Thursday, July 21, 2022

Tunnels by Rutu Modan

OK, is this just me suffering the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or are a lot of cartoonists really deeply influenced by Tintin? I wouldn't have expected that to be so central to so many different creators, but I keep seeing it: the manic plots, the dot eyes, the same kinds of "comic relief" thrown in even when it feels forced.

Rutu Modan is only the most recent example, but just look at the eyes of her characters on the cover of Tunnels. Am I crazy, or is there something there?

(There's also some plot elements that are very Tintin-esque, including the big kerfuffle at the ending, but I don't want to spoil the plot. But I do want to assure you this is not just me obsessing about how some cartoonists draw eyes. Well, only partially.)

Tunnels is an adventure story about archaeology, and, like all of Modan's books I've seen so far (Exit Wounds and The Property), they're deeply Israeli: they could only be told about people in that part of the world, with that heritage, at this point in time. That's entirely a good thing - everything should be as specific and particular as possible - but it does mean I'm looking at it from the outside, and may miss important bits of context and nuance.

Nili is a middle-aged woman. It would be unfair to say her life was ruined by her now-dementia-ravaged archaeologist father, but...she spent most of her childhood in the '80s on an obsessive dig with him, has never gotten past that, and never got any serious formal education. She now has a young son, her obsession with that old dig, and a dwindling bank account: basically nothing else in the world.

Oh, wait: she also has a deep and abiding hate for her father's old partner/rival, Rafi Sarid, now the chair of the department at the university where they were both associated.

Nili thinks she can pick up that dig, thirty years later, and complete it. She thinks there's a fabulous treasure deep in that ground: the Ark of the Covenant. (Yes, the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark.) She thinks she can manipulate all of the people around her: her younger brother, an archeological protégé of Sarid's; a dealer in Biblical antiquities and his bankrolling, controlling wife; local Palestinians when it turns out a big West Bank wall is right in the middle of her dig site; a group of very devout (and possibly meant to be nutty; it's hard for me to say) Jewish diggers; Sarid himself; and even the military. She thinks she can tell most of them the real purpose of the dig, promise the Ark to most of them, and still come out the other end on top, with everything she wants and no consequences.

She's almost smart and sneaky and driven enough to do that; the world almost has elements that will let her do so. How it all gets more and more complicated, and falls apart in increasingly baroque ways, which then need to be repatched in even more baroque ways, is the story of Tunnels.

The Tintin-eqsue elements are that air of manic energy, the ever-complicating plots, and a lot of the humorous elements along the way. Modan has no villains: her worldview, I think, is entirely anti-villain; both the JDF and actual Palestinian terrorists come across as quirky but understandable people, maybe blindered, maybe wrong-headed, maybe destructive. But there's no force of evil here; even Sarid is right, sort of, by his own lights.

There's a lot of material here, and Modan treats it all honestly and with a sense of even-handedness. She's writing about a cramped land, full of people who have been there for thousands of years, leaving crap in the ground and squabbling with each other above it. She's sympathetic to all of her characters, even as she shows most of them as deluded in large ways, and all of them as deluded in at least small ways. People are fallible in Modan's comics - and not just fallible, but always deeply human, always themselves and always doing the odd things they need to do even when they should be following their plans and pursuing their real aims.

Tunnels is a big book filled with activity and action and slapstick and just stuff. It feels like a book by a creator trying to Go Big in everything: to cram in all of her thoughts and ideas and feelings even loosely related to the central matter. It can be a little exhausting, but it's a great ride if you can hang on.

No comments:

Post a Comment