Book Review: “Tunnels” by Rutu Modan

Israeli comics creator Rutu Modan assembles a lively fictional cast for “Tunnels,” which sees a crew of oddballs conducting a DIY search for the Ark of the Covenant.

The story is sparked by a clue discovered on an old cuneiform tablet. The excavation is led by Nili, a single mother and former archaeology wunderkind who’s trying to settle some old family business. It’s funded by an antiquities collector who’s not very particular about where his treasures originate. (ISIS is on speed dial.)

A crew of Orthodox “settlers” provide the muscle for the dig, motivated by faith/political concerns. There’s also a dastardly professor who screwed Nili’s dad out of tenure, some Palestinian colleagues from a long-ago field season and even a couple knuckleheads who claim they’re with ISIS, although it seems like they can barely tie their shoes.

Modan follows the excavation as it tunnels into Palestinian territory, bringing her cast together to squabble and scheme. The art is colorful and evocative, like something Herge might draw, although not so neat. Her figures tend to be a bit squat and ugly, but they have plenty of personality.

Modan’s best work is done juggling the voices of her cast. She captures the little details that distinguish each group, all while maintaining enough individuality so that no one comes off like a cliche. The plotting tends toward the zany, but it’s clever and fun and offers surprises all the way up to the end. Modan also doesn’t shy away from the political subtext of life in Israel, both contemporary and Biblical, but her ultimate message is individualistic and deeply human.

“Tunnels” doesn’t wrap neatly. Instead, it offers something more ambiguous, winking out with a bit of dark humor that would be happily at home in a Coen Brothers film. It’s creative and memorable, a real accomplishment.