The Guardian features Lisa Hanawalt on Coyote Doggirl

“BoJack Horseman's Lisa Hanawalt on her new graphic novel, Coyote Doggirl” / The Guardian / James Reith / August 23, 2018

Hanawalt’s surreal, anthropomorphic animations on Netflix have made her work instantly recognisable. Her first long-form comic – a western revenge fantasy starring a bright pink dog – is just as subversive

 ‘I don’t want to make work just for people who already agree with me’ … Lisa Hanawalt. Photograph: Kim Newmoney

Even if you’ve never heard of Lisa Hanawalt, you’ve likely seen her work. It’s visible in every frame of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, for which she is production designer and producer. She has designed book covers for Patricia Lockwood, illustrated the New York Times, and decorated guitars for Tegan and Sara. But more importantly, she’s an award-winning cartoonist, one who catalogues the humour and horror of the quotidian (see, for instance, her series of toilet comics), often with colourful, anthropomorphic animals. But Coyote Doggirl is a little different. “I wanted a surreal, horse-focused western with dog people in it,” Hanawalt told a XOXO festival crowd in 2015. “And I couldn’t find an example of that. So I made it.”

And she has been making it, in between other projects, for several years. She never thought it would be longer than 15 pages. “I think if I had known it would be this long when I started, I would’ve been really intimidated,” Hanawalt says. But Coyote Doggirl, her first long-form graphic novel, is finally here.

For a successful sendup, you often need to love the tropes you’re ridiculing. Coyote Doggirl hits all the beats of a western, but subverts them, too, most obviously in its bright pink dog-girl protagonist, in the place of a John Wayne-alike. Coyote was always pink, but not always a woman. “When I started out, Coyote Doggirl was a man. And then I realised that there is absolutely zero reason why she couldn’t be a she,” Hanawalt says. Growing up, most of the protagonists she saw in comics and movies were white men. “So even for me, it’s an extra step to change a character [from a man] a lot of the time. Which is sort of shameful … It’s so weird that white males are considered to be neutral, because I don’t think they are.”

Although Hanawalt identifies as a feminist (“I think that that word shouldn’t be controversial – and yet it is”), she dislikes the assumption that having a female protagonist equals a feminist book. “A lot of people pick [Coyote Doggirl] up and immediately say: ‘This is a feminist book. It’s a feminist story about a feminist.’ I don’t think it is, necessarily. I think it’s just a book from a female perspective.”

She describes Coyote Doggirl as a “revenge fantasy”: the story sees Coyote being pursued because she maims a man while he assaults her. “The scene where she’s getting assaulted – or nearly assaulted – is not that sexy. And I think sometimes when we see these things in movies, they’re very sexualised and the female body is shown as this treasure that’s being pillaged,” she says. “And it’s kind of gross.”

Despite Hanawalt’s interest in women having control over their own narratives, she never wants her work to be didactic. “I never set out to make overtly political work where the moral is very clear. I think it should always be a little muddled. Even in this book, [Coyote] gets revenge on the bad guys. It is very violent, when she lashes back at her attacker. But I don’t think violence is the right answer. I think it complicates things for her.” The book’s original ending was going to be a bloodbath, but she toned it down. “That kind of represents who I am, and what I believe about the world, a little better,” she says. “So I changed it.”

When fleeing her pursuers, Coyote is injured, and later rescued by a Native American tribe. In westerns, indigenous peoples are often villains; here, they’re heroes. And they’re playful, too: striking mock-mystical poses while telling prank fortunes (“you’ll end up owning a donkey with big purple pussy lips”), or pretending a ceremonial horse mask is an actual horse.

“I started out not wanting them to be specific to any particular real tribe,” Hanawalt says. She drew from the culture of Plains Indians and the Ute people, but tried to “fictionalise them as much as possible”. But she grew worried about this approach and asked a sensitivity reader to check over Coyote Doggirl. They told her it was clearly satire. However, she still has her concerns – and takes full responsibility for any offence caused. “I think my view of how to represent Native people has changed since I started making this book,” she says. “Now, I might have a different approach.” 

Hanawalt started releasing excerpts of Coyote Doggirl online in 2013. And the world has changed quite a bit between then and now. “I think everything has gotten more divided,” she says. “Which is really a shame, because I don’t want to make work just for people who already agree with me. I want to connect as many people as possible and reach out to as many people with universal feelings as possible. I don’t think people are all that different, even if their beliefs are. We kinda all want the same things in the end. I hope.”

So much of the wild west is a romantic invention. Hanawalt’s partner, the comedian Adam Conover (who rescued a draft of Coyote Doggirl from the trash), even dedicated an episode of his myth-debunking show, Adam Ruins Everything, to the misogyny and racism that underpins the cowboy narrative. But where Conover critiques these narratives from the outside, Hanawalt argues from within – creating the western she’d like to see.

She may do it playfully, and with elegant watercolours, but subverting this old narrative is more timely than Hanawalt could have imagined when she started: now living under a president who romanticises America’s past, uses misogynous language and is trying to exclude many of the same people spurned by traditional westerns. But Coyote Doggirl does one better than simply revise a genre’s uncomfortably pertinent, ideological baggage: it shows how challenging a problem can be more fun – and more colourful – than perpetuating it.

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