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Skewering Foodie Culture with the Woman Behind 'BoJack Horseman'

In "Hot Dog Taste Test," cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt hilariously reflects on pop culture, food, and, of course, horses.

by Monica Heisey
Jun 5 2016, 3:55pm

Images courtesy of Lisa Hanawalt

Lisa Hanawalt's mind is a beautiful, messed-up place. She's a writer, illustrator, and the designer behind Netflix's delightfully dirty BoJack Horseman, a show that features Will Arnett as a washed-up, alcoholic horse-cum-sitcom star whose nemesis is a yellow Labrador called Mr. Peanutbutter.

Having published illustrations and stories in the New York Times, Lucky Peach, The Believer, and more, Hanawalt released her first book, My Dumb Dirty Eyes, in 2013. This month, she releases Hot Dog Taste Test, a second offering and deeper dive into her wild and whimsical world. Described as an "eclectic hotpot of one-off drawings, sketches, lists, reflections, short comics, and longer extended comics," Hot Dog Taste Test provides a compelling and deeply endearing look at Hanawalt's psyche, mostly through the lens of food.

Like most of her art, the collection of illustrations and stories is a mixture of dark and dirty, exuberant, and silly—the kind of book that features an illustrated guide to unusual garnishes on one page, and a meditation on a first trip after the loss of a family member's partner a few pages later. Hanawalt explores her anxieties and obsessions with candor and imaginative humor, pointing out the fantastical elements of everyday life, and injecting some magic (or, more likely, a weird pervy energy) into the mundane. We grabbed a few minutes with Hanawalt to talk about collaboration, "horse girls," and imagining birthing the shit from your butthole like a baby.

BROADLY: You work across a lot of different media. Do ceramics and illustration and design and food writing and memoir all they take up separate parts of your brain or do they flow from the same place? How did you get so multi-disciplinary?
Lisa Hanawalt: I get bored very quickly! Sometimes I wish I could stick to one discipline, but jumping from one thing to the other keeps me excited about my work. I'm not great at balance, yet. Ceramics felt like the perfect hobby at first but then I got too obsessive—I was working on BoJack every day until evening, then working on pottery until late at night, until finally I gave myself carpal tunnel and had to quit. I'm trying to get better at enjoying things more casually, over an extended period of time, [but] being a bit obsessive helps get the job done right.

Hot Dog Taste Test is described as a "send up of foodie culture," but it's clear from the book itself that you love food and are interested in chefs and cooking and restaurant culture, all pretty classic "foodie" stuff. What's the difference to you between someone who loves food and a "foodie"?
I think a self-described foodie might be more focused on food as a hobby, and trying out the latest restaurants. I'm interested in people who are skilled and knowledgable, I like pushing myself to try new things, and I love eating... but in my day-to-day life I treat food more as a fuel. The "meals" I prepare for myself at home are what some foodies might describe as "sad." Sometimes I'll just eat a can of black olives... or a rice cracker with a peanut butter. There's a page in my book with some photos of really pathetic-looking meals and those are all real meals of mine.

Can we talk about this horse purchase situation? There's a story in the book about a woman who spontaneously buys a horse on the internet and uses it to learn to hunt, and it stressed me right out.
That purchase is fictional, for now! I'd like to own a horse someday, but at the moment I'm just taking lessons and getting rides in whenever I can. I've loved horses for so long, I can't even eloquently explain it... it just feels like there's a chip in my brain that goes "Oh, good!" every time I look at a horse. The comic which that line appears in was inspired by something said to me by a woman whose horses I ride sometimes—she was explaining how horses see humans as predators and they can tell that we're meat eaters from our scent. It was so spooky, I thought it would make a good story. The hunting detail was just an elaboration of that predator thing, part of my escapist fantasy about becoming a self-reliant, wilderness-survival type. Which is the opposite of my actual life as a creampuff tethered to a Cintiq.

Are you any of your human/animal hybrids? Or if not, what animal would you be and why?
Tuca [a brash lady Toucan character from the book] is like my id; she's an extension of my more bratty, selfish, and funny instincts. In reality I'm gentler and more considerate, but I'm very Tuca at the core. The animals I draw are usually based on some aspect of my personality, or on someone close to me.

A lot of the kinds of things you write comics about are topics that teachers and parents and stuff tend to try to iron out of kids as they age: shitting and fucking and eating too much, basically all of life's essentials. Were you the kind of kid who drew dicks and butts on stuff during class?
I was well-behaved at school, but my brother and I got into trouble one time when our parents took us to a classical musical performance, and we were of course super bored, so we started doodling toilet paper rolls and shits in toilets. We got the giggles so bad we had to leave. I never grew out of that. All my favorite artists and writers are people who can appreciate some good shit humor. There's a David Foster Wallace short story where, in the middle of it, a woman starts describing her shit as if it were a tiny baby, to the horror of her coworkers. I've never laughed so hard at a book. I think I'm like that woman, and my friends are the people who go, "Oh yeah, my shit is my baby too" instead of recoiling.

There's some more obviously personal pieces in the book, but the fantastical stuff feels pretty personal too, like a snapshot into a deep part of your brain. Is that accurate? Do you have any reservations about sharing your insides with the outside world?
I have reservations about the more openly diaristic work, like my Argentina travel diary. For a while, I felt deeply uncomfortable with the thought of publishing it. But I love reading diary comics and it feels good to connect with readers on a more vulnerable level. I see all my work as being very personal; even my more fantastical stories are based on real experiences, dreams, and fears.

How do you keep track of all the ideas and images that pop into your head in a day? What's your process like for putting a smorgasbord book like this together?
I keep tons of different Evernote folders and jot down half-baked ideas in there constantly. With Hot Dog Taste Test, I printed out all my pages of work from the last few years and—with the help of my editor, Tracy Hurren—figured out a loose order for them. Laying it all out physically helped me see the bigger picture—where do I need something shorter/sillier? What can I add to link these two thematically similar pieces? What should I cut out? This process feels like a fancier version of my high school & college zine-making days. I used to go to Kinkos with my sketchbook, scan all the pages, add more text and drawings where needed, then slap everything together.

What are you working on right now? What's coming up that you're excited about?
I'm directing a short animation that I'm stoked about and I'm working on some ideas for more comics and cartoons I'd like to make. Lots of stories left to tell.