Life & Culture

Israel’s comic queen digs deep

Multi-award-winning graphic artist Rutu Modan reveals her inspirations


When Rutu Modan was an art student in Jerusalem, she had a friend with a curious story to tell.

“He told me that when he was in high school he and his father met a rabbi who discovered a secret code in the Bible explaining where the Ark was buried.

"So the father left his work and took his son, my friend, out of school and together they dug a tunnel in the mountain for several years and they didn’t find it. But my friend told me his father did this for seven years.”

The story stuck with Modan, whose career as an acclaimed

graphic artist spans 30 years. It inspired her most recent work, Tunnels, subject of a talk at Jewish Book Week this year, a book that mixes adventure, archeology and politics and is “complex and thrilling” according to the Guardian’s critic.

For Modan the most fascinating aspect was that the family who spent years searching for the lost Ark of the Covenant were not religious.

“I asked him, ‘What does the Ark mean to you? What were you expecting to find?’ and he said, ‘It’s a walkie-talkie with God.’ And he’s a secular Israeli,” she explains.

Modan wanted to pick an object with great value and significance for her story and there was nothing else that came close.

“I was looking for the most precious and holy artefact that you can have because the treasure in a treasure hunt story needs to be a huge treasure and actually I wasn’t sure about the Ark because I was afraid that it was a cliché, since it’s been used in Indiana Jones.

But I couldn’t find anything else that has such a meaning.”

The book uncovers the way in which archeology becomes a tool of Middle East politics in disputed territories.

“In Hebrew it’s called the Ark of Berit and Berit is like a contract that you would die rather than break it. So in a way the story is about all these people who are so different from one another who are living here looking for the Berit, looking for what we have lost. We feel that we used to have it but maybe we never had it. For me, what was lost was the way we cooperate together.

"When you do find it, it’s just a box if you don’t believe in it. So it’s just an object but finding what this object represents is what’s really important.”

Growing up in Israel there wasn’t a traditions of comics as there is in the US or Europe, so Modan was inspired by whatever caught her eye. One clear influence is Herge, the Belgian creator of Tintin. Visually her approach to drawing Tunnels wasn’t an entirely conscious decision, though.

“It’s difficult to speak about my style because it’s not entirely a decision, it’s more like a process I have been going through as an artist for more than 30 years.

“My style was very grotesque back in the 1980s and it became more and more realistic. I also think the stories that I wrote became more realistic because, as I grew up more things happened to me, I matured and found out that with reality you don’t have to exaggerate as it is exaggerated and macabre enough. So my stories became more realistic and my style became more realistic.

“With Tunnels it has a crazier atmosphere to it and also part of it was a treasure hunt so that dictated the tone of the story.

“I wanted to speak about some very serious things but also to express how fantastic and funny Israel is. I also wanted to look at it as an outsider if I was able to pull that off.”

She works closely with the National Library of Israel, as the inaugural artistic director of its creative hub Sadeh, where she’s worked with four graphic designers to create comics based on the Library’s vast collection.

Now she’s very much looking forward to coming to London for Jewish Book Week.
“London is my favourite city,” she says. “ I was living in Sheffield for a few years because my husband was working there. I haven’t been to London in many years.”

She relishes the chance to speak about her work. “I work very slowly and attending shows and events is like a gift I give myself.”

Rutu Modan is speaking at Jewish Book Week on February 26 and giving a graphic novel masterclass on the same day

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