There is something magical about seeing someone succeed at the exact thing they were meant to do. Artist Lisa Hanawalt is living that magic. Exhibit A: When Lisa was ten years old, she wrote in an essay for school, "I want to be famous for drawing horses someday." Cut to 22 years later, and Lisa's done just that. Her penchant for drawing anthropomorphic animals, horses especially, led to the creation of BoJack Horseman, one of the most innovative shows around. But even before BoJack, Lisa was bringing her unique artistic sensibilities to websites like the Hairpin and magazines like Lucky Peach and The Believer.
And this month Lisa's releasing her second book with Drawn & Quarterly, the excellently titled Hot Dog Taste Test. It is truly a treat for the senses. Lisa's world is weird and wonderful. It includes birds that have butts and cooters; weird foods that you wish you could eat in real life, like slices of ham worn like a bonnet or an "apple dipped in melted apple Jolly Rancher" (is this not the ultimate candied apple?!); and an overall vibe that makes you wish Lisa were your best friend and you could go swimming with otters together. Lisa and I talked on the phone about her career path, New York versus LA, and which character from Friends is the worst.
Laia Garcia: When did you first get into comics?
Lisa Hanawalt: I've always been into comics. I grew up reading the Sunday funnies. Me and my dad would read them together. My parents had comic books lying around. I was recently going through some old childhood artwork, and I was making comics when I was six, seven years old.
LG: You studied art and originally wanted to be more of a traditional artist. Did you make a conscious decision to choose comics, or did it just happen naturally?
LH: I didn't really have a plan. I thought, maybe because I was making large paintings in college, that I would continue to do that, but it just didn't seem practical. After I graduated, I got a secretary job that I worked at for a few years, and I was doing a web comic with my friend. Then I started making my own comic because it was what I was interested in doing, how I wanted to express myself. Then I happened to build a career on that; I started getting illustration jobs based on my comics. I started doing comics for Vice Magazine, and there was this paper called Arthur Magazine that I had a monthly strip in. Then I started doing comics for The Believer. It just kind of built from there.
LG: At what point did you decide to quit your job and devote yourself full-time to your art?
LH: I'd made this mini-comic, I had a publisher interested in doing some comics with me, and I went to Comic-Con. My boss was really unhappy about that, even though he paid me under the table and it wasn't even like I was a real employee. He still was really mad that I warned him three months in advance that I was going to Comic-Con for a week, so I was like, "You know what? I've got to quit this job, because it's holding me back at this point." Even though I did learn a lot about running a business when I was working for him.
I saved up before I quit, then I celebrated by going to New York for a week to stay with my friend Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman]. That's when I met my boyfriend, Adam, because he was roommates with Raphael. I fell in love with him, and then six months later, I moved to New York.
I started doing these animal portraits with animals wearing people clothing because it was really fun and I thought it looked cute. Then I started getting paid to do pet portraits, and eventually that really turned into BoJack Horseman. It was part of what inspired Raphael to write BoJack, mixed in with his own experiences of living in LA.
LG: Do you think that your process of doing your personal work has changed since you started working on BoJack Horseman?
LH: Not really. In Hot Dog Taste Test, I did sort of a more diaristic piece, "My Argentina Travel Diary," which I don't usually do. I don't draw myself that much. I usually take my personal stories, my experiences, and I disguise myself as an animal, and then I embed that story in a fictional story. I really love reading diary comics, so I thought I'd experiment with being a little more vulnerable and showing myself and my family more.
LG: How long did you live in New York? You moved back to California when BoJack started, right?
LH: Yes. I was in New York for five years. I did like it. I'm a bit nostalgic for it now, but I'm a California girl.
LG: What was it like, then, moving back to California because you had this big job? Did you feel any different about returning home?
LH: It was a really crazy time. There's a part of my book where I mention a death in my family. That happened basically the same week that I learned that BoJack was going to be a show. I came back to California for a funeral, and then I could not return to New York from the funeral. I had to go directly to work at BoJack. It was just constant adrenaline and grief and dealing with all this stuff at the same time. Then I flew back to New York for a week, packed up all my belongings, and moved. It was a really intense time. In a way it helped because there was no time to think and worry about anything. I didn't have time to completely freak out about the fact that I was going to start working in an office when I was used to working all by myself, that I had to suddenly tell other people what to do. That was really frightening, and I was really bad at it at first, and I'm still kind of bad at it. There was just so much to do all at once that I had to just do it.
LG: What was the first time at your new office environment where you felt like, OK, I got this?
LH: Do I ever feel like that? I don't know. There are little moments where I feel like, OK, I'm really good at this. Then the next day, I'll go back to doubting myself. I never really feel like, OK, I got this completely. I think if I did feel like that, I would get very bored and I'd want to quit. I don't really like working on things where I'm not unsure and frustrated. I need to feel like it's a challenge. There are definitely moments where there's a problem to solve at work or there's a design that needs to be figured out, and I know exactly how to do it, and it feels so good. It's like, OK, I'm the one person who would know that we need Spanish moss here. That's just a weird example. It just feels really good. It feels like solving a puzzle.
LG: What do you do to relax?
LH: It's hard to relax, I realize. Sometimes I'll start a hobby to relax. That's what ceramics were supposed to be, a relaxing hobby. Then I turned it into a job, and I got too intense with it. Let's see … I like taking baths and reading in the bath. I also like watching rom-coms.
I watched How to Be Single recently. I was on an airplane, and I was sitting next to this cool teenage boy and this old grandma, and we were all watching it and cracking up.
LG: My favorite part was the Friends joke at the beginning, when someone says "They're on a break." I was like Jesus, I am the target audience of this movie.
LH: I loved that. I really like Friends, too. When it was put on Netflix, I was like, Oh, I have to watch every single episode now. And I did. Then I felt so gross.
LG: Did you find anything new, like your feelings changed about characters?
LH: Yes. I used to love Chandler when I first watched the show, and rewatching again, I was like, "Wow, he's, like, kind of a homophobic dick." Phoebe is obviously the coolest character, and they don't deserve Phoebe. I've completely switched my view of them.
LG: That's so funny, because the same thing happened to me with Ross. He is the worst character of all time.
LH: He's such a creep! They should not be friends with him, he's aggressive and he's a stalker.
LG: I was like, "He would be a men's-rights activist today," like, he definitely wears a fedora. Why is Phoebe hanging out with these normies?
LH: She's so much better and more interesting than any of them. Anytime she does anything interesting, they're like, "Uh-oh, Phoebe is such a weirdo."
LG: How was it working with Lisa Kudrow on BoJack? Did you know that she was going to be that character before you drew it?
LH: I forget. Sometimes I find out who they are before they draw them, and sometimes the other way happens. Sometimes Raphael will be like, "Oh, you know so-and-so's coming in today, so if you could have a drawing ready to show them, that would be cool." Then I have to try to whip something up because it also gives me a reason to talk to them. "Here's you. You're an owl."
Lisa's delightful. She's just super-talented, and she would giggle during the table reads in a really cute way. Yes, she's amazing. I also really loved The Comeback. It was one of my favorite shows I've ever seen, so I was pretty stoked.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.