‘I’m an Adult, But I’m Splashing Around in the Mud’

Photo-Illustration: Getty Images, Lisa Hanawalt

To get in the head of artist and writer Lisa Hanawalt is to enter a swirl of birdwomen and horsemen, deep-seated anxiety, and many a sex joke. Now well known for her work on BoJack Horseman and her own show, Tuca & Bertie (which Netflix canceled after one season but Adult Swim later picked up), Hanawalt has always been fixated on animals and neuroses in her work. The release of I Want You, a collection of her early drawings, comics, and flash fiction, is a way to see the connective tissue in her work now. The characters Tuca and Bertie — 30-something best-friend birdwomen navigating their busy city lives — make even more sense after you explore the friendships and romantic relationships detailed in I Want You.

The Cut spoke to Hanawalt about the evolution of her work, diversity in animation, and telling dick jokes.

How does it feel to have your early work released after BoJack Horseman and Tuca & Bertie?

I made some introduction comics for it and assess this in those, but my ambivalence about reprinting older work is strong. But then when I actually look back, you can see the beginnings of a lot of my interests that show up in my later work. So I think if you’re a fan of my work, you’ll like it. Am I a fan of my work? Ehhhh.

How do you feel your work has evolved, and what came up for you while making these intro comics for the collection?

Some things are literal images that come up over and over again, like the sex bugs [horny bugs that frequently pop up in her work]. That’s something that comes back in Tuca & Bertie, and I always thought it was funny. And this preoccupation with bodily functions and fluids in a very infantile way. It’s the desublimated thing where I’m an adult but I’m splashing around in the mud.

It’s so nice to see juvenile humor through a woman’s perspective. That keeps coming up in your work — showing women as equally disgusting human beings. 

It’s weird that that still seems subversive. The work I was making back then was trying really hard to take up space in that way. There are a lot of dick jokes in this book — honestly, too many. I was staking my claim, being like, I find this funny too, and I’m not gonna be apologetic or shy about it. 

Have you always been drawn to the animal-human hybrid? 

Well, I was born an animorph. [Laughs.] I can point to comics I made when I was 7 years old, and they were a horseman wearing a hat and sweater. A lot of the cartoons and things I watched were anthropomorphic animals, like Garfield and Ren & Stimpy. And I just liked animals in general. I was just really focused on them. At first, it was cats, cats, cats and then I switched to horses. Then for a while, I was a bird lady, and now it’s everything.

What’s it like looking back at the progress of your career from these early comics to then having success with shows like BoJack and Tuca & Bertie?

My work has always been short stories and short comics. Making a whole TV episode, much less a whole season, was sort of unfathomable to me. But then when I started working on BoJack, I learned so much about working as part of a machine. Just learning all the different parts of the animation process made me want to take my own stab at it. I had my own stories that I wanted to tell, and I’ve always been someone who likes to work on my own projects rather than collaborate. And while Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack] is the best collaborator in the world, there were things about BoJack where I was like, “I would do this differently if I had a show of my own.” He caught wind of the fact that I was thinking about trying to pitch a TV show, and he was like, “I’ll help you. Let’s do it together.”

The way you tackle mental illness and anxiety in your work feels very relatable, and they’re such a big part of BoJack. How do you think the way you handle those subjects has evolved?

My characters are coming from my head, so they have a lot of my own neuroses and anxieties. When I was first pitching Tuca & Bertie, I got a lot of questions like “Why is Bertie anxious?” “What caused it?” People really wanted a cause and effect, and I’m like, “No, there isn’t one.” She just is anxious, and for some reason, that was a difficult thing to explain.

I’m so excited you guys are getting a season two with Adult Swim. What was that like, thinking you were done with the show and now it gets to keep going? 

It was a roller coaster. There were all of these ideas and things I wanted to do, and I thought we’d be supported in that. So it was devastating. Adult Swim believed in us and wanted it so badly that we were able to push forward. I’m just so glad we get the opportunity, especially now. It’s so nice to be able to go to work and have something really silly to distract us. It’s stressful making a show during the pandemic, but I’m just so grateful to have the opportunity and to be able to hire people.

How do you feel you’ve grown as a person and creator?

It was a full decade of building this body of work and making huge mistakes and letting myself not get paid enough for my work. When people ask me for advice, I think [of] being bold and jumping in there and doing stuff. Just make a pile of work — some of it is going to be really bad, and some of it will be good. Take the good chunks and then work on those. People are afraid to get started and make a mistake, and that’s the worst mistake you could make. You can’t avoid making some work that’s shitty. It’s just part of it.

‘I’m an Adult, But I’m Splashing Around in the Mud’