I Want You begins with Lisa Hanawalt drawn as a young bird in her twenties, crouched on a chair at her desk, sketching away. As she ages, her computer and telephone become more technologically advanced, the dog at her feet is continuously replaced with a different one, and her body shows the wear and tear, or rather, amputation of time. Along the way, Hanawalt acknowledges that her past mistakes did not end her career. Saying “no” is a powerful tool. And though she is wiser than she was before, she has just enough answers to help those younger than her—as was the case for me during our interview.
Most people will recognize Hanawalt’s creative fingerprints on the Netflix tragicomic animated series BoJack Horseman, where she was the production designer, or on Tuca & Bertie, an animated show Hanawalt created about two bird women voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, respectively. But Hanawalt is a woman of many talents. She co-hosts Baby Geniuses, a podcast, with comedian Emily Heller. Her comics have appeared in the New York Times, Hazlitt, and VICE. The Hairpin even featured a series of her humorist film reviews for a time. She also illustrated a children’s book, Benny’s Brigade (2012), in addition to authoring her own graphic novels: My Dirty Dumb Eyes (2013), Hot Dog Taste Test (2016), and Coyote Doggirl (2018).
I Want You is a compilation of Hanawalt’s early mini comics, illustrations, and art. It is her at the very beginning of it all. We spoke recently over Zoom about using nightmares as inspiration, reading reviews of your own work, and sex bugs.
The Rumpus: In your introduction to I Want You, you talk about how reviewing old work brings up painful memories and can be embarrassing, and it being like revisiting a dump in the toilet. How is it for you right now? How are you coping with the mixed emotions of promoting work that you’ve distanced yourself from in some way?
Lisa Hanawalt: It’s interesting. I felt really ambivalent about reprinting that work. I just wasn’t sure about it and then Drawn & Quarterly and my literary agent both kept reassuring me that the work was worth collecting and reprinting. My instinct is to just let the past be the past and just move forward because everything I make is building on something in the past and trying to improve on it. In some ways, I’m telling the same stories over and over again but just refining how I tell them. But when I actually look back through the work, I’m like, Okay, this stuff is interesting. And you can kind of see the germination of so many of my ideas and my characters. Maybe it does stand on its own. And it’s just been nice seeing people’s reactions to it.
You’ve kind of figured nobody’s going to care about this. They’ll be like, Oh, she just repackaged some old work. But I think people are happy to have it collected. There’s a lot of rare and previously unpublished stuff in there, and I think the intro comic helps contextualize it. I don’t know. I’m bad at talking about my own trajectory and my career as an artist so then reading other people reviewing it and summarizing my career is really bizarre. People seem to like this work.
Rumpus: You’re really open about your mental health in your comics, and you often discuss anxiety. Do you use your art as a medium for your own mental health?
Hanawalt: I think I drew a lot when I was in elementary school because I was anxious. And because I had trouble focusing, unless I was fidgeting or doing something with my hands. So really, I think I got good at drawing because I was doing that throughout school. Teachers would yell at me and try to get me to stop, and I wouldn’t. It was hard to explain to them, “I can listen better if I’m drawing at the same time as I’m listening.” It’s not an either-or thing.
It’s hard to focus. I think drawing helps me and it also feels cathartic to sort of take something that feels bad and turn it into something that feels good. You feel accomplished. I don’t know. I like feeling useful to other people. I think my job is largely inessential and useless, but if my work helps someone else feel like, “I feel the same way,” then I feel better. That’s satisfying.
Rumpus: Well, it does. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. And one of the things with it is intrusive thoughts. With your work, it sometimes feels like I’m reading my mind because I have all of this grotesque stuff going on. There’s a boldness and a comfort that comes from seeing those images and facing those images on the page.
Hanawalt: It’s really just taking all the gross stuff with me and showing it to other people and being like, “Do you have this?” And some people are like, “No! That’s gross,” and some are like, “Yes, I have that same stuff.” And we’re picking through each other’s guts. I think it’s helpful. It’s nice to normalize that stuff because so many people suffer from these things. It’s nice to be able to joke about it, too.
I don’t necessarily wish I were different. Sometimes it’s difficult. It makes a lot of situations uncomfortable. And just physically, it hurts to have anxiety. It’s a double-edged sword. I can help or hurt with what I do. I was joking the other day in the writers’ room for Tuca & Bertie, “I don’t think I would have this career if I didn’t have IBS.” I don’t think I’d be an artist. If I had a perfectly formed, normal poop once every other day like those normal people do, and it was at the same time and I could set a clock by it, I don’t think I’d be an artist. I’d be a personal trainer.
Rumpus: Did you find that it was difficult to publish gross things as a woman?
Hanawalt: No, because I just made it. I didn’t ask anyone for permission before making it. I think probably because I knew the answer would be, “No! Definitely not!” I didn’t want that. I started so small. I was making comics for myself and for my friends. I was going to Kinkos, now known as FedEx, and I was making mini comics and zines. I was just trying to make my friends laugh and gross them out. Then I met my first publisher, who did the original I Want You books, and he was into that stuff. So, my audience was small, and I didn’t have to worry so much. But yeah, it’s too much for some people and honestly, I do get grosser in the earlier comics than I do now. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve almost gotten more squeamish.
Rumpus: Where did the sex bugs come from?
Hanawalt: Part of the first sex bugs story is a dream I had and then I made a comic about it. A lot of those comics come out of dreams, which is weird because I usually think dreams are boring. But some of them are useful creatively. And I just liked the sound of it: sex bugs. It just sounds cute and funny. To take an STD and turn it into something funny and charming. I never thought, I’ll make a TV show and they’ll be on that. But when it came time to make Tuca & Bertie, I thought, “Oh, the sex bugs should be in this.”
Rumpus: Have you ever thought you crossed the line for yourself?
Hanawalt: I don’t think so. Not to sound like a shock comedian or something, but I think sometimes you have to cross the line a little bit to come back and be like, “Oh, no, I don’t think I want to go that far.” But I can’t think of an example where I definitely went too far and thought, I can’t do that again. Sometimes that’s the funniest stuff.
Rumpus: Earlier you said you feel more squeamish now than you did before. Is there any topic now that would be completely off-limits?
Hanawalt: I think my empathy has grown. So, when I make something really gross or upsetting, I’m thinking more about what the reaction to that is going to be and whether I’m going to harm people and whether it’s worth it. Sometimes it is worth it to me. There’s a part in season one of Tuca & Bertie where the delivery guy gets attacked by a jaguar and it’s kind of violent and gory. Again, that came out of a dream I had that was very gory, where a guy got his face ripped off. There was something about how surprising that is that was interesting to me, so I thought it was worth it. I guess I think more about those things than I used to. In the past I would have been like, “Okay, anyone can handle this and if they can’t, fuck ‘em.” Now I’m just like, “Well, maybe some people are going to have a bad time.” I have to be okay with that or make it into something else.
Rumpus: Do you ever read reviews of your work? Do you learn anything from them?
Hanawalt: I read it all. If I’m bored, I’ll definitely look up what people are saying on Reddit, or if I’m really bored, I’ll look on 4chan. And I regret it. I always do! It’s never worth it. It’s definitely a form of self-harm.
I don’t ultimately think it’s helpful because I know internally what I want to change about the work I’m making and what I want to do moving forward. There’s just no way to expedite that and jump right ahead to making the perfect thing. In fact, that will never happen. The other stuff is noise. Like when people say, “Oh, I don’t like that this happened,” I either agree with them or I don’t.
What is helpful is if someone points out something that hurt them. That can be helpful because, obviously, I have blind spots. So that’s something that I like to read about because I’m definitely open to that sort of criticism.
Rumpus: Has that ever happened? Would you mind sharing?
Hanawalt: Yeah, there was a scene in Tuca & Bertie season one that someone felt was a bit transphobic. And I totally didn’t intend it to be. It’s when she goes to that WTUS meeting, and they’re like, “Oh, put a potato down your pants and pretend you’re a man.” That is exclusionary of trans women and I totally didn’t think about that. It doesn’t matter that wasn’t my intention; it just made that person feel that way. That’s something that I’ll think about moving forward.
Rumpus: I’ve noticed that in reviews about your work, it’s often called filthy or grotesque. You’ve even called it pervy. Usually these are things that would be a negative, but taking that into account, would you say you lean more towards surrealism, absurdism, or a chaotic mix of both?
Hanawalt: I think a mix of both. It’s really just whatever I find interesting and whatever makes me laugh. I tend to go back to the same few things over and over again, like little bugs, and sex things, and bodily fluids. Hopefully I’m doing it in a new way when I go back to it, and it’s not completely repetitive.
Part of me describing my work as perverted is just not wanting anyone to be surprised by it. If I call it perverted first before you can then you can’t accuse me of being perverted in a gross way or in a bad way. You can be a pervert as long as you’re not hurting anybody! An ethical pervert!
Rumpus: You weave a lot of social commentary into your work about women’s bodies, health, and mental health. You also do that with anthropomorphic characters and even machines. Do you find that it’s easier to talk about some of these topics when they’re not expressively human?
Hanawalt: It makes things more universal in a way because when you see a human, you ascribe all your previous conceptions of what that kind of person is to the way they look. They remind you of the teacher you had who you hated or loved. They remind you of your mom. They remind you of your friend. When you see a moose, you’re sort of starting with a blank slate. It’s a more fun way for me to create a character because then we can all learn about her together, at the same time. We start on the same page.
Rumpus: Well, speaking of moose, when I read “She-Moose Goes to the Clinic,” I just absolutely gasped. It made me think of Leslie Stein’s I Know You Rider; I’m not sure if you’re familiar, so I had abortion on my mind when I read that.
Hanawalt: This was a nightmare I had. It was like this body horror nightmare that came out of my fears of pregnancy. I’m afraid of pregnancy and afraid of abortion. I just think it would be a really difficult thing to go through, both physically and emotionally. I don’t know if I want children; I feel mixed about it. So that was such an interesting thing to me that I made the comic. At the time, I didn’t publish it because I was worried people would see it as a direct commentary on abortion, either pro or con, and I didn’t intend for it to be a political thing.
Rumpus: Was “Extra Egg Room” another nightmare-fueled product?
Hanawalt: Yeah, I’m afraid of flying. So “Extra Egg Room” is related to that. Just this fear of being out of control. Part of that is like the pilot is not a real pilot and is just a stack of birds.
Rumpus: Besides dreams and nightmares, what artists or cartoonists influence your work?
Hanawalt: Oh my gosh, so many. I mean, really so many of them. I’m influenced by TV and movies, too. I was definitely like a kid who sat in front of the TV a lot, played video games a lot. I read a lot of Garfield, a lot of Calvin and Hobbes. When I was in high school, I really liked Phoebe Gloeckner and Renée French. They were two women who were so gross and so honest in their work, depicting sex and fluids and just everything that I thought, Okay, I can do this. Their work was visceral in a way that other comics weren’t. I liked Dan Clowes and R. Crumb. I liked Adrian Tomine. But Renée and Phoebe, I really connected with their work and thought: “I can follow in their footsteps.”
Rumpus: Do you plan on doing any more animation? Are there more shows coming down the pipeline?
Hanawalt: I would like to. I wish they didn’t take so much time because I have so many ideas and things that I want to do. I don’t have enough hours in the day, especially now. Trying to work during all of this takes a lot of bandwidth. Who’s going to clean? Everything is taking some extra energy, but I’m trying to be patient and chip away at this for now. Not overtax myself.
I never feel like, Oh, I made it. Now I can rest. I’m just trying to improve or do something new and surprising. I get bored easily. It does feel good, though. I think if I went back ten years and talked to my younger self, and she could see where I’m at now, she would be pretty stoked about it. She’d be like, “A cartoon? This wasn’t part of our plan, but okay.” It’d be an interesting surprise.
It’s hard for me to reflect on where I am right now, but I’m impressed and proud of myself that I can work so well with so many other people and lead and organize. Those are not things I ever thought I’d be good at. I didn’t think I’d be ready, but in the doing of the things I got better at it.
Portrait of Lisa Hanawalt by Lisa Hanawalt.