Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Hanawalt’

Lisa Hanawalt, “Hot Dog Taste Test”(2016) & Sy Montgomery, “The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood” (2006,2007)

July 30, 2016

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Is food something that needs to be de-mythologized? It’s one of those things people either think about a lot, or don’t really think about much – it’s such an essential part of life, it’s easy to either take it for granted and cram whatever’s nearby into your mouth, or you turn it into something you obsess about, revelling in specifics and obscurities, to the point where you seem to be in another universe from every other eater on earth. It often feels like all the ideas of nutrition and food-as-art have created these weird class distinctions in an essential activity. I would imagine one of the reasons Lisa Hanawalt received the article assignments that form the majority of this book (following chef Wylie Dufresne, trying New York’s street food one last time, going through multiple Las Vegas buffets) is because she has a real skill at straddling that line, knowledgeable and interested in the complexities and varieties in chef and foodie culture, but more than willing to indulge in the simpler pleasures of more common items. There’s an art to food, but that doesn’t mean only artistic food is the only kind worthwhile – Hanawalt recognizes that food is comforting, but also how food and the process of eating is absurd and just another part of our basic biological functions (food and its counterpart, doof, are closer than we’d like to think), and it’s also a cultural and familial touchstone that brings people together (which is the core of the “Argentina Travel Diary” segment.) There’s too much to food to just ignore but a few of its facets – here we even get some food-inspired horror in “Caballos Con Carne”, which explores the strange relationship between us meat eaters and other animals – it’s both funny and exhaustive in its observations, a hundred or more different ways to look at and appreciate your eating habits.

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Look at some of the spreads in the book – a Lisa Hanawalt spread is always a good thing, with a thousand visual jokes all hiding in different corners, rendered in appropriately smeared water colours that can bring out the best and worst in every piece – you can see many of those ideas in one place, elaborate and ornate and silly and disgusting in equal measures. Food becomes part of everything: design, body horror, ritual, communication, corporate logos, a personality test. Not every piece in the book is about food, but the topic seems to permeate every page, on the book’s mind at all times even when it drifts off to other places. Of course, many of the other sections of Hot Dog Taste Test deal with just other aspects of a normal life – happiness, death, family, that sort of thing – which coalesces quite well with food, all fundamental aspects of existence. Like the food itself that appears on these pages, there seems to be a desire to mix all these different ideas together, to serve them up in unexpected and beautiful ways – they are all part of one greater, very messy meal.

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As a companion to the previous Sy Montgomery book I read, The Good Good Pig offers a similar meditation on human-animal relationships – but while The Soul Of An Octopus focuses on a wild and strange intelligence, this one is definitely more domestic in many different ways. This is also a book about small time life, the idea of going somewhere to free yourself from urban sprawl and crowds, only to have the small population crowd around you as the local flavour – the legacy of Montgomery’s adopted pig, Christopher Hogwood, was to allow her to form relationships with neighbours and other citizens of Hancock, New Hampshire, sometimes by accident (creating a vivid cast of recurring personalities, as she would later do in Soul Of An Octopus as well.) The author openly describes how she has always felt more kinship with animals than people, but at several points in this, animals help bridge the gaps and force her to be a bit more outgoing.

The book presents the small town as the place where everyone knows everyone, everyone kicks in to help (in this case, feeding Christopher scraps), confirming that the ideas of community can actually amount to something – these are the virtues of the small town experience you hear about often. Having an escape artist pig makes Montgomery and her husband “exceptional”, but this brings them closer to others – the interesting contrast Montgomery provides is in her own family life, which appears in many major points in the book, where being eccentric or doing something not in line with expectations is not nearly as accepted. This is sometimes seen as another small town “value”, but it simmers beneath the surface – Montgomery can talk to her mother about her pig, but not her Jewish husband. The book doesn’t delve into that connection – she came from a military family, so not particularly representative of the small town experience – but in a broader sense it does present two different paths those close-knit communities can take: they can become an open community, or a closed community. The author uses both her life with a pig and her career as a way to demonstrate of the open community, emphasizing the different backgrounds of all her friends and neighbours, learning about other cultures (and especially their particular relationships with local animals, such as the stories about the river dolphins in Brazil), and keeping in touch with her associates in other countries. In these cases, too, animal life (especially Christopher, whose fame spreads far beyond New Hampshire) becomes a way to understand others and form connections – with the animals, and with the people, all communities becoming open communities.

Leslie Stein, “Eye of the Majestic Creature Vol. 2” (2013) & Lisa Hanawalt, “My Dirty Dumb Eyes” (2013)

September 8, 2013

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I have a difficult time properly summarizing Leslie Stein’s comics. Are they whimsical? They certainly are in spots, but one can’t really say that’s a consistent tone – the comic often deals with difficult subject matter, from awkward stuff to downright distressing family issues. But the way the comics tells these stories, not just in Stein’s cartooning, or in the regular injection of fantasy or absurdity in the margins (the anthropomorphic instruments, Larry’s obsessive hobby being counting grains of sand), but also in the sort of quieter, introspective approach to them – it seems to drift from moment to moment, never focusing too much on one thing, allowing itself to be uncluttered by extraneous details. It’s a mode that remains evident in this volume, even with the protagonist more tied down, with a regular job in the city – the tendency is towards capturing a series of small events, even when working under a larger sort of narrative as in the first story in the book.

The collection of short stories in the middle of the book are prime examples of that. The longest of them, “Jonathan”, is a perfectly low key sort of strange personal story, one that interestingly backgrounds Larry to instead focus on her mother and other adults (could that possibly be because it was published on Vice as its own thing?), and exemplifies the very odd, specific kind of experience that typifies these comics. The other stories follow the same beat, encompassing subject matter that is light (“That Sticky Machine”), indirectly personal (“Brown Heart”), or straightforward adolescent realization (“Lithium”), or, in the case of the last story, all three at once (just replace “adolescent” with “adult”). It just seems that no matter where the stories go, they never try to get bigger or more pronounced than they need to be – they are treated seriously, but deftly handled in a way that makes them very approachable. It is enjoyable to follow the lives of these characters, and they never feel particularly distant or exaggerated (even when we’re talking about those anthropomorphic instruments, who have their own little stories in here.)

I also noticed that, as a continuation of the previous book, there is an underpinning to many of the stories that seems to be examining the idea of stability in life. As mentioned before, the book gives Larry a regular job and a new home, and while this doesn’t completely change the course from the last volume, it has a major presence in the first and last stories. In “Sister Carrie”, the problems of urban life, which includes Larry’s dissatisfaction with her job, seem to be resolved by the end, but it continues again in the final stories, leading to another big status quo change, much as what happened at the end of Volume 1. Real stability just doesn’t seem in the cards, and in this way, the two books not only parallel, but are in keeping with the drifting feel of the entire series.

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Hanawalt’s comics usually seem to work with two major elements: the very naturalistic, detailed illustrations, and the absurd, exaggerated ideas and details. Now, either of those can be funny on their own (her descriptions just seem to pop a little bit more when we have a near-immaculate representation of the thing she’s describing on page beside it), but often times, these two kinds of drawings are mashed together, juxtaposed in such that they enhance each other. Sometimes, it’s just spices up things – the accurate renderings of Clint Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman on her “Stoic-Heroic-Autistic” scale sort of make that joke – but in other places, it’s applied wholesale, as is the entire concept of the “animals-in-hats” pages, or in many of the standalone illustrations, like the drawing of flowers coupled with penises. The drawings work so well that sometimes they are downright horrifying – she takes advantage of that big time in “Extra Egg Room”, where it becomes nightmarish body horror.

The animal imagery alone in her work is the biggest beneficiary of this. While there are stylized animal drawings throughout My Dirty Dumb Eyes, in most of her longer pieces, they are drawn “realistically”, often down to the really tiny details – and, as mentioned before, that enhances the humour of the drawings. One thing that brings out the humour is the animals’ low range of expression – they have one very generalized kind of look that never really changes, which is fun to contrast with the weird things going on around them, as in the hat drawings. It also makes it a little easier to feel sympathetic for them as characters – the “Therapy” strip works by having the “deerdog” just sort of doing deerdog things (also highly contrasted with the frightening pancake-faced therapist, with that relentless, plastered-on grin), and while we can understand the situation in “Moosefingers”, I can’t help but feel that the moose lady just looking like of an actual moose makes it a little sadder (Hanawalt sort of talks about this with in her piece on War Horse – concluding that it and movies like it are always about “projecting human ideals, emotions, and and symbolism onto animals”, which is probably what I’m doing here.) Maybe this is just a personality thing that brings out these thoughts – maybe being innately sympathetic towards animals makes me think one way, while someone without that sympathy would just find the drawings gross. The thing is, they could still work for someone in either mindset.

It’s also interesting, then, to compare that to the way she often draws people, where she takes complete advantage of our range of emotion. The faces are often taken to extremes, contorted and warped, or they can be given the more subtly goofy looks – either way, humans seem more often to be absurd figures, which is where a lot of the fun in those drawings are. Meanwhile, the fun in the animal strips is often that the absurdity happens AROUND them, and they just sort of endure it in their animal way.