Lisa Hanawalt in her natural habitat. Photo by Jean Ho.
It’s hard to explain why I love Lisa Hanawalt’s art so much. Her illustrations feel like portals to another world, a stranger version of our reality where it’s totally normal that animals talk, the sky is often pink, and plants grow from pots shaped like boobs. In addition to her comics about cats dangling from helicopters and illustrated movie reviews, Hanawalt’s bizarre neon aesthetic guides the look of animated Netflix show Bojack Horseman, where she’s the production designer. Whatever the medium, Hanawalt’s art hits a mark right between anxiety and fearlessness—her characters stress about their bodies but also have a tendency to divulge details about their bowel movements, for example.
For several years, Hanawalt has drawn comics about food for Lucky Peach magazine. New book Hot Dog Taste Test, published this week by Drawn & Quarterly, collects those comics and other new work that’s tangentially about food. The book is stronger for its hodgepodge nature, as personal stories mix with off-the-wall drawings of imaginary foods and handwritten lists of thoughts about eggs. Hot Dog Taste Test stands out brightly from other books about food because it doesn’t take itself too seriously—Hanawalt pokes fun at pretentious foodie habits and engages in deeply funny self-satire.
I got the chance to talk to Lisa Hanawalt about Hot Dog Taste Test, anxiety, and the brilliant sadness of Bojack Horseman—which returns for its third season on Netflix this July.
SARAH MIRK: So tell me about the goal to your book. How were you trying to approach writing about food, and what did you want to do differently than other food writers sometimes do?
LISA HANAWALT: Well, I'll say I didn't set out to do anything differently, but just by nature of me being a certain kind of artist and having my own voice and way of looking at things, I think it came out being kind of a unique way of looking at food. Maybe it's like more of an outsider perspective because I've never worked in the food industry, and I'm not a chef myself. So yeah, I'm sort of seeing things through my own gaze.
How did you end up writing and drawing so much about food? Do you just love food because you're human, or do you have some more personal connection to the restaurant industry?
Yeah, I mean, it's one of those big aspects of life that everyone has to deal with. We all have to sleep, we all have to work, we all have to have sex. Well, we don't have to, but a lot of us do. And we all have to eat. It's such a wide category, I figured there'd be plenty to explore there. When Lucky Peach asked me to start being a regular contributor, I was like, “Yeah, sure.” Each issue of their magazine has a certain theme. So every time I contribute, I can kind of think about what could possibly be related to that theme.
One of the funniest things, I think, is that there are a couple comics about pooping—which you point out is the aftermath of food that books about food entirely ignore, for obvious reasons.
Were you nervous about incorporating that bathroom humor in there because it might freak people out?
I feel like that's part of my brand at this point, which is gross to say. But I think I do kind of take things in a gross direction. I've always done gross work about bodily functions and bodily humor. I think people who know my work expect it. And then I do have the privilege of saying that if it's not for people, it's not a big deal. When you're a younger artist, and you're worried about actually building a career, you have to worry about your audience and keeping them. Because they're what's gonna keep you afloat and make you able to do this for a living. But now, I feel like, Okay. I'm somewhat more established. My career's not gonna tank if 100 people hate my book because they can't deal with poopy art.
Ha! That’s great.
There's another book out there for them, fortunately. I get it. I mean, it is gross. Also, I was like, Oh, are people gonna read my book while eating?
Well, I just like it as a counterpoint to most writing about food. It's really pretentious and high-brow, and this is more about, like, “You put stuff in your body, and then it comes out again.”
Yeah, I like kinda taking things back down to the simplest, most childish way of looking at something. I think being an artist, for me, for my own personal way of working, a lot of it is getting back into that childlike state of mind where I'm relearning what something is. I'm not working off base assumptions. So the way a baby or a little kid would look at food is like, Yeah, you put it in, and then it comes out. What's the big deal?
A spread of birds and general mayhem in Hot Dog Taste Test.
So, BoJack Horseman. One thing that I find interesting about the show is that when things break or change, they stay broken or changed. If a couch is set on fire in one episode, it’ll still be charred in the next episode. Usually in sitcoms, the slate is wiped clean every episode.
Especially in cartoons, too. Part of that is because you have all these assets built, and if you have to maintain continuity with them and continuously change them, it adds in a lot of extra time. I wasn't training to be an animator. So getting into it and learning what that is, it's like, Oh yeah. You really do have to draw every single thing that happens in a cartoon. Every single hand gesture. So when you burn an ottoman and keep it that way, or if a character hurts their arm, and then the rest of the season they're in a sling or whatever, it's like, Oh man. You've gotta track that. You have to change the entire character, turn around every angle of them. It's a whole undertaking, but I think it's awesome that Raphael [Bob-Waksberg], the creator, built that into the show because it reflects the fact that there are emotional consequences for the characters. They don't go back to the beginning in each episode. It's like No, there's long-lasting relationships that are damaged by terrible actions that characters have taken. And the way that the set and the background changes is just a reflection of that. I think that's really cool. And also, it works really well with the Netflix model where you can just kind of get to watch everything over and over again.
Can you talk a little bit about character design on the show? How do you come up with those different characters and how they look, specifically? What I love about the characters is that everybody in every scene—even the background characters—have their own distinct look. So it really feels like I'm dropped into a complete world.
Yeah, I really want everything to look very specific. I just want things to look unique, and I wanna think about particular people I know. When I'm drawing a character, I wanna base it on a dress I saw that I can't get out of my head. Or often, when I'm asking Raphael, “Okay, what did you have in mind for this particular character?” He'll be like, “Julia Roberts as a kangaroo,” and that's such a good jumping-off point for me. And it's so fun. I get to go Google references and come up with a really funny combination of those ideas. Yeah, for me it's just endlessly entertaining. It's fun to come up with those characters.
I think the show has such a unique both aesthetic and voice to it. Before it debuted, were you nervous about how it would be received because it is so different than what else is on TV? Or that people wouldn't get it?
I did that thing that I always do with a new project when it's coming out, where I have one foot out the door like, Well, if people don't like this, that's okay. I've got these five other things I'm gonna do. So I'll just get ready to run. I mean, I also knew that I liked it and that everyone on the show was really proud of it, and I knew what was special about it. So I just hoped that people would see that. So when people did and then [the show] actually started to get a fan base, it was very gratifying. It's like, Okay, yeah, the things that I thought were good are good. And it really resonated with people emotionally. When I read the scripts, I often bust out crying just as often as I burst out laughing. I'm very invested in the characters, and I care a lot. So it's nice when the people who watch it care just as much.
Diane and Bojack in Netflix show Bojack Horseman, which Lisa Hanawalt works on as production designer.
Yeah, I definitely cried watching the second season of BoJack Horseman [laughs]. I think what really connects with me about this show is that it's really about sadness, and grappling with sadness, and how it doesn't follow the traditional narrative arc of both TV and other mediums, where there's a problem, then the problem gets fixed, and then things are better at the end in some way.
Yeah, that structure is kinda in there still, but yeah, it's constantly subverted, and things do go in a much darker direction than you'd expect. I like how I feel like Raphael often comes back to this idea of whether people are good people or bad people. He doesn't really believe in that at all. He thinks that being a good person is about constantly being vigilant about how good you are and trying to do better, and people aren't inherently good or bad. I think that's really interesting. I think about that all the time.
Has working on the show that way changed the way you see your own emotions or deal with your own emotions? Does it make you try and be more vigilant?
I mean, I think having Raphael as a friend definitely does because we both kind of challenge each other on our previously held beliefs and on our behaviors, I think. And we like to talk that stuff out a lot. It's just endlessly fascinating. Yeah. I think [I] already thought about that stuff a lot. The show gives me an excuse to think about it more.
Mmhmm. Well, I hope that watching the show makes people better people and who feel more connected to the world.
Yeah, you hope that media can have that effect on people. I don't know if it does. Sometimes I'll look at the Reddit forum, and it's almost always a mistake, because there's always some young man in there who completely misinterprets something. I don't know. When people were like, “I think the character Diane's a bitch.” It's like, Ugh! That's not the point of our show at all! That's not what you're supposed to come away from it thinking. But you can't control how people interpret artwork. You just can't. Trying to control it will drive you crazy. So yeah, I just hope the majority of people who see it, maybe it makes them think a little differently about the Diane in their lives [chuckles]. I don't know.
Yeah, I love the character of Diane, I guess because she does seem like she's a very complex, multi-dimensional character. First when she's introduced in the show, it seems like Oh, she's somebody who has her shit together. She's gonna wind up being BoJack's caretaker, sort of like a lot of people have to take care of Larry David in his shows. She's gonna play that role. But then she really becomes more complicated.
Yeah, she's kind of a big baby in a lot of parts. And then sometimes her heart's in the right place, but then she puts people she loves in peril because of it. Yeah, she's not really a good person even though she tries really hard to be. She can be kind of a real shitty friend. But that's what I love about her. I think it made her character a lot more interesting because we're all kinda shitty in real life.
What stuff do you draw for fun these days? What do you find yourself doodling?
Oh my god. This is sort of personal, but I think it's so funny that I wanna share it. I made up a persona for my anxiety, and his name is Kyle. He's like a big bro, and he wears Adidas slides, and he's always manspreading. So I made some drawings of him.
That's amazing. I guess I've never conceived of anxiety as being a bro.
I know. It was suggested to me by a shrink that I should make a name for my anxiety, so I immediately named him Kyle and thought of him as a bro. I don't know why. It was just like Okay, yeah. He's someone who takes up space, and he doesn't know any better. It's not malicious at all. He's not there to hurt me. He's just like, “Hey, what's up?” He just kinda barges in. So to me, that seemed like the perfect alter ego [laughs]. Maybe that sounds insane!
I don't think that sounds insane.
I find it very helpful ‘cause it's like, Oh, okay. My anxiety's not gonna harm me. It's just Kyle. So normally I keep that to myself, but if it's got some use to anyone, then that would be great.
Has having a Kyle around helped you out?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think anxiety can help people a little bit. You need just a little bit to keep you going, ‘cause it's the anxiety of not finishing something or the anxiety of not doing a good job. I think that's good, but if I get so anxious that I become kind of paralyzed, then that gets into a bad territory where I need to maybe do some self care.
Maybe it's easier to boss your anxiety around or tell it to scram when it's a bro rather than something more vulnerable.
Yeah, or just like, tell him a little bit to make room for you. “Stop manspreading.”