Sunday, February 1, 2009

Exit Wounds, by Rutu Modan

[Wikipedia link for basic plot outline and some background]

Simplicity seems to be the thinnest line to walk when it comes to drawing a graphic novel. A work like Persepolis is frequently lauded for the bareness of its artwork, but it seems to me that the irregular simplicity (of the faces in particular) of Exit Wounds is really a lack, not a presence.

Let me rephrase a little bit. When I'm talking about simplicity in drawing, I'm talking about ways of drawing that intentionally repress techniques—perspective, etc.—which have been developed to create verisimilitude. Realism—which isn't necessarily the same thing as verisimilitude, as it can be stylized—is nonetheless not the intended effect. The cover at left does not do a great job of showing how this comes out in Exit Wounds—the panels they selected clearly have some commitment to verisimilitude, or to realism, at any rate. This page does a better job of rendering what I mean, I think.

I never really was engaged with the story in Exit Wounds, but it was really the art that I reacted against. I was talking with some friends about my very mixed reaction to Slumdog Millionaire last night, and I realized that I had similar qualms about both Slumdog and Exit Wounds.

Slumdog—except maybe in the purely elemental quality of its love story—is not simple—its cinematography, especially, is not simple. (Actually, it would be better to say that it tries to be complex. I think its successes are also mixed, but I digress.) But what it has in common with the drawing (and inking, really) of Exit Wounds is that both engage elements of the story which they feint at dealing with realistically, but both are ultimately interested in highly non-realistic themees—destiny, in the case of Slumdog, paternity in the case of Exit Wounds—and more or less duck when it comes to the ramifications of these potentially realistic story elements. Yet the shying away from realism is done so off-handedly that the work seems to say, "that's just the way it is here."

For example, in Slumdog, Latika (the super-destined beloved) is sold into a child prostitution ring, from which the brothers (Jamal and Salim) will attempt to rescue her. The brothers' approach to where she is being held is extremely realistic—if I remember correctly, I think it's even shot on a handheld (since at least The Blair Witch Project, an immediate visual cue for "uber-realism"). Everything in the way the shots are composed suggests an effort at visceral, almost documentary-like vision. Yet the rest of the scene is decidedly unrealistic—once Latika comes onscreen again, things take on a much slicker cast, and the shots are composed as if we were watching a very up-to-date action film. Yet, as I said, this mixing of visual genres is done in such a casual way that it seems as if the director is saying, "that's the way it flies in Mumbai." I guess I don't know for a fact that it isn't, but I'm really skeptical. My only theory is that Boyle is trying to channel Bollywood, which famously mixes visual grammars unblinkingly. And while it may be "Eurocentric" for me to demur from Boyle's attempt, I'm uncomfortable with such an appropriation, especially when it's delivered on vaguely specious grounds.

In Exit Wounds, the specter of suicide bombing is omnipresent, but its presence is mostly residual. The characters don't, I believe, mention being apprehensive of future bombings; they are in fact reacting only to a single bombing, in Hadera. (There is even a few repetitions where they try to speak with someone about this bombing, but the other person responds as if they were referring to a bombing in Haifa that occurred at nearly the same time. The novel invests itself greatly in making the Hadera bombing a singular event. I think there's something interesting to pull at there, but it's not really the direction I'm trying to head.)

This is the bombing that supposedly claimed the life of Koby's father, and in this case its emotional effects are where the author feints toward realism but draws back. Modan sets up so many of her panels so that faces become the focal point—she wants them (and needs them) to be the most legible signifier in that panel. Yet they are frequently drawn with such simplicity that their legibility is just a function of that simplicity, rather than a function of, say, their relation to what surrounds them—what's in a previous panel or what they're saying. This page is perhaps an even better example than the one I showed before.

What bothers me about this is not some bizarre belief that a face has to be drawn with great complexity to register complex emotions, or even that complex faces are artistically necessary to bring Modan's project off, or even that I think simplicity is a bad thing and realism is a good thing by nature. I just think that it's very clear that she either feels uncomfortable drawing faces or is not very interested in what they have to say, and that she should therefore put the burden of the story on something else. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan has obscenely simplistic faces, but Ware does so much else with his book to create various emotions and make various graphical statements—the positioning of his characters in the panel, their dialogue, the order and size of panels, etc.—that this one kind of simplicity becomes part of an aesthetic system, whereas the faces in Exit Wounds seem to be ways of interrupting the generally more inventive other elements of the novel, especially the way Modan shapes and places bodies.

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