Lisa Hanawalt knows how to laugh at herself. When she makes jokes about bodily fluids and how much she loves birds, she chuckles a little at the ends of her sentences. But what makes Lisa Hanawalt such an talented artist, and an interesting person, is that she knows that the best humor comes from real life. And real life isn't always easy.
Hanawalt is the designer of BoJack Horseman, a Netflix original television series about a depressed horse/movie star named BoJack who is just trying to stay famous as he ages. It's a show that is easy to laugh through, but difficult to shake when an episode ends. Hanawalt designed BoJack's world full of cats who wear heels and dogs who wear v-necks.
Hanawalt's humor intertwines darkness and light—anxiety, depression, joy, laughter. In her new book Hot Dog Taste Test, there are drawings of birds buying plants, hot dogs with ridiculous toppings, and genuinely moving explorations of family drama.
I chatted with Hanawalt a couple weeks ago about her brand new book, how to stay creative, and what kind of hot dog she likes best.
When did you start drawing?
I can’t even remember, really. I just sort of was always a drawer. I would draw during class in elementary school. I was doing that when I was six or seven years old, and I got in trouble for it a lot. But I think I needed to draw to pay attention.
How did you realize it could be a full-time career?
I just kind of kept doing it until I got better and better at it. I became known as one of the girls who would draw a lot. And I became known for doing it well. I was drawing a lot of animals, and I was using it as an icebreaker because I was very shy back then. So at some point it was like, am I going to become a veterinarian? Because that was another thing I was interested in. Or am I going to become a scientist? Because that’s what my parents did. Or am I going to keep doing art?
And art was just the thing I was best at. I never really thought, “This is going to be my career.” But by the time I went to college I was like, “Well, I guess this will be my major because it’s what I do all the time.” I also considered going to theater school, but I didn’t really like the audition process.
How do you balance your life so that you have room to be creative?
I kind of have to shake things up a lot. The last few days, I just got back from traveling, so I’m not feeling that creative. I have to get back to doing this big project I’m in the middle of.
So I kind of just broke out my colored pencils and I just drew flowers for a couple days. Sometimes for me it’s changing what material I’m using—using markers instead of pencils, or doing digital instead of the opposite of that. That’s also why I’ve done ceramics in the past. Sculpting is a way to break out of a creative rut.
And then just kind of giving myself the freedom to play. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be a final piece. I’m just kind of moving my hands and seeing what happens. Kind of getting back into a childlike state where there’s not as much pressure on me.
Your most well-known work is BoJack Horseman. How does working on that differ from working on your own stuff?
Well, on BoJack, it’s such a collaborative thing. Every decision I make, I have to consider how that’s going to make other people’s work easier or more difficult. I’m part of a pipeline, which doesn’t sound romantic, but it’s also fun. I have to compromise a lot, but also other people are adding in their ideas and improving things. On BoJack, it’s very much working as one giant organism. Whereas when I make my own work I can really call all the shots for better or worse. I can be the God of my own little world.
Can you give me an example of how collaboration changes your job?
Oh, gosh. Animation is such a complicated process. I learned early on that if I put complicated patterns on the legs and arms of characters, that creates so much more work down the line. Because when people turn the character in space, those patterns have to track so they don’t jump all over the place. But I didn’t know that, because I wasn’t trained as an animator. Little things like that I take for granted when I’m making my own work.
Even if I’m drawing a comic that has to maintain continuity, it doesn’t matter that much if I mess it up. When you’re reading a comic, you can pretty much tell which character is which. But when you’re animating a pattern might jump around and it will look really bad. It’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing, and ruin the shot. I’ve been learning a lot of technical things like that that I didn’t know before.
How often do you draw? Do you draw every day?
No. I’m all over the place. Sometimes I don’t draw at all. Sometimes I could draw for eight hours or 10 hours. Just by keeping track of my working hours, I’ve realized that I’m all over the place and I don’t have a routine. I wish I did!
You draw a lot of birds. They are in swimsuits! They eat things! I don’t really have a question here, except: Why? Why birds?
I just think I like looking at birds and thinking about them. I think they have a lot of personality and they’re very different from humans. Parrots in particular are very smart and have a lot of personality. I like watching nature documentaries about birds and bird behavior. It’s just like what’s on my mind. It’s a pleasing thing to draw.
One thing I really found interesting about your book is your exploration of bodily fluids. There are people on toilets and menstrual huts and all sorts of things going on. I’m curious why you chose to do this?
I mean for me it’s a little bit of a de-sublimation thing. Where I’m not supposed to talk about that stuff in polite society, but it’s funny. I think that’s why other adults respond to it. It’s just, again, kind of getting back to a childlike state where you’re just kind of mucking around in your own fluids. It’s what you’re not supposed to do, and so it’s funny to draw that.
With the menstrual hut drawings, it started with Twitter. I was following Dwell magazine on Twitter, and every time they tweeted a beautiful house, I really wanted to tweet back and say, “Wow, what a beautiful menstrual hut.” And then I thought, this is totally something I could see Western culture appropriating in this kind of way that’s completely opposite from what menstrual huts are and the fact that they do still exist in some societies around the world. And how kind of messed up that is. But yeah, I actually would not be surprised.
How do you make space for Twitter, when it can obviously be such a giant time suck?
I mean. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have Twitter at all because it’s so distracting. It’s also a place for me to just fool around and be this kind of wild version of myself. I can say whatever I want on there because I don’t have to worry about people’s reactions because I’m not saying it to them in person. A bunch of people have actually learned more about my personality that way. I can be kind of reserved when you first meet me. I’m a little shy.
I feel like it helped me get a studio space in New York because I met my studiomates through Twitter. It’s definitely helped me make friends because I can connect with other people with a similar sense of humor.
There’s one comic in your book of a bird going to deli and she has a crush on a guy and then the end is her writing this list of “stores I can’t go to again.” How does anxiety play in your own life, and how do you work through it?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of my comics come out of personal experiences. Or they're slightly based on real experiences and I’ve spun them out into these more surreal stories. Sometimes it’s a way to just process something I’ve been anxious about. In my last book I have a comic about a horse going on an airplane and it fills up with birds and is very terrifying. And that actually came from a nightmare I had about flying.
For the essay pieces, it gives me a reason to get out of the house and do something I’d normally feel a little uncomfortable doing. I was a little shy to spend the day with Wylie Dufresne because he’s this big-deal chef, and I’m just some dork. Because it was my job to do it, and because I want to do a good job, I definitely just had to throw myself into that role.
How do you decide which of your personal comics are okay to share with the world and which ones aren’t?
That’s difficult! I often make comics and then I have to let them sit for a bit before I go back and read them and figure out if they are any good. I’ve made some diary comics that are just really too corny. When I went back and read them they didn’t seem unique. I just want everything to be interesting. With the Argentina travel comics, I really struggled with them because they are so personal to me that I could not separate myself to tell if they were good or not. I really had to let them sit for a while. I redrew them several times. That was a whole difficult process. For some reason, it was harder than comics that are a little bit more fictional.
Last question! Since your book is called Hot Dog Taste Test and there is a whole magical section about hot dog toppings… What was the last hot do you ate? And what do you take on your hot dogs?
[Laughs.] Oh my god, what was the last hot dog I ate? I can’t even remember! I really like potato chips and mayonnaise on a hot dog, I think that’s delicious. I’m sure that’s gross to some people, but I like it. I actually really like relish. So, I think if I could have a hot dog right now, that’s what it would look like.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.