How to Love reviewed by Ng Suat Tong

Posted by on December 18th, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Actus Tragicus; Top Shelf; 144 pp., $29.95; Hardcover, Color; ISBN: 9789659022168

How to Love is the latest collection from the Actus Tragicus comics collective.

As recounted by Rutu Modan in her interview with Joe Sacco, the group was born out of the failure of the Israeli version of Mad magazine. With the dawning realization that doing comics in Israel was never going to be “profitable” for them, the founding members resolved to focus exclusively on their own interests and “stop trying to be commercial”. Actus has since become a staple on both sides of the Atlantic with a reputation for good production values, interesting formats, high technical skill and well told stories. How to Love is their first collection in four years and the five key members of the group namely, Mira Friedmann, Batia Kolton, Rutu Modan, Yirmi Pinkus and Itzik Rennert have all returned with a single guest artist in the form of illustrator David Polonsky.

None of the Actus artists have remained static in their stylistic approaches to comics. Batia Kolton, who once favored a somber, darkly outlined approach has on this occasion chosen clear lines and bright colors for her contribution called “Summer Story.” Many reviewers have commented on Kolton’s careful use of body language to communicate her protagonist’s state of mind, and this is probably the most interesting aspect of her work here. Others have remarked upon the slightness of this opening story, with Bart Beaty labeling it a deliberate choice on Kolton’s part. This theory isn’t too far-fetched as the story does have the simplicity of a fairy tale.

“Summer Story” concerns a young girl’s first inklings of her attraction for members of the opposite sex. This girl, Dorit, goes to the beach with her family and her beautiful neighbor whom she idolizes. At the beach, we find her sunbathing and comparing her pre-adolescent breasts to those of her neighbor, mimicking her more experienced compatriot’s poses as she lies in the sand.

The older girl spots a boy in red trunks playing Matkot (“beach paddleball”) and signals her interest to him. The neighbor asks Dorit to leave but as she departs she is struck by a ball and loses consciousness. Dorit is carried by her neighbor’s suitor back to her family and awakes to a heavenly vision of the boy in red staring down at her.

I’ve been informed that getting struck by a Matka ball is a sort of  rite of passage on Tel Aviv beach, so the young “sleeping beauty” of this modern day fairy tale would appear to have received two awakenings for the price of one. Kolton’s story is well told if largely inconsequential. Its subtlety and formal beauty is admirable but it has little of the irony and keen perception of a short film by Eric Rohmer.

In David Polonsky’s “L’Elixir D’Amour”, an elderly Baron tells tall tales of love whilst seducing a young nubile female. The narrator is part Münchhausen and part Casanova and his stories are illustrated in a manner which recall the finely detailed etchings from an earlier age.  These are quite richly imagined and show, among others, flowers coddling a bee, a narcissistic Turkish courtier, a teddy bear sitting astride a prancing horse (the antithesis of war and conquest) and a conversation with Death whose tears are apparently an aphrodisiac. It reads like a children’s illustrated story for adults, the main attractions being the exquisitely drawn images and ideas.

Mira Friedmann’s “Independence Day” begins on Independence Day in Israel in 1966. The story opens with a boy named Benny reading from a list of his school’s “fallen alumni”. Young Nili Rotstein is infatuated with Benny. One night by a campfire, she hears a girl singing of the storied city of Petra and this sets her off on a journey across the Israeli-Jordanian border to find the red city “from which no soul has yet returned”.

The reviewer’s notes released by Top Shelf suggest that this is a “heroic act to prove her love” but one is never clear if it is also an act of self-flagellation born of pining or out of a determination simply to be noticed like the fallen ex-students mentioned at the start of the story.

Nili is caught by a Jordanian border guard who treats her kindly and arranges for her repatriation to Israel via the UN. When left alone in a Jordanian office, she steals a fountain pen as a trophy, a mark of her courage. She places this pen in Benny’s bag when she returns Israel but this gift is promptly rejected by the object of her affection. Nili drops the pen into a swimming pool and the final panel shows red ink flowing from its tip like blood from a miscarriage.

Like Kolton’s earlier tale, “Independence Day” is for the most part soothing and unconfrontational, not an unwelcome guest but one which hardly stays in the memory.

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