The Property by Rutu Modan
Writer & Artist: Rutu Modan
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Release Date: May 14, 2013
To say The Property is an excellent book short-changes it a bit. Rutu Modan’s second big story for adults builds on the intelligence of her debut graphic novel, Exit Wounds, which won an Eisner for Best New Graphic Novel in 2008 as well as multiple best-of placements. If Exit Wounds was Modan’s Rushmore, than The Property is her Royal Tenenbaums: her earlier work an announcement of presence, her latest a wide-ranging and ambitious (and more comfortable) creation.
The Property presents the story of an elderly Polish emigré in Israel (Regina) who returns to Poland with her granddaughter (Mica), ostensibly to reclaim property confiscated during World War II. The narrative is straightforward and novelistic in many ways, but the way Modan unfolds her tale is rich and subtle, full of individualized detail. As an artist, she excels at rendering streetscapes, and there are many to be seen here, laid out with clear perspective and precise lines with bold color. Her character design is similarly simplified, flattened to a few details that manage to express a multitude of emotion.
If Modan’s work both as a writer and artist could be summarized, it may come down to a single word: economical. “Brevity” is almost right, but not quite. Modan never approaches minimalism, but she does measure out the number of words in a panel and the number of configurations into which a single face can contort, then focuses on removal. The story follows suit in this design of omission as well. Characters often don’t understand various discussions because of a language barrier (Modan renders different tongues intelligently through the use of typographic devices). Families and couples prefer to keep one another at a distance, sneaking around or communicating via signs and allusions rather than talking. It’s both frustrating and, from the perspective of an overly confessional world, a rediscovered way of approaching problems. The book uses old literary mechanisms (a decades-old secret! a tragic love affair!) to make something simultaneously entertaining, thought-provoking and as beautifully specific as it is expansively relatable.