Lisa Hanawalt’s Coyote Doggirl is the sort of comic that quickly turns skeptics of the genre into fanatics. (Or at least, in my case, into people who are going to read another comic.) It’s the story of said doggirl, who roams the West with her trusty steed Red, gets separated from him, meets some new friends, gets hurt, gets revenge, and—spoiler alert—rides off into the sunset. It is hilarious and cathartic and heartwarming and strange as hell, just like all of Hanawalt’s work, which also includes the visuals for BoJack Horseman, for which she is the art director.
When BoJack’s fifth season launched this fall, Hanawalt was at work on her next TV project, a show called Tuca and Bertie which she created and wrote. It’s the story of "two female friends played by Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish, two 30-year-old birdwomen who are best friends and they have been roommates for years,” Hanawalt explains. “I hadn't seen that many shows about women that age—I've seen a lot about women in their twenties, not their thirties.” Earlier this fall, we caught up with her in New York to talk about her new book, Tuca and Bertie, and the limitations of cancel culture.
GQ: When did you start working on Coyote Doggirl?
Lisa Hanawalt: I did it to procrastinate from working on BoJack because I was developing BoJack at the time and I was designing the first ten main characters. After working on that I was like, "Oh I need to work on my own private thing."
I thought this was gonna be a one-off, just a couple pages, a silly Western thing. And then I just kind of kept going with it and updating it online. Last year I was like, "Oh, this thing’s trash. I'm gonna throw it away." And my partner was like, "Maybe you should show it to your publisher first?” So I did that and they liked it, and I was like, "Okay. Yeah. This is a book." So I finished the last 80 pages.
It’s funny, because the sort of back story trauma part feels very current, but it also doesn't feel like a book that's like an allegory about the #MeToo movement or anything.
No. It's a little strange how often people are like, "So is this a reaction to the #MeToo movement?" That hashtag, I think, only started last fall. Really, this isn't a movement or a hashtag for me. This is my life. This is me processing stuff.
It's not like it's a new phenomenon.
No. I think a lot of my work kind of goes into these themes when I'm not just being overtly goofy or whatever.
Themes of what? Gender and trauma?
Women. And dealing with men. I don't know. It's interesting, the way when I was in my early twenties I really looked up to a lot of men who then later disappointed me. It’s interesting now in my thirties, wishing I could warn younger women, but at the same time it was an important experience. I don't know how to balance those things.
That part, the assault, was the scariest part of the book.
Yeah, and when I'm making work like that, I usually lean towards silly, humorous things. Making work like that, I'm like, Am I gonna trigger someone? Am I gonna re-traumatize them? So I wanna be careful. I want it to be cathartic and not exploitative. But it's nice to have control over my own stories. A lot of the stories about female pain are told by men.
Right. How do you balance that keeping something on the side of catharsis rather than triggering?
I just try to be honest and think about how I'm showing it. Like, Am I being titillating, or am I telling it from the women's perspective? And sometimes my first instincts are titillating, because that's what I've seen in movies. I think it's kind of wrong.It was weird: One review talked about how I chose not to show her breasts [in that scene] shaded—like shadowy, naked tits. And I was like, that's such as weird thing to say. It was a man who wrote it. But I don't want it to be arousing. It's not sexy, when that happens.
Are there other personal projects that you're doing the way that you had this book when you were starting on BoJack? To kind of fill that other part of your brain?
I don't really need to as much now, because Tuca and Bertie is my baby, so whatever I do can go into the show. But I do need to come up with new stuff. Like, designers are literally looking at my sketches on Instagram and my other books to fill out the backgrounds with things that look like my work. So I have to make more of that stuff. If we get a second season, I have to figure out what that's gonna be. I do have to sketch more. And I do try to sit down and paint, sometimes, after work if I'm not exhausted, to get back into that mode where I'm not thinking too much and it's not for a specific purpose. I'm just kind of making my hands move. I made some ugly-ass paintings the other day. I had to throw them away basically.
Did you do that with BoJack too?
I tried to. We did pass out my book, but we were moving so fast when we did the first season and I had not designed the backgrounds for the pilot. So the overall design of the backgrounds, it's a lot more realistic world than I draw.
Are there other things you kind of weren't able to do on BoJack that you're excited to do with Tuca and Bertie or things that you kind of brought into that process?
Yeah, Tuca and Bertie is a lot cartoonier of a world. There's tits on buildings sometimes, and sometimes objects talk. It's a little bit more Betty Boop. And it's not as dark. It's more optimistic of a show, but there's still sadder stuff that happens in it.
I'd never written a script before, so that was a whole thing. I was like, I gotta learn how to do this, and I’d better do a good job.
Do you feel excited about the fact that TV is the world that you're in now?
I like it. It's weird to do something on a bigger platform with more exposure, so I worry about that a little bit.
What specifically do you worry about?
Oh, that people will have high expectations of me, and then they'll be disappointed because I slipped up somewhere and did something offensive or a line got misinterpreted somehow and my intentions didn't come across, which is ultimately my fault. It's a lot of responsibility, it feels like. But I guess the best I can do is just apologize and keep going. I don't know! These days I worry a lot about just like being canceled,. People decide you're trash, and you're over, which I think is not always fair.
There needs to be a distinction between whether someone has slipped up and done something offensive but they regret it, or whether someone has literally hurt other people physically and their lives. There needs to be some sort of scale.
Well, because BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has been giving a lot of interviews about that with BoJack-
Yeah, his casting decisions. He expected to be called on that season one, and nobody started really calling him on it until later. So he's relieved, I think, to get it off his chest. From the beginning, he was like, "Ooh, yeah. I made a mistake." We talk about that stuff a lot.
It seems rare, particularly for men in Hollywood, to be like, "Ah yes, I fucked up," and not go on this like, "I'm actually good" tour.
The problem is everyone thinks they're good, and everyone wants to be good, but nobody's actually good!
Nobody's actually 100% good. We're just doing our best. It's impossible to be perfect, and it's impossible to make everyone equally happy and pleased 100% of the time. People are so... they just want everything. It's hard to know where the line is where you have to please other people and when you just have to say, "No, I can't." It just boggles the mind.
I think that fear of fucking up is so immense, and I think it can be good, sometimes, for people who haven’t felt it before. But if you’ve been feeling it your whole life, then it just gets compounded.
It's very stressful. It plays into imposter syndrome. It's like, Everyone's just waiting for me to slip up and reveal I'm actually bad!