Friday, August 19, 2016

D&Q: Tom Gauld's Mooncop and Lisa Hanawalt's Hot Dog Taste Test

Mooncop, by Tom Gauld. Gauld's long-form comics tend to be variations on an individual being manipulated by forces beyond his control, often resulting in a kind of tragic obsolescence. That's the case in the silent The Gigantic Robot (the robot eventually just erodes away) and Goliath (a nice guy who's manipulated by bureaucracy and circumstance into becoming the victim of legend), and it's true in a less dramatic way in Mooncop as well. In many ways, Mooncop is even sadder than the other two books, because they're both about wars and conquest, where history is written by the winner and then later forgotten. In this book, we're presented with a glimpse of what was once a noble attempt at something glorious that's fallen into disrepair and disinterest. The titular character patrols the moon, earning perfect marks on his quarterly crime-solving reports because there's no crime to report. In the beautiful domed buildings on the starkly gorgeous surface of the moon (which Gauld emphasizes with heavy hatching and cross-hatching and a light blue-grey wash), the cop starts off the story by reluctantly dealing with the fact that he barely serves any purpose and starts to sink deeper into despair when he realizes that everyone is starting to leave.

Gauld mixes the melancholy quality of the cop's life on the moon with some hilarious technology-related gags that ultimately only serve to make him feel even worse. This is a future where technology rules over everything, only it's constantly breaking down or is lacking the right adapter. There's a bit where the cop is denied a transfer back to earth but is assigned a therapy robot. The robot promptly falls on its face when it tries to move, since it wasn't designed for rough terrain. When it finally manages to charge itself, it explodes. The moon bureaucracy takes away his frequently-malfunctioning coffee and donuts machine and inexplicably puts in a cafe, a funny reflection of how out of touch leadership and technology is with reality in the book. The cop and the young woman hired for the cafe trade quips and then share some poignant moments when they realize they're the last two people on the moon. The cop and the other characters are drawn in Gauld's typical simplified style, which aids in him maintaining the deadpan atmosphere of the book. That deadpan style blends perfectly with the sense of not just frustration, but resignation, that the characters share. Not only did the cop (who confesses that all he wanted to do as a kid was be a cop and live on the moon) come to understand that he joined this moon utopia too late and that the party was over, he came to understand that it was never that great to begin with. The moon was dotted with convenience stores and drive-throughs, just like any dull suburb on earth. He had to be reminded from time to time that the moon and its views were beautiful, but even those moments of aesthetic bliss were simply not enough to counter the banality and bureaucracy of everyday life.

Hot Dog Taste Test, by Lisa Hanawalt. Hanawalt's minicomics series, I Want You, was a thunderbolt of over-the-top grossness and absurdity. In a strange way, it also felt deeply personal precisely because of the specificity of its eccentricities. Her first book, a collection of assorted short stories and other ephemera titled My Dirty Dumb Eyes, was not quite the Full Hanawalt experience that I had hoped for. It was still really out there and funny, to be sure, but it felt a little safer and a little more measured & restrained. That's understandable, given that many of those pieces were assignments, rather than directly personal work. I was worried that her new book, Hot Dog Taste Test, might be similarly muted in content. Instead, despite the fact that most of it is a collection of work published in a food magazine, I found much of it to be not only Hanawalt's sensibilities fully unleashed, but also to be remarkably personal and even poignant at times.

The fact that the book centers around food is precisely what makes it so personal. Hanawalt loves food, loves talking about it and isn't afraid to remind the reader that we are absurd animals. Hanawalt has a knack for using mundane images to make fun of pretentious ones, like substituting hot dogs for actual dogs at a dog show-style event. She also constantly subverts the kind of food-related advice people seek from the internet or magazines with absurd add-ons. In a hand-written list of baking tips, it starts off with "whisk drys" and "parchment paper will save you" (two sensible things) and ends with "yogurt makes promises it can't keep." She reduces shopping to furniture ("stuff to fart on") and clothing ("stuff to fart in"). This, and wine advice like an arrow pointing to a shiraz that says "makes your tits itchy") establishes the baseline for her humor in this book: coarse, silly, vaguely familiar and very brightly colored.

That use of color is in prominent display in her "Holiday Food Diary", which abandons anything resembling reality to delve into eating "a box of meat", fresh egg nog with eggs squeezed straight from the bird, and an apocalyptic and orgiastic two page spread of "The Holiday Feast". Hanawalt alternates a fairly straight-ahead profile of celebrity chef Wylie Dufresne with a long series of cartoons about toilets and toileting issues. Yes, she literally indulges in potty humor in a series of hilarious strips that work because she treats them with an eager sense of curiosity about our toileting habits as humans. That's followed by her drawings of human-type breasts and genitalia on birds, including a statue of one in an art museum. By the time she finishes up her strip on "menstrual huts" (including the "menstrual barcycle"--one of those pedi-cab bars), Hanawalt has undoubtedly cleared the room of those who simply wanted to read some funny comics about being a foodie--and more power to her.

Most of the rest of the book is dedicated to longer pieces, like one talking about leaving New York City for good and indulging in all the "Sugar, Spice, and Fat" she can get her hands on. There's an interlude featuring one of her anthropomorphic characters that were a staple of her earlier work and are now mostly seen on her TV show that she designs, BoJack Horseman. Tuca the Toucan is hilarious, reminding me a little of the old R.Crumb character Mode O'Day as she has an intensely awkward encounter with a guy at the deli counter. The strip where she's desperately trying to get a Cathy ("Aack!") swimsuit on is a bit of hilarious metahumor. "Planting" features an anthropomorphic bird couple moving into a new house in another brightly-colored story (watercolors, I believe) that introduces plants as a fun hobby and then reveals that the wife starts becoming obsessed with them to the point of starting to sleep curled up in pots.

"Otters!" works as both a guide to something interesting (a sanctuary where you get to swim around with baby otters) and something that could not have been more in Hanawalt's wheelhouse. "I can't get over how good it feels to have otters all over me", she says, in a paragraph next to a self-portrait of her with a shirt that reads "Every Day I'm Not Covered In Otters Is A Piece Of Shit." It's a perfect Hanawalt piece, as its illustrations range from cute to absurd to gross, and there's a kind of sweet inquisitiveness that marks the way she looks at the world. The same is true, in a far different environment, in "Lisaaa Las Vegas", in which she is asked to eat at some opulent Vegas buffets. Hanawalt jumps into the experience wholeheartedly while acknowledging the ways in which Vegas is a sort of bacchanalian con. It's not unlike if a magazine had managed to send her back in time to some Roman feast; it's something that's kind of ugly and conspicuous in its consumption, yet the actual experience of eating that food is one so visceral that that aspect of it is interesting to consider. Hanawalt nails that visceral quality with her absurd, almost hallucinatory ideas about food as well as the effects it has on her body.

The true stand-out piece in the book is her "Argentina Travel Diary". I had no idea that her mother was from Argentina, and the story features Hanawalt traveling there with her parents, her brother and her boyfriend. It's among the very best travel diaries I've ever read, as it's bracingly honest and funny about the experience of travel and the confusing & conflicting emotions that often come with it. Her observations about South American food are dead on: it's not spicy, it's European. (My own Chilean relatives acted like they were eating five-alarm chili when they had a stew with a dash of paprika in it. "Calor!"). Her blunt assessments ("Truche Roqueforte" as "Cheese Fish") and Noquis (Gnocchi) as "Bliss pillows" made me laugh out loud. Hanawalt talks about the feelings she gets when she rides a horse, how riding around with her brother made her think about how his girlfriend had died just a year ago, and the sensation after riding of eating some stew that her mother had made ("Nothing has ever tasted better.") Hanawalt's work, in its purest essence, is embracing what it is like to be embodied. To feel the adrenaline of being on top of a horse, with all the risk that entails. To eat nothing but comfort with family and to feel safe and loved. To accept one's body and bodily functions, acknowledging the fears of what other people might perceive if they saw her on the toilet (the image accompanying that made me howl). To savor those moments of beauty that come through meaningful interaction in an existence that is "mostly meaningless", as she put it. This wasn't just wisdom on top of toilet humor, but rather, an acknowledgment that the toilet humor is part of the wisdom.

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