Let me cut straight to the chase: Rutu Modan's EXIT WOUNDS is one of the best graphic novels I've read this year and I'm kinda surprised it hasn't gotten more online coverage. I'm trying to think why that might be--perhaps some perfect storm of unfamiliar creator, pricey packaging and lousy title? (Thanks to the miracle that is Steven Seagal, I was instantly put off by this title. Those of you working on the indy graphic novels "Fire Down Below," "Today You Die," and "Half Past Dead," take warning.) I can see why that might be the case, although it's deceptive in all particulars: Rutu Modan, although not a household name over here, has a long career over in Israel and is working at the top level of craft; although $19.95 isn't a price that encourages impulse purchasing, it's a good deal for a 172 page color hardcover; and despite the title that sounds like a generic action flick, Exit Wounds is in fact simultaneously a mystery, a romance, and a meditation on identity, both personal and cultural.
The nickel tour: Koby Franco is a taxi driver in modern-day Tel Aviv, who lives with his aunt and uncle and is estranged from his father. He and his cab are summoned to a military base where Numi, a female soldier, suggests that his father may have died in a recent suicide bombing. Although still angry with his father for any number of slights and offenses, Koby tries to check in on his father and is unable to locate him anywhere. Working with Numi while trying to discern what relationship she had with his father, Koby chases down one lead after another, trying to discover whether his father is dead or not, until finally Koby's father, like some quantum ghost, seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
Initially, I wanted to compare Exit Wounds to Allison Bechdel's Fun Home--not only because both novels are about protagonists struggling to come to terms with the influence of absent fathers, but because both novels are highly literary, deeply satisfying at the expert level with which they draw together their themes and motifs. But whereas the literary tradition is one of the themes of Fun Home, Exit Wounds reminds me more of the classic City of Glass in the way the theme of the novel provides the answers (or explains why there are no answers) to the novel's plot. I hate to perpetuate the snobbery outside reviewers frequently fall prey to when reviewing graphic novels in the New York Times Book Review, but I finished Exit Wounds feeling like I'd read a "real" novel. What's great is Exit Wounds is able to do this without feeling pretentious or "important": it's first and foremost an enjoyable, gripping read
That's not to say the charms of Exit Wounds is purely literary: Modan's work reminds me a bit of Hergé or Joost Swarte in the way the knowing use of color helps reinforce the solidity of the supple linework, yet also brings a depth of focus the unvarying lines might otherwise lack. (If it wasn't so sophisticated in its palette, the color would be like that of Marvel Comics from the Shooter years where, in order to make the foreground figures pop, a blob of unvarying color was laid onto the background.) Unlike Swarte or Hergé, however, Modan's faces are more crude, more broadly exaggerated, which can occasionally be detrimental--the faces can look unfinished or even badly drawn--but frequently give the work a caricaturist's vigor.
Yet, while I dug the art, it was the dialogue I most admired. As Koby and Numi spend more and more time together in the search for his father, Numi's warm-heartedness gets Koby to open up and drop his guard but it's done bit by bit, and the tone of their conversations changes mercurially from banter to arguing, from inquisitiveness to manipulation, and back again depending on how each reacts to what the other says. Even though he suggested the book's title (which, sadly, is too generic to be effective), Noah Stollman does a truly commendable job with the translation.
Writing laudable reviews can be difficult, particularly when the joy of discovering a new creator and a new work can be found, at least in some small part, in the joy of discovery itself, and I would not want to strip any of that joy from you. So I hope I've convinced you to seek out the work without marring the pleasure you'll get when you do so. I also worry about the similar dangers in overhyping a work to the point where the reader is let down when they try it for themselves. And yet, I still cannot shake my conviction that Exit Wounds is in the top echelon of graphic novels released this year, and very much worth your time and money to get a copy. It's a truly enjoyable and EXCELLENT piece of work.