into a strip and so I come back to it several years later and find a solution. No ideas are discarded, just put aside until the right approach occurs to me.

I’m also interviewing Rutu Modan. Your work could not be more different yet both of you are part of the Jewish Historical Museum’s Jewish comics art exhibition. But is there any link beyond the universal one: that anyone’s work is a product of their heritage and identity?
I can only identify with the history of leftist, atheist and internationalist Jewish culture, and that only as history. The only cultural identity I have is being a New Yorker.

It’s often said that Jewish artists have been a major force in the birth of the graphic novel as a movement. Do you have any explanation for that?
My favourite cartoonists are not of Jewish descent. The particular Jews who were involved in the birth of the comic book business circa 1939 wanted to buy into an American pulp fiction aesthetic. Most Jews at that time were not involved in the comic book business and so you can’t blame Jews for the invention of superhero comics.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new music-theatre production and assembling a collection of strips from ‘The Cardboard Valise’ series.

Music theatre?
The three composers who run Bang on a Can (a NYC new-music collective) were commissioned to write an opera by the director of a music festival in Turin, Italy who is a comic-strip fan. He asked for an opera based on a comic-strip. They, in turn, asked me to write the libretto and design the scenic projection. I love operetta, or music-theatre, and a few years later I approached the pop musician Mark Mulcahy to set a new story of mine to music—that was The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island. Working in theatre is highly collaborative and that’s a big change from working alone on comic-strips.



You could say that Rutu Modan is the mother of modern Israeli comics. Born in 1966 in Tel Aviv, she’s an award-winning comics artist who has drawn and written strips for many major newspapers, both in Israel and abroad. She was also the co-editor of the Israeli version of MAD magazine and she currently teaches comics drawing and illustration at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. Modan’s also busy with a comics story that will be published weekly over 20 weeks in the New York Times Magazine from mid-June. It’s called ‘The Murderer of the Terminal Patient’ and is a comic murder mystery set in an Israeli hospital. The Dutch translation of her latest, and already universally acclaimed, work, Exit Wounds, has just been published as Vermist. The graphic novel tells a deep and subtly rendered story set in contemporary Tel Aviv, where a young taxi chauffeur, Eddie, is approached by a young woman soldier, Numi, who believes his estranged father—her boyfriend—could have been killed in a suicide bombing. As they search for the fate of the father, they discover each other. Modan talks to us about this book and her life in comics.

What got you into comics?
There were hardly any comics in Israel when I was growing up. I think Israel is the only country where Superman and Tintin were commercial failures. But my parents lived a few years in America in the early 1960s, and my mother came back with a big collection of cartoon pocket-books. My mother was a scientist, not an artist, but she liked these books and I believe this collection was one of the reasons I became a cartoonist. As a child I read them again and again until they fell apart; there’s only a few survivors left in my library. At the time, I had no idea about comics as an art form or that it could actually be a profession. But at the same time, I’ve been inventing stories and drawing them since I was three. For me, it is the most natural way to express myself. It was only in my twenties, at the Art Academy, that my illustration professor introduced me to contemporary comics, especially alternative comics, and I immediately decided this is what I wanted to do with my life.

And how did you make that a career?
When I started getting interested in comics, a very lucky thing happened. A friend’s ex-boyfriend was appointed editor-in-chief of a new weekly magazine. And since I was looking for a student job, my friend suggested I show him a few samples. He was new at the job and had never read comics, but he still thought having a comic strip in his agazine would be something very unique and hip. So I started publishing weekly strips and had complete freedom. Especially since nobody understood anything about comics, and mainstream comics were considered as weird as alternative ones anyway, so I just did whatever I wanted. I used very macabre and vulgar humour, and changed the format whenever I got bored. Two years later, when I graduated, I already had a name as a comics artist, and for eight years I did strips for different newspapers. Meanwhile, I wanted to develop and make more complicated and longer comics stories, like those I read in Raw magazine. I collaborated with Etgar Keret, a well known Israeli author, and for a few years we worked together on comics based on his stories. In 1996 we published a collection [Nobody Said It Was Going To Be Fun] that was even quite successful in Israel. In the same year I established, along with four other comics artists, an independent comics publishing house, Actus Tragicus, and together we published our comics in English and distributed them in America and Europe. Eventually, Chris Oliveros from Drawn & Quarterly saw my stories and commissioned a book: Exit Wounds is the result.

Any key influences?
This is easier to answer when you are twenty than when you are forty. There are so many artists I was and am influenced by, and in so many ways! My first comics teacher, Michel Kishka, was an immigrant from Belgium, so initially my education was more European in style: Herge, Lorenzzo Mattoti, Loustal and the ‘French school’. But since I read only English, I was only influenced by their style of drawing. For writing (as well as visual), Raw magazine and its artists was a major influence: Linda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Edward Gorey (I copied him for years), Seth, Chris, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, the Crumb couple, Mark Beyer—and many more. Currently I’m into the American cartoonists of the beginning to middle of the twentieth century: Winsor Macay, Gluias Williams, McManus, Webster. And lately, I started getting interested in alternative manga, like Maruo and Taniguchi.

Key non-comics influences?
My favourite activity is reading. And I am equally influenced by literature as by comics. The Italian author Natalia Ginzburg is one of my favourites—with her subtle, undramatic tone she reaches the highest degree of emotion. Hitchcock taught me a lot about creating suspense and drama. Film noir and Italian realism showed me how to turn everyday reality into drama and people into heroes. I am also influenced by art exhibitions, popular psychology, blogs, people, landscapes, other arts, the news and personal disasters—however stupid or sad. As I say to my students: everything is material.

It’s hard to reconcile the author of Exit Wounds as a former co-editor of MAD magazine…
In 1994 an Israeli publisher decided to publish an Israeli edition of MAD. In that period, the American MAD was past its prime and they started selling rights to foreign countries. The format was supposed to be seventy-five per cent translated American materials and twenty five per cent original local materials. I did the job together with Yirmi Pinkus, my classmate and a comic artist himself. We did it for cheap but it was rather fun since we did not have to use up-to-date material, and could order lots of great material from the 1950s and 1960s from the MAD archive. And we learned a lot because we had to do everything ourselves: editing, printing, production, marketing, and even translating. Since we liked alternative comics, we used that for the original material—from ourselves and other Israeli comics artists. The American publisher wasn’t interested in what we were doing. We only had to send the cover to be approved. We did have one cover, with Alfred E Neuman as a punk, censored. The American publisher thought he looked too much like a skinhead and insisted it would hurt the Jewish readers’ feelings. It was impossible to explain to them that there are no Nazis in Israel. Apart from that, we did what we wanted. The problem was, people who liked MAD hated the Israeli stories, and fans of alternative comics hated the American parts. So nobody bought the magazine and after fourteen issues another attempt to publish comics in Israeli had failed. But at least this episode led directly in 1996 to the founding of Actus Tragicus.

What was the inspiration behind Exit Wounds?
It came from a wonderful documentary called No.17 by director David Ofek. It was about a terror attack in a bus, where one body was so destroyed that it couldn’t be identified. Well, unfortunately, that happens a lot with bomb attacks. But what was less ordinary is the fact that no one claimed the body. It was a body of somebody nobody missed. The director tried to find the identity by publishing an ad in the newspaper. One man showed up—he had not seen his son for a long period—but in the end it turned out that it wasn’t him. Another trigger happened years ago, when I was waiting for a telephone call from a guy I was dating. After four miserable days, I came to a conclusion that he must be dead or else he would have called me. (But then I called him and he wasn’t.) That gave me the idea: someone is missing and there is a girl who believes he might have died, because she just can’t believe that he left her.

What other elements of autobiography are in Exit Wounds?
Everything I write is based on, or influenced by, reality. Where else can you get inspiration? Even the weekly funny strips I did were based on life. For example, while I was pregnant and terrified by the idea of motherhood, I read an article about a new birth method: giving birth in a dolphins’ pool. So I wrote a strip about giving birth among sharks, where you can choose whether you take the baby home or leave him in the pool. In Exit Wounds, many scenes and characters are stolen from my life. But I changed them to fit the story. Fiction is different than life, because in life there is no order or meaning, while a story must have both. Art is really about giving meaning to that chaos we call reality. Although I have not myself experienced a terror attack, a few years ago it was happening a lot around me, and it did affect my everyday life and feelings. But sudden, brutal deaths are actually around all of us, anywhere, anytime—not just in Israel. I tried to describe this idea in Exit Wounds, and not just the dramatic side of death, but also the matter-of-factness and worldly side of it. For example, the guys coming from the flea market to clear out a dead person’s house. That happened with me after my father’s death. It took them twenty minutes—so professional!

How difficult is it to stretch from the single ‘strip’ format to producing a whole ‘graphic novel’?
Writing and drawing a one-hundred-seventy page story is a completely different experience than creating a short comics story. Short stories are based more on an idea and a punch line. A novel is based more on the processes your characters go through. You find yourself involved in deep relationships with people you invented, which gets very weird sometimes. I read somewhere that writing a story is like trying to put an octopus to bed. When you tuck two arms under the blanket, two other arms pop out on the other side. When you write a short story and change one detail it creates a hole in the story somewhere else and you have to solve it. Writing a novel is the same but then with a giant octopus.

Exit Wounds, while obviously set in Israel and presenting a vivid picture of its society, can on many levels be set anywhere since it’s indeed more about your characters’ processes and not the surrounding politics…
I think the main subjects in Exit Wounds is love—both father love and romantic love—and death. And these two vectors are connected in that love is supposed to be a connection and death the ultimate separation. But in reality it is more complicated than that: love and death sometimes change roles. Sometimes love drifts us apart because we feel too vulnerable, and sometimes the death of someone we know makes us feel more connected to them or to other people. It is the basic conflict between our desire to be in touch with other people and our desire or capacity to think only about ourselves. The suicide bombing is the plot, or background to the story, and not the subject—not the centre of ‘real life’. This is sometimes difficult for people from the outside to understand. The bombing also gives Exit Wounds some kind of naturalistic texture, but I tried to avoid sensationalism and even the clichés about Israel. I wanted to make the point that the lives of most people in Israel are more based on their small everyday details than around politics. And I believe this also to be true for politicians. And I wanted to show a bigger truth as I see it: if we were not so focussed on ourselves, perhaps the situation would get better. I also wanted to look deep beyond labels like ‘father’, ‘son’, ‘soldier’ and ‘widower’, and seek the human being behind it. And when you go there you can no longer see things in black and white, you cannot hate anyone, and therefore you won’t want to hurt or destroy them. This is very different than looking from a political point of view where even a nice woman like me can turn into a monster. (I can get very unpleasant, verbally anyway, in a political argument.)

What has been the reaction in Israel?
Exit Wounds has not yet been published in Israel since it was originally commissioned in English by Drawn & Quarterly, and it took me some time to work on the Israeli version since in Hebrew you read from right to left. So I had to flip all the drawings, which usually isn’t a problem, but the main protagonist is a taxi driver and when the drawings are flipped, he ends up driving in the wrong side of the road. And since this is supposed to be a realistic story, I figured this would be irritating for the Israeli reader. Unfortunately there are one-hundred-fifty frames where he drives his damn taxi, so I had to draw many frames again. It was boring but I did it and the book will be published in Israel in the fall. But I also suspect there is another reason I wasn’t in a hurry for the Hebrew edition: I think I am a little frightened from the reaction there. People can be more touchy and critical when it is something about them or about things they know about…

It’s often said that Jewish artists have been a major force in the birth of the graphic novel as a movement. Do you have any explanation for that?
This is very funny that you ask this because whenever there is an article in an Israeli magazine about comics, the first question is always: ‘Why are there no comics in Israel?’ And the most common answer is that Jews are good with words but not with the visual—that the whole Jewish culture is limited when it comes to the visual. Of course, this is nonsense. But really, I don’t know why there are so many Jewish artists in the comic scene in North America and so little in Israel…

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