Lisa Hanawalt’s world is one I’ve visited in a variety of settings—on a train back home after my first comic arts festival; in bed with the lights out, ready to hit “next episode” on BoJack Horseman, the Netflix Original animated series she designs and produces; and sifting through Google image results to show my friends her wonderful illustrated characters. Lisa makes colorful portraits of animals that are busy behaving in both animal- and un-animal-like ways, such as birds that are as likely to crush on dudes as lay eggs. Her most recent book, Hot Dog Taste Test, isn’t entirely dedicated to the lives of animals, though. A large portion of the book is made up of personal stories that center around food—visits to all-you-can-eat restaurants in Vegas and shadowing impressive chefs, for example—many of which first appeared in the imaginative, visuals-heavy food magazine Lucky Peach.
While Hot Dog Taste Test is incredibly cute in its personification of animals, its heartwarming morbidity is what propels my hand to my heart. The shining elements of the book are not only hidden in the narrative eloquence, but also within quick quips tucked into the details—a gravestone that reads “I WANNA KEEP PLAYING,” a bathing suit sale tag that pleads with the customer, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SOMEDAY BUT YOU MIGHT AS WELL LOOK CUTE AT THE BEACH.” The delicacy with which Lisa is able to wrap up momentary, mini existential crises within average human experiences, all while allowing animals to take center stage, is astounding to me.
Lisa’s adeptness at dressing mortality up as something adorable first struck me while reading her book, My Dirty Dumb Eyes. “Moosefingers,” a story from the book, depicts a lady-moose who says, “All the things that matter to me now won’t make any sense later in life, I can’t control that.” When I read that, I was in high school and still learning to accept the malleability of life, realizing that nothing is absolute the way I head been raised to believe. This is what I find so compelling about Lisa’s work: One minute I’m taking snapshots of her cute characters to use as my phone background, and the next minute, after reading one deft phrase, I’m the mayor of tear city.
I recently talked to Lisa about Hot Dog Taste Test, how she got her start as an artist, and how it’s important to keep switching things up.
RACHEL DAVIES: Did you always make art as a kid? Do you have any advice for young artists trying to develop their styles?
LISA HANAWALT: Yes, I always made art! I was recently sorting through some old art at my parents’ house and found all these drawings of animals dressed up as people from when I was six years old. As for my advice for young artists: Just don’t worry about style, because style comes naturally later as you continue to make more work. The more important thing is to just make a lot of work and make it about things you care about, not just things that you see other artists making art about. Art gets very trend heavy, and it gets kind of boring really fast.
What did you grow up reading and watching?
I gotta say probably the same kind of movies that everyone my age has nostalgia for, like Ghostbusters…I was really into Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I liked Back to the Future. I had an older brother, so I would watch a lot of the movies he was watching—action movies and horror movies. I kind of tagged along whenever he and his friends were watching movies. I have a soft spot for Michael Bay.
Did you read comics growing up?
Yes! I read a lot of comics in the Sunday paper. My dad had these ’70s comics by B. Kliban that were very perverted and weird. He also did a book that was just about cats, but his regular work was pretty naughty.
You work in a variety of media, including ceramics, murals, graphic art, and gifs. What do you think the advantage is to being fluent in this variety of mediums?
I naturally get really bored with what I’m doing and burned out pretty easily. Switching it up keeps it fresh and playful, which is super important with creative work. As soon as an artist is tired and bored with what they’re doing, you can tell because it gets kind of stale. If I’m doing a lot of two-dimensional work, doing sculpture for a while, even if I’m not particularly adept at it, is really helpful mentally.
While your first book was mostly pop cultural rumination and miscellaneous work, Hot Dog Taste Test is decidedly focused on food-related experiences. What made you want to zone in like this?
I happened to be doing this regular article for Lucky Peach, and a lot of the material in the book comes from that. Every issue I was doing something fitted to their theme, sometimes more loosely than other times. [Laughs] The piece where I swam with sea otters was in their seashore issue. It kind of happened randomly, and then I amassed enough work to make a book. I looked at the pile of work, and it seemed natural to make it a food-themed book. Fitting everything under one umbrella helps people understand what the book is. It’s a lot easier to describe than just saying it’s a mish-mash. [Laughs]
Are you a good cook? Did your parents teach you how to cook?
Fuck no! I mean, if I really want to get my shit together and impress someone, I can make a gnocchi from scratch. I can follow a recipe and sometimes get it right, but in my day-to-day life, I don’t cook that much. I have a couple of dishes I make over and over again. I’ll throw stuff in the rice cooker, but I eat more to just fuel myself. My boyfriend makes fun of me because for lunch I’ll just have a hard boiled egg and some crackers and a hand full of olives and a pickle. He’s like, “You’re eating like a baby.”
How did you start working with Lucky Peach?
They reached out to me, and asked if I wanted to illustrate something, and I told them my idea about the secret lives of famous chefs. I’d been reading about chefs for a while, and I was interested in them, so I made up some jokes about them and they published it. About a year later, they asked if I wanted to be a regular contributor.
Much of your work involves putting animals in human-like situations, but a lot of the book is based on your real life. Are the sections that center on animal protagonists also somewhat autobiographical, or are they completely made up?
They’re autobiographical, too, but with the animal stories [I’m not] limited to reality. An easy way of changing a real-life experience is putting it in a fictional story where I can exaggerate and use wilder visuals as a metaphor.
How did you become involved with BoJack Horseman? Have you always been interested in working as an animator?
I knew the creator Raphael [Bob-Waksberg] from middle school and high school. When he first pitched the show, he included some of my drawings. Then I was hired to design the first 10 characters, and then I was brought on to do more. I didn’t really ever have a plan to do animation. It just kind of happened and it was an opportunity to do something better. With cartooning, I’ve been doing it since I was a child and I’ve been making comic books since I was like seven so it was very natural. ♦