Defensive Maneuvers

Exit Wounds

I've had this book, a color Drawn & Quarterly hardcover priced at $19.95, since around the time it was released. Which was over four months ago, if I recall correctly. Unfortunately, enough review-worthy comics are released these days at a fast enough clip that certain books tend to slip through my grasp, even when I like them. I just don't have enough time to adequately cover as many works as I wish I could, especially on an 'as they arrive' basis.

Still, sometimes I can catch up a little. Bookshelf-ready hardcovers are supposed to have a long life, after all, and coverage can rise again as clusters of readers discover works months after they debut in a particular market. Just in the last few weeks, Brian Michael Bendis deemed this particular book his favorite summer read and "a shoo-in for graphic novel of the year," while Jeff Lester posted a laudatory review at some website. So let me add to the revived conversation, as it is.

Initially released in 2006 by Coconino Press under the title Unknown/Sconosciuto (Unknown/Disowned), Exit Wounds is the first book-length comics project from writer/artist Rutu Modan, co-founder of the famed Actus Tragicus comics collective and a much-acclaimed figure of Israel's comics and illustration scene (more detail here). As you can see from this sample, her visual approach to the book owes a lot to the 'clear line' of Hergé, although her subject matter quickly indicates that she's appropriating the style for ironic and political effect in the tradition of artists ranging from Joost Swarte to Yves Chaland to Rian Hughes.

Note how Modan pops her foreground characters and items by setting their bold and varied colors against one or more monochrome background hues or patterns - apart from adding distinction to the primary action of each panel, this technique conveys the book's theme in purely visual terms. The democracy of lines employed by the clear line style, foreground and background equally assertive in thickness (if not blackness), insures that Modan's lightly cartooned characters inhabit the same world as her detailed environments, but the colors act as a separating force, detaching the characters (and whatever is in their immediate grasp) from their broad surroundings. And indeed, these people are broken away from the many things that make up their home.

The plot of Exit Wounds concerns Koby, a taxi driver in Tel Aviv, who is persuaded by a wealthy young woman named Numi to embark on an investigation as to the whereabouts of his absentee father. It seems that Numi, despite being a young woman fresh out of compulsory military service, had been enjoying a love affair with the old man, and now fears that he's been killed in a recent market bombing. Koby can't stand his father, and expects the irresponsible coot has pulled one of his famous disappearing acts, yet gradually finds himself more and more involved in cutting through the thatch of aloof resentment that's surrounded his life:

"I thought I would never want to see him again as long as I lived. But now I realized that I was always sure we would meet again, sometime in the distant future. We'd finish the fight we'd been having our whole lives and then he would finally apologize."

Needless to say, it's what Koby and Numi realize about themselves that forms the heart of the book. There's some obvious notions of class at play; wealthy Numi's family tries to raise her 'American,' holding the tall and eccentric girl to a supermodel's standard of beauty, leading to her falling in with a less-privileged, much older man whom she believes will treasure her.

Violence (or the threat thereof) also exists as part of that flat background; characters often confuse larger bombings with smaller ones, there's so damn many of them, and the requirement of military service stands as much as a coming-of-age marker as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Koby's family situation manages to frustrate his pride in both of them, which is part of Modan's point - the background noise that is daily violence externally represents the smashed bonds of family in Koby's and Numi's lives, so prevalent that they're easy to just accept, nonetheless causing the young folk to emotionally separate from their surroundings. The 'Exit Wounds' of the English title.

The beauty of Modan's work comes from how many variations on these themes she concocts among minor characters and small interactions. Koby's father gets around, and has left more than one lie in his wake. There's suspense in waiting to find out what's really going on, but Modan's true focus is on the curt, back-to-business manner of a cafeteria owner who lost her husband in a bombing, or a man who uses the same explosion as leverage in support of a local petition, or the quiet commonalities between diverse Koby and Numi, owing to their experiences with that elusive father of one and lover of another.

It's these personal observations that carry the book through its more formulaic moments (I don't think you need to ask if romantic tension develops between our protagonists), and imbue it with a delicate, introspective tone that calmly disarms any potential for suspense thriller resolution. Modan realizes that the structures of mystery can't afford an easy solution to her real story, though they can suggest a means of betterment. As such, the work's ambiguous finale seems fairly won, and eloquent even in its obvious symbolism and pat romantic flourish. Who can say when things might vanish, and where their absence might take us?