Zap! Bang! Boom! Israeli Comics Pioneers Launch Kids' Books Line

Rutu Modan and Yirmi Pinkus bring their flair for the graphic to a new children's publishing house, Noah's Library.

It’s so easy to conduct a conversation with Rutu Modan and Yirmi Pinkus, two of Israel’s leading illustrators. All you have to do is ask your first question and from that moment on, try not to interrupt them. Each of them completes the other’s sentences so naturally and so entertainingly − the result of a longtime friendship and superb storytelling talent.

They are both 47 years old. More than 20 years ago, they met at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and ever since have been the vanguard of Israel’s illustration and comics scene. In 1995, they established the Actus Tragicus Comics group with the goal of publishing their own comics.

Over the years, they have developed their skills and their creations now range from graphic novels to books of prose for adults. They both teach visual communications: Modan at Bezalel and Pinkus at the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan. Last month, they unveiled their latest project: Noah’s Library, a publishing house specializing in comic books for children, which has already released two wonderful comic books for preschoolers.

Modan has produced new illustrations for the adventures of Uri Kaduri, one of the first comic-strip heroes in modern Hebrew literature who was created by Aryeh Navon, a pioneer in the world of illustration in Israel. In the 1930s, Navon worked for the children’s weekly “Davar for Children” and would produce a weekly action comic strip that he also illustrated. Poet and author Lea Goldberg, who also worked on the weekly’s editorial board, composed rhymes for each strip that were suited to that week’s plot segment.

Pinkus illustrated three of the adventures of Mr. Gazma’i Habeda’i, an entertaining character created by Goldberg whose exploits, with Navon’s illustrations, appeared in weekly installments in “Davar for Children.”

Modan and Pinkus have set up an independent team that works with various publishers and will eventually publish books featuring the work of other illustrators. The two books that have already appeared in Noah’s Library have an identical format: Logical dimensions suitable for children and a cloth-like binding that is pleasant to feel, hold and even smell, in complete contrast with the feel of digital illustrations.

Pinkus has until now been less active than Modan in children’s literature. The reason, he explains, was the absence of texts that really interested him. Regarding Noah’s Library, he says: “Initially, I had reservations about becoming involved in this project because this was a field with which I had not had much involvement. In the past, I received many texts aimed at very young readers and just didn’t feel at home with them as an illustrator; I didn’t think I had anything particularly special to say in this field.”

“From the very start,” points out Modan, “we said, ‘Let’s do a project that will be fun and easy, even if, in all seriousness, it would be a sheer pleasure of creation. For me, this is what happened. I worked in a different mode from what I had previously been used to. I didn’t rack my brain too much; I just started illustrating, relying on my skills and experience and telling myself, “Look, you have the experience − just apply it.’ I did very little advance planning. Generally speaking, I do a lot of initial experimentation and research, which includes hunting down references. In this case, everything was much more intuitive.”

“Part of the book,” relates Pinkus, “was already illustrated before my son Noah was born, and part of it was illustrated immediately afterwards. There wasn’t too much time to spend on the illustrations and that was just perfect. We talked a lot while we worked, and producing the book took much more time than the actual illustration. We talked a lot about the idea that we must rely on our skills and experience as creators, just as orchestra conductors do not have to think too much about the notes because everything is already in their head. I can rely on the fact that I know how to create pictorial compositions and then just go ahead and illustrate.”

What are comics for preschoolers?

Pinkus: “For me, comics are more than one image per page. In a comic book, when you open a double-page spread the reality of the story is depicted there through more than just one image, as opposed to a ‘picture book’ where each double-page spread has only one image explaining the story’s reality. Comic books, which are in this respect a little like a church yearbook, enable you to overcome the problem of time and provide a fuller and more complex world picture. Let’s say you are doing a children’s book and let’s say that Winnie the Pooh is stuck in a burrow. In one picture you can show him from the front or the back and you can see he is stuck; however, you can’t see his face or the reaction of those around him. In a comic book, you can show what is happening from the front, from a distance, from close up, as well as what’s going on around. And all this can be done in a single double-page spread.”

Modan: “Like cubism, where you can see everything that is going on around you.”

What subjects are most suitable for children?

Modan: “There is no unequivocal answer to that question. When an author like Nurit Zarchi writes for children, she includes in her texts the same values that appear in the works she writes for adults. However, the world that she creates [in a book designed for children] is a child’s world, with regard to the protagonists and the environment in which they live. In my illustrations, I work in a similar manner. Although I do not oversimplify and skip over things that are part of the real world, I do relate to my readers, to the children to whom I am telling the story.

“In the final analysis, the whole question of how you talk to children is a very personal matter. There are some people who want to preach to the children reading their texts and therefore produce educational books. We all have our way of looking at the world. When I talk to children, or illustrate for them or write for them, I try to relate to them as people who are just like me and try to deal with things that I think will interest them, but also interests me. The challenge is to find a common language. That’s the basis for communication. In this way, you are showing respect for your audience.”

Pinkus: “In this book [on three of the adventures of Mr. Gazma’i Habeda’i], perhaps because I didn’t have too much time to work on it, I didn’t think I had to do something less sophisticated in compositional terms. There are some things there that even an adult would find complex. For example, there’s a frame whose negative is part of the story and which relates to the adjacent frame. Or there’s a frame that intersects the page. Or a window in a train car that enables you to create additional small frames. From the standpoint of pictorial sophistication, I asked myself how I could tell this story in the most interesting way possible. I was not under any particular pressure, and created a hero who thinks outside the box. I allowed myself to really go wild: For instance, I created fields of grass in an abundance of colors.

"Nor did I want to hide anything from the reader’s view. When you illustrate for adults, a large and important part of the resulting illustration is what you do not show; that is more important than what you do show. Illustrations are puzzles and adult readers like tough puzzles. Children also like puzzles, but ones that they can solve. Here you do not want to hide things from them; you want to show them things.”

One of the major attainments of both books − for which Goldberg herself can be especially credited as well as the two illustrators − is the language which, although written in the 1930s, does not sound archaic.

Pinkus: “Gideon Tikotsky (who edited the books together with Neri Aluma) argues that one of the reasons [why the language is not archaic] is that Goldberg was a woman, not a man. He says that in that era, the men came from a religious background and had a yeshiva education; they were people who learned their Hebrew in a yeshiva setting. Their Hebrew was that of the Mishna, both in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. Goldberg learned a secular, modern Hebrew. She attended a Hebrew high school between the two world wars and that educational institution was secular and modern in its outlook. As a result, she did not approach her writing with the same baggage that the men in her era did. In addition, she had some very clear ideas about fabrications and exaggerations. She interviewed many children and tried to understand what interested them.”

They both are personally interested in the characters they illustrated, and their motivation to set up their own library of publications was their desire to do something that will have cultural importance. However, in addition, they want to make money from their creations.

Pinkus: “I have done a book and Rutu has also published a number of books. We are not just starting out on professional paths and have decided to create our own library. In addition, we think that creators should earn a living from their creations and this is not such an accepted approach here in Israel.”

“I do not want to speculate,” Pinkus adds, “on the future of the book in the digital age, but I can say for myself that I am a little fed up with computer graphics. To hold a pencil in my hand and draw − now that was pure delight. This book is certainly a sensual experience. I have seen a number of people take the book I have just given them and hold it close to their mouth.”

Modan: “Just like saying about a sweet-looking child: ‘I could just eat you up.’”

Pinkus: “Perhaps in a world of robots, no one will want to experience the ‘feel’ of a book.”

Modan: “There are more and more digital books but, in children’s literature, this is happening more slowly. One reason is the fact that these are books in which the visual aspect is more significant.”

Rutu Modan