"They taste a bit like petroleum, and they're a little extra soft from the boiling," Lisa Hanawalt writes of New York street hot dogs. "But throw some ketchup and relish on there and tell me that doesn't taste 'okay!'"
Hanawalt's comedy comes in part from granting the banal a degree of attention uncommon outside of standup sets. Her comics about food, published first in McSweeney's food magazine Lucky Peach and now in her book Hot Dog Taste Test (Drawn and Quarterly, 176 pages, $22.95)—are both absurdly funny and meticulously engaged with their subject. There may be a few other food cartoonists out there in the world, but Hanawalt is definitely the only one who's won two James Beard food-writing awards in the past four years.
This is despite the fact that food writing isn't even the main thing she does. She's probably best known as the character designer for the Netflix series Bojack Horseman—those anthropomorphized animals are her thing—not to mention her previous comic collection, My Dumb Dirty Eyes, and her podcast with comedian Emily Heller, Baby Geniuses.
But the same way Damian Lillard is a better rapper than a lot of people who think it's their full-time career, it turns out talent isn't evenly distributed. Hanawalt's food writing, accompanied by her absurdist art, is not only funny but manages to capture food in all its horrifying particulars. "You can stick petit fours onto the end of crab legs, tie them to your fingers, and run around calling yourself Edward Crabcakehands," she says of the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Cosmopolitain hotel in Las Vegas, "and you will simply be offered more crab."
Both non-superhero comics and millennials like the 32-year-old Hanawalt are regularly derided for their solipsism, but that self-consciousness serves Hanawalt well. In "On the Trail With Wylie," her profile of WD-50 chef Wylie Dufresne, this leads her to a heretofore unprecedented analysis of upscale restaurants' restrooms, not to mention the elitist exoticism of high-end food. "Urchins taste like whipped semen," she writes. "If Wylie doesn't like tomatoes, I don't have to like urchins."
Though this may be surprising for someone who makes a living as an illustrator, Hanawalt is actually at her best in the more text-based pieces in Hot Dog Taste Test. These are augmented by looser comics, lists and doodles, whose styles range from sketchpad vagary to rich watercolors to the clean lines of Bojack.
Some of these fare better (a glossary of food photography terms) than others (a watercolor of, uh, people standing around a hole?), and a surprising number deviate pretty far off the book's "comics about food" hook. But even that can't take away from the excitement of Hot Dog Taste Test. It's the joy of discovering an entirely new thing: the illustrated comic food review.
SEE IT: Lisa Hanawalt is at Floating World Comics, 400 NW Couch St., floatingworldcomics.com, on Friday, June 24. 7 pm. Free.