The Rutu Modan Interview

Wraparound cover for The Property.

“The Land of the Dead”

SOBEL: In your first Comics Journal interview with Joe Sacco, you mentioned that all your stories have roots in reality. Can you talk about what those roots were for The Property?

MODAN: Well, I cannot tell you. It's a secret. <laughs> My family is from Warsaw, both sides. Regina is actually a combination of both of my grandmothers. Like Regina, they were these old Jewish-Polish women. They both came to Israel just before the war. On my mother’s side, my grandparents came in ’34. They lived near the German border and my grandfather saw what was coming and he said ‘let’s go.’ He was always an adventurous person. It was in his nature to move. He was always moving from country to country until he was very old.

My father was born in Warsaw. He came with his parents to Israel when he was seven, in April of 1940, so it was after Germany already occupied Poland, but before the Jews were forced to go to the ghetto. They managed to run away just in time. My father tried to be the most Israeli person he could be, like any child immigrant anywhere. He forgot his Polish.

Growing up, my parents and grandmothers never spoke about Poland. They never spoke about the families that were left behind either. If Poland was mentioned at all, they called it ‘the land of the dead’ or they’d refer to it as ‘one big cemetery.’ For me, it wasn’t a country. Until I started to work on The Property, I never even thought about Poland.

SOBEL: Why do you think no one spoke about Poland?

MODAN: Probably it was too painful for them, with all that happened after they left.

In Poland especially, it was not just that everybody they knew and loved died, the country they knew also vanished. Poland was under Russian occupation for 60 years and was closed to Israelis. And Warsaw was destroyed during the war. 90 % of the city was bombed. Not many people know about that.

There is another issue, too. It might sound unfair, but it seems that although most of the Jews (I’m speaking about Israeli Jews, and from my point of view) made peace with the Germans already, many Israelis are still angry with the Poles. I believe it is because nowadays Israelis and Germans share, more or less the same narrative about what happened during WW2. The Poles and the Jews, on the other hand, have a very different story about the past. The Jews feel they were betrayed by the Poles, while the Poles don't think they were responsible whatsoever for the events. More than that, the Poles see themselves as the number one victim of the war, and they do have some points, I admit. But it is difficult to make peace when you cannot accept the other side of the story. In a way it is similar to the problem Israelis and Palestinian have with one another.

When I started The Property, I didn’t know anything about Poland, except for the concentration camps and the ghetto, but then in the last few years, not only in my family, but everywhere, people started speaking about how Poland had changed since the ‘90s. Now that the Communists left, it was open, so people started going there for roots journeys. Then, suddenly the subject of properties started coming up. During the Communist time, it was impossible to get properties back because everything was nationalized, and besides it wasn’t considered polite to speak about money when so many people were killed. It was like betraying the dead people. But now it’s a new generation, and both nostalgia and the passage of time tend to intensify the wonders of the past, creating fantasies of legendary treasures that await overseas.

The Polish countryside before the war from The Property’s endpapers.

The idea for The Property came to me after I finished “Mixed Emotions.” One of the stories was about my grandmother. She was this tough, unpleasant old woman, the type that is called in the US "Yiddisher Mama" and in Israel "a Polish lady." I got very emotional responses to this story in particular. It seems that everyone in the world has "a Yiddisher grandmother," Italians, Koreans, Japanese, everyone. Maybe it's not so much about being Jewish. So one night I was lying in bed, just about to fall asleep when suddenly it just came to me. I said, ‘I’ll do a story about this young woman who is going with her grandmother to look at the property.’ I thought it would be a good combination of family relations and money and history, with the Holocaust in the background, but only in the background.

It’s funny because I met Joe Sacco at Angoulême a year ago and we were talking about this book and I said ‘It’s not a Holocaust book, but the Holocaust is in the background.’ I told him I didn’t want to make the grandmother a Holocaust victim. That’s why she came to Israel before the war, because making her the victim is like saying that you can’t touch her. I said, ‘for me, it’s more interesting for the characters to be attached to the drama but not in the middle of it,’ and he said, ‘wow, that’s exactly like Exit Wounds.’ <laughs> I said, ‘oh, I didn’t think about it, but actually, yes. It’s the same.’ <laughs>

SOBEL: Was it difficult to write a character that’s so much older than you?

MODAN: It was hell! <laughs> It was so difficult. Mostly because I didn't know if I would be able to describe Regina the way I wanted her to be: a full, real person. I was used to looking at my grandmother only through her role in my life.

The writing was much, much harder than Exit Wounds, not only because the characters were more complex but also because the story takes place in Poland. Exit Wounds took place in Israel, and that is, needless to say, a background I am very familiar with. Poland, on the other hand, was a place that even compared to other countries, I didn't know anything about. I didn’t even have a picture in my head about how it looks. This makes inventing the story quite difficult. And the Holocaust is a very complicated subject, too, to deal with in art. So much has been written about it already, and it is a subject that can easily lead you to melodrama.

SOBEL: Can you talk a bit about the research that went into the book?

MODAN: The first thing I did was open Wikipedia and read the history of Poland. I wanted to know more about the country, not just its Jewish history. I also read books and talked with people. I was living in England at the time when I started the research and my yoga teacher’s wife was from Poland, so I asked if I could interview her. She is in her 30s and she came from a small village near the Ukrainian border. I asked her to tell me about her life in Poland. She knew I was from Israel but she didn’t know anything about the book; I barely knew anything either at that point. I just told her that it was going to take place in Poland, but I didn’t tell her anything about the story or the theme. Literally five minutes after we started talking, she told me that her parents are living in the house that belonged to a Jewish family before the war and that they are really frightened that the Jews are going to come and take their home. I swear to you, I didn’t tell her anything. So that was when I knew that I had a good subject in my hand. <laughs> Because if there is a conflict, than there is drama, which means it can be a story.

Also I realized that, in a way, it’s similar to what happened in Israel between the Israelis and Palestinians. The history is different and it’s different circumstances, but the fact that the Jews were thrown out of their houses and then came to Israel and threw the Palestinians out of their houses… It’s the tragic repetition of history. Many Israelis don’t see the connection. They can fight for their house in Poland, but to think that they should give something to the Palestinians… they don’t make the connection.

SOBEL: Did you visit Poland?

MODAN: Yes. I went to Poland three different times. Once, in the beginning, just to see what it looked like. I purposely didn’t do Google Image because I thought it would be a nice opportunity, which is very rare in our time, to go somewhere that you don’t have an image before in your head. I went for a week to Warsaw and Lodz. Later, in the middle of the process, I went again for a few days, and then after I finished writing, I went back to take photos of all the places and locations that I would need for the story.

The café in Warsaw.

SOBEL: What were your initial impressions of Poland?

MODAN: The first time I went to Warsaw, I was with my younger sister. She came with me because I was a little afraid to go to Poland by myself. One of the things we decided was that we were not going to go to any place that was connected with the Holocaust. We made that decision beforehand because everybody you ask about where to go in Warsaw will send you to the memorials or the concentration camps, and I wanted to see how Warsaw is today, since the story I was going to write takes place in the present. I wanted to meet Polish people, not necessarily Jews, and speak with them, not to refer to Warsaw as this ‘big cemetery.’

So we arrived at the hotel, and we didn’t know where to go, but there was this book about hip places in Warsaw in the room, and my sister, who's  the most hip person I know, browsed the book  a bit and said, ‘this looks like a nice café. Let’s go there.’ We took a taxi and when we got there, we found out that this café was right in the middle of the Jewish ghetto. So we tried to avoid anything Jewish, but literally an hour after we arrived in Warsaw we were in the middle of the Jewish ghetto. <laughs>

At the café, there was an Israeli couple who were there looking very sad and serious, as you’re supposed to be when you visit the ghetto, and since my sister is an Israeli celebrity, they recognized at once that we're Israelis, too.  They asked us if we came for a roots journey. My sister said, ‘no, we just came to travel,’ and probably it was hard for them to accept since the man’s response was, ‘you must go to Majdanek. Majdanek is the best concentration camp. It’s much better than Auschwitz.’ <laughs> My sister whispered to me, ‘write that down because it has to go into your book.’

Mica encounters a Holocaust reenactment in the Warsaw ghetto.

SOBEL: Speaking of the Warsaw ghetto, I wanted to ask you about the scene with the Society of Jewish Memorialization. Is this real, and if so, how do you feel about this treatment of the past?

MODAN: This is based on a real event, although my Polish friend insists it only happened once, and not in Warsaw. They took high school kids and wanted to give them the experience of rounding up the Jews. They all wore yellow Stars of David and some others played the roles of Nazis carrying guns. It’s hilarious. I didn’t have to invent anything.

I didn't see it with my own eyes, but I heard that in Israel as well, there’s a museum for the Holocaust where they built a room in the shape of a train wagon exactly like the trains in the Holocaust, and when you step in, the wagon vibrates and the Star of David is screened on your chest. The intentions are probably good. Maybe it's my problem for seeing it as a grotesque way to deal with the memory of the past.

But in that scene with the Nazis, Mica is not thinking about the Holocaust or the past. She’s thinking about the present. She came to Warsaw to look for the property. She’s that kind of person. She’s very active and practical. But the moment a Nazi points a gun at her, immediately she knows what she’s supposed to do. She raises both hands and climbs into the truck like she was just waiting for the Nazis to come back. I think this is how many Israelis feel, like they still believe that there is a chance that the Nazis will come any minute and they really have to be prepared. I hear from parents saying ‘where are we going to hide the kids?’ and ‘does my kid look too Jewish to hide them somewhere?’ <laughs> They are joking, of course, but it is not 100% a joke.

SOBEL: Reading that section, at first I was horrified by the whole idea of people reenacting these atrocities, but then I came to think of it more as a way for people to get closer to what happened…

MODAN: Yeah.

SOBEL: And maybe appreciate in a deeper way what it actually meant to go through that.

MODAN:  One of the main themes in the book, for me, are the pathetic and doomed-to-failure ways that people are trying to remember the past, or to bring it back, or correct it after the fact. I mock it but at the same time I identify with the effort. It’s tragic that the past is something that we cannot hold onto. Life is unfairly linear.

SOBEL: I also had the sense, reading your book, that there’s this fear that the Holocaust is slipping into the past, and there are all these things that people are trying to do to hold onto it, and make sure that it’s not forgotten.

MODAN: In the story there is this old couple who are trying to feel again what they lost 70 years ago, and there is the Society of Jewish Memorialization trying to make kids experience the horrors of the war, and these Israeli high school kids going to visit the concentration camps like they go to some twisted summer camp, and Tomasz who’s trying to do a graphic novel, dreaming it would become the Polish Persepolis…  everyone, except for Mica, the heroine, is trying, in some way, to revive the past.

SOBEL: But even she is going back to reclaim the property…

MODAN: Yeah, but this is what I think happened to Mica in the end. She does connect to the past, but it’s by giving up the property, not by getting the property.

SOBEL: So is that why you bookended the story with the student trip to Poland?

MODAN: Yeah. It was especially important to me to speak about this rite of passage of Israeli high school kids. Almost every Israeli high school kid is going to Poland. It is called "The March of Life" (after The Marches of Death in the holocaust). I have a daughter who’s seventeen, and her class went as well. You don’t have to, but most of the kids go on this trip (she didn't go, by the way. I think she knew how I felt about the subject). The worst part is that usually the moral that you’re supposed to get from this trip is that we are the victims and everybody wants to kill us, and that is why they have to go the Army afterwards, so Israel will be the strongest country in the world or something like that. I hate this message. If you feel you are a victim, then you are allowed to do anything, even to victimize other people. I think the message of the Holocaust should be that we do our best, as individuals and as a nation, to fight racism and injustice. We are not victims anymore, you know? It’s very dangerous when suddenly the victims have power to victimize other people.

Roman, Tomasz, and Mica.

“He Was a Complete Stranger”

SOBEL: In both Exit Wounds and The Property, there’s this distance between children and their parents. Why do you think that is a recurring theme in your work?

MODAN: I don’t think that they’re distant. I think the contrary. Being part of the family is a strong part of my identity. I am very close to my family. Not only my husband and kids but also to my parents, sisters, cousins, uncles... That’s why my stories are always about families. In Exit Wounds, even though Kobi has no relation with his father, the fact that it’s a big issue for him just emphasizes how important his father is for him. He is very emotional about his father. He is a very important figure in his life. In Israel it’s extreme if somebody doesn’t see his father for two years. I think it’s more common in America because the country is so big.

In The Property, the connection between Regina and Mica is very strong. It’s not distant. They fight all the time, but you usually fight more with people you are close to, otherwise, why would you care?

SOBEL: In The Property, I was thinking more about Roman and his son who were obviously separated by the war.

MODAN: Yeah. In my generation, the mother used to be at home and the father was at work.  Nowadays fatherhood has changed so much in our generation. It’s something completely different. My father was not very close to us. He was influential, but he wasn’t there so much. He was always busy. He was working. It wasn’t his duty to be around. My mother was a career woman, and still she was supposed to find time to cook and go to school parties. Maybe this is the origin of the "missing father" theme in my stories, and by the way, the missing father is a very common theme is our culture.

Come to think of it, there is another possibility. I told you before how my grandfather on my mother’s side was this very adventurous person. You can read in “Mixed Emotions” about how he left my grandmother when my mother was only seven and he moved to Europe. He left and my mother had almost no connection with him after that. Actually, this is connected to the book. I forgot about it.

When I was thirteen, we went to a family wedding, a cousin or something from my mother’s side. I remember that at some point during the wedding, my mother suddenly pointed to a short, bald man and said, ‘you see this man, this is my father. This is your grandfather.’ I looked at him but he was a complete stranger. I tried but couldn't feel anything. To understand at 13 that the love of a parent (or grandparent) is not something that you can take for granted, that it’s not yours just because you are their child, was shocking.

Yagodnik’s character was based on Modan’s uncle.

It’s directly connected to the character of Roman who didn’t know his son at all, and the book’s underlying question, what is family connection, and what does it mean? Funny, how I completely forgot all about it until you asked.

SOBEL: At one point in the book Mica gets very angry with Tomasz for using her grandmother’s story as part of his graphic novel. Is this something that you’ve had to deal with in terms of using personal stories in your work?

MODAN: Yes, of course. Tomasz is partly me. Sometimes when I’m speaking with people, in my head I’m already writing the lines using their words, but I don’t feel completely comfortable doing it because it feels like I’m using them, which I am. At least I’m using their stories. When I was doing “Mixed Emotions,” and I was writing about my family, I was really afraid that they were going to be insulted. They’re irritating people sometimes but I really like them. At first I tried to tell myself that it was in English in the New York Times so they wouldn’t see it, but when I wrote the story about my aunt, my cousin, immediately sent it to her. <laughs> I had just changed her name but everything else was real. After the story was published she called me and said, ‘this aunt in your story, who is it?’ And I told her, “oh, I just invented it.’ She said, ‘oh, you invented it? So why is this aunt’s husband a gynecologist like my husband?’ I said, ‘no, no, it is just…’ and I didn’t know what to say but she said, ‘no, I was just kidding. I know it’s not about me because I would never behave this way.’ <laughs>

Yagodnik, by the way, is heavily based on my Uncle. <laughs> I hope he doesn’t read The Comics Journal <laughs> but probably my cousin will find it and send it to him, too. But I have to say that I love my Uncle, and I love Yagodnik, too. He’s the bad guy, but he is also a nice guy. He’s not a villain. He’s not really mean. He also acts from, well, for him, at least, it’s a good reason. Also, he has his heroic moment in the book.

SOBEL: Does it create awkward situations for you?

MODAN: Luckily, they don't read comics. Although, this time the rumor was already spread in the family that I am writing about them. My grandmothers are both already dead, so at least I’m safe there. <laughs>

 “I Was Like an Addict”

SOBEL: In the back of The Property, you credited a list of “comic actors” who were cast for each of the characters. Can you describe what these individuals did and how you worked with them?

MODAN: This is a process that I developed. It started in Exit Wounds. I was just using people to model, basically whoever was willing to stand for the camera and pose in a certain position because, what I'm trying to portray is that each character not only has his own unique way of looking and talking, but also  his own unique body language. I use a lot of body language to describe the characters and their feelings. By using models, and not just doing all the movement myself in front of a mirror, I could get all kinds of characters. This is how I did it in Exit Wounds.

Then, when I drew the story for the New York Times, I asked a friend of mine to model for me. She’s a professional actress and a wonderful one. It was then that I discovered what it is like to work with real actors. Actors are amazing people. As an illustrator, I am like an observer. I see things, then I describe them in pictures. Like I see that the Polish women wear certain kinds of clothes, or they have this kind of hairstyle. But with actors they can become the characters. They have this amazing ability to be someone else.

Also, by using actors, I don’t have to draw sketches. The first drawing is the most interesting to do, and many times the best. So what I did was I made a storyboard of the whole book. It was very abstract, but it had exactly what the compositions were going to be, who was going to speak and what the setting was going to be. Then I hired actors, and I picked clothes out for each character, more or less which clothes they were going to wear in each scene. And I bought some props, which were more or less what they were going to use. Then I shot photos of the actors performing the whole book frame by frame according to the storyboard like we were shooting a movie.

Over a week or ten days we shot everything in my apartment using all kinds of stuff. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. It was fascinating because I learned that I could check the rhythm of the story, which is one of the things that’s most instinctive for me doing comics. I could also check which text line was funny or emotional and figure out how to tell the story better.

But the most interesting part was how each actor brought something new into the story. Since they were the characters, they added lots of little things to the book that I didn’t even write. For example, when I gave the script to Yirmi to read, he said ‘Mica is not a very pleasant person. She is too cynical and difficult. I don’t know why Tomasz is falling for her.’ But I knew it was going to be ok because I already had in mind that I would use an actress who was very gentle and even a little bit sad… she’s this person I know who is so beautiful and sweet… and I knew that the combination between the lines that I wrote for Mica and her character would make her an attractive person.

SOBEL: How did you compose? Did you draw right over the photos on the computer?

MODAN: After I finished with the actors I went to Poland to shoot each location and then I combined them together and drew it. So, yes, I relied heavily on the photos, but still you have to leave a lot of freedom so it won’t look too realistic and lose the meaning.

SOBEL: Some of your compositions, for example the opening scene on the airplane, are quite complex. You couldn’t have staged that scene.

MODAN: No, you cannot stage that. But that is a good example… That scene is not realistic at all. When I tried to do it realistically, like when I tried to get the right perspective on the airplane, and drew the kids in their positions, it didn’t work. It didn’t look hectic like I imagined it. Realism is very stiff. In order to make it true, the drawings cannot feel photographic. Photographs only capture one second, or one hundredth of a second, while illustration or drawing is more like creating a situation. It’s not depicting a second of time. So, in order to make the illustration true, you cannot show only one second. You have to show many seconds at the same time. In the final drawing it looks realistic, but actually it’s an exaggeration.

The Vistula River in Poland.

SOBEL: Can you talk about the process you used to color The Property. Your artwork has such texture, and uses a lot of patterns in the clothing and backgrounds. How do you achieve that?

MODAN: I have this method where each scene has a different color palette. That way the reader feels immediately he is in a different place or time. Like a cut in a movie. I use the colors for creating the atmosphere, but also as information for the reader. I try to create a focus, like where do I want the reader to look, what is the order he perceives the information in a frame, or on a page.

Also, sometimes the coloring depends on the location. In the scene on the Vistula, where the young Regina and Roman are in the rowboat together, it’s the only flashback in the book so I wanted to make it very colorful and vivid, as it represent a sweet memory. So I try what works. There are many rules, but a lot of trials and errors as well.

SOBEL: It seemed like, in The Property in particular, you were closer to the Tintinligne claire” style than you’ve been in some of your previous works. Was Hergè a conscious influence on this book?

MODAN: I know people say that I work in the Tintin style, but I have to say I don’t see it. <laughs> I admire Hergè, and I won’t  say that it’s not true, it’s just that, for me, it’s difficult to see. I feel I’m influenced by so many other artists, but not necessarily Hergè. But what I do know I took from Hergè is the way he arranges the page. He was wonderful in the way he was able to put twenty frames on a page and it’s still very clear. You know where you are, it doesn’t interfere with the story, it doesn't slow you down. I try to study how he did it, how he combined all the frames together… and color is one thing, but it’s not only the color. It’s also the fact that usually he had one larger frame where you see the whole location, then all the other frames have just a hint of the setting, but you complete it in your head because you saw the big frame. I tried to imitate this, but usually failed. I tried to be minimalistic, but I am not. In the end I usually have to draw everything. Every single detail in the scene, over and over again, frame after frame.

SOBEL: Are you taking a break now after finishing such a big book or are you ready to jump right into the next project?

MODAN: No, I am definitely taking a break. <laughs> For the first time in twenty years. I don’t draw, I don’t write. I teach, I read, I meet friends. My husband is not willing to hear the words “new book.” <laughs> My daughter asked me at dinner a few weeks ago, ‘are you already thinking about your next book?’ and he said, ‘Next book with next husband.’ <laughs> He is great, he really supports my work and did more than his share at home while I was working on the book, but it is hard to live with a creative person. First he suffered because I thought that I didn’t succeed in writing, so I was miserable and he had to comfort me, and then I was happy but I was drawing fourteen hours a day.


MODAN: Yeah. I was like an addict. I was addicted to the book. My husband hardly saw me for a year. <laughs> He saw me, but only in my studio with my earphones on, drawing and listening to music, and even when I was talking to him, I was still drawing, with my eyes on the screen. So he has to have some compensation before I start a new book.



5 Responses to The Rutu Modan Interview

  1. Pingback: From My Bookshelf: The Property, by Rutu Modan (trans. Jessica Cohen) | ErikaDreifus.com

  2. Joachim says:

    Isn’t the picture from the endpapers Sweden in the summer, as mentioned by the grandmother? Look at the flag on the house!

  3. Pingback: Klezmer opera ‘The Property’ melds nostalgia, renewal in music awash with Old-World charm | Chicago On the Aisle | Chicago performing arts and other splendors -- best bets in music and theater reviews for cultural travelers and local enthusiasts

  4. Mihaela says:

    Yes, the image from the endpapers is definitely the one from the Fotoplastikon photo of Sweden. I think maybe The Comics Journal made a mistake in the caption because in the panel of Regina and Roman rowing towards Sweden you can see a very similar scenery, the same trees, hence the confusion.

  5. Kaveh says:

    I was reading Exit Wounds and wondering I should read an interview of her. Great talk! Thank you.

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