‘We are being pursued by guys," Lisa Hanawalt’s eponymous heroine exclaims on the very first page of Coyote Doggirl. The significance of this opening later becomes apparent as Coyote, equipped with little else but her resolve and her trusty steed, Red, evades a gang of outlaw dogs as she makes her way across a Technicolor dreamscape of the American frontier.
Equal parts Richard Scarry and Sergio Leone, Coyote Doggirl combines close-up watercolour-infused shots of the anthropomorphized Coyote’s pointy-eared long-snouted face with panoramic pictorials that encourage us to savour the landscape. Hanawalt transforms the usual bleak terrain of many a western film into a dazzling array of flora, friends and foes, though Coyote is often unsure which is which.
Early on, Coyote is attacked by a pack of Indigenous wolves who end up nursing her back to health and gifting her a horse so that she can track her beloved Red, gone astray during the ambush. When Coyote demands to know why she was attacked to begin with, the pack leader, Big Dog, plainly answers that he figured Coyote had planned to rob them. The obvious historical truth in his statement is both funny and arresting.
Hanawalt’s humour often elevates the mundane through the absurd, as seen in her 2016 Ignatz Award-winning Hot Dog Taste Test, and in the animated series Bojack Horseman, for which Hanawalt served as production designer. In Coyote Doggirl, her technique works particularly well to lampoon classic Old West stories. Wrangling the archetype of the lone wolf, Coyote muses, "Other people are so exhausting. It takes so much effort to connect with them, you know? And then what if they do not like you? Or you hate them? Rarely worth the bother… easier to just go it solo."
The sentiment is immediately negated when our heroine proclaims, "Damn. Kinda lonely out here" on the next page. Coyote’s ambiguity is deeply entrenched in the narrative: she is part dog/coyote but exhibits characteristics of a human woman; she is alone but befriends almost everyone she meets (sometimes to her detriment); she is both hunter and hunted. All of these nuances and contradictions also bolster the deliberate lack of closure within a genre that typically rides on hubris and blind revenge, with a clear end (and body count) in sight.
As Hanawalt’s vivid hues and volatile characters confirm, nothing in Coyote Doggirl is ever black and white. Though Coyote is initially the villain from the dog gang’s point of view (she maimed the brother of a member), a harrowing flashback shows otherwise. Here, Hanawalt pairs ominous hues of navy and red with the only instances of traditional comics panels and gutters in the book, commenting on genre and gender in one shot as she reveals Coyote’s actions to be self-defence in the wake of a narrowly escaped sexual assault.
For our heroine, being "pursued by guys" has been troublesome indeed, and nobody needs to die for Hanawalt to get this point across. Once Coyote is caught by her pursuers, the final showdown breaks the cycle of violence and retribution as one captor — notably clad in a black Stetson — is less than enthusiastic about retaliation after all, especially since his target ends up saving his own tail as well. Relying not on her weapons, but on her wits — and a shared humanity — Coyote feeds the starving gang of outlaw dogs a freshly caught meal in a tacit exchange for her release; both parties give up ego and vengeance in favour of survival, and the possibility of one more sunset to ride off into.
Quick on the draw, Coyote Doggirl deploys comedy and calamity with rapid-fire precision, while Hanawalt captures iconic landscapes and corrals genre clichés.
This revisionist western — and its dogged heroine — are definitely worth a fistful of dollars.