ONE OF the funniest observational artists around hardly sees herself as such.
Yet as she moves through the world, Hanawalt finds inspiration that she can bend to the will of her skewed view and lush paintbrush — from the armies of street carts toting “dirty hot dog water” to samples of “snack realism.” All seems to serve as fare for her highly engaging imagination.
Hanawalt is a special guest at San Diego’s Comic-Con International, the granddaddy of American pop-culture festivals whose first full day is today — and which will draw more than 125,000 visitors by Sunday’s end.
Ahead of Hanawalt’s spotlight and panel sessions at the Con to promote her new book, “Hot Dog Taste Test” (Drawn and Quarterly), Comic Riffs caught up with the author to talk banana embellishments, menstrual huts and plucky Icelandic ponies:
MICHAEL CAVNA: After all the James Beard Awards love, Lisa, I still don’t think I’ve ever asked you: Why food? By that I mean: What is it about food that makes for such brilliant comedic fodder for you? Does it start with how you see it? For example: “Banana embellishments” is wonderful partly because it isn’t trying too hard — it just seems to naturally let us experience your playful approach to food.
LISA HANAWALT: Part of the reason I agreed to do a regular feature for Lucky Peach, a food magazine, is I knew they’d let me take liberties with the topic…and food is such a broad topic! I get bored easily and I don’t want to repeat myself too much.
I like bouncing back and forth between more structured pieces, like the essays about chefs and all-you-can-eat buffets, and looser, “thoughts I have right before falling asleep”-style pages like the banana embellishments.
Have you actually made and/or tasted any of the self-invented foods in your comics?
I have not! It would have been fun to make more weird food in real life, but I’m sadly not much of a chef.
Could you speak about the slice of inspired genius that is your “Menstrual Huts” comic?
I have a lot of thoughts behind this comic, considering that it’s such a stupid comic! Originally, it was inspired by me following Dwell Magazine on Twitter, and every time they posted a gorgeous modern home, I had the trollish urge to tweet “what a beautiful menstrual hut!” at them. I can easily imagine bougie urban-planning types appropriating menstrual huts [a practice that still exists in certain cultures] and commodifying them for aspirational young professionals. So this comic is supposed to be a fake magazine ad, aimed at the kind of person — sometimes me — who reads Dwell Magazine.
The other thing I think about every time I make a comic about menstruation is how stigmatized and politicized it is. I’m not menstruating as a political act or a commentary on what it means to be a woman — it’s just a thing that happens to me. And for me personally, it’s painful and causes some health issues. So making work about that bodily function feels cathartic and helps me reframe a negative experience.
Your time with chef Wylie Dufresne makes me half-wish you’d do an entire book of “kitchen comics journalism” — or even your own animated version of an Anthony Bourdain-type travel/cooking show. What did you like, and find most interesting, about doing the Wylie comic?
I like observing intelligent people who have expertise in areas I’m mostly ignorant about. I’m also a snoop and just love being a fly on the wall. I’d never shadowed a professional chef or done much journalistic work before, so the experience was exciting compared to how I usually make comics — just sitting at my desk at home.
It’s always great to see your equine illustrations. The new season of “BoJack Horseman” starts this month — what’s the coolest aspect of working on the show, and do you find yourself using any different cartooning muscles when creating for animation? And: Anything fans should especially know about the new season?
I never thought I’d enjoy collaborating so much, but turns out it feels like a super power if you collab with the right people. I get to work with some of my best friends! It’s hard, rewarding, and silly, and I have a lot of freedom to follow my own whims.
I’ve gotten a lot better at whipping up pleasing designs very quickly. Sometimes we need some wall art, a book cover for a prop, a funny menu, an emergency new character design, or a background ad for something, and now I feel confident enough with colors/shapes/fonts to throw a great image together. It feels good to have my fingerprints all over a project of this scale.
This season, the show is even funnier, sadder and more beautiful, in my opinion! And there are lots of fish.
You have an amazingly engaging comedic voice. Did that come from years of exhausting experimentation as you labored dusk till dawn eschewing proper nutrition — or have you always had that natural voice?
I never thought, “I’m going to learn how to be funny now!,” and I’m still surprised when other people think I’m funny. I just learned to make jokes as a way of moving through the world. It helps me deal with all sorts of discomfort and boredom. You should hear me go when I’m at the doctors’ office!
What’s your dream food assignment now? If Lucky Peach would send you anywhere with an unlimited budget, where would you want to go, and what would you want to cover and write and draw?
I’d do a horse trek in some beautiful location with tough little horses, like Iceland or Mongolia. I’d write a little bit about the local cuisine, but my focus would be mostly on the ponies.
If one were to pop in on a day’s notice to your place, what would be your go-to meal and drink to serve?
I’d offer a can of seltzer water and then, after having my offer of “rice cake with peanut butter on it” turned down, I’d offer to order us Seamless. I know a great gluten-free, vegan pizza place.
What’s the highest compliment you’ve been paid about your comics — and has there ever been a criticism of them that still sticks in your craw to this day?
One of the producers on “BoJack” once praised my work by commenting on how specific it is. Best compliment ever. I also really like Tavi’s quote on my book about me examining how stupid it is to be a person.
With criticism, either someone just doesn’t like it, which is fine, or they’ve misinterpreted me, which I can’t control. If someone leaves me a bad review, I briefly fantasize about pushing them down a well.
By now, Post readers who are new to Lisa Hanawalt are surely intrigued — now that you’ve piqued their interest, why should they totally go buy your book?
I made the kind of book I like to see in the world! Colorful, silly, personal, and bursting with flora and fauna.