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Edinburgh International Book Festival:

Rutu Modan

Tony Gilbert

Israeli born Rutu Modan has achieved fame as an illustrator and cartoonist. She appeared at the EIBF with another cartoonist, Canadian Leanne Shipton: with all due respect to Leanne, because of the Israeli connection, this article concentrates on Rutu.

Rutu has published extensively, but she chose to focus on her most recent book, The Property, and to use it as a way to describe how she creates her work. The Property is a strip cartoon story of a young Israeli woman and her Polish born grandmother returning to Poland and the adventures they have as the grandmother looks for a property that her family owned but then lost in World War II. By way of background, Rutu said that it is almost de rigueur for young Israelis to visit Poland as an act of witness to the Holocaust, but prior to commencing the Property, she had not done this. To give her artwork the desired realism, she did then visit Warsaw, but essentially to capture the modern city as the backdrop to her pictures, not to visit Holocaust sites: she explained that her own grandmother had come from Warsaw before the war, and that generation of Israelis viewed Poland very negatively (‘a graveyard’); this had influenced her own view.

The visual clips shown from the story reminded me strongly of the Tintin stories that I read in my youth. Quite apart from the racy stories, I think much of the visual appeal of those cartoons was a sense of heightened realism: everything was somehow just a bit larger than life. Rutu confirmed this very point. Moving to an increasingly realistic style in The Property, she has started to employ actors to take on the roles in her stories, whom she then sketches. Actors are particularly good for this as they really try to ‘become’ the characters in the story. This allows for more characterful portrayal to give enhanced verisimilitude, but then she tops that with a bit of artistic licence to heighten the whole effect. The results are colourful and striking.

Strip cartoon stories seem to be an increasingly popular mode of story telling and Rutu said that she felt that this was the best medium for her voice. She drew on a comment by Gaugin, that some day someone would find a perfect combination of words and art. It seems that Rutu is working towards it.