Coyote Doggirl Gives the Western a Whimsical, Watercolor Spin

A new graphic novel from the artist Lisa Hanawalt (BoJack Horseman) gives an old genre the kind of heroine it’s never seen before.

Part of a panel from 'Coyote Doggirl'
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“Shit. We are being pursued by guys. If you get tired or break a leg I will be fuckin’ screwed.” So begins Coyote Doggirl, the new Western-adventure graphic novel from the artist and illustrator Lisa Hanawalt. Speaking is the story’s titular magenta-colored canine-person; she’s addressing her beloved horse, Red, as the two pause on a grassy hill and look to the horizon. There, they spy the people hunting them: tiny, ominous silhouettes of horseback figures in 10-gallon hats. “You could easily kill us both, if you wanted to,” Coyote Doggirl muses aloud to her companion as he carries them away from danger. “I am only controlling you in theory. My trusty steed! My friend!”

This is how the heroine narrates for much of the story—exuberantly, profanely, toggling between steeliness and whimsy. “I gotta get from point A to point B and yer my only way of accomplishing it. There’s something so fun about this!” Coyote Doggirl tells Red. From the start, readers might detect something slightly anachronistic about the sunny, almost guileless way she talks. At times, it’s as though she’s coming to the experience of roaming the wilderness on horseback from the perspective of an alien, or of someone who’s just been born.

Of course, while Coyote Doggirl herself may know nothing about Western genre conventions, that’s certainly not the case for Hanawalt, who’s best known for her work as the production designer of the acclaimed Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman. “I love Westerns so much, but they’re often really racist and misogynist,” Hanawalt said during a 2015 festival talk. “I wanted a surreal, horse-focused Western with dog people in it. I couldn’t find an example of that, so I made it.” Coyote may seem childlike at times, but Hanawalt never lets readers forget that this is, in the end, the story of a horse-obsessed cowgirl being chased by a vengeful posse of men who want to kill her.

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The book arrives at a time when American pop culture is seeing a new wave of revisionist Westerns such as Hostiles and Damsel, along with women-centric works in the genre, like Jane Got a Gun, Westworld, and Godless. Though inspired by Western stories, Coyote Doggirl carves out its own space, aesthetically and tonally. It doesn’t read like a straightforward subversion of the genre, even though it features many a recognizable building block: a lone ranger with her faithful steed, a violent act of self-defense that sets the plot into motion, an encounter with a Native tribe, a lawless country, a reverence for self-sufficiency. Hanawalt’s book sheds the self-seriousness of the genre, but it also retains another sort of poignancy—one anchored by the heroine’s free spirit and stubborn sense of wonder in spite of the constant dangers she has to navigate.

Coyote Doggirl is about a woman on the run, but it takes time to explore the tension between her extreme independence and her desire to connect with others, however imperfectly. Coyote lives alone in a one-room house (“Nothing fancy, but it was mine!” she says). She makes her own clothes (her outfit consists of a crop halter top and pants) and horse tack. Early in the story, after a surprise attack, she finds herself in the company of a wolf tribe dressed in nonspecific Native garb—a situation that initially brings out an ugliness in her. (“LET ME GO, YOU BEASTS!!!” a wounded Coyote screams at one point; it’s a coded insult that’s quickly shut down by one of the wolves trying to help her: “Hey. Do not be a bitch.”) But for the most part, Coyote Doggirl is charming—mischievous and a little rude, sure, but ultimately openhearted. After she leaves the wolves, she gives a speech about how nice it is to return to solitude (“Other people are so exhausting. It takes so much effort to connect with them, you know?”) before admitting, “Damn. Kinda lonely out here.”

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Hanawalt’s illustrations do a lot of the work to visually disassociate Coyote Doggirl from its black-and-white or sepia-toned predecessors. Close to sunset, the sky in Coyote Doggirl is filled with cotton-candy-pink clouds; in the day, it glows the color of a ripe lemon. The mountains and pebbles and trees are often a smudged indigo. Sometimes the background vanishes altogether, homing in on Coyote’s ecstasy as she takes a new horse for a spin, or on her mindlessness as she performs chores. (Not everything is rendered so delightfully: A traumatic memory materializes in washes of deep blues and blacks—and then a sickening ribbon of crimson.) For fans of the artist’s comics or BoJack Horseman, it’s an unmistakable aesthetic. Hanawalt’s soft-edged watercolors complement the looseness of the narrative, which is linear but interspersed with playful detours and snapshots of Coyote’s inventory (harmonica, rations, rope, revolver).

Like so many Westerns, Coyote Doggirl is a simple story. It’s a tale about surviving—a process that, for the most part, is deeply mundane until it’s not. But for Hanawalt, even the mundane vibrates with a sort of absurd humor and manic energy. A lot of her work focuses on how the repulsive, the frightening, and the bizarre animate everyday life, existing at its heart rather than at its margins; this book is no different. Westerns tend not to concern themselves with the inessential muck of daydreams or genitalia jokes the way Coyote Doggirl does (though the book is less obscene and scatological than some of the artist’s other comics). But in more familiar genre fashion, Hanawalt’s graphic novel respects its heroine’s restlessness. Her freedom, it seems to argue, is sacred. After a long, hard ride, Coyote craves nothing more than the comfort of home—her space, her stuff, the things she made and the things that make her. Once there, she might pause for a moment, out of exhaustion or gratitude. Then, like a true cowgirl, she’ll be gone again.