Lisa Hanawalt is Probably Thinking About Horses or Dogs
May 16, 2013
The Brooklyn–based cartoonist, illustrator and podcast host speaks to Hazlitt about learning to talk to comedians, Channing Tatum’s abs, and why she may or may not be a furry.
Lisa Hanawalt is not a comedian, in the traditional sense of the word, but she draws like a versatile one: idiosyncratic cultural observation, a surrealist’s sense of humour, inventively filthy. The two issues of her comic I Want You abounded with anthropomorphic animals, those elemental cartooning familiars, wearing unnervingly detailed human bodies. In Hanawalt’s contribution to the pornographic anthology Thickness, the old teacher-student scenario plays out in front of an entire class. “Oh god, her tits! Tiiiiiiiiits…And that ASS,” ponders the avian instructor, who is lusting after a girl with a worm for a head, invertebrates writhing through her cleavage.
That particular nightmare/fantasy does not appear in My Dirty Dumb Eyes, the new Drawn & Quarterly collection of Hanawalt’s work, but you will find Prince as a dove, an artistically frustrated moose lady, and many, many monkeys. The Brooklyn cartoonist has lent expressive colours to more and more illustration gigs lately, and reading pieces like “Rumours I’ve Heard About Anna Wintour” or “Sex Fantasies Inspired By Movies” (“The Hulk is trapped in a room containing nothing but my butt”), it’s only sharpened her jokes elsewhere. We spoke at last weekend’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival, after a coincidental burger-related introduction the night before.
I know that you’re from California originally, and I feel like you went to [the School of Visual Arts] for some reason?
Oh, so I’m totally wrong.
But how did you end up in New York making comics?
I actually… I went to UCLA in Los Angeles and studied art there. I’m from the Bay Area originally, and I came to Brooklyn on a vacation to visit my friend from high school, and I fell in love with his roommate, and so six months later I decided to move to Brooklyn to continue dating him. That’s, like, unofficial, because my official reason at the time was “oh, the comics community in Brooklyn is so…”
“Vibrant, and…robust [laughs], and I want to be a part of it.” And that’s definitely part of the allure for me. While I was visiting Brooklyn I went to a cartoonist party, and I’m like, oh my God, there’s all these people my age who are doing comics. In L.A., everyone’s so spread out, you never see other people. I was also sick of L.A. I’d been living there for eight years, and I was like, it’s time for a change. It’s time to give romance a chance. Luckily it worked out [laughs].
You have this very surreal and absurd sense of humour—I sound like I’m a teacher chastising you or something, “why is that, Lisa Hanawalt”—but how do you think that came about?
I’m not sure if it’s a nature or a nurture thing. I’ve wondered about that. My whole family has that sort of sense of humour. My dad’s a scientist, and he’s always liked really absurd comics, like Gary Larson’s The Far Side, B. Kilpan. I think in some ways I was raised to appreciate that kind of humour. And I knew that if I used that sense of humour I would get approval from my dad and my brother—not my mom so much [laughs]. But my whole family’s kind of artsy and weird, and I was just raised valuing that. I think it also developed as a way to entertain myself—I get bored very easily, and I had trouble paying attention when I was in school, so picturing surreal things was a way to keep myself entertained.
What I find interesting is that it’s not just for its own sake—you do a lot of cultural observation within that. I’m not sure if that’s because you do a lot of illustration work, or…that’s not really a question [laughs].
Maybe it’s just because I’m really interested in culture—I love to see movies, I love… I mean, I don’t get out that much [laughs]. I’m kind of a shut-in. But when I do get out, it’s like…”Wow!” I’m just very easily influenced by things. Just one trip to a museum or the opera or whatever will blow my mind. Maybe it’s because I don’t get out that often.
And what is your typical artistic process like? Because you seem like one of those people who could either do everything on a computer or nothing on a computer. I was talking to [Michael] DeForge once, and I kind of wanted to buy an original page—
He does them on the computer, right? Isn’t that crazy? That’s crazy.
He just sketches on paper, I think.
But when he does draw they look just like the drawings he makes on the computer, it’s very hard to tell. I am doing more and more stuff on the computer now, because I got a Cintiq. I actually got it to do this animation job I was doing for a TV pilot, and it vastly improved the speed at which I work. It was a necessity. But now I do a lot of my sketches on there, and then I’ll print them out and light-table over them and paint on top. I still like to do stuff by hand more than anything else, I just think it looks better, personally, for me, but the computer definitely expedites my process. And of course I do all my writing on there.
You’re sort of reviving the funny-animals trope, this ancient comics thing, in a very perverse and…
Yeah [laughs]. I didn’t think of it as a trope when I started doing it, it just felt so natural to me to draw myself as an animal and other people as animals. I didn’t even think twice about it. And now I see how it fits into this history of people drawing animals as people.
I think it does feel natural, in this primal way—you can’t figure out when it first happened in comics, it goes back so far.
I know. I don’t know what that connection is, and I’ve always done it, and my teachers used to comment on it: “Oh, you’re elevating animals to the status of people,” and I’m like, “What do you mean, elevating? They’re already at our status.” I just really love animals and I think about them all the time [laughs]. If I’m ever gazing off into space, I’m probably thinking about horses or dogs.
And you extrapolate where… in, I don’t know, Carl Barks’ duck comics or something, they’re not doing certain adult activities, but with you, it’s like, yeah, what if this moose lady had a totally average twentysomething life, and had sex with her boyfriend, and…
Yeah, what if she wears pink panties and lies on the bed half-naked whining about her life? It’s weird to draw them in that way because I think it makes—I get a lot of questions about whether I’m a furry. And I used to say “no, absolutely not,” but then I’m like, “Wait, maybe I am, because maybe that’s what a furry is.” Maybe they just see animals as people and it’s not necessarily a sexual thing. Like, I don’t want to fuck a moose, but… [laughs]. There is something amazing about drawing them with human bodies, and I like to draw sexy bodies, so there’s definitely some grey area there. I’ll admit it.
You do a lot of illustration work, and I’m wondering—
Yeah, I’m full-time freelancing right now, so probably a similar life in some ways. But do you pitch a lot of that stuff, or is it suggested to you? A lot of it—your work for the Hairpin, for example—seems like you came up with that yourself.
Yeah, well, the Hairpin doesn’t pay—I mean, they didn’t when I was doing stuff, they do sometimes. But that was, for the Hairpin, all really experimental stuff that I hadn’t done before, so I didn’t feel comfortable asking people to pay for it. So my movie reviews, I was just like, “Hey, Edith [Zimmerman, the Hairpin’s founding editor], can I try this on your blog?” And she was like, “yeah, of course,” she really liked them. So I started doing that, and then from that I got paying jobs. I did one for Vanity Fair, and they paid me, and I did one for Vulture.com. A lot of the free work I’ve done has led to paid work, and with paid jobs usually they come to me. Like, Bloomberg Businessweek or the New York Times will just—an art director will see my stuff and say, “Hey, I really liked your movie review or this comic you did, can you do something like that for this article?” With certain things—with Lucky Peach, they were like “we’d like you to do some illustration work,” and I’m like, “I have this comic idea about chefs, maybe I could do this,” and then they accepted my pitch. I’m getting a little more brave about actually pitching ideas to people.
That makes me want to ask about the James Beard Awards. I think I saw it on Instagram or something—didn’t you go to the awards dinner recently?
I did. I didn’t win, but it was totally fun to go to this weird awards show. I mean, every awards show is awkward and boring and stuffy no matter what the industry is, but this one was fun because I didn’t know anybody. I don’t know, it was cool, I got to sit next to David Chang and he high-fived me when I lost because he had just lost an award too [laughs]. And then later he won Chef of the Year or something. The food industry is really weird. It’s almost like the fashion world, because there’s something so inherently frivolous about fancy food.
You did that comic about the New York Toy Fair, and it seems like you like to delve into these unfamiliar worlds.
Yeah, I do like to be the fish out of water a little bit. I mean, I worry sometimes about insulting people because I’m in a world that I don’t entirely understand, and I don’t want to be pointing fun at things. Some people actually… there were some vinyl toy companies that got upset with my Toy Fair review because I pointed fun at the vinyl toys, but they’re kind of funny—you don’t play with them, you just collect them. Maybe that’s what’s fun about it, is I’m an outsider, so I can point to these things that they might not notice or think about. I have to be less worried about insulting people, it’s not that big a deal [laughs].
You’ve done comics that are directly about fashion, like the animal hats and Anna Wintour, but you also have… there’s just a lot of stylish outfits in your comics, even if they’re on a moose lady. Are you drawn to that world at all?
I have a real strong ambivalence about it. I love clothes; if I was really really rich, I feel like that would be my weak spot, shopping for clothing. But I am also one of the least fashionable people I know. I don’t follow fashion that much. I like to look at it, I think it’s beautiful eye candy, but I do have a problem with it. When I watch The Devil Wears Prada, I do kind of side with the Anne Hathaway character, where I’m like, “It’s just two blue belts!” And then Anna Wintour—it’s not really Anna Wintour, it’s Miranda Priestly—she’s like, “Don’t you understand the history of this? This came from this season, and this came from this designer…” I don’t know, it’s interesting to me, and I want to learn more about it, and I do kind of want to design a fabric that a designer uses someday. That’s a dream for me. But I also wish the fashion industry was more accepting of people with different body sizes, and wasn’t so bitchy [laughs]. I have problems with it.
Yeah, I mean, I like clothes a lot, and thinking about clothes—there’s this great magazine published out of Toronto, Worn Fashion Journal, and it’s more about the cultural context and history of them.
I do love the history. I love seeing an Alexander McQueen exhibit, that’s so beautiful and interesting to me… [The fashion industry] is just, it’s so exclusive. Fashion is something that everybody likes and everybody enjoys, so… yeah, I have problems with it. But I think part of drawing a lot of it is just getting it out of my system. Like, I’m not going to buy all of this crap, but I’m going to draw it [laughs].
You have this podcast about “hidden knowledge,” Baby Geniuses, which was the opportunity for Michael DeForge to—and I’m saying this as a typically obsessive Prince fan—really get into the more obscure recesses of his discography.
I love his episode. It was so great when he came on. I want to have him back on again, because he’s somebody who knows so much about so many different things, and he’s really obsessive, and I love it. I love people like that.
Yeah, I Googled and downloaded five or six different things after his episode. How did the podcast come about? I know you do it with Emily Heller, but how did the idea…
I met Emily Heller through my boyfriend, because she’s a comedian and so’s he, and we became friends, but we’d only hung out a couple of times, maybe, and then she was like, “Oh, I used to have this radio show in the Bay Area, and I miss it.” I’m like, “You should start another show, in New York.” And she said, “Okay, want to co-host a show with me?” I said yes [laughs]. I didn’t know that she would actually do it, but I realized that she’s someone who really—she makes stuff happen. And without her the show would not exist. She really, she’s like, we’re going to do it every week. She books it, mostly. I bring in guests now and then, like Michael, but yeah, she’s a go-getter, and it’s fun to be onboard with that. I’m usually very shy, and I have trouble talking to people, especially comedians. I just feel like, oh, comedians are so outgoing, what could I possibly have to say to them, but this show gives me an opportunity to meet and have a conversation with new people of all kinds. That sounds cheesy [laughs]. “I just like to talk to people!” But it’s a fucking blast, I love it. It’s funny, when people say they listen to my show, it’s almost more of a compliment than when they say they like my drawings. Because I’m like [dismissively]: “Oh, yeah, of course you like my drawings, I’ve been hearing that my whole life. Oh, you like my podcast? Talk more.”
I’ve noticed that some of your stuff is more writerly than a lot of comics, like the movie reviews. Do you have any ambitions to do more outside of comics?
I never thought that I would be a professional writer, but I’m realizing lately that I do write a lot and I like it. I actually got asked to send in a packet for a TV show recently, and I did—I didn’t get the job, but they were like, “we liked your packet, good writing.” So I’m like, okay, this is actually something I could do, maybe. Which is bizarre to me. I never thought that was a possibility. I know other cartoonists who’ve gone into that too. I’m like, oh yeah, that’s a viable career option. It’s weird how comics has all these things around it—you can go into illustration, or comedy, or…
…you can work on Adventure Time, which so many people seem to…
And I feel like that’s a pretty recent phenomenon, maybe because there were less opportunities or comics was more stigmatized—
There’s a mass exodus to doing storyboarding for TV shows now.
But I think for the guys in their forties and fifties, that wasn’t really… it was like this caste that you locked yourself into.
Yeah, it used to be more limited, I think. I don’t know why that change has happened, but comics has been my way to everything, to gallery shows… Everything comes through comics.
Have you ever gotten any flak for the sexuality in your work?
Not a lot, actually. Not as much flak as one would think. Mostly a couple of relatives have not really liked it so much. I mean, I’ve never really gotten hate mail or anything… hopefully in the future I will [laughs]. I think people like it because it’s honest. It’s not just for shock value, it comes from an honest place, I think.
There are certain things that you seem to draw repeatedly—monkeys, or Channing Tatum, who is kind of… he has eight abs, and a giant neck, and two surnames! So are there things you especially like to draw in that way?
I like characters like Channing Tatum where they maybe surprise you a little bit. Like, he’s not a just a meathead. Me and Emily have been debating whether or not he’s smart, and it’s really hard to tell, but I think he knows what’s funny about himself. I feel like I’m talking about a dog or something. “Does the dog know it’s a dog?” Which maybe means he is dumb. But he’s made a film with Steven Soderbergh, so how dumb could he be?
I haven’t actually seen it, but I’ve seen interviews he did around then, and he seemed charmingly self-deprecating.
He’s super charming, yeah. He was great in Magic Mike. That movie’s amazing.
Am I just imagining it, or is there a Ginuwine-scored scene in that movie?
Oh yeah, no, he does this dance to “Pony” that is the most erotic gyrating. He’s not really my type, physically, but oh my god, that scene.
And, I mean, “Pony” is a perfect song in every way, but it seems especially perfect for you and your comics.
Yeah, right? [Laughs] I know. It is a terrific song. It’s perfect.