Lisa Hanawalt has a lot of talent as a short story writer. Her first two books, My Dirty Dumb Eyes and Hot Dog Taste Test established her as a cartoonist with a knack for finding humor in everyday objections and expressions, and as a person whose work borders the fluorescent and the surreal. But I wasn’t sure what to expect from Coyote Doggirl, her first graphic novel. The book was published by Drawn & Quarterly in summer 2018, and stars Coyote, a half dog, half coyote loner who is drawn into conflict and interaction with others she would rather avoid.
Coyote Doggirl plays with some of the classic tropes of classic Western films and smartly turns them on their head. Instead of a loner on a horse seeking justice in the Wild West, Coyote just wants to be left alone, and her relationship with her horse Red is less pretentious than most “a man and his horse” narratives that populate most Westerns. Still, the relationship between Coyote and Red is a focal point of the comic, and shows off Hanawalt’s ability to draw a horse, which, if I understand from my cartoonist acquaintances, is basically impossible.
Hanawalt also uses dialogue in Coyote Doggirl to drive the underlying thematic elements of Westerns to the surface, showing how goofy they can seem. “We are a team! We are family. This is a symbiotic thing.” Coyote says at one point to Red. In another run in with indigenous people, portrayed as wolves, Coyote is shot with arrows and asks her assailants, “Why was I attacked?” She gets a shrug and a “We thought you were going to steal our shit.” in response. It’s funny and irreverent, but captures the core of what Westerns are generally doing.
You can generally describe Coyote Doggirl in that fashion; it’s a funny and irreverent comic. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Coyote is fleeing three men, and in the middle of the book, explains why to one of the wolves, named River. The flashback is harrowing, and exposes another feature of traditional Westerns, misogyny and violence against women.
Hanawalt’s main character Coyote is a bright pink, and the colors of Coyote Doggirl vacillate between candy colored and more naturalistic, based on the mood being conveyed. Hanawalt’s figure drawing conforms to the same patterns of her previous short comics; generally simplistic, but more detailed as needed to build up a scene. The color of the book is vibrant and wild, but purposeful as a part of the book’s tone. Some of the two page spreads in the book, especially the end pages, are gorgeous.
Coyote Doggirl is melodramatic and silly, but keeps at its heart a feminist critique of the Western genre. As a first graphic novel, it plays to Hanawalt’s strengths, while still branching out into new territory. I found Coyote Doggirl to be at times hilarious and at others heartbreaking. Hanawalt’s idiosyncratic humor and smart colors breathe life into a dusty genre, making Coyote Doggirl a send-up that still manages to find its own path.
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