AUGUST 8, 2013
ON THE BIG LIST of human fears, there’s probably a name for the fear of things spilling out of other things (matryoshkaphobia?). If you have such a fear, Lisa Hanawalt’s art — in which human and animal bodies are regularly drawn as shells barely containing the overflow of everything from birds to flowers to noodle-like things that may or may not be entrails — will very likely send you shivering to a quiet room. Of Hanawalt’s recurring motifs, which include dogs, horses, lizards, funny hats, and automotive pile-ups, her fascination with viscera-that-doesn’t-look-like-viscera is definitely the most disquieting, in part because it’s presented in such a cheerful manner. Hanawalt’s previous comics work, the two-volume, Ignatz Award–winning I Want You, portrayed numerous bodily horrors: humans disintegrating into birds, an inflamed pimple ejecting a perfectly round pearl of pus, an aggrieved horse with macaroni pouring out of its mouth and eyes. But the images were paired with such straightforwardly goofy, if minimal, writing (the “Macaroni Pony” was part of a series called “Bad Pets”) that it was impossible to ascribe any sense of real darkness, of shock for shock’s sake, to their creator.
Hanawalt’s new collection, My Dirty Dumb Eyes, is a little easier to digest than that work, if no more restrained. Like the I Want You series, it’s packed with anthropomorphic creatures — dogs and sheep in Western garb lassoing a giant pink horse, a “deer dog” attempting talk therapy, improbably sexy lizards in patterned stockings — as well as with regular old animals, albeit in elaborate headwear. There’s a little less in the way of innards and gashes. If you’re not yet familiar with Hanawalt’s work, the book is a great window into her wildly colorful, off-kilter worldview; if you are, you’ll probably just be happy to be able to read the book while eating.
Hanawalt is a former member of Pizza Island, a now-defunct informal collective of female comics artists based in Brooklyn. Stylistically, Pizza Island’s members (inhabitants?) were quite different; Hanawalt’s riots of color and detail had most in common with the work of Domitille Collardey and less with the black-and-white narrative strips of Julia Wertz (The Fart Party) and Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie), the bluntly hilarious historical reconsiderations of Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant!), and the ink-washed graphic journalism of Sarah Glidden. And while it would be presumptuous to ascribe any kind of overarching sense of feminism to a group of such disparate (and largely apolitical) visual personalities, what all these women, and Hanawalt in particular, seem to have in common is a firm disinterest in the conventions of both comic strips and graphic novels. Hanawalt’s drawing of two tough cats in low-cut shirts beating up the cartoon character Cathy is mean-spirited but instructive: what too many people expect from women drawing comics (diets! romantic obsession! swimsuit shopping!) is tired and stereotypical. Hanawalt’s work doesn’t profess to say anything about an assumed female experience, but it does show that women artists can be at least as twisted, gruesome, and sexually preoccupied as their male peers.
My Dirty Dumb Eyes collects stories and vignettes that were originally published in The New York Times and The Believer, as well as on the website The Hairpin, along with interstitial paintings and other visual musings executed in pen, ink, and watercolor. Hanawalt’s style is at times neat and precise, with, say, every tiny scale on a well-dressed lizard lady rendered with painstaking care; at others, it’s as though her subconscious is moving faster than her hands can keep up. Though not straightforwardly narrative in the way of counterparts like Wertz or Glidden or Alison Bechdel, Hanawalt’s work does tell stories. Self-referential, loaded with tangents, and nodding to the often inappropriate places our brains take us when we let them, they come directly from a teeming id.
Take her illustrated movie reviews for The Hairpin, in which actual plot points are generally overshadowed — in the best way — by Hanawalt’s succinct visual editorializing, pop-culture savvy, and spot-on caricatures of big Hollywood names. As a confirmed primate-hater, for instance (“they’re uncanny and creepy”), she went into Rise of the Planet of the Apes prepared to be an outlier among moviegoers spoiling for ape victory over the likes of James Franco; her review reflects both her ambivalence (she draws one ape whose supposedly brilliant command of sign language just looks to Hanawalt like obscene hand gestures) and her eventual, grudging enjoyment of the experience. Elsewhere, her take on saccharine amnesia rom-com The Vow is a flawless takedown of formulaic Hollywood storytelling (“According to the screenwriters, an artist is somebody who cuts off all ties with family and old friends, sleeps on a mattress on the floor, and hastily switches from J. Crew to Anthropologie”) that nevertheless acknowledges in faithful ink and watercolor that female audiences will put up with a lot of plot holes to see a naked Channing Tatum. And her review of Drive offers up a comparison between the gruesome scene in which the mobster played by Albert Brooks slices open Bryan Cranston’s arm and the blood work Hanawalt had done shortly before seeing the movie (“I was a total spineless weiner about it”), while also visualizing just how much cooler star Ryan Gosling would have looked had the filmmakers added a catchphrase-spouting parrot to his character’s satin jacket and shades.
There’s a tabloidy twist to Hanawalt’s fascination with popular culture, and some of her most overtly funny pieces take the form of deliberate tweaks to the mass appetite for celebrity. “The Secret Lives of Chefs,” which originally appeared in highbrow foodie mag Lucky Peach, imagines Mark Bittman boiling up human body parts, Julia Child moisturizing her face with Béchamel sauce, and Thomas Keller and Dan Barber reposing in a meadow like cows. “Rumors I’ve Heard About Anna Wintour,” meanwhile, takes routine urban legend into satirical territory in building on the Condé Nast mainstay’s fearsome cult of personality. She even brings Wintour in on the joke. “Junior staffers are not allowed to look at Wintour,” Hanawalt writes, illustrating the edict with an image of a shoeless, crumb-spitting Wintour, shoes tucked into her belt and a moose-antler hat on her head, daring the young woman with whom she’s sharing an elevator to turn around; the closing kicker, “Anna Wintour shops at Forever 21 and hates herself for it,” offers an image of Wintour flipping a two-handed bird to the mall retailer. It’s Wintour’s icy remoteness that seems to appeal to Hanawalt (a drawing of ornate Fabergé eggs is captioned “Anna Wintour does not have bowel movements”), but, ironically, “Rumors” does far more than The Devil Wears Prada or The September Issue to bring a little humanity to the notoriously private editor.
Then there’s Hanawalt’s account of her trip to a toy-industry convention at New York’s Jacob Javits center, which she attends under fraudulent but generally well-meaning circumstances (a relative registered Hanawalt and her friend as employees of a chia-seed company). There’s a Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again-ish feel to Hanawalt’s travelogue, with notes on the disconnect between the purpose of the fair and the joyless desperation of many of its exhibitors, as well as on the inescapable grotesqueness of some of the playthings. One series of drawings imagines the disconcerting lifespan of one of the toys on display, a teddy bear with a fish tank embedded in its torso. Hanawalt draws the ill-conceieved hybrid bear in three stages of decomposition, noting that “[a] lot of these toys could benefit from being workshopped with actual children.”
Hanawalt is definitely not the first female comic artist to bring a scatological bent to her work. The “dirty dumb eyes” of the title and the “dirty dumb brain” to which she refers in the book have predecessors in Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Julie Doucet. But her genial offhandedness seems fresh in short strips where she imagines Georgia O’Keefe and Johannes Vermeer painting while profane rap lyrics float through their heads, or where she envisions how the perfect sexual ministrations might turn a woman into a raging dinosaur. She’s not trying to blow anyone’s mind; she’s merely airing out her own.
This commitment to self-exploration makes the story titled “Moosefingers” the closest thing My Dirty Dumb Eyes has to an emotional center. In it, a moose-headed human in high-heeled sandals works in her apartment sculpting dozens upon dozens of clay fingers, unable to fully understand what’s driving her. “All the things that matter to me now won’t make any sense later in life, I can’t control that,” she muses. When the moose confesses these feelings of anxiety to the cat-headed person in her bed, it responds with encouragement: “Stop crying and use your fingers.” There’s no follow-up dirty joke, no real resolution. But it serves to put the rest of the book, from Martha Stewart dildo gags to car-crash imagery, into perspective as the work of someone who hasn’t figured it all out, but is using the many fertile pockets of her world — as well as plenty of penis drawings — to make the journey amusing.