LOS ANGELES — Whenever she can get away, Lisa Hanawalt, the illustrator behind the Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman, escapes to a barn to visit her real horse, Juniper. She leads Juniper on runs around a riding arena, braids her beach-blond bangs and trots her through the neighborhood, where she is greeted by many admirers. Juniper is a Norwegian Fjord horse, which looks like a regular horse that has been smooshed into a shorter, thicker, cuter horse. When I arrive at the barn, which is tucked into the hills of Griffith Park, Hanawalt introduces her with a wry intensity. “This is my daughter,” she says. “This is my beast!”
Juniper is looking extra cute today. She is having her picture taken, so Hanawalt has brushed her coat and picked the debris from her hooves. Hanawalt strolls Juniper easily down the middle of the street, but as she tries to coax her into a lush meadow, Juniper freezes. “She’s afraid of seeing another horse,” Hanawalt explains. “Social anxiety.”
When Juniper finally agrees to step onto the grass, she urgently plunges her face into it, chomping passionately until her jaw is overstuffed with uprooted weeds, which she grinds into a frothy, Nickelodeon-green ooze that sloshes happily from the corners of her mouth.
The scene — an animal’s inner turmoil erupts in a charmingly savage display — feels ripped from a Lisa Hanawalt comic. At 35, Hanawalt has created a whole universe of anthropomorphic characters with deeply human concerns and base animal instincts: alcoholic he-horses, anxious she-moose, dog-girls reeling from trauma and cat-women struggling to succeed in a cat-man’s world. Hanawalt began populating the universe through alternative comics, then in illustrated journalism for magazines like Lucky Peach, in three books she made for adults and one she illustrated for children, and as the production designer of BoJack Horseman, the oddly moving show about a washed-up and depressed sitcom star who is also a horse. Now, she has created her own animated series, Tuca & Bertie, which represents the summation of all of her weird, wild work.
Cartoons typically use anthropomorphism to project human characteristics onto animals — to make them seem more like us. But Hanawalt’s creations often achieve the opposite effect. They reveal how beastly humans can be. This is particularly revelatory when it comes to female characters. The animalism of Hanawalt’s work helps reveal parts of women we rarely see onscreen — the strangest, horniest, hungriest parts. In her western graphic novel Coyote Doggirl, her lavender-furred protagonist pauses her quest to find her beloved horse in order to stuff her face with tree fruit until her eyes bug out and her stomach hurts. Whether that impulse originates from the coyote part of her, the dog part or the girl part is unclear.
When I meet Hanawalt, she has just wrapped production on Tuca & Bertie, a show about the fraught friendship between two 30-something bird-women: Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish), a toucan who swaggers aimlessly through life, and Bertie (Ali Wong), a shy, creative songbird who is afraid of everything, including heights. The pair lives in an apartment building in Birdtown, a psychedelic blend of New York, Los Angeles and Mumbai that operates on loose universal laws: houseplants smoke cigarettes, phones have personalities, and Bertie has a sentient left breast that is so annoyed by her co-worker’s ogling that she pops out of her sweater and takes the rest of the day off. It is a dreamy, childlike approach to serious adult material, from bird B.D.S.M. to bird P.T.S.D.
Hanawalt chose to build the show around birds because, unlike dogs or cats or horses, “they’re not necessarily cute,” she said. Its roots came from a nature documentary Hanawalt watched once, which showed toucans using their long beaks to dig into other birds’ nests and gobble up their eggs. “Oh, my God,” she thought when confronted with the horrifying image. “That’s me. I eat all the eggs.”
Tuca and Bertie represent two halves of Hanawalt’s personality. Tuca is her id — the selfish, charming beast who comes out screaming in her art. Bertie is the first face that Hanawalt presents to the world — painfully introverted and exceptionally anxious. An early scene in Tuca & Bertie is borrowed from her relationship with the comedian Adam Conover, her partner of 10 years. When Bertie panics over a big presentation at her job at Condé Nest, her devoted boyfriend Speckle (voiced by Steven Yeun) pantomimes lightly massaging her with a “worry vacuum” to suck her anxiety away. But he gets so invested in the bit that he knocks over a glass and has to sheepishly fetch the real vacuum.
When Hanawalt pitched the show, she found the character’s anxiety difficult to communicate. Everybody wanted to know why Bertie was so anxious, and she could only say, “She’s anxious because she has anxiety.” Hanawalt has had anxiety for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Palo Alto, Calif., “I just didn’t feel like other kids,” she said. “I didn’t have fun at summer camp.” Drawing became her self-soothing mechanism, a way for her to stay calm and centered.
Hanawalt has always drawn animal-human hybrids; at school, she pretended that she was a horse. This did not help integrate her into the mainstream of child society, but privately she expressed confidence in her choice. As she wrote in a sixth grade class assignment: “People make fun of me an call me ‘Horse poop’ and ‘Lady Horse.’ I just take it as a compliment, or I figure that they must like Horse Poo a lot, cause I hear them say it whenever I pass!” She added: “I’m also wild about art. I want to be famous for drawing Horses someday.”
In high school, Hanawalt drew through every class. Though she struggled academically, she produced her own zine, Lobster Rags, and took to theater, which is how she met Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the future creator of BoJack Horseman. He directed weird plays; she built sets and made her acting debut as a dead body. Between classes, Bob-Waksberg would page through Hanawalt’s sketchbook and they would make up voices and stories for her characters. When their friends all started LiveJournals, Bob-Waksberg was most captivated by hers. “We all tried to put some version of our best selves on the internet,” he said, “and here was this girl just talking about her periods, and her acne and how horny she was.”
In 2010, after Hanawalt had gone to U.C.L.A. to study art and risen to prominence in the indie comics scene, Bob-Waksberg emailed to ask: “Hey, do you have a picture of one of your horse guys, by himself?” He wanted to use her illustrations to pitch an animated show called “BoJack the Depressed Talking Horse.” She agreed, but told him his pitch felt unnecessarily cynical. “Maybe there’s a way for BoJack to not be too much of a bummer?” she wrote back. “Just a thought, I’m not an Eeyore fan.”
When BoJack Horseman whirred into production, Bob-Waksberg asked Hanawalt to join the team. She said no. She was worried about sapping her energies in the service of someone else’s vision. But when he asked again, she decided to step off her familiar road and onto the wild grass, and she found herself with a big job that nevertheless made her feel small. She was supposed to lead a team of people to design a show, which she did not know how to do, through a series of high-stakes social interactions, which made her want to throw up.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to look people in the face and nod and listen, and do this all day? It was exhausting,” Hanawalt said. “I’m used to just, like, being at my desk alone and staring at my computer.”
Hanawalt thought about quitting every day. In early meetings, she did not say much, and the show’s executive producers, Steve Cohen and Noel Bright, would look curiously in her direction only to find her doodling away. She was drawing the meeting itself, rendering them all as squawking bird-people. With Tuca & Bertie, she was no longer expected to attend meetings — she was expected to run them. For the first few weeks, Hanawalt had Bob-Waksberg join her in the writers’ room, and she grew increasingly anxious about how she would manage without him. But when he left, she was forced to fill the space, and she did.
Now Hanawalt comes to meetings armed with coping mechanisms: a tub of stress-reducing slime, a little fan that makes a soothing whirring sound, and the fruits of therapy. A few years ago, her therapist encouraged her to personify her anxiety, so she named it Kyle and styled it as a man-spreading bro in Adidas slides who barges into her brain. He is an oddly disarming presence: an oblivious doofus who doesn’t know any better. Now when anxiety knocks, she can roll her eyes and say, “Oh, it’s just Kyle.”
After the barn, I meet back up with Hanawalt at the ShadowMachine animation studio in Hollywood, where BoJack Horseman and Tuca & Bertie are made. Hanawalt’s office is filled with toucans — a toucan stuffed animal, a toucan lamp and a sign she made for the Los Angeles Women’s March featuring Tuca. Tuca’s legs are spread wide, revealing a nest of bird pubic hair. The sign says “NASTY AND PROUD.”
Tuca & Bertie is the rare animated television show written from the perspective of adult women. Cartoons are typically made for children, and adult cartoons are typically made for man-children. When BuzzFeed reported on the dearth of female creators at Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s programming block for grown-ups, Mike Lazzo, the creative director of Adult Swim, took to Reddit to explain that “women don’t tend to like conflict” and “comedy often comes from conflict.” Tuca & Bertie serves up plenty of conflict: It is filled with bird-guys who dismiss, undermine and harass women.
Even in animation, there are expectations for how cartoon women ought to look and act. Hanawalt’s sketches for the “BoJack” animal characters sprang easily from her body of work, but the show’s humans proved more difficult. When she submitted an initial sketch of Diane, BoJack Horseman’s ghostwriter and the show’s central human woman, she was told to make her more, as she wrote in a note at the time, “sexier, polished, attractive,” “beautiful” and “TV cute, real-life hot.”
The Diane feedback infuriated her, and though she dutifully transformed the character into a hotter journalist, she took a stand over a dog. In an early episode, there is a sight gag where a car whooshes past a dog and a businessman waiting on the sidewalk, spraying the dog’s slobber all over the guy’s suit. When Hanawalt switched the pair to women, Bob-Waksberg instinctively recoiled. “The first reaction I heard was like: ‘It’s gross if a woman slobbers. It’s not funny anymore,’” Hanawalt later told NPR. But she held her ground, and Bob-Waksberg admitted he was wrong. The dog-girl stayed.
When she got the chance to make her own show, “it was very important to me to show that women are gross,” she said. In one episode, animated sex bugs crawl from Tuca’s crotch and take over a supermarket; in another, Bertie furtively masturbates in the work bathroom. Often, the show subverts expectations for female characters just by following their animal instincts: Tuca fries up her own eggs as a snack.
Last fall, when Hanawalt felt utterly depleted from making the show, she impulsively bought Juniper through a Facebook ad. She justified the cost to her accountant by telling him she did not plan to have children. “Either way,” she told me, “you’re toweling manure off of something.”
Hanawalt had quit riding in high school and did not take it up again for 17 years. A couple of accidents had made her question how wise it was to climb aboard a 900-pound beast. “I just let my fear get the best of me,” she said.
She is still afraid of horses, but she has learned to accept her fear in order to experience something exceptional. “If I feel uncomfortable, it’s because I’m doing something right. It feels physically bad, and that’s just a part of it,” she said. “Otherwise I’m just staying in bed, doodling what I’ve always doodled.”