Sometimes a book will get lost in the depths of a nightstand table for months at a time. That was the case with Leanne Shapton’s Was She Pretty?, a comic which came out earlier this year and then was promptly lost in the stack of books that rests about six inches away from my sleeping head. In a fit of too-late spring cleaning pique, I finally excavated the book last week and read it in one big thirsty gulp, only to find that it is too good to be lost.
If your definition of comics is too narrow — if it involves word balloons and panels, say — you might not even think Was She Pretty? counts as a comic. Perhaps you’ll parse it as “cartooning” or something fidgety like that. You’d be wrong. Comics are about the interplay between words and pictures, and if you were to remove the words or the pictures from Was She Pretty?, you would not have a book at all. Sure, the words and the pictures are on different pages — the words are all typed on one page, the pictures on the facing right-hand page — but the magic comes in the juxtaposition of those two elements.
Was She Pretty? is the story of relationships, as told mostly in retrospect. Almost every page talks about someone’s ex. For example, one page reads, simply, “Steve’s ex-girlfriend Nicola got him interested in S&M.” The next page is a black-and-white drawing of a woman dressed in a jacket and a nice skirt, rendered in Shapton’s deceptively simple thick lines of ink. She’s standing modestly, her hands clasped in front of her, and there’s a pensive look on her face, which is partially shielded behind a rather unruly hairstyle. Whatever your expectations with the term “S&M,” the portrait likely doesn’t satisfy them. And that’s kind of the point.
Over and over, Shapton’s portraits — be they close-ups of faces portrayed in feathery brushstrokes or seductive poses in lingerie as rendered in swaths of inky blacks — dance with the short chunks of text to illustrate the ambiguity of relationships. Some might consider true love to be the state in which we allow our masks to slip and our real selves to be revealed. These portraits tend to focus on the masks, even as the text reveals the secrets. One ex-boyfriend “made much less money” than Lena’s other exes, but even though “she loved him the best,” he “always felt he had something to prove.” The portrait there is a man in the middle of an awkward, overly aggressive golf swing. Without the words, it would just be a drawing of a semi-inept golfer, but with the help of a little revelatory text, you can see the secret inadequacies eating him alive.
Some of these sentences are whole novels in themselves: “Sarah was Michael’s ex-girlfriend for ten years, but would eventually be his wife.” “To his friends, family, and girlfriend, Anton’s ex-girlfriend was known only as ‘The Ballerina.’” Many of the stories involve an additional step or two of distance — a current flame is hearing about an ex, or a family reacts to the memory of an ex — to remind us that a relationship belongs to two people, and two people only. Everything after is just an unsatisfying, one-sided story.
The jealousy and unflattering comparisons and wrenching secrets in Was She Pretty? all feel intensely personal. In a climactic scene, when a woman digs through her boyfriend’s private journals, she’s disgusted with herself. She’s disgusted with him, too, for reasons she maybe can’t quite articulate; she feels at once superior to him and jealous of him. The life that he lived before her is not something she can ever really know, but it is something she can always imagine. Reading Was She Pretty? is very much like that experience.
Another book that’s testing the limits of cartooning — also, coincidentally, released by Drawn & Quarterly, the publishers of Was She Pretty? — is Lisa Hanawalt’s Hot Dog Taste Test. Hanawalt’s first collection, My Dirty Dumb Eyes, established her as one of the funniest, most delightful cartoonists to debut in the second decade of the 21st century. Her subsequent work as designer and aesthetic fountainhead of the excellent Netflix series BoJack Horseman only served to introduce her work to an even larger audience.
Hot Dog is Hanwalt’s second collection of comics, and it’s thematically centered around food — how it’s eaten, how it’s prepared, how goddamned weird humans are about it. (Many of the strips were originally featured in the McSweeney’s food magazine Lucky Peach.) Like Dirty Dumb Eyes, it’s a collection of disparate styles: lists, traditional comics, essays with spot illustrations, and beautiful weird landscapes featuring mysterious bird-headed people.
Aside from Kate Beaton and Michael Kupperman, Hanawalt is one of the few cartoonists who can reliably make me laugh out loud. Probably the funniest page, to me, looks like a page from a workbook, written out in pencil. It reads at the top, “In late 2013, I was hired to pitch new slogans to an advertising firm. Here’s a look at some of my sketches and concepts.” Then there’s four hand-drawn Subway logos, followed by some test slogans:
And the crossed out potential slogans are pretty great, too: "Sad taste," "Bad," and "Fuck flavor." If that doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know what to say; humor is a weird thing. Although I might be able to clearly say that if you love eating at Subway, you might not enjoy this book.
Some of the best pieces in Hot Dog are outright journalism, particularly essays where Hanawalt spends the afternoon with deconstructionalist chef Wylie Dufresne and samples the different high-end all-you-can-eat buffets in Las Vegas. Other meditations on public bathrooms (especially a horrific self-portrait of what Hanawalt thinks people would see if they walked in on her using the toilet) seem strangely apt in a book that is primarily interested in food.
After reading some of the way too many rhapsodic descriptions of too-quaint food experiences all over the internet, Hanawalt’s bizarre, hilarious accounts of food and eating are a welcome antidote. She reminds us how inconceivable, how thrilling, and how odd it is that we have to eat, more or less, three times a day — and how strange that much of our existence is spent satisfying either end of the tubes that make up our digestive tracts. You might not leave Hot Dog feeling hungry for any particular meal, but you will likely experience the moment that Burroughs famously called “naked lunch,” when you can really see what’s balanced on the end of your fork. Considering how little thought we ordinarily put into what we eat, that’s its own kind of blessing.
Both Hanawalt and Shapton are stretching the idea of what comics can be. They’re employing the juxtaposition between words and pictures in ways that the most recent generation of cartoonists never really considered — in many ways, they’re jumping back a generation further into the cartooning past, summoning up stylistic riffs by artists like Jules Feiffer and Charles Addams. Their books are urgent, compelling, energetic — and too damn good to leave moldering in a stack by your bed.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant