On a back cover blurb, Patton Oswalt writes that My Dirty Dumb Eyes is “a [Lisa] Hanawalt assault.” I’d argue that this book isn’t quite the Full Hanawalt, not compared with her astonishing debut minicomics Stay Away From Other People and (especially) I Want You. Not since Ivan Brunetti published Schizo #1 had I seen such a buzz around a new cartoonist, especially a humorist. The hype was well-deserved largely because of Hanawalt’s titular “dirty dumb eyes.” In this book, she actually refers to her “dirty dumb brain,” always looking to make a filthy joke out of whatever she encounters. Hanawalt simply transforms silly and frankly sexual fantasies and passing thoughts into coherent, tight gags that are unflinching in the way they portray sex, bodily functions, and fetishes. That said, I never get the intention that she’s trying to gross out the reader; there’s an almost bland naivete in her narratives that make it sound like she’s listing recipes rather than alternative kinds of tampons or (in this book) “Sex Fantasies Inspired By Movies”. Like John Kerschbaum, that mundane quality to her work puts the reader at ease before she drops the hammer on them.
The thing about this book is that there’s a lot less of that hammer-dropping than in her minis. In its place are a number of reprints of commissioned assignments or blog daydreams, including reviews of several movies and TV shows and a report of attending a toy show. Her jovial qualities as a narrator really shine through even as she goes to town on films like War Horse, Drive, The Vow, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. All of these features are quite funny, both because of her frequently absurd commentary and her even sillier drawings, like her fantasy that War Horse is about a horse uprising, complete with machine-gun-armed equines. Her comics about public figures such as Martha Stewart, various celebrity chefs, and publisher Anna Wintour are even sillier, as she imagines Wintour presenting a dead mouse in her mouth as a display of affection, Stewart hot-gluing dildos to her oven knobs, and Mario Batali’s Crocs doubling as pasta makers. She sells these gags with her incredible skill as a cartoonist; she has the rare ability of being able to make detailed drawings come to life and capture the essence of a person like Drew Friedman does.
Still, I’d argue that the real meat of Hanawalt’s work is in her strips about anthropomorphic animals and her truly filthy, silly gags. Hanawalt is funny because she understands the inherent silliness of sexual acts and makes little differentiation between the behavior of humans and animals. It’s not so much that her eyes are dumb and dirty, but rather that it’s a dumb and dirty world. Her animal strips and illustrations are remarkable in this book, from the endpapers depicting a kind of bizarre striptease on a construction site to a story that seems to be something akin to autobio, in which an anthropomorphic horse character struggles with her art and starts making fingers out of clay–many with a punchline attached to them. I’d say that these strips are revealing, but all of her work is revealing in its own way. There’s a painting depicting a beautiful forest; when the reader’s eye goes down the page, we see a guy’s naked ass with his pants around his ankles. That’s a funny image because it’s so discordant in such a direct, flip way, but it also points to Hanawalt believing that what is dirty and dumb is just as beautiful as conventional standards of aesthetics.
Hanawalt is a keen cultural observer, but she really is at her best when she’s thinking up dirty jokes. There’s a “Masters of Painting (Vol. 1)” gag where Georgia o’Keefe, Johannes Vermeer, and Jackson Pollock all sing obscene Lil Jon songs while painting. What makes the gag so great is that O’Keefe is singing “pop yo pussy like this” while painting her flowers reminiscent of women’s genitalia and Pollock is singing “skeet skeet motherfucker” while spraying paint, a brilliant synchronization of painters and lyrics. This is Hanawalt at her best and exemplifies the sort of thing she did so well in I Want You. A book filled with this kind of gag would have a kind of comic denseness seen only in Michael Kupperman collections, and I’m hoping that future collections will tilt more in that direction. That said, anyone reading her movie reviews and such for the first time will enjoy them and find perhaps that they are a gateway to her more explicit comics. They may well function in the same way for Hanawalt, acting as an easy way to get inspiration to do a new story and write some jokes rather than creating new scenarios out of whole cloth. I’ll be curious to see how she negotiates that problem of inspiration as she becomes a more mature storyteller.