Books

'Was She Pretty?' Depicts a Litany of Ex-lovers

Was She Pretty? may suggest that anxieties over exes are universal, it also subtlety critiques its circle of privileged sufferers.


Was She Pretty?

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 207 pages
Price: $19.95
Author: Leanne Shapton
Publication date: 2016-02
Amazon

Leanne Shapton's Was She Pretty? is not a comic in a traditional sense. No talk balloons and caption boxes, no panels and gutters, not even recurrent characters or a plotline. Shapton instead offers variations on a single theme, a litany of ex-lovers and their lingering presence in new relationships.

The table-of-contents features over 50 first names, the vast majority women, their status as ex- or current girlfriends unmarked, because each couple is also a triangle. Josephine and Robert plus Robert’s ex, Alicia. Jennifer and Richard plus Richard’s ex, Cassandra. Alicia and Cassandra remain not only as memories for Robert and Richard but as new, evolving conflicts for Josephine and Jennifer. Most of Shapton’s drawings are of women, with about a dozen of the one hundred or so images featuring men, making women both the primary haunters and the haunted.

Shapton’s form reflects her subject well. Each two-page spread is a kind of couplet: words on the left, drawing on the right. The words, usually one or two sentences, are typeset and centered on otherwise blank pages. The drawings are ink sketches, executed in a quick, gestural style, that occupy the majority of their pages. While the words and images are linked by their exclusive use of black on open white backgrounds, the effect is division, with the center margin separating the two halves of each image-text. The thin, regular shapes of the font also contrast the thicker, irregular lines of the sketches that evoke their moments of creation by Shapton’s living hand. The words evoke only the impersonal process of book manufacturing.

The contrast is especially pronounced since Shapton presents the words of the cover and preceding Prelude in her own handwriting, a style that emphasizes the same, intentionally uneven line qualities as her drawings. The cover art consists only of the looping letters of her title with no other illustration, further emphasizing the drawn quality of the words -- reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s own over-sized handwritten words in his 1947 painting, Jazz. Shapton’s Prelude pages also include words and images on both left and right pages, further preparing her contrasting couplets.

In nearly every case, a lefthand sentence names a character who the accompanying drawing appears to depict. Shapton writes, “Jason’s ex-girlfriend was Taylor”, and so the drawing of a woman on the facing page appears to be Taylor. This is deceptively simple. Gender assumptions prevent the image from representing Jason, but Shapton sometimes includes two female referents: “Martin had never mentioned his hauntingly beautiful ex-girlfriend Carwai to Heidi.” The sketch of a woman’s head fills the next page. She appears to be Carwai, not Hedi, in part because her minimally drawn face could be described as “beautiful” -- though those features are “hauntingly beautiful” only as a result of the juxtaposed words. The image might as easily be Heidi. But when Shapton writes, “… Mimi found out that it was Evan’s ex-girlfriend Cindy who tried to strangle her in the schoolyard when she was eight,” the facing image of a child appears to be Mimi, not Cindy the ex. This is likely because the child’s eyes are downcast and her hands pocketed, the posture of a victim, not a bully. But again the link is inherently ambiguous.

Roughly a fifth of the drawings depict objects belonging to an ex. Katya’s ex-boyfriend’s postcards appear on both pages, as does Lucy, the only figure to span a two-page spread. Fiona doesn’t appear at all, only her hand-drawn name, because its sound triggers an 11-minute silence over dinner. While Shapton’s characters usually change with each page turn, 17 of her micro-chapters extend for two or three couplets, two for four, and the penultimate for eight. Josephine’s three-couplet dream that her boyfriend’s ex keeps trying to give him “articles of used clothing” also disturbs the formal symmetry, with an article appearing on the second left page and the third remaining entirely blank. Graham’s second and third lefthand pages are blank too, apparently a result of his giving “a number of girlfriends” the same romantic CD compilation. Instead of focusing on exes, Elizabeth’s worry about the women who replace her divides her multi-page sentence into the book’s only fragments.

Margaret’s 16-page sequence serves as finalé, a sub-list of Scott’s exes from a box of journals that Margaret finds and reads. As an unexpected result, Margaret experiences not just guilt but also love for Scott “because everything she adored about him was evident” in his past relationships. The final spread, however, literally reverses this positive realization by placing Margaret’s final words on the right: “This did not go far to alleviate her nausea, or slow the spool of images rushing through her head.” But in fact it has: the opposite left page is now blank. The relief is momentary though. The final couplet returns to form, detailing the rash and stomach pain Louise suffers at the sight of Greg’s ex.

Although each triplet of characters is independent, the accumulative effect is still narrative, with all of the girlfriends, boyfriends, and ex-girlfriends forming three conglomerate characters, whose details vary but not their core experiences. Shapton quotes Kierkegaard in her Prelude: “The chain is very flexible, soft as silk, yields to the most powerful strain, and cannot be torn apart.” Kierkegaard is alluding to Norse mythology, but Shapton implies the impossible-to-break links between exes, as well as the far wider links between all of the characters suffering these same anxieties.

Existentialism aside, Shapton’s characters also share basic features, literally through her unifying gestural style, but also ethnically, sexually, and socioeconomically. Makeda and Olivia are the only African American faces, and Ghislaine and Sophie the only non-heterosexual couple. But privilege is nearly ubiquitous. In addition to educations involving “Med school” and “PhDs”, characters travel between cities for business and continents for pleasure. Character-defining descriptions include: “daughter of two prominent psychoanalysts”, “heiress”, “critically acclaimed” singer, “fashion designer”, “chief designer of a centuries-old fashion house”, “fine-art photographer”, “child prodigy”, “theater director”, and “Argentinian supermodel and the face of a multinational cosmetics conglomerate.” There is also a “nurse” and “salesperson”, but wealth is far more common and overt: Edie “enjoyed Brahams” but “preferred money”, and “Lena’s ex-boyfriend made less money than her other boyfriends. She loved him the best, but he always felt he had something to prove.”

While Was She Pretty? may suggest that anxieties over exes are universal, it also subtlety critiques its circle of privileged sufferers: well-off, good-looking people with an abundance of romantic relationships. These are problems worth having.

7
Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.