Lisa Hanawalt, Creator of Tuca & Bertie, on Storytelling, Self-Criticism and Why She Loves Horses
The cartoonist, illustrator and self-declared horse idiot's new show is now on Netflix.
Odds are you’ve seen the work of Lisa Hanawalt. Odds are you loved it. Since she began drawing around the age of six, the Californian cartoonist and illustrator has released a comic series (I Want You), an anthology series (My Dirty Dumb Eyes), worked on critical darling BoJack Horseman, and is now releasing a Netflix show of her own starring the voices of Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong (maybe you’ve heard of them?) called Tuca & Bertie. We caught up with her a few months ago, just as she was releasing Coyote Doggirl, a graphic novel western that delves into themes of community, camaraderie, loneliness, and the freedom that comes with being one’s self. It’s essential reading for anybody who’s ever hesitated to be vulnerable. Actually, Hanawalt’s work is just essential, period.
Let’s start with the most important: as if your work wasn’t a testament to it enough, you’ve been pretty vocal about your love and appreciation of horses. Why do you love them so much?
I’m still not sure. I’ve spent decades thinking about this question over and over and I feel like horses just hit my brain right. They teach me to be assertive, yet soft [and] respectful. I like how intuitive they are. They’re also just really, really pretty and a bit dangerous.
When did you realize horses had traits you did too? Or maybe more specifically, the traits you wanted?
It’s not that I aspire to be more like a horse—I aspire to work better with horses because it requires a calm and present mind. If I’m distracted and stressed when I go to the barn, the horses will reflect that back at me and it won’t be pretty. They force me to deal with my shit.
Why do you think animation does such a great job of conveying feelings and emotions? Do you find drawing makes it easier for you to be political or to send a specific message?
I try to avoid having a crystal clear moral or political angle in my stories, but a lot of my beliefs come across by nature of who I am. Animation is great because you can exaggerate every feeling and easily illustrate so many ideas. I’m not the most subtle artist!
You began drawing as a kid and took drawing classes, or so the internet told me. And Coyote Doggirl has existed for a long time, despite this book being the character’s first foray into graphic novel form. How did time help you develop your storytelling abilities?
I started drawing a lot around six or seven because I loved comics and cartoons and I had a lot of ideas about cat people that just needed to be shared with the world! Drawing also helped me concentrate during class, and it was a decent ice breaker with other kids. The first art class I can remember taking was an after-school drawing class in fifth grade where the instructor just made us draw the solar system over and over again in oil pastels. We weren’t allowed to draw anything but planets for weeks and weeks! Not my favourite, but I’m an autodidact for the most part.
I started drawing Coyote Doggirl in 2013, almost as a stream-of-consciousness thing combining my love of horses with my interest in westerns, and it just organically turned into this larger story. I’ve gotten a little better at storytelling just by making lots of work over the years and seeing what results in compelling tales and what doesn’t. I’ve thrown out a lot of things.
How has time helped you develop as an artist?
I’m very critical about my work. Definitely too harsh at times. But maybe that pessimism also helps me improve, as long as it doesn’t completely paralyze me. Every time I make anything, I can see all the areas where I could have done better and what I should work on for next time. I like to challenge myself, learn new things, and play around with different materials because I get bored easily.
How do you shoot down that harsh mental monologue? And where do you draw the line between healthy criticism and unnecessarily dragging yourself?
I don’t draw the line! I drag myself, feel miserable, cry, and then I pick myself back up again because luckily, my little tantrums don’t last forever. I go to therapy and I have supportive people in my life that help me reality check. But I feel awful a lot of the time! And that’s okay. I still consider myself to be a happy, funny person.
There are so many important and beautiful messages in this book, and the one I picked up on the most was the idea of being alone versus the notion of being lonely. And honestly, I still can’t tell whether Coyote Doggirl is lonely or whether she’s just not used to community. Tell me about the way you differentiate between being alone and being lonely.
I’ve always looked up to people who seemed independent and emotionless or cold and like they don’t need anyone else. So in the beginning of the book, Coyote starts out with those same values. Then I think she starts to change over the course of the book. Learning how to ask for help has been one of the greatest lessons in life for me. So while I still admire self-sufficiency, now I think it’s mostly bullshit. It’s okay to show vulnerability.
I think we’ve all found ourselves equating isolation to success. I know I related being an island to being an adult for a very long time. When did you realize that asking for help could mean you were still strong? And how do you keep reminding yourself?
My work on BoJack and Tuca & Bertie has forced me to learn how to ask for things. I’d do everything myself if I could, but it’s physically impossible! I have to ask for help every day and learn to trust other people to handle things. And having all those different voices weighing in can make a project so much stronger.
While working on Coyote, there were points where I lost track of whether it was actually a decent comic or not, I was so deep in it. So I reached out to a couple of people to help give me feedback, including a Native sensitivity reader. It felt like a really scary and potentially humiliating favour to ask—I was prepared to throw the whole comic in the trash. But their input made it a better book and helped me feel more confident about finishing it.