The Eyes Have It: A Visit with Lisa Hanawalt
August 1, 2013 | by Yevgeniya Traps
If the title of her “one-woman anthology” of comics is to be believed, Lisa Hanawalt’s eyes are dirty and dumb. We should all be so lucky: according to My Dirty Dumb Eyes, they allow her to imagine fashionable animals in haute-couture hats, give her insight into the secret lives of chefs (did you know that “Mark Bittman is a vegan before 6 P.M. and a cannibal after 11 P.M.”?), and help her envision some unconventional uses for wedding registry gifts.
With its leitmotif blend of whimsy, wistfulness, and a touch of scatology, the book is funny and life-of-the-party loud. In person, however, Hanawalt is a little shy and a little earnest. It’s not that she takes herself seriously—it’s just that talking about her work seems to feel a little weird. Which is not to say that her comics are improvised or intuitive; in fact, she maintains a running list of ideas with Notational Velocity, working and reworking concepts until they are just right. This demands patience and perseverance: sometimes the idea lies dormant for years until it’s finally time for it to come out and play.
When we met last month in her Greenpoint studio, Hanawalt proudly showed off her Wacom Cintiq, “the most incredible modern invention—besides a dishwasher” she’s ever owned (it’s an interactive pen that allows her to draw and edit directly on her computer screen), talked about some of her recent comics (“It’s all toilet-based humor”), and considered life after art school (she went to UCLA) and the differences between LA and NY.
I think the way I was looking at this book was like, This is the world through my eyes. That was the easiest way to explain what the hell this book was. I couldn’t point to another book, and be like, That’s the book I’m going to make. So okay, the world through my eyes, what is that world? Well, I see a lot of dirty stuff, and I see a lot of dumb stuff. And it’s sort of just me, trying to be more debased or humorous as a way of entertaining myself.
I just wanted some pieces that weren’t narrative. Just two-page spreads that relate to some of the other comics in the book. This is the most fun thing for me to draw. Comics take a lot of energy. I have to write them, storyboard them, then make sure that they actually work as narrative. And this is my relaxation, where I can still feel like I’m working, but I can kind of put my brain on autopilot a little bit. I can just pick one theme, like, There are dogs, they live in the jungle, what kind of house do they live in? and just have fun. I think a lot of time, when I’m making art, I’m trying to get into a state of childlike play, where I’m not self-conscious, I’m not worried about what the outcome is going to be. I’m just having fun. With these, I think I key into that quicker than with any other sort of work.
I’ve always liked writing. Even when I was in art school and thought I was going to be a gallery painter, I liked to pair my artwork with writing. And so that naturally led to drawing comics. I like to tell stories. I like to work out things I’m going through in my life and hide them in fictional stories. This piece that I’m working on now, about cowboys, it came from this thought I had. I like to watch westerns, but I think about the fact that they ride horses in westerns a lot, because I love horses. But they hardly ever acknowledge them or discuss the fact that this is their primary mode of transportation, and so in this story I am exploring the genre while acknowledging that, and it’s a conversation between the rider and his horse while he’s being chased by a vague group of people. You never quite see the bad guys or find out who they are. So it’s like a reverse of the standard western story.
Often I’ll get an idea from watching a movie. This one, I was watching The Misfits, which is Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, and there’s this part where they are trying to capture the wild horses. So I kind of took off from that, and turned the people into dogs, and made the horse much bigger, and added helicopters just to make it more modern and exciting. I watch a lot of action movies too.
I think shifting the focus is part of what I do in the movie reviews I write, as well. I love watching movies, even really stupid movies. And I really enjoy them, but I also like to sort of pick out what’s ridiculous about them and kind of make up my own little ideas. It’s all about making funny connections for me.
I’ve always drawn a lot. When I was five, six, I drew myself as a cat a lot, because I was obsessed with cats. And then, as soon as I took my first riding lesson, I started drawing horses. I switched from cats to horses. I think I drew as a way to keep myself from getting bored in class. At first, my teachers got mad at me, but then I think they realized it was my way of listening—I couldn’t pay attention unless I was drawing. So I quickly became one of the best drawers in the school, I was the girl who drew all the time. And I never really stopped.
I think I see myself as both things, a cartoonist and an artist. It kind of depends on who I’m talking to, who I introduce myself as. If I’m talking to a comedian, then I’ll say I’m a cartoonist, because that implies that I write and I’m funny, and I have more of a connection to them. If I’m talking to a designer, I’ll say I’m an illustrator, because that’s something that they’ll understand more. But I do everything. I haven’t done a lot of shows for galleries. It turns out it’s really hard to do that. And even though in art school they are sort of prepping you for that and that seems to be the expectation, they don’t quite explain that you don’t immediately have solo shows in Chelsea when you graduate. And I was doing little zines and stuff the whole time I was in college, so it didn’t feel like a transition, it didn’t feel like, Oh, I’m just going to stop drawing and start doing comics. Because I never stopped or started either. This whole time I’ve continued to make large drawings. It’s just when I was in college I made six-foot-tall paintings. My scale has gotten a little smaller.
I like to read a lot, so the writing part grew out of that. I always kept a diary. And when I was in high school, I had a LiveJournal, and I wrote in it everyday. It’s funny now, because LiveJournal is so lame, but I think it really helped me learn how to write, how to take an experience and make it into something that was like a story.
Often, it starts with me writing. Just scribbling down some ideas, and I’ll write down several bullet points that I’d like to have in the story. Oh, maybe the guy dies at the end, I’ll just write that down real quick. And maybe some phrases that I want to be said during the comic. It really isn’t a beginning-to-end thing. I’ll just fill in as I go, and maybe between pages six and seven, I’ll think there needs to be something else, and I’ll add that in. It’s very much a collage process. And then I’ll sketch it out, and write in the words, and try not to worry about it too much because I know I can go back and change it, and it’s just a first draft. With comics, I’ll tend to try and say less, because I want to show, not tell, what’s happening. So I try not to use too much text. Unless that is a character trait—that a character talks too much.
If I get an idea, and it makes me either laugh or I think it’s going to be funny, I try to figure out how to do it. Sometimes, the idea is fully formed, and I just have to figure out if I need to add anything and make sure it’s not too cliché or something. It really depends—some comics I’ll start and then I’ll let them sit in a file for months, because they don’t quite work. I have things in my book that were ideas in my written-ideas-folder for years before I actually decided they were worth drawing. On my computer, I have this program Notational Velocity, and it’s just like notes and notes, and it’s a mess, but I just have comics ideas and movie reviews. It’s nice because I can search by word. So when Lucky Peach came to me, and they said, We want you to do something, I was like, I wonder if I have any food-related ideas, and I looked it up, and I had this whole thing about the secret lives of chefs. And it’s like, I had this idea for a year, but now let’s turn it into a comic. Sometimes, I wish there was more in there. That’s the hardest part for me, just writing down ideas when I have them, no matter how stupid they are. I’ll always get ideas as I’m falling asleep at night, and it’s such a drag to get up and write it down, but I’m always glad when I do, even if it’s nonsense. Usually it turns into something.
I’m not a diary cartoonist, the way some people are. I really like diary comics, I just can’t draw that way. I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t feel right to me. The closest I’ll get to that is to mask myself as a moose or something. The things where I draw myself as an animal are the most personal, the most autobiographical.
I like doing funny stuff, but I’m also experimenting more and more with doing stuff that’s sad. I think that’s much harder. Because if you do something that’s supposed to be sad or emotional, I think it could quite easily feel false, or it just wouldn’t work, and it would be boring at its very worst. I have certain things in the book that the editor would say, Well, this one isn’t very funny, or, It’s not as funny as the other ones, and I’d say, I’m okay with that, I want to throw that in there. I think it grounds the humor a little bit to have comics that are more about anxiety or sadness.
I’ve been in Brooklyn for four years. When I was in LA, I drew a lot more cars and car accidents. And when I first moved here, I drew a lot of scenes that took place on the subway. I guess modes of transportation are a huge thing in my work for some reason. I haven’t figured out why yet. I think it’s because I kind of don’t like to travel, I don’t like to go places, I kind of just like to stay in one place. So I think about that a lot.
I have four studio mates: John, Chris, Sam, and Roy. We all work very individually. These guys have been in here much longer than me, I just joined last fall. But we definitely ask each other for input sometimes. It’s nice to be in the studio for that reason. Before I was in here, a year before, I was in a studio with six female cartoonists. Pizza Island was the name of that studio. It was different, because it was much smaller, and we were all crammed in, and our desks were so close to each other, and the guys here talk about their periods a little less. But it had a similar impact on me, as far as being able to turn around and say, Hey, what do you think of this? What should I do now? I’d never really been in a studio environment before then, since school.
I try to come in every day. It’s funny, when I was in the previous studio, I definitely worked half there, and half at home. But, with this, I really try to have all of my work be here. Partly as an anxiety thing, so I can go home and really turn off the part of my brain that thinks about work all the time. I think that’s the problem with being freelance, I’m always kind of working and thinking about work. So not having a drawing table at home has kind of helped me shut off.
Typically I come in kind of late, around eleven or so. And I’ll usually just noodle around on my computer for an hour, and then I’ll get to work. It totally depends on what I’m working on. When I was doing some character design stuff, I was in here early every day and left at six. But when I’m doing my own projects, I could stay here till eleven at night or I could leave early, it really depends on how I’m feeling that day, if I’m feeling creative or not.
I mostly look at Twitter. I read the fashion blogs. I read the news. I look at Tumblr. Maybe I’ll look at blogs with more images so that I can think about how to start making some of my own and stop looking at the Internet. The most inspiring images to me are always landscapes of nature, probably because I live in the city. I want what I can’t have, and I want sprawling green landscapes and forests and stuff. A lot of my work tends to be very nature-based.
I think with the Internet, and looking at Tumblr, there is just a constant flow of images. My brain just feels like a blender of all that stuff. It’s exciting, and it’s also fatiguing. I think it sometimes creates the sense that everyone is constantly creating content and putting it online, and I feel pressure to do the same. Yesterday, I was feeling frustrated, because there is so much pressure to have a regular stream of content online, and then to have a separate stream of content that is not online that then becomes a book that is all previously unpublished material. And my book is obviously stuff that’s been published before online, there’s just forty pages of stuff that hasn’t been published before. And hopefully people won’t care that much. It’s just too much, making work takes so much time, I can’t do both all the time.
I don’t know that I’ll ever do a six-hundred page graphic novel, but I am writing longer and longer stories. I mean, in this book, most of the short fictional pieces are quite short. I think I’ll start expanding those as I get more comfortable doing that. But I also want to do some longer journalistic pieces. I think I’ll always have this one-woman-anthology approach, that’s just the way I work, it’s always going to be a grab-bag of styles, and hopefully it will all thematically tie into each other in some way.