It’s a big day for Lisa Hanawalt. We’re sitting on a couch downstairs, and, like nearly everyone else in the North Bethesda Marriott, are wearing the badges she designed. My press badge is a an elephant in a sports coat with a typewriter strapped to its head. Hers, the one for exhibitors, features a chubby bird painting boxers, a wide variety of art supplies attached to its green feathers.
In a few hours, a few steps from where we sit, she’ll accept the Ignatz for her third book, I Want You.
We speak over the sounds of clanking, as the Marriott staff begins setting up the hall for the after party the steam trays and the bar and the now-infamous chocolate fountain. Hanawalt’s second and third books, Stay Away From Other People and I Want You, sit on the couch between us. She’d slipped them to me in on the showroom floor, from behind the Secret Acre’s table, where she’s stationed due to Buenaventura’s hiatus.
When we sat down, she asked with a laugh if I had studied them. I told her that I had. “I was reading it in the falafel place right around the corner,” I say. “It’s one of those books where you read it and look and to see who is watching you.”
“And there’s an old lady over your shoulder,” she answers, “with a terrified look on her face.”
Is [Stay Away From Other People] your first mini?
I made a mini before that—before I met [Alvin] Buenaventura—called It’s Sexy When People Know Your Name. He encouraged me to make another one. It was smaller, though, and not as good.
You’ve made progress.
A little, yeah—my drawing skills [laughs].
They’re comics in the sense that they’re words and pictures together.
Yeah, yeah. I actually started making it for my senior project in college. I was an art major, so I didn’t even really consider it comics. Then I started doing a Webcomic with my friend Raphael [Bob-Waksberg] after I graduated. And then I went to my first comic convention in LA called “Supermarket.”
I had a table for my Webcomics and I made the other mini because I didn’t want to just have one thing. Some people picked up the little one and Alvin liked it.
I know it can be a weird to try to define it, but do you consider these comics?
I think it is because it’s words and pictures. But I wouldn’t limit it to that one category, I guess. I liked comics a lot in high school, but I had sort of fallen out of that world. When I met Alvin, I didn’t really know anything about them.
But you took the step of going to a comics show.
Yeah, yeah. Because my friend was running it, and I had this Webcomic.
And people took to it?
Yeah. And then I stopped doing the Webcomic and decided to do my own stuff. The comics world seems more open than the art world was. Having graduated from art school, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
That sounds familiar.
Yeah. They don’t prep you for that. They’re like, “you’re immediately going to have solo shows in Chelsea,” and you’re like, “uhhhhh.”
But I’d always liked pairing words and pictures. My paintings in art school always looked like big one panel jokes. It sort of progressed naturally from there.
Are you a natural list writer? That really seemed to be the genesis of much of this.
Yeah. I’m a big-time list writer.
Do you have books of lists?
Only these, but I’ve got lists all over my walls—to-do lists. And most of my comics I start thinking of in the form of lists. Or I’ll think of jokes and then I’ll write them down and then I’ll think of categories for them to fit into. That’s often how it works, in a backwards way.
It’s an easy way to build up to a joke, because you can have one, two, and then a punchline.
Yeah. I’m really interested in comedy and comedy writing, too. I feel like comics are a good way to dabble in a lot of things.
Are you pursuing any of these interests outside of these books?
I do a little fine art. I like to show in galleries and I’d like to do more paintings and maybe sculpt. I don’t know [laughs].
You don’t just jump into sculpture, do you? Is that something you dabble with in the past?
I dabbled. I’d like to actually make piñatas [laughs]. I’m not joking.
Yeah. I like to dabble in a lot of things. But I’d like to continue doing books that are words and pictures. I think that’s the ideal way to get things across.
Do you find yourself moving away from literal lists and moving more toward story as you progress?
No. I think I’m moving away from story [laughs]. I don’t know, I do both. I like doing both things. It just depends on what I think is the best way to explain the joke.
But you don’t really want to explain the joke.
Good point. The best way to illustrate it—to lead the audience toward the funny. To dig out a laugh.
Do you think it’s easier to do on paper versus, say, sketch writing? It’s like a treasure map to a joke.
Yeah. I don’t know if I could be a real comedy writer. My boyfriend’s a comedian, actually, and he does comedy writing and standup, and it just seems so difficult to me. We both find a lot of the same things funny, but his approach to it seems a lot more by-the-book in a way. He knows how to write a joke and why it’s funny, and I’m like, “this makes me laugh. I don’t know why.”
It’s not that I’m stupid about it, but if I was at a table of writers, I wouldn’t know what to do.
You don’t know why it’s funny, but figuring that out seems very much ingrained in your approach. You’re mapping a path to it on paper.
Yeah, yeah. I can think about it and come up with a way to talk about why some things work as jokes and why others don’t. I think comics are also a good way to do it because I’m also very shy. If I tried to do standup or any other kind of comedy that involves talking to other people or coming up with a joke on the spot, I just wouldn’t be able to do [laughs].
And you’ve got to use that art degree, right?
Yeah—oh, it was a cheap one. Don’t worry about me.
Did you go to school in New York?
No, I went to UCLA.
That was cheap?
Did you get a scholarship?
Well, my parents work at Stanford, and they actually have a perk where I get to go wherever I want and they pay for it.
That’s a pretty good deal.
Yeah. It’s a very good deal.
And you studied fine art.
What did you want to do with that? Paint?
Well, there they make you do everything. I did photo and I did ceramics. I was very into those for a while. And I though maybe I was going to just do photo. But I’ve always been a drawer. It’s my strong suit. I’m a compulsive drawer. In school I always had a billion sketchbooks. Teachers would ask me to stop, but I wouldn’t [laughs].
Did a lot of weird things come out in those sketchbooks?
Yeah. I recently showed them to Alvin and he said, “you know, you can always tell when someone’s going to go into comics. You draw like a cartoonist.”
Looking at your books, I don’t know if I’d necessarily say that.
These not as much. But my high school sketchbooks are very comicsy. They’re often me, they’re often self-portraits. They’re all really embarrassing.
So, as you’ve moved toward comics, you’ve moved a way from a more familiar comic-style?
Maybe, yeah. I think, especially in doing that Webcomic with my friend, I learned what I like and don’t like in comics. I like a lot of comics that don’t look traditional, even though a lot of my influences are traditional. I love R. Crumb—but I also love painted comics. I love what Vanessa Davis does, for example. I’m just coming at it from a different way.
Did you read a lot of natural history books, growing up?
Oh yeah, yeah. My parents are both scientists, so I was surrounded by that. My dad would say, “look at this video of cancer cells dividing. That was a huge influence.
It’s an early entry into the grotesque, too.
Have you ever been to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia?
No! I’ve always wanted to.
Does that stuff—medical oddities—fascinate you?
I’ve always wanted to. I have a book of that stuff. I collect books like that. I should make a trip out there to see it in person. It’s funny because I’m actually really queasy and grossed out really easily, but I can’t stop collecting that sort of stuff.
Do you ever creep yourself out when you’re drawing things?
Um, I mostly just make myself laugh, if it’s really disgusting. Once you’ve been staring for something for four hours, it’s not really disgusting anymore. I remember that I drew one comic that was so gross that Charles Burns looked at it and was totally grossed out. It was kind of amazing.
That’s a star to put on your wall.
Yeah, it’s a benchmark I didn’t know I had in me. But I’d forgotten how gross it was because I’d been staring at it so long while I was painting it.
[Continued in Part Two.]