A Week in Culture: Rutu Modan, Cartoonist
June 27, 2013 | by Rutu Modan
I have no idea how this happened, but apparently I’ve agreed to give a talk to the entire pre-K and first grade at a local school. A total of seven classes.
While I do, in fact, also illustrate children books, it’s really due to my interest in books and less to my interest in children. It’s not that I don’t like children—I’m quite fond of mine—but speaking to children is a bit scary. They don’t know they’re supposed to hide it if they’re bored.
I show the kids books I’ve illustrated, share my work methods, and even throw in a professional secret: I can’t draw horses’ feet. During the Q&A, a curly-haired girl persistently raises her hand and when I call on her she says, “My mother looks much younger than you.” But all in all, I realize that between these kids and my students at the art academy there is no big difference in understanding.
I return home exhausted and spend the afternoon in bed reading an old book, published in 1958, I purchased at a second-hand store titled Education in the Eyes of Humor. Despite its humorless title, this anthology of short stories by classic authors is very amusing. The subject is parent-teacher-child relationships (one of Chekhov’s stories is about a widowed lawyer who discovers that his six-year-old son is smoking; Kornel Makuszynski, a well-known Polish author, writes on the brotherhood of test cheaters at his high school). Unsurprisingly, most of the authors describe themselves as horrible students, as constant disappointments to their parents, and complete failures in being part of the system. I thank God Ritalin wasn’t available then.
In the evening, I attend Lysistrata at Habima Theater. It’s a loose musical interpretation of Aristophanes’s comedy. In this version, the Israeli military’s top brass is putting on Lysistrata under the conduction of the original Lysistrata herself (the ancient Greek one) who has appeared out of nowhere and with whose authority they must now comply. With the exception of Lysistrata (the actress Lilian Berreto), all the roles are played by men, including the rebellious wives who won’t sleep with their husbands until they cease fighting.
I already saw this play a couple of weeks ago, but this time I’m backstage witnessing the costume changes, which are no less amusing than the play itself.
Morning: I’m going to Asaf Hanuka’s studio. For the past five years, Asaf has been publishing a comic strip titled The Realist and is now working on a graphic novel with his twin brother, Tomer, who has returned from New York after twenty years. Their studio, situated in the basement of a Tel Aviv apartment building, is full of paint brushes, canvases, and watercolors, just the way an illustrator’s studio should look. I’m a bit jealous. Since I began working on the computer, my paints and brushes are tucked away in drawers. I only went over to pick up a book, but in this comics-challenged country of ours, Asaf is one of the few comics artists I can speak to about our profession. And so I found myself staying for a three-hour conversation that only two people of the same profession can have: you besmirch the field, gripe about the present, and make gloomy predictions, and at the same time are astonished at how the rest of humanity has not chosen such a line of work.
Afternoon: Hila Noam, a former student of mine, has come over for some advice. She’s stuck with the ending to a story she’s working on. It’s part of an independent anthology to be presented next winter at the International Comics Festival in Angouleme, France. I recommend replacing the vehicle at the end of her story with a plane, but my suggestion is poor, as apparently the anthology’s theme is “Bus.”
I didn’t partake in anything cultural all day, unless you count arguing on the phone with the owner of a large book chain a cultural act. She tried to persuade me to let her sell my new graphic novel, The Property, at an eighty percent discount, which turned into an argument about who is at fault for the poor state of literature (and/or authors). In a joint effort, we manage to end the conversation on a friendly note and pass the blame on to the government.
In the evening, I drag my teenage daughter to a play at a charming venue called the Store. Befitting its name, it’s located in a store in the heart of one of the city’s not-so-pleasant commercial streets. The store has been converted into a tiny theater that can hold perhaps an audience of twenty-five.
The play, Papercut, is a side-splittingly hilarious yet touching parody à la Mad Men about a secretary, nicknamed “the Bulldog” by her friends, who is secretly in love with her boss. The play is a one-woman show by Yael Rasooly, who is also the director and the playwright. She uses paper cutouts for the sets and props as well as for the other characters in the play.
Keren Taggar, an illustrator, sent me her sketches for William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. I read the book in my youth, and even back then I could sense the humanity, humor, and deep sadness lying underneath. It’s a bold and pleasing move on behalf of the publisher: the book is destined to be part of a series for young adults, which is extraordinary, since nothing really “happens” in it and there’s not a happy ending.
Over the phone, Keren and I discuss the difference between illustrating for children and adolescents, which sends me to my own library to find Little Women. The illustrations in the edition I own simply floored me at age twelve. The illustrator, Albert de Mee Jousset, drew the March girls exactly as I imagined them!
I tried to search him once on the Internet, but all I could find was a mention on some Web site that noted he received only two thousand dollars for the illustrations. I find it surprising that the going rate for book illustration hasn’t really changed over the past hundred years.
Afternoon: catastrophe—the Internet is down. The entire household is having an emotional breakdown, especially after we’re informed that the technician won’t arrive until Friday. Two whole days sans Internet. Will we make it? What’s more, we don’t have TV. My daughter takes off for Blockbuster, returning with a pile of DVDs to help us through the crisis.
We feel as though we’re in some sociological experiment. Suddenly the entire family assembles in the living room to watch the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, or, as we girls like to call it, “The Real Darcy.” The men of the house hang around, supposedly to complain about the screening’s female agenda.
Before bedtime, I scold the disgruntled children: “Two days with no Internet! What’s the big deal?” I, by the way, am set, as I’m teaching tomorrow at the academy, which has fantastic Internet service.
In the morning I meet my carpool at the café. We’re driving to the Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design in Jerusalem. Every semester I’m in a different carpool, during which I develop these tight friendships due to the fact that I spend a good three hours, once a week, in a small, enclosed space with the driver. I don’t even see my husband this much. I’ve had the opportunity to ride with a manic video artist (alarmingly, while driving, she’d whip out her iPhone and take pictures), with a group of instructors from the fine art department (who would adamantly disparage every opening they’d attended the previous week), and with an interactive-design instructor (app recommendations and free IT advice). I intend to become a well-educated individual by retirement.
This semester, my carpool consists of two typographers. Most of the time, they argue about “good letters” and “bad letters” while I float in the backseat.
I teach a course in comics for third-year students. Most of the work is done in class, and I’m there to assist them with their personal projects, which include writing, drawing, and production.
To one of them, I recommend shortening his six-hundred-frame script, reminding him that the semester ends in four weeks. The student explains that his comic is in the “stream of consciousness” genre, thus refusing to edit it whatsoever.
Fortunately, most of them are not like that. One student, raised in the USSR, is drawing a booklet about his grandfather’s super-Communist brother who was killed in World War II. Another one has written a poetic and funny script about a friendship between a balloon artist and a whale.
Working with a good student is an entry to an unfamiliar world of ideas and images. It’s a visit into the mind of someone whose age, gender, culture, and, at times, mother tongue is different from mine. As Anne Shirley of Green Gables said, teaching is an equal source of both misery and joy.
Classes were cut short today due to a farewell party being thrown for our most tenured professor, Avi Eisenstein, who is retiring after forty years in academia, during which he’s taught more than four thousand students, including myself. These events tend to be quite boring, except that Avi is an eccentric and amusing individual and, like every good professor, a performer at heart. He enjoys being spoken about and even more to speak himself, about himself. When he gets onstage he says, “I wrote down what I’d wanted to say, but now I feel like talking about other things.” He then dramatically tosses his papers up in the air, and they scatter all over the stage. He smiles: “To be honest, I practiced that toss all week.” The audience, mostly comprising former students, roars with laughter.
It’s seven P.M. and I’m famished, but the buffet selection has only fruit. I sadly chew on a slice of melon while dreaming of a burger.
As is written on the museum’s wall, the show “brings together Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby-Dick, and works of art, while examining the ways in which the readings and interpretations of the novel echo questions of representation and project on the readability of the visual image.” In other words, these are illustrations. (Sorry, my friends from the art world!).
Still no Internet.
I escape the household’s gloomy atmosphere and go out with my best friend, the author Yirmi Pinkus, to visit Dvora Keidar. She’s an eighty-nine-year-old actress at the height of her career: she’s currently in five different productions, two of which are leading roles. I fell in love with her three years ago when I saw her onstage as an aging prostitute in a red slip and platforms.
Yirmi introduces Dvora to his newborn baby boy. Once Dvora is done admiring him, they turn to discuss The Seagull, which they recently saw together. Dvora couldn’t stand the play. She claims the production was sloppy: the buttoned pillowcases used onstage only came into use years after Chekhov’s death.
At home, I take advantage of the fact that the Minister of Nutrition (my husband) is not around and make pizza on pita, a favorite of mine since college. The children and I eat in front of the screen (double crime), watching Once Upon a Time, a French animated series (dubbed, of course!) from the seventies that explains world history. While the kids watch the beheading of the animated noblemen (in the episode on the French Revolution), I call the Internet provider. “The situation is dire,” I tell the courteous young man from customer support. “Soon we’ll have no choice but to read books.” He doesn’t quite get the joke and offers his deepest condolences, but that’s about all he can do for me at the moment.
I retreat for an afternoon siesta with Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, perhaps the most beautiful book by one of the best authors. Ginzburg was the daughter of a socialist family living under the Italian Fascist regime before World War II. The family had close ties with revolutionary activists, and she herself married the head of the anti-Fascist political movement, Leone Ginzburg. These dramatic events are told in the book through small occurrences and catch phrases, which turn a group of people into a family. The book was reissued with a new translation, and I’m delighted to find passages that were omitted from the previous edition. I think thirty years of Fascism in Italy, to those who lived back then, was a reality they doubted would ever change. And maybe here, too, in my embroiled country, we expect some quick solution that will solve everything at once. On the other hand, to overcome Fascism, Italians had to endure some of the most murderous periods in history. The thought brings me down, and I doze off.
After dinner, my husband and I catch a show at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. To be honest, neither of us are big jazz fans, but one of the performers tonight, Alexander Levin, is Lilian’s son (the actress from Sunday). He’s only seventeen (at least half the age of the rest of the ensemble members) and has already been named an up-and-coming Israeli jazz musician. Regardless of his age, he easily conquers the stage and audience. I forget I don’t like jazz. With tears in my eyes, I recall him at the age of two, on the sofa at my house, munching on a cookie and watching Snow White.
One of the sure ways to know your children have grown is when weekends have become easier than weekdays. Just a few years ago I’d awake Saturday morning in a panic: What’s the plan for today? This morning I don’t even bother getting out of bed for at least two hours. I try to read the newspapers lying around from yesterday, but the continuous hair-raising scandals spread out page after page do me in. Sorry, it’s my day off. I prefer Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Christie’s scandals, as lethal as they may be, are preferable to reality, for there’s always only one villain and he’s always found out. Usually, he’ll also bother to commit suicide before he even goes to trial. Christie, in the most guilt-awakening manner in a fan like myself, is a shameless racist. But at least she’s an equal-opportunity racist: the Jews are ugly and greedy, the French extort, the Arabs are childish, and the Americans rich and loud, and only very rarely is the killer from the working class—he must not be smart enough, in Christie’s opinion, to plan a murder befitting Hercule Poirot.
In the afternoon, I meet with Yair Qedar, who’s working on a documentary series about Israeli poets. His next film is on Bialik, Israel’s national poet. Due to the lack of filmed footage, Yair, the director, worked with an animator named Jewboy. Jewboy creates abstract and lyrical movie clips to accompany the narration of the poet’s unfilmed years. I’ve been invited, along with some other people, to view the films in progress and give my opinion on whether they “work.”
Being that Bialik is the national poet, anyone who’s been through Israel’s education system had to study and get tested on his work. The conclusion is that everyone I know thinks Bialik poems are boring. Fortunately, my high school literature teacher found an excellent way to spark our interest in the great poet: at the age when reading the word bosom can cause shortness of breath, he taught us only Bialik’s love and erotic poems. Just before the matriculation exams, he quickly taught us also a couple of his national poems. That’s what I call a first-rate educator personality.
When I get home, the children inform me that the Internet technician texted that he’ll be arriving tomorrow morning. Hallelujah!
Translated from the Hebrew by Sivan Ben-Horin.