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November 18, 2009

Antiheroines: Lisa Hanawalt

The Antiheroines series features author Jami Attenberg interviewing up-and-coming female comics artists.

In May I saw Lisa Hanawalt, author of I Want You (Buenaventura Press) and the Ignatz award-winning mini-comic Stay Away From Other People, do a slide show presentation as part of a group show at Hi Christina, a wee venue in Williamsburg.

During Lisa's extremely dry but charming performance, she did this short bit about her week. She talked about how she had gone thrift shopping and bought a pair of overall shorts for a dollar, and the tag on them read "Teen Bibs." That made me laugh pretty hard and when I looked up she was actually wearing the overall shorts. I appreciated that very much. I hadn't been paying attention when she was introduced, so I never knew her name, but I thought to myself: You should interview that girl. She's got something special going on.

But then I didn't. I had a lot on my mind that month. It's hard to follow up on every idea. You try it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was at the bookstore on Bedford Ave, the one with all the art books. On the way out I picked up the beautiful little book of illustrations Vice did for "Where the Wild Things Are."(I am loath to promote that movie but I enjoyed looking at the book, and it is always good for creative people to be getting paid.) And Lisa had a piece in there. A little missile fired off in my head. Oh there you are, I thought. But I wasn't sure if it wasn't the same woman or not.

So I looked on the Hi Christina website for the event, and her name wasn't on it. I looked at the Facebook invite, and her name was not on that either. I emailed the guy who curated the show and asked him to tell me the names of all the people who read. Again, the list did not include her name. "Was there not another cartoonist? Am I hallucinating?" I emailed him back. "Oh yes," he said. "Lisa Hanawalt, our Los Angeles transplant and Williamsburg truck-driving, dog-loving, cartoon-making woman. She good."

Yes. She good.

I want to do this interview in the correct order, because I believe you are a very orderly thinker. I suspect this because you make a lot of lists in your work. So the first thing I want to know is how you got into making comics, and if you see yourself doing this for the long haul.

I used to think I was on a path towards becoming a fine artist, showing my drawings exclusively in galleries, but that world seemed less feasible after I graduated from art school and got more interested in illustration.

Around that time, one of my best friends from high school asked me to collaborate on an autobiographical comic about his life, and for the next two years I worked with him on Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out. I'd always loved comics, but for the first time I was drawing them in an orderly way and getting a strong sense of what I liked and didn't like. After getting more confident in that arena, I self-published a couple of minis, and then serendipitously met Alvin Buenaventura.

I was at my first comic convention, a little show called "Super*market" (organized by an acquaintance from UCLA, Jessica Gao) in the back room of Meltdown Comics. I was sitting there nervously with printed copies of Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out, my first mini-comic, It's Sexy When People Know Your Name,and I'd taped some artwork up on the wall behind me.

Alvin came by and we talked a little about my drawings, but I had no clue who he was - until I realized he published Kramers Ergot, and I had a delayed reaction of freaking out. I figured he was just being nice and wouldn't remember who I was the next day, but he kept in touch. He asked me to contribute to the Arthur comics page, invited me to Comic-Con and encouraged me to make my next mini, Stay Away from Other People.

Right now I'm lucky enough to be doing comics, illustration and fine art, and I'd love to keep doing all three for the long haul – as long as there's enough balance and I don't feel stretched thin, of course.

Do you feel like you get different things out of doing comics versus doing fine art? Like there's an obvious catharsis for me when I'm writing essays about my life, but everything feels safe and easier in my little fantasy world when I write fiction.

Drawing comics is a lot harder because I have to think about issues like narrative and character development, and make sure everything is clear to the reader. And I have to draw things like grocery store shelves and rows of airplane seats. When I'm making fine art, I can draw whatever I want and it feels so mindless and cozy by comparison. But the feeling of having a finished comic is much more rewarding, I think, due to the challenge and time invested.

And, I think, you have the opportunity to reach a wider audience with a comic, which is pretty exciting. There's also more to interact with, in a way, because your voice is so present, and I think that can be rewarding for an author. You're probably going to get a lot more fan mail for a comic.

Oh, that's an excellent point about the wider audience - you aren't as likely to get fan mail for having nice paintings up in a gallery, comics are so much more accessible. And I love fan mail.

I think I like your list comics ("Mistakes we made at the grocery store" "Things I should probably hide before a date comes over for the first time") so much because they feels so personal. Also because I am the kind of person who makes lists of things to do for my day and then adds really easy things on to the list that I know I can do really quickly, just so I will have more to cross off at the end of the day and feel a bigger sense of accomplishment. What attracts you to making lists?

I make shitloads of lists, including everything I can think of: small tasks like writing emails, then medium errands like buying groceries, then larger responsibilities like sorting out my health insurance, and I usually end the list with some major lifestyle choices written in all-caps like: "DO YOGA 3X A WEEK!" and "ABD!! "(Always Be Drawing.)

It seems crazy but it's actually a way of easing anxiety. If I put it down on paper, I don't have to lie awake worrying about it.

Maybe that's why the lists in my comics come across as personal, even if they aren't directly autobiographical; I think the compulsion to make them comes from wanting to poke fun at my own anxiety.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about all of your animals in clothes which appear in your comics. Do you think of them as animals or humans or something in between?

I think they developed as a way of doing loosely autobiographical stories, or ones where drawing myself feels too personal. So they are often representative of aspects of my personality or people that I know. The argument She-moose has with Account-cat about whether to play a game or see a movie is taken straight out of an email exchange. And sometimes, like in "Lunch Break," they're just used to illustrate a daydream. I like how the animals can be eased in and out of reality; the mundane stuff in their world makes just as much sense as the hallucinatory.

I just read your comic again, and saw a part where you said your mom sent you a slideshow of eagles fishing. Are you into nature?

I'm so into nature! But more in a "look at this weird bug under a microscope and then read a book about it" way than an outdoorsy adventuresome way. My parents are both biologists, so they taught me how to get excited about horrifying things like videos of cancer cells multiplying.

We have now arrived at the Largehearted Boy Mini-Music Questionnaire portion of the interview. Do not be afraid.

What was your first rock show?

I went with my parents to see Paul Simon, and I was really pissed when he performed "The Boxer" and sang "leh leh leh" instead of "lai lai lai" during the chorus. Doesn't he know how his own song goes? I'm still pissed.

What was the best performance you've ever seen?

Cirque de Soleil. Every time. Especially now that they have speakers inside every headrest in the theater.

What albums do you listen to while you work?

Quirky electronica like Hot Chip and Metronomy gets the most air time, but I will listen to anything from rap to neo-soul to country to classical, as long as it isn't too mellow.

What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

Weird Al Yankovic, Paul Simon's Graceland, soundtracks to musicals. The first band I lost my mind over was the Beatles, after my brother made me listen to the White Album the entire way through on our record player.

Did you ever date anyone in a band?

Yeah! When men play instruments, it casts an embarrassingly potent love spell on me. My boyfriend plays the ukulele and it drives me crazy!

Lisa Hanawalt links:

Lisa Hanawalt's website
Lisa Hanawalt's Flickr photostream

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Antiheroines interviews
musician/author interviews
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks