I Have Passed the Hot Dog Taste Test and You Can Too

Lisa Hanawalt’s latest collection explores foodie culture, the evolution of bathroom habits, and horseback riding

Part of the joy of discovering an artist’s work, regardless of their chosen medium, is getting the chance to spend some time in their headspace. Each piece of work, whether it be a novel, sculpture, or movie, gives you another glimpse of its creator’s thoughts and beliefs, allowing you insight into how they think and fleshing them out more than even the most vigorously reported biography ever could. When it comes to indie comics, there’s no one right now whose work lets readers in as much James Beard Award winner and BoJack Horseman production designer/ producer Lisa Hanawalt.

Her second book, Hot Dog Taste Test (Drawn & Quarterly), the follow up to 2013’s My Dirty Dumb Eyes, sees the cartoonist tackling a mishmash of subjects as varied as foodie culture, the evolution of bathroom habits, and horseback riding. The collection, much of which first saw print in David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine, is less concerned with the sexual lives of anthropomorphic animals (though there’s still some of that) than her previous book, but still features plenty of the brand of gross-but-not-gross-out humor that’s her trademark.

Hanawalt expertly mixes things up — understanding that some punchlines need only elicit a smirk.

Whether she’s ruminating on the pros and cons of breakfast, showing off some of her favorite recipes, or preaching the virtues of otter farms, Hanawalt loads her page with visual and verbal jokes (many of which involve dicks or boobs). But Hanawalt expertly mixes things up — understanding that some punchlines need only elicit a smirk — in a way that makes sure the proceedings never feel overwhelming.

The book can still feel all over the place, though, as Hanawalt zeroes in on something only to turn away as soon as something else catches her fancy. While this would grate if she were a lesser artist, Hanawalt cartooning skills are such that it doesn’t matter, especially when one turns to any of the lush watercolors that litter the book.

One particularly notable section, portraying the day-to-day lives of a 30-something bird couple who’ve recently traded the city for the suburbs, stuns with rich colors sure to invoke the feeling you had scanning over the pages of your favorite picture book as a child. But it’s not just the painted work that shines, as her more traditional line work is as sharp and evocative as well. Even pages of text, many of which feature scratched out words and phrases, have a beauty to them. They may feel like filler at first, but as the book progresses, their immediacy starts to feel like glimpse of Hanawalt’s mind at work, almost in real time.

The collection is at it’s best in the more sustained pieces. These five pieces, which cover everything from day spent shadowing Wylie Dufresne around one of his Manhattan restaurants to a tour of Las Vegas’ many all-you-can-eat buffets to a family trip to Hanawalt’s mother’s homeland, Argentina, are an amalgam of experiential journalism and autobiography that manages to avoid the more annoying traps of both. Consisting of chunks of text and colorful line drawing, the pieces move along at a brisk pace, ideas and observations bubbling up in every direction. There’s a directness to them that elevates them past sketchbook pages, while managing to remain candid enough, giving you a sense of how she processes the world.

Hanawalt is part of a group of indie comic darlings who have moved to Hollywood in recent years to work in animation. Comics can be a thankless field, so it’s reassuring to see she hasn’t left the medium behind just because she’s achieved success while working on Bojack Horseman. In fact, as Hot Dog Taste Test proves, it may have freed her up to move forward, something which has made her already honest work feel more fresh and vital than ever before.

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