I Want You
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2020)
Waste, excrement, and debris make up the contents of Lisa Hanawalt’s I Want You (2020). A collection of previously published zine material, I Want You is an anthology of Hanawalt’s alternative comics years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, reprinted at the tail end of her popular Netflix animated show, BoJack Horseman (2014–2020). The book invites a retrospection, of sorts, but then promptly disavows the use of ever needing to look back, describing this retroactive introspection as akin to “taking a shit and not flushing it.” In the preface, two birds (stand-ins for the art critic) look down on the toilet and point to excrement: “Interesting use of color!” and “I prefer her earlier work.” The artist (also represented as a bird) uncomfortably walks away from the frame of the image, and, by extension, us.
I Want You is a gleeful but melancholy diary of a time in life best forgotten. “When I was in my twenties,” Hanawalt laments, “I wanted so badly to be liked and accepted that I didn’t notice when I was treated poorly.” Below these words is an image of the artist’s bird avatar being trampled on. “This is great! Thank you! No need to pay me!” she calls out. Caustic humor such as this runs throughout. Bodily humor and anxiety attacks recur interchangeably, and it is unclear whether these spastic outpourings of feelings are coming from the artist, her characters, or both. This, then, gets to the buried desire—the “want”—of the book: to reach out to the artist’s younger self, when so much of herself was put into her art. Youthful intensity, adult ambivalence, and erotic boredom are all bound up in softcover binding. The success of I Want You is precisely because these affective dispositions—fleeting and indiscriminate yet scorched in our biological DNA—cannot be contained in book form. The sheer physicality of the book—the fact that we have something tangible to grasp onto—is a source of comfort amidst the vagrancies of emotion. As the reader opens the first pages of I Want You, she is presented with a sprawling layout of objects and animals: rusting automobiles in a pile and a sexy moose in a sweater. An anthropomorphic moose stretches herself out on top of cars in a junkyard, and we are left to admire (perversely) this fine creature in all her furry glory. Carnal bodies and everyday objects overwhelm the pictorial frame—culminating in a peripatetic build-up of images, pages, and passions that come to haunt the reader of the book.
We are then transported to a dream-like, three-page interlude—“Mistakes We Made at the Grocery Store.” I Want You’s interludes have a different visual style (pen and ink; watercolor; crayon) and are not just outlines. Hanawalt’s flat aesthetic and jumpy pacing add humor where narrative is absent. The story is not the point but rather the details crowding the frame, and, in “Mistakes,” the retrospective narration unfolds as an uneasy processional on the erotic life of food consumption: an apple with worms; a dead body on aisle five; foreplay between bananas; used and empty grocery bags of food that “gives us diarrhea.” Human sexual desire is manifested as an object of consumption, as animalistic, as exceeding narrative. Particularly the dense design of the graphs, lists, and gatherings. In a two-page spread rabbits, dogs, cats, horses, wolves, bears, lemurs, antelopes, fowl, sheep, moose, and deer congregate and mingle in an open-air music festival. No detail is spared—with the embroidery on the sweaters, tank tops, and jean shorts meticulously rendered. The accumulation of bodies and objects make it difficult to discern what is happening. So: what is the music that brings about inter-species unity? “We’re the Sex Bugs Sex Bugs Sex Buuugggs!”
Animals allow for commentary on sexual desire in a humorous and non-pornographic way: they can always be naked even if they do not have to be, and that irony is further played out in the Buzzfeed-like listicles of animals in hats. An anteater models a “Christmas Cookie Hat” and a zebra a “Slice-‘N-Wear Avocado Hat (Highly Perishable).” On the page immediately following, a cat wears a “Birth Control Hat” of condoms and an ostrich a “Busty Hat” of a woman’s breasts. Surreal vignettes make up the rest of the book: He-Horse nervously vomits birds on a plane, the wreckage of which conclude the book; his unrequited love, She-Moose, has a conversation with her partner (the cat from accounting), visits an animal sex shop, and has an abortion; lists of funny hats, bad pets, and the world’s worst sandwiches are interspersed throughout.
Compositionally, these pages are busy. The background details are not put into relief, straining the reader’s eye as it works to distinguish between the visual elements. Hanawalt’s pen and ink drawings lack perspectival depth—her style is a cluttered clean-line aesthetic. In the end, these counter-intuitive design choices are what make I Want You so transfixing. Far from depersonalizing, each image bears the inscription of Hanawalt’s hand. (The paratextual pages, for example, explicitly comment upon the fact that this is a handwritten artifact.) Why else have a world entirely populated with animals? If cartooning channels a suppressed anxiety or desire, then animals bring what is suppressed, performing its carnal expression.