Lisa Hanawalt was not an adventurous eater as a child. “I was a disaster,” the cartoonist and designer for BoJack Horseman told me earlier this month at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. “All I wanted to eat were plain mashed potatoes, and I didn’t even like pasta,” she said. “They had to be the right texture, they couldn’t be too smooth or too lumpy.”
These days, her palate craves the unusual. For one of the pieces in her new collection of comics, Hot Dog Taste Test, Hanawalt shadowed the chef Wylie Dufresne at his omnivorous restaurant wd~50, the kind of place that served caviar atop ice cream and foie gras pumpkin pie. Hanawalt says she doesn’t cook often herself – one page of Hot Dog Taste Test displays meals she’s thrown together, including a fistful of potato chips and olives – but she knows that everything we eat can lead our senses to unconscious memories.
Another sequence in Hot Dog Taste Test describes a trip to Argentina, where her mother grew up, and her family of Jewish refugees passed down South American dishes that adapted Italian techniques. Hanawalt illustrates gnocchi with the same bright red surrounding her great-grandparents, as they run from pogroms in Odessa to Genoa and then Buenos Aires. She visits La Recoleta, a cemetery of tombs too decadent for many descendants to afford the rent any more.
In Hot Dog Taste Test, she depicts death as a game you dread getting tagged out of; she brainstorms potential headstones: “GLOBAL WARMING WAS REAL”, “TOO MUCH FOOD (WORTH IT).” Hanawalt told me that she found the cemetery in Buenos Aires both sad and silly: “There are people running around there with selfie sticks, like, narrating their trip to the graveyard.” It’s the kind of tone that made her ideal to plan out the visuals of a celebrity horse taking drugs, breaking down, and begging his ghostwriter: “Please, tell me I’m a good person.”
Hanawalt grew up in California and attended UCLA, and after spending much of her 20s as a cartoonist in New York, she returned to work on the animated series BoJack Horseman in 2014. When its creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg (who knew her from childhood) pitched his idea about a Hollywood filled with talking animals, starring the title character as a distantly successful TV actor, he included drawings by Hanawalt. Netflix picked up the show, and she became production designer.
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She wasn’t the solitary artist in a studio any more. “The biggest difference,” Hanawalt said, “is that I have to communicate my decisions to a whole team of animators now and collaborate with them. And in the final hours I’ll often be like, ‘You guys, I’m sorry, I know I chose this font, but I really don’t like it, can we change it?’ And sometimes I can and sometimes not.”
Anthropomorphism has always been natural shorthand for cartoonists, heightening absurdities. Whether she’s drawing horse-people inked with unnervingly detailed lines or a young moose fretting about her art practice (“My sculptures don’t even work as ‘visual idioms’ or whatever the hell I’m trying to do”), Hanawalt’s hybrids make use of the estrangement between human and animal.
Visual consistency is crucial to BoJack’s themes, because his misery keeps piercing through the rapid show-business satire. He’ll say something appalling to a friend (paid or unpaid), eyes widening as he notices the words leaving his mouth, and you remember this character is a depressed alcoholic.
In flashbacks, BoJack’s parents lurch between neglect and instructive cruelty. It’s like watching a joke machine seize up and catch fire. Hanawalt manages to place puns, references and sight gags in nearly every shot, giving this abrasive ecosystem some internal logic – I’m fond of the jukebox listing Macaque the Knife, or the equine Basquiat paintings foreshadowing BoJack’s alienation from his old mentor/showrunner Herb.
Hanawalt tells me the lack of tails in BoJack has been controversial among furries. “I think I am technically a furry,” Hanawalt said, “because I think about animals so much, and about what it would be like to be an animal, but it’s not erotic for me.”
She’s sought out nature elsewhere: for another piece in the new book, Hanawalt swam with otters at a wildlife sanctuary. “You know when something’s so cute that you feel internal pain? There should be a word to describe a certain kind of horniness that isn’t sexual – I can’t emphasize enough how nonsexual it is – but it’s when something is so cute that you feel kind of aroused.”
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After moving to Los Angeles to work on BoJack, Hanawalt started riding horses again, something she hadn’t done since childhood. “There’s this Facebook group that’s like, Bad Horse Sales, and it just talks shit about people who sold them a shitty horse. I love reading that,” she said. “But I also follow horse rescue sites, and then I read the stories about the horses that got rescued and I cry.”
In Hot Dog Taste Test, there’s a diptych showing what “riding feels like” (eyes closed, arms flung back) and “riding looks like” (dorky helmet, dutiful posture). Hanawalt said that, for her, sitting on a horse feels meditative. “You can’t think about that thing that happened earlier that day, or worry about the future, because you have to pay attention to what you’re doing or else you’ll fall off … Sometimes I pretend I’m trying to get away from the bad guys.”
Hanawalt likes to go riding at a place in Joshua Tree. The German woman who owns it once told her: “You know, the horse can smell you’re a carnivore.” That inspired the creepiest moment of Hot Dog Taste Test, akin to earlier horror comics like Extra Egg Room. A toothy, shadowy figure rides the horse she just bought, musing: “He thinks it’s only a matter of time before he becomes my next meal.”
“I’m strapping dead animal to a live animal and then climbing on top of it,” she said. “And that’s the thing horses are supposed to fear most, something being on its back with its claws … it’s very weird.”
“I like to hope that [with] the animals in my life, there’s a mutual enjoyment there,” she added.