Many of Lisa Hanawalt’s cartoons are populated by clothed animals. Lizards in garter belts and leather jackets, high-heeled shoes and bikini tops. Cats in construction gear, or dogs riding airplanes in checkered shirt sleeves. In the universe of Hanawalt, animals express human vulgarities without compunction, but they also indulge in our unapologetic weaknesses—playing Angry Birds during a heart-to-heart, laying on the couch and watching movies all day, being a backseat driver.
Although fans of her work will already be familiar with some of the pieces in her debut book, “My Dirty Dumb Eyes,” the collection should not be ignored. It is gorgeous, highlighting her incredible coloration and bizarre but beautiful depictions. Most importantly, she’s hilarious. In an early “chapter,” What Do Dogs Want? a tennis-ball bride ranks highly, followed by two Pomeranians feasting on a salt lick in the shape of human legs. A meal of “dirty underwear on a bed of regurgitated grass, with cat poop reduction” does, indeed, sound perfect…for a dog.
Her book follows a biographical/confessional method, somewhat similar to the much-lauded author of “Hyperbole and a Half,” Allie Brosh, only with dogs and moose. She includes several movie reviews, like the indie hit “Drive.” “Christina Hendricks is only in the movie for like two seconds!” she enthuses. “‘How you gunna fit all them titties into two seconds?’ is what the dirty dumb part of my brain just thought.” Her review of “War Horse” reveals a childhood fascination with horses that appears to have carried into her adulthood. It lends an air of expertise to her addition to the horse genre movie review. “If you explain how important something is to a horse it will understand you and do that thing!” she explains. So when the boy tells the horse they need to plow the field, her horse gamely replies, “Ohhhh! Ok, I thought we were just dicking around out here.”
There are also pockets of wisdom nestled unexpectedly in a book so full of fart jokes and dildos. She writes, “I used to swear I’d never lose interest in my toys; I feared it would mean losing my entire sense of self. But of course I grew older and left those beloved things behind. I can pick up a Breyer, admire the smooth plastic details, but… that’s it. I’m not going to sit on the floor with it for hours making it talk to other toys, acting out my latest conflicts and fantasies, forming pretend relationships. I wish I could enjoy toys on that level again.”
Where Hanawalt really excels is in mixing complex scenes and patterns. Some of the best pages of the book are presented without commentary, what would be an unidentifiable mess in the hands of a less-skilled artist. For example, there are several street themes filled with animals as construction workers, lizards, snakes, cats exposing themselves on rooftops, dogs canoodling in the cabs of construction equipment. My adult self pores over these drawings with the same fascination my childhood self read Richard Scarry’s “Busytown.” The fashions are as enjoyable as the bizarre imagery, her talent for costuming a lizard leg in a patterned tight with peep-toe pumps is truly a gift. After disappearing into her world for awhile, it becomes a bit unclear whether she is depicting a world of anthropomorphized people or of humans in their animal equivalent. After stumbling across her Instagram, I got some insight. She’s been drawing portraits of people as animals (as requested by the sitter, apparently). “That’s a good way to describe it—a world of anthropomorphized animals who are the equivalent of humans,” Hanawalt said via email. “I’ve done a few things where anthropomorphized animals and people co-exist too.” I’d like to see that. (Kelly Roark)
“My Dirty Dumb Eyes”
By Lisa Hanawalt
Drawn & Quarterly, 122 pages, $22.95