Lisa Hanawalt is apparently a lot like Pixar. Not only is she pretty reliably entertaining, but she approached her new book, Coyote Doggirl, in the spirit of trying to do something that was hard for her (the animation company made Finding Nemo partially because water was such a difficult thing to do well). That’s the mark of someone who wants to push her limits, and it partially explains why her work is consistently interesting, no matter the medium. Coyote Doggirl, out last month from Drawn & Quarterly, is a solidly feminist western, with a woman at its core who’s as messy and flawed and outsized in her personality as any of Clint Eastwood’s nameless, charismatic jerks. Hanawalt chatted with us on the phone for half an hour about her work ethic, trying to build in self-care, how the story came about and some of her favorite westerns.
Paste: Why don’t you start off by telling me how making a book like this is different from making a book of shorter pieces like the ones you’ve done before.
Lisa Hanawalt: I kind of approached it the same way. I just happened to make all the shorter bits about the same character, following the same storyline, if that makes sense. When I started making it, and I did the first 20 or so pages, I thought it was just going to stay a short little thing, but then it just very organically felt like a longer story. So I slowly kind of mapped out the arcs that I wanted and some different little bits that peek in here and there, some of which I scrapped. And then I did the interstitial stuff, like her wishlist. It just came together very naturally into a longer story.
Paste: So you didn’t create a bunch of index cards with a plot and rearrange them?
Hanawalt: I kind of did. I didn’t do the index cards specifically, although that is my preferred method. I had little bits that I jotted down in my Evernote, which is an app I like using, and then I kind of shifted them around and figured out what I wanted the final arc to be, and I filled in all the gaps in the middle. So, basically the same process as using index cards.
Paste: Is the stuff at the very beginning of the book the first stuff that you wrote and drew?
Hanawalt: Yeah. The story started with her going, “Shit! We’re being pursued by guys.” And then all the stuff with her kind of monologuing with her horse. When it started out, I hadn’t even figured out who the guys were. I just really liked the idea of her being propelled through the story by random bad guys chasing her. I had watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which really has that feel of, “oh, we’re just constantly being sort of low-key pursued.” So I wanted to have that same feeling. And then I was like, I have to figure out a reason why they’re chasing her.
Paste: That’s sort of what I would suspect. It kind of has this in media res sort of feeling and then you go back to fill in the details. It reminds me of some of the earlier Clint Eastwood movies, too. Are you a big fan of westerns?
Hanawalt: I am, although I think a lot of them are quite bad. A lot of them are way too long and kind of boring and then they’re very misogynist and racist, obviously. So it kind of made me want to make my own. I really like the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit. That’s maybe my favorite.
Paste: What are some of your other favorite ones?
Hanawalt: I like the John Ford ones, like The Searchers and Stagecoach. I guess Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is probably my favorite Sergio Leone movie. I like Clint Eastwood, too. I really like Unforgiven.
Paste: Did you grow up watching them?
Hanawalt: Not really, no. I got into them later in life.
Paste: Are you a movie fan in general?
Hanawalt: Yes. I’d say so. I love movies and TV shows. The whole time I’ve been making art, I’ve just been binge-watching stuff in the background. I used to have like a collection of 30 VHS tapes in the early 2000s, and I would just watch them on a loop while working.
Paste: One thing that I was thinking about is that I feel like most westerns are about community, about people building a society, but this book is not really about that. It’s more about the value of being alone. Do you think that’s accurate?
Hanawalt: I think westerns are about both of those because there’s often a solitary, lone-wolf dude who saves the day. This is kind of a play on that. And I think at the beginning, she starts off as a character who values self-possession and isolation. But then as it goes on it becomes more and more clear that maybe it’s because she’s kind of awkward and rude and doesn’t really know how to interact with other people that well. And then by the end, I don’t think she values the same things as much anymore. She goes back to her solitary cabin, and it doesn’t hold the same kind of value for her.
Paste: Because she’s been out in this big world.
Hanawalt: And she’s needed help along the way because everyone needs help.
Paste: It’s kind of interesting. I hadn’t really thought about the lone wolf thing before. Isn’t a coyote a pack animal?
Hanawalt: I don’t think they are.
Paste: I don’t know much about coyotes!
Hanawalt: At least when I see them here in L.A., they’re definitely on their own. Lone scavengers.
Paste: Do you spend a lot of time alone?
Hanawalt: I do and I don’t. I’m used to working alone, but in TV production I have to work with people all day long. I’ve learned to enjoy it, and it makes my work good, and it makes me a better person, but… I am someone who’s very comfortable spending a lot of time alone. But I get lonely. I’m a lot like Coyote Doggirl in that way I guess.
Paste: You’ve been riding horses for a long time, right?
Hanawalt: Yeah, on and off.
Paste: What do you think has kept you doing it for a long time? Most people are really into it when they’re girls and then they give it up. But you’ve kept going.
Hanawalt: I did take a long break when I was going off to college. I didn’t ride for about 17 years. And then I started taking lessons again recently. I think it kind of builds my confidence and forces me to be more in the moment while I’m doing it. It’s very physical and meditative in a way. And I just really really like horses. I think they’re great. I wish I didn’t like it because I think it’s kind of dangerous and I’m very worried about injuring myself, so I try to stay safe and I’m a little bit of a wimpy rider. But I really like it. I’m really scared when I’m about to do it, and then afterwards, nothing feels better. I don’t feel that relaxed at any other point in my life.
Paste: You have this tendency to draw your animal-headed humans with their tongues sticking out. Why?
Hanawalt: [Laughs] I don’t know. That’s that first time I’ve been asked about that. I think it’s just funny the way animals will let their tongues loll out of their mouths, unselfconsciously. So it’s kind of a way to bring it back to the animal, even though it’s essentially a human character.
Paste: So it’s from somebody who’s been around animals a lot and spent a lot of time observing them?
Hanawalt: Yeah. It’s just cute. It’s funny. It’s like a little kid. It’s a moment of them not being self-conscious.
Paste: Have you ever read this kids’ book called The Queen’s Nose? It’s English. It’s about this little girl who finds a magic 50-pence piece and she gets a wish for each side of it. She also spends a lot of time envisioning the people she knows as animals and drawing them.
Hanawalt: I’ve never heard of it.
Paste: You should read it! It made me think about your methods of drawing these human-animal hybrids. Do you think about what animal people are when you meet them?
Hanawalt: Not really, no. I think it’s like a game I played in high school with my friend. “What animal are all of our best friends?” I don’t think about it that much when I’m meeting specific people. They just seem like people. But if I’m trying to represent a type of person I know or make a character based on someone loosely then it helps to make them an animal because it makes them more accessible for the reader. If you draw a human, that person is going to look like someone specific based on how close you make their eyes together or how big you make them or all the little facial features that we are so attuned to. It’s going to remind the reader of someone, whether good or bad. It’s going to be their 2nd-grade teacher or their best friend or their mom. But if you draw someone as an animal, it just looks like a dog. So they’re not coming to the book with preconceived notions of what this character is. It’s more of a blank slate at the start.
Paste: Do you feel a community with other cartoonists who do this (like Jason and Lewis Trondheim)?
Hanawalt: I suppose we all do it for similar reasons. It just feels like a shorthand. And a lot of artists are really sensitive to animals and interested in animals. They’re also just really fun to draw. I started doing it before I even really knew what I was doing, when I was started drawing when I was six or seven. And then when I started reading comics I was like, oh, cool, other people do this. And then I read R. Crumb comics and he has sexy comics about bear people and I was like, oh, okay, this is normal. It’s a thing, and these are my people.
Paste: When did you start drawing comics?
Hanawalt: When I was six. I still have some comics that I made from back then. They were about a horse and a donkey who were roommates, and then I drew cat people and dog people wearing patterned sweaters. So it’s kind of the same thing I do now [Laughs].
Paste: What do your parents think about what you do now?
Hanawalt: They love it! They’re so proud of me. They’re both microbiologists, and they’ve always been very supportive of what I do. I think that’s a large part of why I’ve been able to be an artist.
Paste: They encouraged you when you were drawing comics as a child?
Hanawalt: Yeah, they did. They thought it was great. I’ve drawn some stuff that’s been difficult. Like when I was in high school, I used comics as a way to process some difficult stuff I was going through, and I shared them with my parents, which was crazy because they were really personal, but I remember my dad saying, “It’s really great that you were able to express yourself in your art, and that must be very cathartic for you.”
Hanawalt: I’m so lucky that I’ve had parents who got it. I know a lot of artists whose parents don’t get it, and I think it’s very brave that they’re able to continue without that support. I’m very sensitive to praise and to pleasing other people, so I think it was really important that my parents be okay with what I do.
Paste: When did you know that you wanted to go to art school?
Hanawalt: I wasn’t sure. For a while I wanted to be a vet and then I kind of dropped that because I was best at art. And then in high school I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to pursue acting or art. But I hated the audition process so much, and I was so shy (until I got on stage). I just hated everything except acting. So I went into art. It was kind of a random decision, almost. It just seemed like the thing I was best at.
Paste: Did you learn anything in art school that you still use?
Hanawalt: I went to UCLA, and it was a very conceptual school, so I didn’t learn a lot of concrete drawing skills. We had our first-year drawing class in which we had figure drawing, and after that… you could do almost anything. One girl filled an entire room with tampons dipped in red paint. It was that kind of school. So I learned how to talk about my art in front of a room of people, and I think I’m a good bullshitter. I got good grades because I was able to talk about everything in a way that made it sound intelligent. I took this photography class with one of my favorite teachers, Walead Beshty, and I put up a photo I made of one of my best friends, and he was like, “This is a nice photo, but why should I give a shit about it? Why should I give a fuck?” Like, wow. Harsh. And I was like, “This is a photo of my best friend.” And he was like, “Well, that’s great for you, that’s personal to you, but why should I, as a viewer of the photo, care about that?” And I was like… whoa. It made me cry, and then I talked to him about it after class, and he explained himself more. And I was like, “That is actually a really, really good lesson. Because I’m making work for myself, but I also want to reach out to other people. So what can I do to make my work do that?” So that was just something I’ve thought about ever since.
Paste: What do you do to make your work reach out to other people?
Hanawalt: I think there are ways to make a story more universal without dumbing it down. You can take any personal story and tweak the details. If I’m telling a story, it doesn’t have to be every actual thing that’s actually happened to me, starring real people from my life. I can hide it. I can make it more of a fable. It’s just forced me to be a better storyteller.
Paste: Switching gears a little bit, I feel like this is your most beautiful book.
Hanawalt: Thank you!
Paste: How hard did you try to make it lovely?
Hanawalt: [Laughs] I don’t know. Part of the reason that I wanted to make it was that I wasn’t very good at drawing landscapes and backgrounds. I was used to just drawing characters floating on a white page. So that felt like a fun challenge for me. There are parts of it where I feel like I got it wrong and the color’s too muddy to me, or I’m like, “I didn’t stick to a particular color scheme other than making her pink.” Every time I look at it, I just think of ways I could have done better, so I’m glad you think it’s beautiful.
Paste: It is! And it’s interestingly in between your two other books. My Dirty Dumb Eyes is a little bit more outline-based and precise and then Hot Dog Taste Test is more loose and watercolory, and this is right in between the two.
Hanawalt: Yeah, I have gotten looser as I’ve gotten older. My work from 10 years ago was really, really tight, and I filled every inch of the paper with tight, tight, tight details, and I didn’t really know how to color and had no real sense of it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a lot looser and I’ve gotten more comfortable with color. Some people prefer my earlier work I think, but this is just an easier way for me to work. Part of it’s physical. I get carpal tunnel now, so it’s hard to draw those tight, tight details. And I think looser drawing is better or more skillful in a way.
Paste: Yeah, it makes me think about someone like [Henri] Matisse, who simplified more and more in his career, and then at the end it’s just really simple colors and shapes.
Hanawalt: Learning to simplify has been difficult for me. I like to kind of layer things on and on and on and on. And then the work looks heavy and crowded, so I’m learning more and more to let things breathe a little bit. Like, I can just use one color for this page. It’s been a process for me.
Paste: How did you research what the landscapes were going to look like for this book?
Hanawalt: I took a lot of screencaps from movies, and part of the book is based on Monument Valley, very loosely. I just wanted to draw as many landscapes as possible, so I was like, she’s going to go through a forest in this part, and in this part I want to have a race along the mountains and see a valley below. I looked at tons and tons of photos and photos of people riding horses, too, to get all the angles right. That was very fun for me.
Paste: Do you spend a lot of time outside?
Hanawalt: No? Not really. I’m not like a very outdoorsy person, but I do go riding, and I walk around my neighborhood a lot, looking at trees and stuff.
Paste: But you’re not like a self-sufficient, camping, back-to-the-land…
Hanawalt: No. Not at all! That’s all truly just a fantasy of what I could be like. I have books and stuff! I have a lot of books on how to survive in the wilderness, and I read them once in a while, and I’m like, “Huh. If only I could retain this knowledge.”
Paste: So when the apocalypse comes, you’re not going to be very useful.
Hanawalt: I will be useless! I can tell a good story, and I can be funny, and that’s about it.
Paste: Those are valuable skills, too!
Hanawalt: I guess…
Paste: What else do you do to recharge? It seems like you have been really, really busy over the past few years, and that can be stressful, just trying to live up to everyone’s expectations…
Hanawalt: Yeah, no kidding! And the more stuff you do, the more people are like, “So what’s next? What are you doing now?” And I’m like, “Aren’t I already doing it? Oh my god!” I’m really bad at that. Even last night my boyfriend was yelling at me (well, not yelling), but he was like, “You know that you’re not lazy and bad, right? You have to know that that’s a fact, right? So two things could be true. Either you are actually lazy and bad and you relax too much, or you’re not and you’re just kind of thinking very black and white about this.” And I was like, “Okay. It’s probably the second one.” And he said, “So it’s probably okay for you to not work on a Sunday, not everything’s going to fall apart if you relax.” And this is just kind of an ongoing thing I have to learn. So yesterday I watched a Netflix documentary and played solitaire on my phone and read a book and tried not to work. I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out.
Paste: Just making space for yourself not to be productive?
Hanawalt: Yeah. It’s important. Last year, 2017, at the end of the year I wrote down a list of major things I’d accomplished that year and places I’d traveled, and I realized that, out of the last 10 years, it’s the year that I took the most time off (because I was traveling a bunch and I had some health problems so there were some days that I really couldn’t work) and also the year that I accomplished the most. So I was like, This is telling me something really important. I need to take time to relax and take time off. It’s really, really important.
Paste: Because otherwise you burn out. You need to fill up your tank.
Hanawalt: But I still think of myself as a lazy person. I’m not one of those people who wakes up at 8 a.m. and works out and then draws for 10 hours. That’s never going to be me.
Paste: I don’t think there are that many of those people!
Hanawalt: I don’t know. I know a lot of artists really work on a schedule, and it helps them, and I think structure helps me, but I just have to do something totally different every day. Some days I don’t work at all, and some days it’s like nonstop work for 12 hours.
Paste: Do you go and look at art?
Hanawalt: I try to. I haven’t gone in a long time and whenever I do, I’m like, “This is great! I should do this more. I should go to museums.” Last time I really did that, I went to LACMA and I saw the Larry Sultan show—a photographer that I really, really love. And I loved it so much. His work isn’t very similar to mine, but I just found it very inspiring.
Paste: Sometimes that’s more inspiring, something that’s really different from what you make.
Hanawalt: Yeah. I don’t want to look at work that is like, “Oh! This is what I do.”
Paste: Because you could go home and make that yourself. You need something different.
Hanawalt: I also buy a lot of comic books and then I pile them up and a couple of times a year I just binge on them and read all the comics I possibly can. That’s kind of helpful and fun for me, just to stay abreast of the different ways people are telling visual stories.
Paste: What are the last few things you read that you really liked?
Hanawalt: I read all of Nick Drnaso’s work (he wrote Beverly and Sabrina), and he is the complete opposite of my work in every way I can think of. His work is so not expressive in a really strange way. For me it’s even hard to tell what age his characters are based on their faces. Even when they’re yelling it still seems like the art is very restrained, and his work is very alienating, whereas mine is very expressive and like “whaaa!” and like “Here’s how I feel! Don’t you feel the same way? Connect with me!” So it’s really interesting to read it.