Inside the fantastical menagerie of Tuca & Bertie creator Lisa Hanawalt

Spend any amount of time with Lisa Hanawalt’s bewitching, anxiety-laden, and outrageously horny artwork, and you’ll come away with plenty of questions. What are the physics of a subway system where the trains are snakes? What kind of a sicko would imagine a chopped-off penis transforming into a lizard? And how should a horse hold a cell phone, anyway?

But one question, at least — the question of how she came to create these images at all — has a simple answer. “I just always made them,” Hanawalt explained to me during a recent interview. “Ever since I was like, seven years old, I made comics about talking animals.”

Today, Hanawalt’s talking animals populate BoJack Horseman and Tuca & Bertie, two award-winning adult animation series with devoted followings. They sweat and pant and cringe on the pages of her books: My Dirty Dumb Eyes (2013), Hot Dog Taste Test (2016), and Coyote Doggirl (2018). And now, the artist’s fans can glimpse her earliest zines, comics, and rarities in I Want You, a newly released anthology that collects material Hanawalt created during her early twenties.

The cover of Lisa Hanawalt’s new anthology, I Want You.
Drawn & Quarterly

On a hot afternoon at the end of August, I opened Zoom and waited for Hanawalt to join our video call. She was running late, her publisher warned me — busy recording with actor Steve Yeun, who plays a patient robin named Speckle on Tuca & Bertie. Despite a packed schedule, our conversation meandered for nearly an hour, long past our allotted window, as Hanawalt opened up about the twists and turns her career has taken.

That Hanawalt is currently producing a second season of Tuca & Bertie, the TV show she created for Netflix about two women BFFs who are also birds, seems miraculous. Last July, Netflix made the outrage-inducing decision to cancel the critically acclaimed series, which earned a near 100 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and went on to win an Annie Award for outstanding writing. As Variety TV critic Caroline Framke pointed out, Tuca & Bertie’s cancellation — just 45 days after its premiere — not only eliminated an undeniably original show but also “one of the vanishingly few animated comedies created by a woman, let alone one anchored by two women of color (Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish) who also serve as executive producers.” On her long-running podcast Baby Geniuses, Hanawalt admitted to her co-host, the comedian Emily Heller, that she cried for three weeks straight. “We felt really blindsided and betrayed,” she said. “They cancelled it before my promo for it was even done coming out.”

After the news broke, Tuca & Bertie fans determined to save the show launched a Change.org campaign that amassed more than 30,000 signatures. Though she was unwilling or unable to disclose specifics, Hanawalt confirmed that she heard from “a lot of people” who were interested in resurrecting it. Because Tuca & Bertie is technically owned by its production company, Tornante, Hanawalt had some leverage to pry it away from Netflix.

Salvation came in May, when Adult Swim picked up the show and announced that a second season was on the way. Along with Yeun, Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong will also reprise their roles as feathered friends whose misadventures explore themes ranging from sexism to sobriety, all part of the uncomfortable work of accepting adulthood. “Adult Swim really hung in there,” Hanawalt told me. “It’s not easy to take a show from one network and put it on another … . It was really just the patience of my exec producers and Adult Swim. They were doggedly pursuing having this show, which is great, that they wanted it so much.”

“Art doesn’t have to portray the moral high ground.”

Hanawalt’s art has always explored the anxieties, humiliations, and vulnerabilities that come with living in a human body. But as her work finds traction with an ever-growing audience, she’s working under the glare of a brighter spotlight. As Tuca & Bertie’s highly public cancellation and rebirth played out in the public eye, Hanawalt faced the private challenge of confronting work she’d created in the earliest days of her career. “Interestingly, I feel more closed-off in some ways,” she says. “I’m really choosing when to open up.”

Hence the talking animals: More than just an aesthetic quirk, Hanawalt’s animal avatars create distance between the lived reality of her personal life and the autobiographical details that end up on the page or screen. Last year, she posted a series of diary comics depicting herself as a “silly goose” during the annual Inktober challenge that prompts artists to post a new drawing on social media every day in October; at one point, she used the character to open up about her chronic illness. In January, she was mugged at gunpoint while celebrating her now-sister-in-law’s bachelorette party in New Orleans — and responded in part by sharing drawings from the sketchbook she saved while handing over her wallet and phone.

A black and white line drawing self-portrait of Lisa Hanawalt with small birds all over and throughout her shoulder-length hair.

Hanawalt’s self-portrait.
Drawn & Quarterly

And then there’s the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, a universally vulnerable experience that’s dredged all of our fears of mortality and illness right up to the surface. “My parents are microbiologists,” Hanawalt explained. “I knew this was coming.” She’s fully prepared to hunker down for the next two years and lead Tuca & Bertie via Zoom from her pink-walled home office, with her dog Annie at her feet. “It’s funny, because I’m so anxious,” Hanawalt says, “but then when something actually happens that’s terrible, I’m usually like, ‘all right, everything’s fine.’ Which is kind of disturbing, but I think I was less upset than a lot of people. I mean, I have my moments, for sure, of freaking out — everything is literally on fire right now, and the election upsets me and gives me a stomachache. But anxiety does kind of prepare you sometimes.”

With so many stressors colliding, I asked Hanawalt what sustains her as she simultaneously launches a new book and helms a television show. Essentially, she has no choice but to press on. “If I don’t keep moving forward, it all bottlenecks at me,” she said. “That sense of responsibility and that sense of not wanting to disappoint people really keeps me going.”

In many ways, I Want You contains a peek at the foundation of Hanawalt’s current career. Hanawalt’s fans — or “Fanawalts,” as they’re called — will be quick to pick up on the nascent hallmarks of her later work. Fashionable animals model tightly patterned outfits inspired by Japanese magazines. Bodily fluids spill and splash across the pages. In one of her signature illustrated lists — which also appear in her earlier books and even on Tuca & Bertie — Hanawalt depicts herself hunting and murdering all the other Lisa Hanawalts who turn up in her Google search results.

A black and white drawing from I Want You with a cat in a sport coat and button down shirt working on a laptop, and sitting at a table with a horse in a sweater vest and mini skirt who is drinking coffee.

A page from I Want You.
Drawn & Quarterly

The Sex Bugs who overrun an entire episode of Tuca & Bertie are here, too, performing a silly song Hanawalt made up with her friend and eventual BoJack Horseman collaborator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. “We know that we repulse you with our inside-outside hugs,” they croon to a crowd of dancing stags, horses, sheep, and dogs. “We’re the sex buuugggs!

If Hanawalt’s work seems built atop a strange dream logic, it’s because many images burst directly from her subconscious. The Sex Bugs first appeared in a dream; other arresting images show fleshy baby birds pouring out of a horse’s eyes and mouth, and a pilot whose hands and feet are writhing heaps of worms.

“I kind of hate body horror,” Hanawalt admitted, shuddering when I mentioned it. “I really don’t like watching it, and I don’t like reading it.” An avowed emetophobe, she guesses that she hasn’t puked in 20 years; she hates gory scenes in movies. “But then I have it in my show!” she said, citing multiple vomiting scenes in the first season of Tuca & Bertie. (A fellow emetophobe, I told Hanawalt that I found some comfort in the cotton candy that BoJack Horseman barfs up in the pilot episode. “It’s fluffy and not disgusting!” she agreed.) Seizing control of the narrative — going all-in on grossness — feels like a way to exorcise the fear and discomfort. “I’m sort of getting those demons out of me,” Hanawalt said.

Another nightmare involved a trip to an abortion clinic; upon waking, it struck Hanawalt as a vivid manifestation of her fears of pregnancy. Soon after, the experience became a comic titled “She-Moose Goes to the Clinic.” Since 2011, Hanawalt has held onto the unpublished comic, fearing it was too intense to share. “I also worried it would be taking something kind of serious and making it seem too flippant, which I think my work does sometimes,” she told me. But she revisited it while collecting work for I Want You, and ultimately, with reassurance from her agent and publisher, the comic made it in.

Sometimes, this process happens in reverse: The banal horror of reality can filter through Hanawalt’s observations and, for better or worse, land on the page. In 2009, Hanawalt set off on a cross-country trip from California to New York. Later, she recreated what she saw along the way in a spread of animals wearing Americana-themed hats. On a page densely studded with silly jokes, one of the animals sports a Confederate flag — tiny, but jarring enough to send a chill down my spine.

“Oh my god,” Hanawalt said, peering at the page I held up to my webcam. That hat, she explained, was inspired by a Civil War reenactor. “Now that I’m remembering that’s in there, I’m hoping it doesn’t trigger someone or bring up an uncomfortable, painful feeling for them. It’s meant satirically, but that’s not really an excuse if someone feels bad.” (Later that night, Hanawalt proactively disclosed the flag to a virtual crowd during an Instagram Live event held to promote the book, quipping that it’s worn by “a racist bison.”)

While making I Want You, Hanawalt weeded out other stories that didn’t meet her standards for sensitivity, humor, and interest. “I would like to think I have a more sophisticated understanding of these things,” she says. “God, I would hope so.” Regardless of the feelings it might evoke in readers, the Confederate flag gets at a larger tension that runs throughout all of Hanawalt’s work, from BoJack Horseman’s skewering of Hollywood anti-heroes to Coyote Doggirl’s neon-washed revenge arc in the aftermath of sexual assault. “Art doesn’t have to portray the moral high ground — the characters I make don’t have to be doing the right thing or thinking the right thing,” Hanawalt says. “That’s not interesting to me.”

Instead, she seeks opportunities to tackle difficult, sensitive subject matter, while also attempting to be thoughtful about the wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives her audience might bring to the experience. In the case of the abortion clinic comic, “it’s coming from my perspective — I’m not just doing that for the shock value, I’m not just doing it to be funny,” Hanawalt says. “I’m doing it because it’s something I feel, deep in me.”

“People are like, ‘Oh, you feel that way — that disgusting, shameful way? I also feel that way.’”

Though I Want You is Hanawalt’s fourth solo book, most of the comics were drawn during her twenties. Back then, there was no guarantee that her career as an artist would pan out so spectacularly.

In 2006, Hanawalt graduated from UCLA and immediately went on a road trip to Vermont. “It was a weird time. I mean, I was kind of a mess back then,” she recalled. “I slept on my friend’s couch for a couple months and honestly, that was the right thing to do.” By the time she returned to Los Angeles, she’d received an offer for part-time work at a warehouse run by someone she met on Craigslist. “If you needed a tomboy with a pickup, I would come haul your furniture,” Hanawalt said. Once, a mattress fell off the back of her truck and she had to run across the freeway to retrieve it. “I was not bonded or insured,” she added, laughing.

The job gave her life a stable rhythm. By day, Hanawalt worked at the warehouse; she spent each night working on her comics. “I think I felt an inner pressure on myself, which I always have, to make work,” she said. “I just didn’t know what a career would look like for me. I clearly wasn’t going to become a gallery painter, like I thought I maybe would.” (With that said: In June, Hanawalt had a three-week solo show at Portland, Oregon’s Gallery Nucleus.) Instead, throughout high school and college, she’d always made zines and comics.

A black and white drawing from I Want You of a pug standing on two feet and wearing a shirt, tie, sweater vest, and jacket with slim-fit jeans and knee-high boots with buckles.

A drawing from I Want You.
Drawn & Quarterly

As opportunities gradually surfaced, the projects she said yes to began to accumulate into a career. She began illustrating Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out, a webcomic written by Bob-Waksberg. When a friend invited Hanawalt to display printed versions of the webcomic at a small comics convention in the back of Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard, she agreed — and on a whim, printed a few mini-comics she had made on her own. The person who would later become her first publisher happened to be there. “He picked up my comics and said, ‘I don’t like these ones you do with your friend, I like the ones you do by yourself. You should do more of those,’” Hanawalt said. “And so I did.”

That chance connection became Hanawalt’s entry into the comics world. Soon, she was tabling at larger comic cons, often alongside cartoonists she’d long admired. “I was delighted,” Hanawalt said.

She was also aware that she was entering a male-dominated space. Though she was a fan of cartoonists including Adrian Tomine, Dan Klaus, and Tony Millionaire, she recalls high school encounters with the work of Phoebe Gloeckner and Renée French as life-changing. “These are women writing about being a woman in a way that’s really gross and visceral and honest. It really inspired me to do the same in my own work,” Hanawalt said. “I feel that way even now, like when I watch I May Destroy You on HBO. I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, [Michaela Coel is] being so bold. She’s not holding back anything. What am I afraid of?’”

A page from I Want You.
Drawn & Quarterly

After seven years in Los Angeles, she quit her job to focus on making comics and decided to relocate to Brooklyn. There, she hoped to join a growing community of women who drew comics, as well as to solidify her previously bicoastal relationship with her boyfriend. She ended up becoming roommates with cartoonist Sarah Glidden, with whom she eventually shared Pizza Island, a Greenpoint-based studio that also included cartoonists Julia Wertz, Meredith Gran, Domitille Collardey, and Kate Beaton.

In 2010, Hanawalt was the first woman to win the prestigious Ignatz Award for Outstanding Comic for I Want You — the comic her new anthology is built around — after being nominated by a panel of five white men. Afterward, she became aware that a few male artists were upset by the win. “It was just a different time,” Hanawalt says, “and so weird, because it wasn’t that long ago.” (As for the boyfriend, comedian Adam Conover: 11 years, two dogs, one cross-country move back to Los Angeles, and a Norwegian Fjord horse later, they’re still together. During our interview, which fell during lunchtime, he came into Hanawalt’s office and wordlessly handed her a salad.)

Though Hanawalt’s new anthology might seem like a victory lap for a creator whose strange, surreal work is beloved in print and onscreen, the reprints continue to stir up ambivalent feelings. “It brings back weird memories when you look into older work,” Hanawalt told me. “And then it’s also just painful to look at, because you’re just like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that this way.’” In the introduction to I Want You, Hanawalt describes the odd sensation of revisiting old work more bluntly: “It feels like taking a shit and not flushing it.”

A page from I Want You.
Drawn & Quarterly

On August 19, Hanawalt logged onto her publisher’s Instagram Live for a casual, pandemic-friendly virtual launch event. As viewers trickled in, Hanawalt flipped her phone’s camera to take in the book’s cover, which she designed herself. A play on the 2018 trend of botanical book covers, I Want You’s cover features a wide-eyed, bubblegum-pink moose peeking out from an intricate tangle of leaves and flowers. The effect is half skittish wild animal energy, half “Homer backs into the bushes” GIF. But now, with the book officially printed and on store shelves, Hanawalt questioned whether the pink looked too unsettling. “Does it look like this moose has been skinned?” Hanawalt asked her Instagram Live crowd. Personally, I can’t help but think that a skinned She-Moose is a perfect symbol for the collection — jarring, revealing, and raw.

As surprising and unsettling as Hanawalt’s work can be, its underlying honesty is what continues to strike a chord with readers and viewers. “People are like, ‘Oh, you feel that way — that disgusting, shameful way? I also feel that way,’” Hanawalt said. “I’ve always been very candid in my work.” As for the mind-bending sequences, snakes and birds and Sex Bugs: “That’s kind of just the dressing on top.”

Though Hanawalt’s drawing style — and her ability to weave longer narratives — have evolved over the past decade, her work has always retained this thematic continuity. Even better, many of the old comics in I Want You, despite the feelings that revisiting them elicits, still make her laugh. “I’m still the same person who liked this stuff 10 years ago,” she says. “In a lot of ways, I haven’t changed very much at all.”

Help keep Vox free for all

Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.