Lisa Hanawalt’s work has become a byword for horse-laden, self-deprecating, emotionally complex comics art over the last few years. She’s the production designer and producer of BoJack Horseman and something of a darling of Drawn & Quarterly, which published her comics and illustration anthology My Dirty Dumb Eyes in 2013, the brilliantly surreal and hilarious Hot Dog Taste Test in 2016, and now, the poignant and beautifully wrought Coyote Doggirl. Her new release is billed as a “feminist Western.” Its protagonist is a coyote who creates her own natty crop tops and can ride like the wind, but who also, in Hanwalt’s words, has “intimacy problems.” What emerges is a character with real emotional depth and complexity.
Much of the book was created when Hanawalt took a hiatus from her work on BoJack. “When it ended and I was done checking animation, I had three months to myself, which was wonderful, but I get pretty terrified in those times, thinking, ‘Will I ever work again?’
“I began [Coyote Doggirl] a few years ago, so I started to look at it again and ask, “Is it good? Is it garbage?” Then I thought, it’ll be finished if I just make like 80 more pages,” she says. “I have trouble relaxing, so I figured I’d try to bust through the rest of it. I got through the first five seasons of The Sopranos doing it.”
Hanawalt is currently working on producing her new Netflix series Tuca & Bertie, an animated adventure centering on the friendship of two bird/women sharing the same apartment building. “I’m learning new things every day,” she says, “I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next.”
We interrupted those thoughts of the future to chat with Hanawalt about Coyote Doggirl, her love of horses, and how to not throw your work in the trash.
Aside from the book being a surreal Western starring a coyote, it feels like there’s a lot of ideas around loneliness and how we interact with other people. How did the whole thing come about?
It started out as a short comic about a horse-based Western—a short, silly thing—but as I continued to make it, the story kept going. It seemed like a natural and organic story arc for a coyote to be in there, as she tries to find her horse again… It was a way to explore ideas around being isolated and self sufficient, and the pluses and minuses of that. She values her independence at the beginning; but she’s very flawed and vulnerable under her rude bravado. In the end, that more solitary life doesn’t appeal as much any more, when she goes back to her cabin and doesn’t know what to do. Those were a lot of the things I was thinking about around the time [I was creating the comic].
Reading it, I sometimes wished I was a lot more Coyote.
Really? In some ways she’s a fantasy character—she has all these wilderness skills, but she’s awkward and rude and has intimacy problems as well. It’s fun to bring about that combination of things that I don’t like about myself, and the things I wish I was. It’s a fun way to create characters.
Do you often work like that?
Often it’s like my id, or a character that’s more fully expressing my own fears and vulnerabilities. So it’s an exaggerated version of myself; that’s easier to write. Sometimes characters are based on people I know, or amalgamations of different people I’ve met. One character, She-Moose, is sculpting all these clay fingers, but she doesn’t know why. That’s directly from my own process and feelings about making my own work. It’s good getting it all out on paper.
Were you one of those horsey girls at school?
Yeah, I was. I would look at other horsey girls and think I was cooler than them but I definitely wasn’t. I still go out on trail rides in L.A.
What do you like about interacting with horses?
I like how physical it is. It forces me to be in my body and think about what it’s doing. [Riding is] very meditative; horses reflect your own state of mind back to you. If I’m feeling really tense and stubbing my feelings down about it, it’s reflected in their behavior, and it’ll be a bad ride.
The other day I wasn’t chilled out, I was anxious about work. Before I even got on, the horse started spooking. I put my face in my t-shirt and started sobbing. So I lunged the horse instead; she moves based on my body language, it’s very intuitive based on how you move your shoulders. It was a great lesson even before I got on. It just shows you how to slow down and calm down.
Is there a connection between your use of horses in your work, and your work’s discussions of mental health?
I don’t know. A lot of people use horses for therapeutic purposes, and I think that has to do with the mirroring thing—it forces you to be calm, it’s the reality check that a lot of anxious people, or people with depression, need. I suffer with that a lot; I think I’m bad and lazy and everyone hates me, but that’s obviously not true when you look at the world objectively. I can’t just stare at Twitter the whole time I’m riding; I have to be present.
You’ve spoken before about a sort of “paralysis” when it comes to sitting down and making work. Is that something you’re still dealing with? How do you try and overcome that?
I don’t have that much paralysis anymore, but I still don’t often feel good about what I’ve done. It’s not about the quality of the work; I feel bad, so I think the work is bad until someone says, “No, it’s worth something.” I wanted to throw Coyote Doggirl away halfway through making it, until my boyfriend said, “No, don’t throw it in the trash. You should talk to your publishers before you do that.” I didn’t want to ask for help in case they said, “This is terrible! You shouldn’t have made this! You’re terrible!”
How do you find making your podcast, Baby Geniuses [with standup comic Emily Heller] helps with those kinds of thoughts, or with making work more generally?
I like it as it’s a way to broadcast my own thoughts and anecdotes in a very casual way. So if something funny happens to me, I have to think about what’s the most funny way to say this into the microphone. I think it’s really helped me.
It’s just editing: you’re honing a story down to the funniest details and punching them up or exaggerating them. I’ve not thought about it formally, but I think it’s something I’m naturally good at. I’m a storyteller; I like being funny in public, but I’m shy and quiet a lot of time. We have tonnes of listeners, but I can’t see them, and I don’t have to perform to them.