A co-founder of the art collective, Actus Tragicus, Rutu Modan has been a fixture in the Israeli comics scene since the mid-90s, receiving all manner of praise for her work in that medium and for the magazine work that she has been producing for more than 15 years. Released earlier this year, her first graphic novel, Exit Wounds, has been translated into several languages (including English, thankfully) and has garnered her nearly universal acclaim, helping to land her a gig blogging for the New York Times.
I had the opportunity to it down with Modan at SPX, last weekend. I had plenty of serious topics I was hoping to broach over the course of our conversation, including the ways in which the Isreali identity and Jewish religion play roles in her work.
And then there was the fact that Modan helped run the short-lived Israeli version of Mad Magazine. Naturally, we had to tackle that one first—a blog’s gotta have priorities, after all.
How long are you in the States for?
What are you doing to promote the book?
It’s my first book tour. From here, I’m going to Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francicso, which I’ve never been to. So it’s really exciting.
Have you been to the States before?
Yes, many times, but just to the east coast—I’ve been to New York. I’m going to New York [on this tour], but only for two and a half days.
Where else will you be going? Europe?
My book was published in Italian, so I went to Italy and Spain. It’s been fun. It’s the bright side of making comics, going to places and meeting people.
How well known is your work in Israel?
Well. Israel is so small that the comics scene is really tiny, and I’ve been doing illustrations for magazines for 15 years now.
You were at Mad for a while.
Yeah…it’s really funny that people know that—I didn’t know that it would be so important in my biography. Here it sounds very impressive, but the truth is that it’s not really that impressive. It was in the middle of the 90s and Mad was over its peak, so they started selling rights all over the world to publish local editions. The format was supposed to be 75-percent American material, and 25-pecent original local material. I was just out of art school at the time, and the publisher suggested that I edit it.
Afterwards, we co-founded the comics group, Actus. The great side of it was that we could use any material from the history of Mad Magazine. We could use things from the 50s. We asked them to send a lot of old magazines, and we were reading them and choosing what we really liked for the magazine. It was a lot of fun.
It must have been tough translating the Mad sensibility for a different culture, especially content from the 50s. Were you focused on what you thought the readers would like?
We were trying to think about what would be relevant. There were all of these parodies of TV shows, and you have to know the show to understand it. But we were more interested in alternative comics, for the original comics, we asked all of our friends from the alternative scene to contribute. It was a chance to get paid for doing their comics. We also got a hip designer, so we completely changed the design of Mad Magazine. The result was that people who liked Mad Magazine hated the material. They thought it was terrible. And people who like alternative comics hated the Mad part.
So, nobody was happy.
Yeah. Nobody was happy and everyone criticized it. Nobody bought it. We did it for a year, and learned a lot from it. Then it closed down.
There’s no Mad Magazine in Israel, right now?
No, no. But then we understood that, if we were going to lose money, we’d better lose it with something that we liked to do. So we founded Actus, and started self-publishing.
How many people are involved in Actus?
Five—there’s actually a very funny story involving Mad—we had to send the American publisher the cover. Just the cover. They wanted to see it, because we had to use Alfred E. Newman. So, one of the covers we did was by an artist who drew Alfred E. Newman like a skinhead. It was cancelled. They didn’t let us publish it, because they said that hurt Jewish people’s feelings.
There certain neo-Nazi connotations to aspects of the skinhead culture.
Yeah, but we didn’t have the connotation because in Israel, there are no Nazis. But they didn’t understand that, so we had to use a different cover.
[Continued in Part Two.]