Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Lisa Hanawalt Interview

Lisa Hanawalt's work is funny, smart, innovative, and a lot fun to look at. What follows is an illustrated interview conducted with Lisa via email. Please click on the images to enlarge them; there's so much that's worth looking at closely.

KP: Your comics are very unusual in terms of genre. The two issues of I Want You feature things like “list comics,” mock "how-to” illustrations, funny animal stories that look nothing like traditional funny animal comics, and “illustrations on a theme” comics, like “Worst Sandwiches” or animals with funny hats. This atypical approach makes me curious about your history as a comics reader. Did you read mainstream, alternative, or newspaper comics growing up?

LH: My Dad used to read me the funny pages every Sunday, and our house was full of Far Side and B. Kliban books. I read some alternative comics as a teenager, and I made zines and drew comics with friends, but I never thought of myself as a cartoonist. Maybe that’s why my approach to making comics seems different . . . I grew up loving them, but I’ve been equally influenced by paintings, fiction, comedy, movies, and I’ve had enough distance from the world of traditional comics to not worry if my approach is atypical. When I started making minis, I wasn’t even sure that they were comics -- they were just illustrated lists jumbled together with sketchbook drawings.


KP: Your sense of comedy seems pretty idiosyncratic to me; can you point to an artist or comedian that has had a direct affect on your work?

LH: I think I’m most strongly influenced by Kliban’s absurdist/Dadaist gags, the grotesqueness and awkward timing of Ren & Stimpy, Marbles in My Underpants by Renee French, everything about Tony Millionaire, and David Lynch. I also watched a lot of Steve Martin and David Zucker movies. My family is funny, so that's had a powerful affect; Dad is a consummate punster (he nearly cried with joy when I made my first pun, something to do with “solid dressing”), Mom seems serious at first but she can be a connoisseur of silliness, and my older brother Alex is an obnoxious riot in the best way. I started drawing funny and disturbing things as a kid partly just to get his attention.

KP: When I saw your Boy’s Club strip in a recent issue of The Believer, I first thought a comic by Matt Furie (the creator of Boy’s Club) had mistakenly been attributed to you -- you’re very adept at mimicking his style. Did you copy other cartoonists and illustrators in this very precise way as a part of your learning process?

LH: I’m so happy people were fooled by that! The folks at McSweeney’s were very confused. It was surprisingly difficult to write a Boy’s Club comic and I think I failed at that part -- Matt’s comics are genius in how deceptively simple they are. But I am a pretty good parrot and I used to mimic other artists all the time. I did stuff in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, Ralph Steadman, Tony Millionaire, Phoebe Gloeckner, etc. I think that’s a natural way to learn and find a personal style, even though those copycat drawings embarrass me now.


KP: In many of your comics, especially the He-Horse and She-Moose stories, you seem particularly engaged with fashion and elaborate patterns in a way that I haven't seen outside of ‘60s and ‘70 girls’ comics. What influence has clothing and fashion played in your work?

LH: I think of fashion as extremely fun-to-draw eye candy . . . all those weird stitches, zippers, buckles, and folds, etc. And because I don’t take it too seriously, I like to focus on the most absurd and least functional items; I could draw stupid hats perched on animal heads for eternity. I also like the idea of animals paying so much attention to how they adorn themselves. I don’t think my drawings are the most flattering portrait of the accumulation of clothes; the compositions are cluttered and the patterns clash and vibrate in this anxious, over-caffeinated way.
KP: Are there any young cartoonist who you feel a kinship with, artists whose work shares something in common with yours that you respond to?

LH: This will sound cheesy but I feel kinship with most young cartoonists and artists. Part of what attracted me to Brooklyn was living in close proximity to lots of talented people my age who are working their asses off. It's hard to pick out specific people . . . I feel like my attitude and ambitions are similar to Matt Furie's, but our work is completely different. I relate to people who put a serious effort into drawing really dumb things.

KP: The “comics world” -- both mainstream and alternative -- is often described as a “boy’s club” that’s not always welcoming to women. Are you conscious of this in any way?

LH: I like to pretend it’s a non-issue, but I also think the planet is a boy’s club. Dwelling on it too much would drive me crazy, but I still worry about being pigeonholed and marginalized. A lot of readers found the “Menstruation Terminology” pages to be the most disturbing part of I Want You #1, but I’m really glad I included them. I’m not going to use my comics to pontificate or get overtly political, but I’m interested in illustrating my view as a female frankly in ways that people haven’t seen before.

KP: The kind of work you do, the “gross” aspects of some of your comics -- with your interest in things like abnormal skin conditions -- seems somewhat unusual for female cartoonists. How have readers, both male and female, responded to this aspect of your work?

LH: Just based on my influences, I never thought it was unusual for women to be gross; I’ve been reading Renee French and Phoebe Gloeckner since high school, and later I discovered Julie Doucet, Shary Boyle, Sue Coe, Jenny Saville (the painter), etc. There are so many female artists who focus on grotesque anatomy and sexuality -- it’s strange that that’s still shocking and subversive to most people. I’ve definitely gotten comments like, “You’re funny/gross for a girl,” but judging by the response to my work, I’m pretty funny and gross for a guy too.

KP: Can you trace your interest in drawing things like skin problems and facial deformities to anything in your childhood . . .

LH: I suffered from some gnarly acne at a young age, so maybe that triggered an interest, haha. I think it’s an instinctual thing; we privilege faces and they’re probably the first representational thing we start drawing, so disfiguring them is an obvious way of expressing anxiety and horror. It’s all part of my inveterate focus on morbidity. I draw those things partly just to get them out of my head.

KP: Is that letter from I Want You #2, in which the writer chastises you for the crude and misguided nature of your work, real?

LH: Yes, it’s actually from a dear friend who I’ve known since I was a little kid. I think he believes I’ve morphed into something he’s fundamentally opposed to, but he doesn’t understand that my sense of humor was just as twisted when I was nine years old. I’m ok with people finding my humor too blue or my drawings too disturbing; they’re definitely not for everyone. But questioning my morality is kind of unfair.


KP: People often say that the alternative comics world is not always responsive to humor comics, that readers prefer character-driven fiction. Is this an attitude you’ve seen?

LH: Not really, I mean, I recently heard Michael Kupperman say something to that tune (about the reception to his own work), but I haven’t experienced that attitude first-hand. And I don't think it matters too much. As much as I love the world of alternative comics, I try not to be concerned with how well my work fits into it.


KP: Some of the He-Horse and She-Moose stories are character-driven pieces, driven also by the strong desires and anxieties of the protagonists. And “Saturday Night” (IWY #2) closes with a profound and almost unanswerable question about the relationship between anxiety and happiness . . .

LH: There was actually a long pause between the writing and inking phase of “Saturday Night,” because I was so worried about it being cheesy . . . but it’s certainly genuine. I’m interested in that relationship and how anxiety can feel like such an integral part of a personality that it no longer seems like a problem: “This is just how I am.” So I’ll keep exploring that, at the risk of being too earnest. But I think if I drew myself saying those things (instead of He-Horse) the comic would be unbearable to me.

KP: Your 2008 minicomic, Stay Away From Other People, has a few short pieces that either are, or gesture toward, autobiography. But I Want You doesn’t have any pieces that are quite like these earlier ones. Are you not interested in creating autobiographical or diary-type comics?

LH: Most of the narrative artwork I made until about three years ago was diaristic, and while that felt cathartic, there was also something gross about exposing myself so much. So in I Want You #1, I experimented with making my autobiographical stories a lot more abstract by turning them into funny lists or drawing people as animals. It still feels intensely personal, but now there’s a filter and it’s a more of a secret where these different elements come from . . . I’m not just barfing myself out onto the page anymore. That confessional style really works for some people, though. I love reading juicy diary comics.


KP: When I read and then reread “Extra Egg Room” in I Want You #2, I had a different response each time. At first, it seemed genuinely disturbing -- the idea of all of these birds flying down the horse’s throat looks like a gagging nightmare come to life. But later, it seemed funny and almost magical -- and a chance for you to draw striking and unusual images. I'm wondering what sort of response or responses you have to a story like that, either when you are drawing it or when you reread it: do you see it as disturbing or funny or both?

LH: That story is very personal; it came directly from a sketch I made while flying and feeling totally panicked while also laughing at my own irrationality. I think that’s why it’s impossible for me to separate what’s disturbing from what’s funny about it. He-Horse is terrified . . . but then his speech is overly formal and there are all these cartoon-ish elements that make the phobia seem silly. I consider a story a success if it can result in opposing reactions; I don’t want anything to just hit one note.

KP: You draw in a number of different styles, but tend to reserve your most detailed approached for animal illustrations and animal narratives. Does the story/idea determine the style or vice versa?

LH: Maybe the style is arbitrary, but there’s usually a strong case for it in my mind. “Extra Egg Room” could have been done in watercolors, but with a disturbing narrative like that I’d worry about the emotions being overwrought. Watercolors feel more moody and expressive to me, while the sparse and more precise line art is a method of pulling back and letting the disturbance be more intellectual. I like using watercolors for silly lists and faux how-to’s; they add a bit of warmth where you’d expect the illustrations to be more clinical, maybe. I like how “The Worst Sandwiches” look almost velvety.

KP: In I Want You #1, a few stories use traditional gutters between panels. But none of the stories in #2 do; consecutive panels typically share the same border, so there’s no white space. Is there a particular reason for this? Is there something about the blank space of the gutter that often doesn’t look right to you?

LH: I’m accustomed to seeing the page as one big thing (probably because I come from a painting background), so all those white borders feel unnecessary. But I might use them for something in the future.

KP: The lack of gutters increases the sense of controlled chaos, allowing patterns in one panel to brush up against different patterns in another panel. This seems to be part of your “aesthetic” and sense of humor in some of the stories -- you like a little chaos, such as the car and plane crashes on the covers to I Want You #1 and #2 . . .

LH: That’s an excellent point about the lack of gutters -- if there were white spaces around the panels it would reduce the sense of chaos. I want the artwork to be enveloping to the degree that the page disappears a little bit . . . formal elements like panels create distance from the story and draw attention to the fact that “this is a comic strip.” And it’s true that I like a LOT of controlled chaos in my artwork. I love drawing fights and collisions, and there’s something really sexy in that tension. My favorite thing is in movies or theater, when there’s a perfectly dressed set with tons of carefully positioned props, and then of course at some point everything goes to pieces, all the drawers have been pulled out and emptied onto the floor, and maybe someone has swiped everything off of a tabletop and/or wrecked a cake. That’s the most satisfying thing to watch.

KP: What projects are you working on?

LH: I’ll start drawing I Want You #3 soon, but first I’m taking a short break to mess around with papier mache. I’m a clumsy sculptor, but it’s challenging and kind of fun, and it’s always revitalizing to take a break and make work in a different way. I felt like I was getting into a rut, maybe. I’m actually slated to install a window display next week at Desert Island, (a comics shop in Brooklyn) so I’ll be foisting my hobby on the public! Part of it is literally a piƱata, so people will get to bash it to pieces when the installation ends.


KP: How has winning the Ignatz for “Outstanding Comic” at SPX this year changed your life?

LH: It motivates me to move on, make new work, and not lean on that recognition in any way. I mean, I’m incredibly honored. But I Want You is my first published comic and I still feel sort-of freshly hatched … so I can’t linger on it. I feel like I can be so much more outstanding.


Please visit Lisa's website. Please see this review of Lisa's I Want You #1 I wrote last year.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Fans of great writing about music should check out this piece by my pal Scott Saul on Thelonious Monk at the Boston Review. Scott is the author of Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties and he also writes for The Nation.

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