A Guide To The Gross, Fun And Beautiful Work Of Lisa Hanawalt

The real star of BoJack Horseman.

Lisa Hanawalt

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The way an animated series looks is the most important factor in establishing its identity. It has to stand out from the competition. It has to be unique. It’s why there are no other series that look quite like The Simpsons or South Park or Adventure Time. It’s why all of Seth MacFarlane’s series blur together into a beige-coloured blob.

While BoJack Horseman’s humans may tip towards the generic side of character design, the show’s colourful anthropomorphic animals exist in a league of their own. And that’s all thanks to production designer Lisa Hanawalt.

When she isn’t imagining what Quentin Tarantino would look like if he were a spider (his name is Quentin Tarantulino FYI), Hanawalt is also an accomplished, award-winning cartoonist. Her two printed collections (My Dumb Dirty Eyes and Hot Dog Taste Test) offer a buffet of comics that are as absurd as they are hilarious.

Even from a quick flick through, it’s clear Hanawalt is obsessed with four things: bodily functions, genitals, food and animals. If she can somehow combine all four, even better. Her comics simultaneously read like intricately crafted jokes and something that was scribbled down in a half-awake daze at 3am.

Read a couple of her comics and a recurring theme becomes clear: modern life is kind of stupid and extremely weird. In one comic, she remembers touching one of Monet’s water lily paintings as a child. She points out that years later she touched some dicks — therefore all of those dicks have touched a Monet.

We’re seeing the world through her eyes. Sometimes it’s absurd, sometimes it’s dirty — but it’s always funny.

Hanawalt’s work is all about exploring the anxieties of living in the 21st century through humour. It’s a world where furniture is stuff for us to fart on, and clothing is stuff for us to fart in. Hot Dog Taste Test is focused on everything to do with food;  from the complexity of our relationship with it and the animals we choose to eat (is it weird to love horses even though they’re potentially your next meal?), to the more simple topics of how we prepare it, eat it, and eventually shit it out.

A recurring theme becomes clear: modern life is kind of stupid and extremely weird.

The technical skill on display is astounding too. Her books read like curated scrapbooks, where you never know what the next page will bring. There are lushly painted spreads, one-page gags, pencil sketches, crayon drawings, weird diary notes, photos of her ceramic works. A series of pencil drawings of various slogans for brands (“Subway: Eat a tube of food”, “BMW: Might as well look rich.”) will lead to a page that lists the pros and cons of breakfast, which is then followed by a beautifully painted feast. In Hot Dog Taste Test, there’s an empty page you can “draw your favourite food in a way that makes you never want to eat it again” and a page that you can stain with food.

Hanawalt also has a keen eye for colour composition (she mostly works with watercolours), with a palette that really makes her artwork pop from the page. Her paintings have an almost timeless look to them, like something you’d find in a Little Golden Book. One of my favourite details of Hanawalt’s BoJack designs is the texture they have — they often look like (and sometimes are) watercolour paints on canvas.

It isn’t all dick and fart jokes though. Hanawalt turns those dirty eyes inwards to show us what makes her tick. There are a few diary segments where Hanawalt chronicles her time in Argentina visiting her mother’s family and the time she visited a wildlife sanctuary to swim with otters. It slows thing down a bit from the break-neck joke-a-page madness.

Her sharp wit and idiosyncratic observations are at their best during her graphic journalism sections. In one piece she ghosts molecular gastronomy chef and restaurant owner Wylie Dufresne (apparently he hates tomatoes) and in another she visits the annual American International Toy Fair (“The most uptight vendors are the German artisanal stuffed animal salesmen”). She’s at her most observant and funniest in her reviews for War Horse and Drive.

Hanawalt is one of the most creative voices currently working in the industry. She’s definitely one of the funniest — if not the funniest — contemporary cartoonists. Not every joke is perfect, but for every comic that doesn’t land there are a dozen that do.

Both My Dumb Dirty Eyes and Hot Dog Taste Test belong on your bookshelf (go for Dirty Eyes if you’re more into rapid-fire gags, Taste Test if you want more of her food/diary comics). She’s currently working on her first full-length graphic novel Coyote Doggirl (“half dog, half coyote, and a whole lot of attitude.”) that is due out in 2018.

If you’re not yet convinced, look to one of Hanawalt’s comics for guidance. In ‘Moosefingers’, a moose-woman explains her obsession with crafting ceramic fingers: “I’m not sure why [I do it]. Probably just killing time. But it feels important and I work on them every day.” It’s not hard to see this as Hanawalt reflecting on her own comics. Do her goofy strips about the rumours she’s heard about Anna Wintour or how you can tell if Martha Stewart is drunk matter? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it’s not important.

“Stop crying and move your hands!”

“It doesn’t matter if you feel good or bad while you make stuff,” the moose’s boyfriend tells her while she’s caught in a creative malaise. “Stop crying and move your hands!”

Her comics are more about the act of creation rather than what is being created. Hanawalt lets her hands and unconsciousness take over. Just don’t think about it and let the art flow. Just what would Jeff Goldblum look like as a dinosaur, anyway?

Chris is a pop culture writer. He firmly believes art peaked with Prince’s ‘Batdance’. He tweets at @garflyf.