Two Graphic Novels: Gipi’s “Notes for a War Story,” and Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds”

Graphic Paintings Beginning with the Letter A

“Notes for a War Story,” a first person narrative by Gipi, is set in a nebulous country where villages exist one day and disappear the next. Three young men band together to survive on the margins of the country, doing petty crime. But it’s an odd man out story. The boys have only vague notions of what the war is about. The frictions within their trio mirror those in the country at large. The brutality and violence inherent in the state where social law suddenly fails is drawn close up. What is politically correct is what gets you through a day and a night, a falling spiral that soon shortens days and nights to hours then minutes in a manipulated clock, and peace is an expedient agreement easily broken. The drawings, green, often olive drab wash panels, convey bleak settings and desperate tones. The dialog is quick, the story clear, the narrator Giuliano’s reflective notes the distinctive difference between an existential hope and a despairing nihilism. But what gives Guiliano this capacity to reflect the others lack remains ambiguous, while lawlessness explains only part of the free-for-all atmosphere that characterizes war. Each faction quickly establishes and evolves its own laws to satisfy its needs and wants. When values and desires change, one finds oneself outside the law. Rules, both formal and informal, are created and broken in every part of society: the family, church, village, corporation, military, language and literature. Published by First Second in 2004, and translated to English from Italian in 2007 by Spectrum. Afterward by Alexis Siegel, 2006. A 125 page, sturdy paperback with fold in cover flaps. Here is a 2008 Interview with Gipi at Words without Borders.

Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007) takes place in Israel. There’s been a bombing, and there is a missing person. The themes are familiar and familial. A son is estranged from his father, angry. A kind of detective story evolves, with hints of noir, as Koby engages to find out what’s happened to his father in the aftermath of the bombing. Along the way, Koby discovers love, another theme, mostly unrequited, unresolved, while the characters confront the antagonist of ambiguous relationships. “Exit Wounds” is a comic book told in four chapters of color panel drawings. The details of the drawings act like descriptive prose in a conventional novel. The drawings are realistic but also suggestive. The sequence where Koby and Numi go body surfing is a good example of the lovely and patient interludes that give the novel its grace and gifts. Interview with Rutu Modan at BBC 4, and another at Words without Borders.

8 thoughts on “Two Graphic Novels: Gipi’s “Notes for a War Story,” and Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds”

  1. Hola Joe! With regards to Gipi’s book, “Notes for a War Story”, the first paragraphs seemed to me like our state of Guerrero, Mexico…”. “A village was there at dinnertime and at breakfast it was gone”… Oh my! Following you… Best regards from Cancun, Mexico!

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  2. Joe, I think ‘Notes for a War Story’ would really suit my interests. You have made it sound such at least.
    It seams that all parts of living, be it in peace or war, the common fractal is one of animal behaviour coming to the fore.
    I personally believe that all men, put under duress will resort to basic instinct. That is; should I tip a bucket of water on your head, it will show the type of character you really are – you will be consistent in your re-action.
    In our structured, politically correct society, we carry out many kinds of ritual engagements, but it is only under duress that the real character emerges. My interest is that character of people, not essentially having someone suffer, but the wrappings that go to making a character sociable and thus removing the real face that is such a special thing.
    War must be the greatest duress that any person could encounter, that the world accepts as a normal part of living.B

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    • Hey, B. The character drawings in the novel do have an animal like quality. The teeth are often sharp and prominent, the features grim and taut. But I don’t know that the idea of animal behavior in humans is fair to the rest of the animal kingdom, but then the human is also an animal, and even ants do battle, though we can’t be sure that battle is how ants regard the activity. But the theme of reaction under stress revealing one’s primary character is a cornerstone of literature: Kipling’s ‘Captains Courageous’ and Jack London’s ‘The Sea-Wolf’ and ‘The Call of the Wild.’ These books are basically about soft characters thrown into a rough and alien environment and their reactions reveal, as you say, character, often unexpected. Hemingway is all about the theme (‘grace under pressure’ a kind of Hemingway mantra). But we find a taste of it even in social novels where parlor room cruelty can come to seem as devastating as betrayal on a battlefield. Maybe war is the natural state. There are very few years in history where folks are not at war somewhere around the globe. And Gipi, in the interview, explains that he deliberately left the country vague, wanting the reader to conclude the downward spiral could occur in any country given similar conditions. At the same time, there is the sense of cooperation and altruistic behavior, even at the gene level, as Mary Midgely explains (see ‘The Solitary Self’ and ‘Animals and Why They Matter’). But this is a great theme you’ve touched on here, the idea of ‘ritual engagements,’ where ritual defines the expectations, the rules of the joust, until some surprise upends everyday niceties. And then there are misunderstandings, and the plot thickens. Great comment, B. Thanks for reading and reply!

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  3. Those links were exciting to explore. Thanks.
    We travelled a lot to Italy when I was a child, only two hours over the Alps. I liked the spontaneous and improvised lifestyle. Gipi mentions the lack of social responsibility. Compare that to the Japanese lifestyle http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29429742
    The ‘kata’ – schema – appropriate forms of behaviour for a variety of situations caught my attentions while I’m looking for the material re: my third novel.

    Interesting, that in France they don’t distinguish between comic books and “regular” books.
    My son likes graphic novels. Ideas for Xmas presents 🙂

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    • Gipi’s “Garage Band” sounds good, and Rutu has much more too. It is interesting how the genre is being accepted or not in different countries or literary circles. Another question of “appropriate behavior”: what a book should be, etc. There is some sense of a subversive but nevertheless ethical thread to the genre here. Gipi comes across as very articulate. The personal roots theme is very strong in “Notes.” As Rutu Modan suggests, the graphic novel is a different kind of reading experience.

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