The term “gross-out humor” doesn’t conjure up much subtlety or imagination. But for artist and illustrator Lisa Hanawalt, there’s something profoundly funny in the gap between the grotesqueness of everyday life and the inevitability of its existence. In one of her best-known comics, originally drawn for the “Obsession” issue of the now defunct Lucky Peach magazine, she depicts a woman who, while bored at her day job, scrolls through Instagram and discovers a bizarre online community: equestrians, on horseback, taking photos of hot dogs, burgers, and other meat dishes alongside their steeds.
On an impulse, the woman not only buys a horse and joins in, but also starts to hunt and kill for food. From there, the comic abruptly transforms into a dark, hilarious meditation on what it means to be a meat-eater when your hunting companion could swiftly be sliced up for dinner, too. “My horse knows he’s prey and I’m a carnivore,” Hanawalt writes in the comic’s captions. “He thinks it’s only a matter of time before he becomes my next meal, but I’m already feasting.” The last panel shows a skeletal illustration of both horse and rider, their bones and organs rendered as plainly as that in an anatomy textbook.
Even when Hanawalt’s work isn’t as grim, it’s just as insightful when it comes to satirizing human nature through animals. As the art director for the animated Netflix series BoJack Horseman, Hanawalt has helped depict, in meticulous detail, the absurdities of being a creative type in Los Angeles through a cast of anthropomorphized creatures. Watch any episode and you’ll see birds, mammals, and reptiles driving cars, wearing outfits ripped straight from the latest fashion mags, or working at digital media outlets not unlike the one you’re reading right now. There’s a magazine called Manatee Fair (staffed by manatees), and a dolphin singer/rapper named Sextina Aquafina who dresses like Nicki Minaj.
Currently, Hanawalt is finishing up production on the first season of her own show, Tuca & Bertie, for which she is an executive producer and head writer. Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong are set to co-star as the titular characters. Still, Hanawalt has never strayed far from comics. On August 21, she released Coyote Doggirl, her third book and first full-length graphic novel. Inspired by old Western movies like The Searchers and Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, the book follows a pithy, contemporary protagonist—Coyote Doggirl wears crop tops and spouts filthy-mouthed one-liner—against a bleak desert backdrop of violets and yellows, with bandits in pursuit and only her horse Red as a companion. Everyone in this rugged world must catch and skin their own food (an activity that Hanawalt doesn’t shy away from illustrating), and ambushers lurk around every corner. Within the first few pages, Coyote’s back gets peppered with arrows.
Hanawalt isn’t afraid to poke fun at the Western environment she’s building upon, particularly the relationship between horses and riders that is so revered in that world. In one scene, after Coyote falls in with a tribe of wolves, she gets introduced to their horse herd. “Soot is the smoothest ride,” a wolf tells her. “Sweetie Face is fastest. Snakey is fast AND sneaky. TomTom’s personality… is pretty similar to Soot’s. Y’know, they are both horses.”
In this condensed and edited interview, Hanawalt and I talk about her book’s origins, crafting a woman protagonist for a modern Western, balancing her comics with her television work, and why all the characters in the book are dogs and not, for instance, llamas.
JEZEBEL: You’ve talked about writing this book for some time now, since at least 2013. I’m wondering how the idea first came about.
LISA HANAWALT: It really started as a stream-of-consciousness thing, almost. I was having a lot of thoughts about this strange relationship between a horse and a rider, and how it’s not totally symbiotic. Is the horse a pet, or is it just a vehicle? I wanted to do something related to the weirdness of that. At the same time, I was watching a lot of Westerns. I’d just seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I was watching old John Ford movies and Sergio Leone movies. So I kind of mashed those things together and started this story. I didn’t know how long it was going to be. I did the first chapter in a couple days, really. And then it just became this thing that I would work on between other projects. Sometimes I’d come back to it after a year of not looking at it, and be like, “Oh my god, what is this pile of stuff?” I was putting it online for a while, and I was worried that it would never really turn into anything, and then I almost threw it in the trash and my partner convinced me not to. And then I was like, “Okay, if I string together all these little tidbits and finish it, then I can turn it into a book.”
The two other books you’ve done for Drawn & Quarterly aren’t a single narrative. They’re a collection of one- or two-page comics all put together.
Yeah, they’re kind of a mish-mash.
Yeah, and I know Hot Dog Taste Test has some longer things. But this is your first longform story, correct?
Yeah, although I went about it the same way that I do with the other books, where I did bits here and there, and I wrote chunks separately, and then found ways to tie them together. For me, it definitely helps to break things down into smaller pieces.
I do like how you incorporate these shorter jokes or moments into the story. I’m thinking of that one scene where one of the wolves introduces Coyote to their horse herd, and it’s like three or four panels of joke after joke. It’s this great series of moments. Was your process of writing a longer story? How did that differ from your shorter comics?
I started to come up with this arc for her. It was very organic. It just started to seem like a bigger story. After I did the first chapter, I was like, “Oh, there’s a lot more that we can do with this character.” If I wasn’t doing anything else, I think I could make a whole complete second volume of stories about her. There’s just something I really like about her. She’s kind of an asshole, and very clearly flawed in a way that is relatable to me, but also charming, and there’s endless adventures that she can have. So I started to write out this arc for her, and I was like, “Obviously she has to find her horse again, and so that’s part of it, and how is that going to play out? What kind of imagery am I coming up with? What are some dreams I’ve had about this character?” I wrote out all these chunks and then found a way to string them together in a way that made sense to me, so that it felt like a satisfying story.
Originally, Coyote was going to be a male character, and then you changed that. What made you decide to make the character female?
It’s weird, when I first started writing it, I was like, “he, he, he, Coyote Doggirl is a boy.” And then I started drawing it, and I don’t know when, but I thought, “Why am I defaulting to male? Is it because every Western I watch, except for maybe True Grit and that one with Sharon Stone, star men? And all the cartoons I grew up watching star male characters?” It’s weird how that becomes my default, even though I’m a woman, and you’d think I would be thinking about these things more all the time. So I threw a sports bra on top of her and made her a lady. But it’s weird that even I have to consciously think about decisions like that all the time.
Was the character originally the sort of antihero, stoic cowboy character that you see in those Westerns? Or was he the same sort of goofy Coyote character that you just changed into a girl?
Yeah, she was always going to be goofy. I had that all written out, and I didn’t change anything when I changed her to a girl. Because I was like, “This is me, this is coming from me and my inner thoughts and my observations.” It doesn’t have to be different to be female.
I agree. And one thing I really like about the character is that she’s decidedly feminine in certain ways, but nothing that’s extraneous to her character. She’s also very contemporary, like how she makes and wears crop tops, without seeming out of place in this very Western, cowboys-and-horses world that you’ve created for her. I’m wondering how you balanced out those contradictions.
It’s funny, because there are certain parts that pull you out of the story a little bit, like when she talks about crop tops, or when she swears or does something really vulgar. It’s like oh, am I in 2018? Because that feels like a very 2018 thing to say. The humor is very “now.” I wanted to balance that out and not have it be too much like that. I don’t want her to be like, “Ugh, Snapchat.” It has to be a part of the story. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s a gut feel thing, like whether it could use a weird joke here or there to balance out the more serious stuff. She’s very rude, so that’s part of it, too.
I was curious about the tone, also, because in a lot of your work, you balance these grotesque moments, from everyday life, that you make into this absurd comedy. And there are those funny moments here, too, but I think a lot of it is also just very matter-of-fact. All those scenes of hunting food and skinning animals, even that one scene where she has to kill a horse because it broke its leg and it can’t survive. It’s all treated in this very matter-of-fact way while also having moments of comedy. As you were developing the comic, how did you come up with that bleakness without getting in the way of your signature style?
I really like things that hit that tone in general. To me, it’s a frontier kind of thing. You’re out there trying to survive, and you can’t get too upset about how to kill a snake to eat, or even put down a beloved pet. That’s a life approach, too. You kind of just have to deal with it and move on. Everything dies, and there’s horrible violence everyday, and it’s not okay, but it’s a fact of life. I like how people who deal with animals a lot, people who raise animals, are more matter-of-fact about that sort of thing than a lot of city folk.
When I was nine years old, I lived on a farm in England for a year, because my parents were on sabbatical. I would go to the farm everyday after school and hang out with this farmer and watch him do his stuff, and just the way that he dealt with this stuff was so matter-of-fact. Animals would die constantly, in the most disgusting and brutal ways possible. And I was nine years old, so it was really a lesson to me about life and the cycle of it. So I think this book is a way to explore that more. Also, my favorite author is Annie Proulx, and I feel like her stories are so, so brutal, but they’re very funny, too. They’re just devastating. I really like that stuff. But it’s also kind of scary doing this, because I think most of my work is very silly and comedic, and this book was a way to explore a story that was maybe a little bit less funny, even though there are jokes along the way.
It’s similar, looking at this compared to something like BoJack, which also deals with very serious stuff in comedic ways.
Yeah, it’s really dark.
But I feel like the humor is different. Coyote Doggirl kind of presents bad things as a fact of life. Instead of something to overcome, you just kind of have to roll with it.
Yeah, definitely. But also, clearly this character is carrying some trauma from things that have happened to her, even though she is super defensive in hiding it from people. She’s convinced herself that she doesn’t need other people.
Right. And I did want to ask about her backstory. When you talked about the story in earlier interviews, you mentioned having the character being chased by these bandits and not really being sure what they were chasing her for. But here, it’s very clear that she was about to get assaulted, and she cut this guy’s leg off, and now his brother is chasing her.
Yeah, she made sushi out of his leg.
Exactly. Which is both very darkly comedic and, again, this very matter-of-fact thing. She had to defend herself. But what was the impetus for giving her that backstory?
Obviously it’s very personal to me, and it’s kind of a revenge fantasy. I don’t know, I felt weird about doing it because it’s so violent, and it’s upsetting, and I hoped people would relate to it. Because I feel like a lot of women, and some men, too, have had very similar experiences and probably have similar revenge fantasies. It’s something I wanted to explore more in my work. We’ve all had an experience where someone tries to assert their power over us, and it’s just not fair, and we think about ways we can get them back, even though in real life there isn’t usually that sort of justice.
I think it’s a good use of the genre that you’re working in, in the way that it hasn’t really been used before, because it’s mostly been male protagonists.
Yeah. And even in male-told stories… I like that Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven, but it’s still from a male perspective of men seeking revenge for women getting hurt. And stories like True Detective, too. They use female pain, but it’s told from a male perspective. So I’m interested in stories told by women, where women have control over the narrative of their own pain.
What I like about Coyote is that it’s very clear she wanted to have some sort of retribution, but she also wants to move on with her life, and these men still think she needs to be punished all because she defended herself.
Yeah, and what I believe, too, is that there isn’t any sort of clean retaliation. If you retaliate with violence, then more violence is gonna come your way. Even if you think this guy completely deserves to have his leg chopped up or whatever, it’s not just gonna end cleanly right there. She can’t just go on with her life like this didn’t happen. It’s sort of unfair, because it seems like an eye for an eye, but that’s of course not how his brother is gonna see it. It gets complicated. And I think, if the story continues, it’s unclear whether those guys are gonna tend to leave her alone or not. It seems resolved here, just for the sake of it being a complete graphic novel, but I don’t know if it’s really over.
Turning back towards the animals in the story, because I know horses were a big part of this, I do think her relationship with Red is really interesting because you don’t see them together all that much after the first chapter of the book, but he is her guiding motivation. She’s injured, and then she wants to find Red, and then she wants to get home. So I’m wondering, why make that relationship the main motivation in this story?
It’s almost a joke, because it’s not really a reciprocal relationship. It’s unclear if Red even really cares about her, or would’ve remembered her, had he never appeared again. Red seems happy to see her when she finds him again, but I have a lot of jokes in there about how he’s really just a horse. I think horses are great and crazy intuitive and really fascinating animals, but sometimes you just look at them and you’re like, “Not a lot going on in there, huh? You really do just kind stand around for most of the day.” I like how the book goes back and forth between adoring them as these mystical, elegant, graceful creatures, and then, “Oh, they’re big, clumsy, dumb animals sometimes.” And she bonds with this other horse, and it gets hurt, and she has to put it down. I feel like loving horses is setting yourself up for tragedy. I ride at a barn right now, and you wouldn’t believe all the tragic stories I hear, month after month, of how people’s horses die. They’re crazy accidents waiting to happen. They can live to be 40 years old if you take care of them, but it’s insane. And every time I ride, I think, It’s crazy that I like this, this is my hobby. Why do I like horses so much? I can’t figure it out. I also think they are sort of magical in a way that can’t truly be explained.
I’ve also been wondering, because it’s kind of a strange time for the book to come out, and I’m sure you didn’t really intend this when you first started working on it five years ago, but there’s been some discussion around “horse girls” on social media now. Like, making fun of horse girls.
Oh yeah, it’s true. I wonder where that started. Sometimes I feel like I’m nebulously part of a trend. Not to say I started it, but just a part of it, somehow. Which, you know, I don’t just want to be part of a trend. I’m like, “No, this is my life!” But it’s cool sometimes. I liked when Roy Moore was riding around on his horse, and fucking Horse Twitter lost his mind. That poor horse!
I am wondering, though, what you think of the bizarre fascination with all these young women who become obsessed with horses. I don’t know if you consciously thought of past representations of women and horses in media when you were writing this, but how did you incorporate that into the story?
I didn’t think about it too much, because I was just trying to think from my own perspective: what I think about when I’m riding a horse. But I feel like people who aren’t into horses have a tendency to sexualize that relationship because they don’t understand it, and they’re like, “Oh it’s definitely a sex thing, ‘cause women and horses.” But it’s way more complicated than that. Obviously, I don’t like horses because I want to fuck one; that’s just stupid. But I don’t know, there is something to little girls controlling this big, powerful beast that is so intuitive that it listens to them. You can sort of tell a horse all your secrets. And in some ways, I think it is a surrogate for a relationship. But it’s emotional; it’s not sexual.
I feel that you get that across pretty well in the book. I like how she acknowledges that it’s slightly transactional, but also she clearly cares about this being. He’s her only companion, so of course, why wouldn’t she want to find him again?
Yeah, ’cause she’s kind of shy about other relationships, in a way.
Why did you choose the rest of the characters to be canines?
It felt like a clean way to say: “These are people. All of them are various sorts of dogs.” There’s dog-dogs. There’s coyote-dogs, which is a way to be like, “She’s half wild and half regular dog.” And then wolves seem like an easy way to represent this tribe that she visits. I’m working on this show right now, Tuca & Bertie, and everyone in the town is a bird, pretty much. And it almost feels random. Like it could’ve been a show about cats, but the characters I made up were birds, and so, Bird Town. Sometimes when I write a story, it’s almost random what the animals are. It’s kind of what I feel like drawing at the time. I really like dogs; they’re one of my favorite animals. And I like birds, too. But it’s a little bit arbitrary. They could’ve all been llamas. Coyote Llamagirl.
I want to ask about the art for a bit, because I really like the palette in this book, the yellows and the pinks. I’m just wondering if there were any specific artists that you took inspiration from for that.
No, no other artists. I’m kind of a sponge sometimes, and I’m constantly reading new comics and watching movies and TV shows, so it’s hard to say where things come from. And the cover just felt so fully formed in my mind that for a while I worried that I was stealing that palette and that font from something. And so I kept checking around and asking friends if I was stealing it, and they said, “No.” So I made it. Sometimes I wake up with an image in my head, which is always delightful because it feels like I took a shortcut somehow. It’s just my subconscious working on something.
The yellows felt like how the hills look in California, and I wanted to draw a lot of different landscapes. I usually don’t draw that many landscapes in my work, I usually draw characters on a white background, so it felt like a challenge to try and represent what a landscape looks like seen from a distance and all that. And then Coyote, I really like using this pink color for characters. It’s basically the same pink as Princess Carolyn in BoJack. And I like that it looks very feminine, but also it looks aggressive and strong to me, and it’s impossible to ignore a pink that is this bright. So there’s something sort of audacious about it. And I like that she just kind of looks vaguely naked and sunburnt. I had a lot of thoughts about it.
I noticed that the map that you have at the beginning, at the very opening page of the book, looks vaguely like a map of L.A., but I’m not sure if that was the intent.
[Laughs]. Does it? I guess, now that I’m looking at it, it kind of does.
The way that the river forks, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s the L.A. River.” And that’s the Valley above the Red Mountains. Maybe I’m just projecting.
No, I did not think about that. I made this map last-thing in the book, because I was just suddenly like, “Oh god, this book should have a map in the beginning, that would be so cool.” I’ve always wanted to make a book with a map. Every good book has a map at the beginning. So I went through the whole story and tried to map out where she went, but it was really difficult. I was like, “How does this fit, and then also seem like a long journey from place to place?” So it was pretty random how it ended up. But you could totally look at it and be like, “That’s Silverlake!”
The Old Lady’s Cabin is in Silverlake.
It totally is. I live in it. I’m the old lady.
How does working on that show fit into working on this and BoJack? Does it feel like a nice, third thing that you’re doing that’s vastly different from anything else?
I’m in this phase where the writing is done on my show, so I spend my day waiting around for the storyboard artists to be ready to show me things. I’m like, “Ugh, I should be doing something right now, what should I do?” But it’s a lot of hurry up and wait. For a while, I was finishing up this book at the same time that I was art directing BoJack and I was running the writer’s room for my show. And I’d never been in a writer’s room before. And so that was a lot of work, because I was running this writer’s room, and I’d go to my office for an hour-long lunch break and furiously art-direct and answer emails, and then go back to the writer’s room for the rest of the day, and then go home and finish Coyote Doggirl things.
And it was just way too much. I don’t recommend that. Luckily BoJack and Tuca slot together in a nice way, where BoJack started to wrap up at the time Tuca was ramping up. But yeah, it’s different. I’m using a lot of the skills I learned while working on BoJack, working as a part of a team and communicating with other humans. All stuff I got much better at, working on BoJack. Working on comics is what I was used to for the rest of my life leading up until now, and I like how independent it is and how nobody else can tell me what to do, basically, until there’s an editor. But now that I’ve worked in TV, I’m like, “Oh, it’s actually kind of better to work with other people.” Because they improve all my ideas and make me look good. So it’s a little bit like the story of Coyote Doggirl, where she thinks she’s better off by herself, and then by the end, she goes back to her cabin to be alone, and she’s like, “You know what? This doesn’t really appeal to me in the same way that it used to.” And she goes back out into the world.
Did working on the shows help you conceptualize how to write a longer graphic novel?
I think not directly, because on BoJack I did not work on story at all, I was doing all design. But I think… I was worried about how long it took me to make this book, because I started it in 2013, and I didn’t finish it until last winter. But I think actually having a lot of time between when I was able to work on it helped me just look at it again with fresh eyes, which is the most helpful thing when writing. And figuring out what worked, and what didn’t, and throwing out a lot of things, and adding new things, and just combing through it over and over again, which is the main thing I’ve learned about writing through working on my own show. It’s like, “Oh, writing is just not gonna be good in the first pass. You have to keep editing it, thoroughly, a thousand times.”
And go back and make sure it all fits together, especially on a TV show.
Oh, yeah. So much editing. It’s crazy.
If you were to make a Coyote Doggirl story in the future, what would be the focus?
That’s a good question. I had some other stories in there, little tidbits I wanted to do, like I had one where she rescues a man. His wagon is stuck in the mud and she rescues him, and it kind of seems like the romantic thing is gonna happen, and then she blows him off. But you know, spoiler alert, I don’t know if I’m actually gonna do that. And then I wanted to introduce a more mystical element, maybe some sort of spiritual story, like a fake folklore story that she tells to someone else over a campfire. I really like old folklore. I don’t know, there’s all kinds of things I could do.
Claire Shaffer is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter @claireeshaffer.