Review: ‘Jamilti & Other Stories’ by Rutu Modan
Jamilti & Other Stories
By Rutu Modan
Drawn & Quarterly, August 2008, $19.95
Rutu Modan came to the attention of most American comics readers last year, when her graphic novel [[[Exit Wounds]]] was published to great acclaim. Exit Wounds went on to hit a number of top ten lists, and won the Eisner for Best New Graphic Novel. But no cartoonist comes out of nowhere – Modan had been writing and drawing shorter comics stories for a decade. Those would be these stories, which have now been corralled between two covers.
[[[Jamilti]]] collects seven stories, all of them but the title piece originally published in anthologies from the comics collective Actus (of which Modan was one of the two founders). (“Jamilti” itself was originally published in [[[Drawn & Quarterly]]], Vol. 5, for those seeking closure.) Modan’s style has changed slightly over the years, but her artistic progression isn’t obvious. Her most recent work – Exit Wounds, “Your Number One Fan” from [[[How To Love]]], the currently running serial [[[The Murder of the Terminal Patient]]] – have a tighter, cleaner line and solid blocks of brighter, purer colors than her earlier stories, but that’s more of a tightening of what she was already doing than anything else. The stories before that bounce back and forth from color to black and white, with the drawing similarly getting looser and tighter as Modan worked out what she wanted to do.
“Jamilti,” from 2003, opens the book with Modan’s loosest drawing style, nearly primitivist in its broad outlines and crayonish colors. It focuses on a young Israeli bride-to-be, a nurse with a fiancé she’s coming to realize is racist and cruel, when she rushed to the scene of a suicide bombing to rescue the only person she finds there. It has the shape of a modern prose short story, stopping just before what we expect will happen between Rama and her brutish bridegroom-to-be.
“[[[Energy Blockage]]]” comes from the 2004 Actus anthology [[[Dead Herring Comics]]]. A young woman narrates her family’s story: her father ran out fifteen years ago, when the two daughters were young, and their mother tried to commit suicide with pills. She didn’t die, but had a vision and came back with “electricity” in her hands that she uses to cure the illnesses (mostly childlessness) of gullible women. Her two daughters help her run the business, until, one day, their runaway father’s new wife comes in for treatment, and the narrator forces a confrontation. This story is a little more old-fashioned – it’s heavily narrated, for one thing – but it also ends on a note of uncertainty.
“Bygone” sees Modan working in black and white for the only time in this anthology – it’s a longer story from 2003’s [[[Flipper]]], Vol. 2. It’s another tale of two sisters – though they also have a much older third sister who acts like a mother to them – living in and running a small, heavily-themed hotel somewhere in Israel. It’s another story of family secrets, which our teenage heroine discovers after a bit of rebellion with a hotel guest.
“[[[The Panty Killer]]]” is both serious and frivolous, a crime story about a murderer who leaves victims with panties on their heads. (It’s from [[[The Actus Box]]], in 2001.) It turns out to be another family story, with another mother and daughter, and another secret from the past coming back to damage the present.
After that comes “[[[Homecoming]]],” which is told entirely in full-page, almost children’s book-like panels. The art style is also the closest to “Jamilti,” though it’s more careful and detailed here. (It’s from the 2002 Actus anthology [[[Happy End]]], a title I presume was meant to be deeply ironic, unless this story was the odd man out there.) A plane circles a kibbutz by the sea – the government believes it’s being flown by a terrorist bomber, but one man is sure that it’s his son, a pilot who was shot down over Lebanon eight years before. But the story, as usual for Modan, is focused on a young woman, the lost pilot’s wife. The big panels give the story weightiness and seriousness, and an open feeling that fits the seaside setting.
The oldest story in the book is “[[[The King of the Lilies]]],” from 1999’s [[[Jetlag]]]. Modan talks in her afterword about how, at that point, she could still only set her stories among strange people far away – acrobats and surgeons a hundred years ago in Sweden. This one is a story about a daughter, but she’s more acted upon than acting – the focus is her adopted father, the surgeon. (If I were an armchair psychologist, I’d say that Modan was still working her way towards writing about things closer to herself – writing about the daughters, and not them men watching them.)
And last is “[[[Your Number One Fan]]],” the newest story in the book. It was originally published in How to Love, which I reviewed a few months ago. Modan has completely moved beyond mothers and daughters here, in this story of a frustrated Israeli musician who gets a chance to go to England for a concert that’s not at all what he expected. In context with her other work, it really shows Modan broadening her scope.
Jamilti is a mixed bag, as the first collection of anyone’s short work would inevitably be. Modan’s earlier stories are quite accomplished, but there’s no denying that she’s gotten better recently – Exit Wounds crystallized her strengths, and she’s moving forward and upward from that. So Jamilti may be a bit disappointing for fans of Exit Wounds – too focused on family stories and too tentative – but there are still some fine stories here.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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