In the comics of Greenpoint artist Lisa Hanawalt, familiar things get very odd, very fast. The award-winning artist, who's been published in The New York Times, The Believer, VICE, and Vanity Fair (to name a few) draws straight from her own dark Id, yet manages to turn subjects that could be icky into whimsical nonsense that can't help but confuse and delight. In her disturbingly detailed pages, the secret lives of dogs and celebrity chefs are revealed. Dirty daydreams involve miniaturizing the surfing bank robbers from Point Break. Anna Wintour gives birth to fanciful birds. If you sex a lady just right, she might turn into a velociraptor.
Two years in the making, her new book My Dumb Dirty Eyes is released by indie comics powerhouse Drawn & Quarterly next Monday. There's a book launch for it at 7PM tonight at the Power House Arena in DUMBO. Ahead of all this excitement, we talked to Hanawalt about her book, her illustration career, her dirty mind, and the fetish communities just hankering for new drawings of sexy lizard ladies.
The L Magazine: When you are doing commercial illustration for the New York Times or Business Week, is it weird trying to find the line of what it is just absurd enough for that context? Can you tell when something starts to get too unsettling?
Lisa Hanawalt: I think art directors like me because I know what’s appropriate but I’ll push it just a little bit. Like, in the New York Times I had a comic about Thanksgiving and it had kid's drawn turkeys. Like a hand turkey, a foot turkey, and then a “bottom turkey.” I originally wrote “butt turkey” and they said, “That’s just a tiny bit too blunt, so let’s switch it to bottom.” I actually think that’s funnier.
One thing about the book that was interesting was how big of a range in styles there are from super detailed to really sketchy. How do you decide which technique is best to get a joke or an idea across?
I think in general I’ve just been moving slowly to looser drawings. I’m caring less about seeming like a really good drawer. It’s less important to me now that I can really draw a car well. Now, I’m just like, you know it’s a car and maybe it’s funny because it’s so bad. I don’t care.
But something like the piece in the book where animals wear elaborate, ridiculous hats? Does something like that need detailed rendering to sell the absurdity of it?
That one is so silly that if the drawing was also silly, it’s almost like you wouldn’t want to pay attention to it. I wanted it to be almost like a scientific illustration. Like some person who studies animals carefully drew this so there’d be a record of it.
Do you consider certain animals represent better as specific genders? I noticed lot of female lizards. A lady moose popped up, autobiographically as far as I could tell.
Yeah the moose is me. A moose is a super awkward horse. I wouldn’t draw myself as a horse necessarily, because they are super majestic. but the "He-Horse" character is also sort of me? So, never mind. They’re all me.
It’s funny to draw something like a lizard as a woman, because a woman’s body is so curvy or sensual and a lizard’s body is so rough and bite-y or sting-y. I like the idea of drawing something that’s not very friendly, like a lizard or Anna Wintour, and trying to make it seem friendlier.
So you are interested in pushing against what might make intuitive sense, rather than just leaning into cats = ladies or something?
A big buff lizard guy makes sense to me. I feel like I’ve seen that in a video game. But a lizard lady? You don’t see that as often. What funny is that I’ve attracted the attention of a a community of people called “scalies.” I love them. They’ll reblog my stuff and role play as the lizards in my drawings. That’s probably my favorite thing that’s ever happened. When they re-blog it it seems pretty innocent, only a little sexual. But...I haven’t looked at their DeviantArt profiles. I’m sure it goes there.
There's an explicit sexual element that often pops up in your work. Obviously the culture right now is really oversaturated with making everything and anything sexual. Is your work explicitly making fun of that?
I do think about sexual things a lot as a way of entertaining myself. You get bored and you think of something super violent or super sexual. And that finds its way into my work. Sometimes it does feel cheap. Like, “Let’s put some tits on this helicopter! It’ll be hilarious!” But, actually, that is funny.
Have you seen a lot of pushback from people being offended by what you’ve done?
Yeah. There’s one guy who’s basically like a grandpa to me. We’re not actually related, but when I was little, my parents were on Sabbatical in England, and we had a farm in our backyard and this was the farmer of that farm, So, I spent a lot of time him, wrote letters, kept in touch. He hates my current work. He really thinks it's offensive. He thinks people will look at my artwork and go insane. Which is funny...but to me it’s also very sad that he thinks that. Some people could look at a drawing of a puppy and go insane. But I’m also sympathetic to people having a line they just won't cross.
I noticed a recurring motif, maybe four or five times in the book, of an empty head with things just spilling out of it, eyes, mouth, nose.
The body is a hard shell for soft stuff and the soft stuff is always trying to come out.
So, uh, is that a problem, for you?
(laughs) I mean, it’s a problem as much as it is for anyone. It’s just a fear of death thing, but also a fear of being sick. I used to have a trouble being on public transportation. I was almost like a germaphobe when I first got here. You are so compressed with other people, it’s wet and dirty. I love it now.
A lot of my drawings are about working out what I’m afraid of. I hate it when people say “My art is my therapy” But it is. It developed as a coping mechanism for boredom and fear, I just happened to get good at it.