Sunday 18 October 2009

In Exit Wounds Rutu Modan gives me something that's getting harder to find in my 'graphic novel' reading. That is, she's telling me something I don't already know. It's set in an actual place I've never been to, and the characters are involved in plausible actions that are outside of my experience. They are investigating whether the father of one of them has been the victim of a terrorist bombing, and whether he is the 'John Doe' in a hastily dug grave at the cemetery. While they're there, an unrelated body is being exhumed with, much family ceremony further along the line, due to a similar discovery.

The impressive thing about Exit Wounds is that there is a keen organizing intelligence at work at every single level of it, from top to bottom, and I'd like to run my eye down them.

First, the thematic material. The softcover of Exit Wounds that I'm looking at here was released last December, a year after the hard cover, and includes a very thorough eight page interview with the author at the back of the book, from which we glean a few insights into her method. 'Life has no subtext, and a story without subtext is a soap opera... journalism has a different duty. I'm talking about fiction.' There is then a suggestion that the matter-of-factness of death is her principal interest in the book, the thought that nobody might give it a thought. A real news event forms the seed of the story, a victim who could not be identified. Second, on to the nuts and bolts of plot construction: 'the problem with reality is that it is too chaotic.' Her story does indeed have an orderly way of unfolding, everything noted in its turn and in its place. A personal experience contributes to the plot, things that happened to other people, then inventions and connections are added and the whole thing is logically worked out until the joins are invisible.

Third, the setting, which is Tel Aviv. Reference photos would have to have been used for buildings and cars, but Modan subsumes everything into a 'Ligne clair' style, all the way down to dots for eyes. The underlying draughtsmanship is so tight that she loosens things up a bit on the surface by eschewing rulers and straight lines. Fourth, the people- there's a studied ordinariness about them that becomes an attraction because they're so engagingly observed. Using Photos for figures is too complicated for a long form comic strip. That kind of thing was right for old style painted magazine illustration where the artist could spend several days on a single composition. With comics there is too much ground to be covered. The artist most of the time must rely on mentally internalized figure studies, so that they can be convincingly produced when needed. He or she must be looking and mentally recording, all the time, even when they're not supposed to be. There's a marvelous six page sequence of perfectly observed love-making in which clothes get in the way, pants come off as inelegantly as real pants come off.

Fifth, the color has me mystified. It's obviously done on computer, but there are inconsistencies and textural suggestions under the hues, perhaps some roughage has been scanned for a base layer. Here's a zoom on a head, with uneven yellow across the flesh and what looks like the merest suggestion of purple veins around the man's temple. There's life in these colours

Sixth, the lettering shows the same degree of thinking too. It obeys all the rules I wrote about in an earlier post. The words form a shape within the larger shape of the balloon and there's plenty of air between the two. She also solves another problem which I've written about before. which is that white word balloon tends to look like a hole in the picture through to the white of the page, suggesting in most comics that the sound is happening in a separate dimension somewhere else. A technique to unify the words and picture into a single audio-visual space is necessary. Modan solves the problem by colouring the balloons a very pale yellow. I've picked a detail in which the figures and balloons are isolated against the white of the page, then I've blown it up and darkened it to underline the point. The most casual of readers may not have even noticed that this method runs all through the book.

Seventh and finally I'm looking even at the white spaces between the panels. They are a little wider than most artists would have them, but rigorously consistent. The casual reader, once again, probably never thinks about it, but every artist has to make important decisions about this at the outset. As an example, I recall that I once had a theory, though I have to go all the way back to the King Canute Crowd just now to find it in use, that the vertical spaces between panels should be narrower than the horizontal spaces between tiers. In other books, as in The Order of Beasts, I've left it to my whims on the day.

It's a real treat to see everything working toward a unified purpose like this, and worth analyzing because we don't see it often enough.



Anonymous Best said...

This post reminds me that I lent White my "Exit Wounds" 12 months ago and he hasn't given it back.

That basterd!

18 October 2009 at 01:02:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Oi! Start your petty bickering on my blog and I'LL give YOU exit wounds!

18 October 2009 at 01:13:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Johnny Walker said...

Guess it's finally time to pick Exit Wounds off my shelf and give it a read. Thanks for giving me plenty of things to appreciate on a deeper level!

18 October 2009 at 06:22:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Ng Suat Tong said...

Wonderful analysis of the innerworkings of this comic - enjoyable and perceptive!

18 October 2009 at 07:53:00 GMT-5  
Blogger John R. Platt said...

Just requested this from my library!

18 October 2009 at 08:54:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, the artwork reminds me of Herge's crisp style, which I happen to like very much. I must read this now. Right now. How unfortunate then that I have no copy at hand...

By the way, Eddie, glad to see you still doing your thing. I remember our chats from the DeeVee days.

19 October 2009 at 07:52:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Long time no hear. Hope you're well.

19 October 2009 at 08:00:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Yoga Gal said...

You always post the coolest and most interesting stuff! I usually read your blog late at night after my pain meds wear out your blog is better than any pain drug I'm on!Thank you!

21 October 2009 at 04:53:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Nino said...

Hi, Eddie!
Hope I can get a copy of "Exit Wounds", and share my opinion as the most casual of the readers.

22 October 2009 at 04:11:00 GMT-5  
Blogger DerikB said...

"the vertical spaces between panels should be narrower than the horizontal spaces between tiers"

This is standard for traditionally formatted bande dessinee. For instance (a couple books at hand), Tintin or Trondheim's Lapinot series.

17 January 2010 at 09:05:00 GMT-5  

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