To step into the work of Lisa Hanawalt is to prepare oneself for a potpourri of surreality, charm, wit, and weirdness. Her piquant watercolors and use of a cartoon-inspired aesthetic lends itself to subverting expectations, as if the inherent quirkiness is used to distract from the often more serious, contemplative underbelly of her oeuvre. This observation is most readily apparent, in part, on the Netflix animated series Bojack Horseman, where Hanawalt is the production designer and the producer. Indeed, Bojack, if anything, proves that just because the main charger is a man-horse doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to explore the dimensions of humanity, woe, and potential for redemption. And while Hanawalt’s comics output sometimes shares in the nihilistic folderol of Bojack, her personal work, on the whole, is much more attuned to the simplicity of putting ink to paper and seeing where the mind wanders.
Hanawalt’s latest work, Coyote Doggirl, is an unabashed western with a contemporary twist as well an imaginative take on the genre that feels more mature and grounded. In comparison with her previous books, this comic a significant step forward in terms of world-building and storytelling sagacity: while her other works were often short, unrelated vignettes, the saga of the Doggirl is one cohesive narrative. The story itself follows the archetypes of any typical western tale. There’s the propensity for outlaws to have their guns do the talking. There are the helpful natives. There are the beautiful vistas draped by sunset and the mountains baked by the high noon sun. But at the center is the titular Coyote Doggirl, who is anything but a normal actor in a western yarn.
No, Hanawalt’s chimera of a protagonist steals every page through her guile and her heart. While she’s nominally being pursued by some black hat bandits, readers will be more interested in her misadventures and the constant discovery of her inner strength.
Part of the beauty of this book is discovering the visual treats that Hanawalt delivers on each turn of the page. No two pages offer the same experience in terms of sensory impact. Some pages revel in the cool blues of a warm summer night, while others scald, poke, and burn. The juxtaposition of emotional tones has always been present in Hanawalt’s work and it is no different here. Coyote Doggirl herself is a pink dynamo vacillating between the highs of learning new skills with her Native friends (wolves, obviously) or facing the brutal reality of a lawless land. Finding the equilibrium between these two temperaments must have been a difficult exercise. In this way, this book acts as no mere parody, or tribute, to the Western dream. Rather, it inhabits another sphere altogether, one of the American obsession of reinvention, self-reliance, and self-determination.
Where this story falters, and it does falter somewhat, is in the ambiguity of the main character’s journey. What does she learn? How exactly does she grow? These aren’t left answered as much as they are dismissed before the end. Doggirl experiences so much, and the reader does as well vicariously, be we are left a little empty-handed. There is so much to explore here…
The untamed mesas and valleys of the Wild West have never seen a creature as bizarre or as charming as Coyote Doggirl. Hanawalt has a way of making even the most absurd character have a pathos that stings and sears. This work is no different. What seems silly is rendered deadly serious and vice versa. It’s part of the hidden magic of when an auteur puts pen to paper and lets their mind mosey down to the frontier of the imagination.