When I started reading this book, I hated it. I thought, this is what happens when an illustrator takes a shot at storytelling. It’s just one drawing after another until you hit the requisite 175 or so pages that equals “book.” I get even grouchier imagining that books like these are dreamed up as a way to re-market previously published short stories, and then padded out with sketchbook drawings. As a consumer, this scenario makes me feel like a chump. But then, I can also be quick to judge. Even though I stand by my aversion to “books like these,” there’s actually a lot more to Hot Dog Taste Test than I originally could see.
Hot Dog Taste Test (2016, Drawn & Quarterly) is a collection of comics, drawings, and list-style musings by Lisa Hanawalt, who is also the production designer and producer of BoJack Horseman, an animated series on Netflix. It follows her first collection of comics—My Dirty Dumb Eyes (2013, Drawn & Quarterly)—and continues its bestiary/variety show method of making comics. Drawing styles and layouts change regularly, but the mainstay throughout is Hanawalt’s comedic voice, which is honest, self-questioning, and charmingly pervy. In concrete terms, this book features lots of birds, butts, random food stuffs, thoughts on defecation, pornographic ceramics, plants, and horses, horses, horses! (Hanawalt loves horses.)
The brilliance of Hot Dog Taste Test is that it dismantles the gendered assumptions about food memoirs, and memoirs in general. Hanawalt hijacks topics like domesticity, the trials of clothes shopping, food preparation, and menstruation, and turns them into warped and carnivalesque instances of radical oversharing. As she proclaims upon entry, there will be, “No diets; no juice cleanses, I will drink juice but you won’t know it, no recipes, no actual food included.” In other words, this ain’t no Eat, Pray, Love, sweetheart.
Upon closer inspection, the format of Hot Dog Taste Test functions less like a re-marketed compilation of drawings and more like television programming—Hanawalt’s short form comics are like sitcoms, her illustrations like commercials. Or maybe better, the book is like a stand-up comedy routine. Like Louis C.K. or Amy Schumer, Hanawalt presents a series of narrative vignettes that seem to bounce from one topic to the next, without a sense that there is a thesis behind it all. But over time, you realize that its “aboutness” has more to do with where the punchline tends to be. It’s about how it makes you laugh—which is why comedy is an art form—rather than if you were explicitly told, “My comedy is about socially acceptable misogyny,” or “This joke will be about the double standards of neo-liberalism,” as are the cases with Schumer’s and C.K.’s work. With Hanawalt, her humor addresses the fact that we’re all kind of disgusting creatures, full of inadequacies and grotesqueries, and the pressure to perform otherwise is just the worst. So let’s not do it.
Hanawalt’s work is also a response to anger, like how corporate slogans take up our mental space without our permission. She transforms this anger into a hilarious series of “anti-slogans” that recall the creative honesty of the advertising flick, Crazy People (1990). “Toyota. You Need a Fucking Car Unfortunately.” “Subway. Food Option.” She converts negativity and anxiety into humor when she designs a bikini that distracts from a big bust line by adding a skirt of boobs to the bottoms, and she bravely attempts to describe a feeling every other person alive would shy away from: a non-sexual horniness you would feel about a cute animal. “Chorniness.”
Hot Dog Taste Test has afforded me yet another opportunity to be a mature adult. I listened to my gut reaction of disdain for this book, but didn’t let that be the reason not to read it. (Ah, books. What lessons await.) I emerge a silly-faced fan of Hanawalt’s work, and have fallen in love with her anxious sincerity and how that spirals into some of the best visual comedy I’ve ever seen. I appreciate that her ability to just say “fuck it” a lot is what drives her creative work, and her willingness to share its messiness with the world. Above all, I like that she said this simple but solid thing:
I don’t work on projects where I’m not emotionally invested in what I’m drawing.
Boom. Love it.