Tony Millionaire needs little introduction at this stage of his career after all the awards he’s won and books he’s created. He’s the cartoonist behind the long-running weekly comic strip “Maakies” as well as the creator of the “Sock Monkey” and “Billy Hazelnuts” kids books. In 2009, Dark Horse released “The Art of Tony Millionaire,” and art book chronicling the work of the creator. “Maakies” was adapted into a series of animated shorts for “Saturday Night Live” before becoming “The Drinky Crow Show” which aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
Millionaire recently received a lot of attention for his cover for the new Elvis Costello album “National Ransom,” the second cover he’s done for Costello. He’s also a very prominent non-comics illustrator whose work includes providing the cover for the recent Penguin Classics edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” And for fans of the artist located in the New York City area, Millionaire be appearing tonight, January 27, at 7 pm at Desert Island in Brooklyn.
Millionaire spoke with CBR about his new book “Little Maakies On the Prairie,” just released by Fantagraphics.
Your new book, “Little Maakies on the Prairie” is a collection of your newspaper strips. I don’t always get to read it in the paper every week, and it’s nice to have them all in one place like this.
Tony Millionaire: Also, the newspapers run it very small. The real estate of a newspaper page is very valuable, so they apologize to me when they do it that small, but that’s all they can do. When it’s online, I don’t want to blow it up too big because it’ll take up a lot of pixel space and bandwith. Really, the only way to look at it is in these books. And it’s even better than the originals, because the originals have been fixed in photoshop.
Is this is the size you like the strip?
Yes, this is the ideal size. This is how big I think it should be, ideally, in a newspaper. It’s as long as a newspaper page. This is where you get all the details and they’re just right. I was really happy that Chip Kidd decided on this format where it’s one strip per page, because every week when you read it [in the paper], you only read one. Some books will put four or five comic strips on a page, which affects how you read them.
The title, “Little Maakies on the Prairie,” is obviously an homage to “Little House on the Prairie.” You enjoy taking kids book titles for your collections.
I don’t even remember why, but now I keep doing it. I really loved Winnie the Pooh. Ernest Shepard’s drawings are just so amazing. The way he drew trees and rivers. Every little butterfly and blade of grass that he drew is just beautiful to me. Even when I was a little kid I would notice it, and so I named the second book “The House at Maakies Corner.” The first one was just “Maakies.” And then “When We Were Very Maakies.” Then I started going into Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy because Johnny Gruelle was such an amazing illustrator. Those shoes that he put on bugs? I stole that from him. When he would put a little hat on a bug like Chico Marx. So, “Maakies with the Wrinkled Knees.”
I just recently read “Little House on the Prairie,” which I really liked and I was surprised. My daughter was reading it and after she was done with it, she loved it so much that she started reading the other books. I read “Little House on the Prairie” and it has nothing to do with Michael Landon living in a stupid cabin somewhere. It’s totally different from that ridiculous TV show. It really is a book about what settlers were like and it just showed the whole “clutching the necessities of life” that drive people to do what they do much more than loftier ideals.
Having grown up a few years too late for the show, I always remember the dad from the books as this nice but cranky, antisocial guy who always wants to live in the middle of nowhere.
Yeah, the dad in the first book hears somebody chopping wood one morning and is like, “It’s too crowded, we’ve got to get out of here.” Because someone’s chopping wood half a mile away. In “Little House on the Prairie,” the dad is putting the kids at great risk. They’re almost getting killed all the time. The little daughter goes blind. That’s all because he wanted to be a pioneer.
At this point, you’ve been doing the strip every week for almost twenty years. What do you enjoy about the weekly routine?
When I was in my thirties, I was kind of wandering around and didn’t really know what I was doing. I was kind of aimless. I used to draw houses for people. They’d pay me like two hundred [dollars] for a house, but I had no real goal. When I started doing the strip, it just gave me something that I had to have done every week. It gave some structure to my life to have a deadline. And then I really started to enjoy it. Now it’s something I would probably never stop doing. I hope that I have some newspaper that can make me do these deadlines, otherwise I put it off forever. For me, it’s gotten to be almost like writing in a diary. Although it’s not a diary — I’ll write down any jokes or ideas I have and then see if I can put them in “Maakies” that week. It’s kind of like a finalization of all the jokes and craziness of the week.
It’s such a flexible strip as far as what you can do with it, in a way that many strips are not.
That’s why I called it “Maakies.” I was thinking about calling it “Drinky Crow,” but I thought, well, I’m drinking a lot right now, but what if I’m not drinking in five years? Then what? Of course, I still am. But if you just call it a nonsense name, like Schultz calling his strip “Peanuts,” it can be about anything and you can go anywhere with it. If you call your strip “Dick Tracy,” you’d better have the detective in it. And it seems that Uncle Gabby started taking off almost immediately. Drinky Crow is the straight man, almost. Uncle Gabby has hands and it’s funnier if a monkey gets his balls blown off than if a bird does. [Laughs]
Well, in general a monkey is funnier than a crow.
Yeah — a crow is symbolic of the soul, where a monkey is symbolic of the body.
Has the way in which you think about the strip changed much over the years?
It has changed. When I first started the strip, I was doing it out of a place of extreme depression. Things hadn’t been going well for me financially. I was not lucky in love. I’m at the point where I’ve been married for ten years, I have two adorable little kids and life is kind of sweeter for me now. I kind of have to remember what it was like in order to have Drinky Crow blow his brains out. That actually doesn’t happen as much anymore. There are still a million things that are absurd. When the monkey thinks, “I’ve got a great idea. I’m going to do this,” and it ends up being a way for him to figure out how to get drunk without crashing his car. Those kind of things. There’s one called the Family Maakies Circle about Uncle Gabby being married and putting a book in his lap so he can take a nap and she’s like, “What are you doing that for?” Then he falls asleep and the book falls off his lap and the little kid hits him in the nuts with a croquet mallet. That’s how I take naps now. Because I know if I don’t put a book in my lap, a kid is going to punch me in the balls. Either accidentally or on purpose.
I’m also constantly worried that my strip isn’t good enough, or that it’s losing its punch. I’m really trying hard to keep the quality of humor up. When I look back at the book, I’m surprised. I think this is as good as the original stuff. I think the quality is up. I’m my own worst critic, but I think the quality is still as high as it ever was, which always surprises me.
I think so, too, but as you made the point, the humor has become less dark, or if not less dark, then at least more absurd.
Yeah, there was a lot of dark poetry in the beginning, especially the first couple of years. Dark poetry has turned lighter. There’s a lot of strips in here about the desperation of trying. Like Uncle Gabby is trying to paint his house and it’s all falling apart. “God blang it, I cannot beautify the home through these puny efforts.” That’s like me. My house is not big enough for two little kids. I don’t know when I’ll ever get the money to buy a house that’s big enough for them to live in happily. It’s just so frustrating, and out of that frustration comes great comics. And of course in the end Drinky Crow says, “Don’t be an idiot, just drink this booze,” and he drinks it and suddenly everything looks great. That’s kind of what I do.
You’re also creating kids books in the midst of all this. The new “Billy Hazelnuts” book came out a few months back.
I wanted to do a Billy Hazelnuts kids book, but Gary Groth at Fantagraphics said, “Tony, we don’t do kids books. We don’t know how to sell them, so we don’t do them.” I said, no, this is not a kids book. It’s like “Sock Monkey.” He said, “I thought “Sock Monkey” was a kids book?” But I never considered Sock Monkey to be a kids book. It’s a book for people who remember what kids books were like. It’s for sadsacks like me who remember the glory days of wearing a little pinafore and sitting in grandma’s lap while she read Raggedy Ann to me. [Laughs] I never actually wore a pinafore. The thing is with “Billy Hazelnuts,” it’s like I’m drawing an adult comic strip, but I just take out the liquor and the swearing, and it’s a kids book. And the sex. So no fucking, swearing or drinking, and it’s a children’s book.
Now that you’ve said that, early Sock Monkey books definitely feel like that, but I think the Billy Hazelnuts and recent Sock Monkey books are more obviously kids books. Is that because you have kids?
It was a financial move. I actually called it “Sock Monkey: A Children’s Book” and got an introduction by J. Otto Seibold, who does “Olive, the Other Reindeer.” I called it “A Children’s Book” because I thought, that way I’ll be able to crash into the children’s book market, which is huge compared to the comics market, but it didn’t work. I remember a librarian telling me it was too dark and sarcastic. I was like, dark and sarcastic? Look at all these other books. [Laughs] But the librarian mafia stands arm in arm and they will not let you near their children, so it never really happened. I tried it a couple more times, but I still could not crack into the kids book market. I think that’s the job of the publisher. They’ve got to sell it to kids markets and Dark Horse never did that, which is fine for me because my strength is in comics that children shouldn’t touch. And of course, books like Sock Monkey and Billy Hazelnuts, even though they’re made for like college kids and knuckleheads, you can give it to a kid. It’s totally safe for a kid.
Did you try out the books on your kids? Or were they too young?
No, my kids are not too young, they read quite a bit. They’re seven and nine. The younger one likes Billy Hazelnuts and the older one says it’s okay. She said, “I don’t want to read a book by daddy.” [Laughs] She actually said that to her mother.
She wants a “real” book by a dedicated children’s publisher?
It’s not even that. It’s just too personal. “Ugh, daddy wrote this.” I mean I wouldn’t want to read a book by my dad. [Laughs]
Is there any distinction in your mind between writing for kids and adults? Or is it like you said — there’s simply no sex, no drinking, no swearing.
That’s pretty much the difference. If I can tell the story in my head, I’ll write it. And like I said, with the “Sock Monkey” books I put my head into a given place. I’m basing it on memories that I’ve had and bringing them into my adult world. The memories I had of my grandma’s house and the first sock monkey I had and the old Victorian stairways and how magical they were to me. With “Billy Hazelnuts,” I’m remembering adventure stories that I read when I was a little kid. I’m not thinking, is this for adults or is this for kids, except, like I said, taking out the bad stuff. On the other hand, someone told me “Billy Hazelnuts” was much too violent for children, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe for a four year old it is. With me, if mommy goes to a hipster bookstore and buys this book by Tony Millionaire, that’s the only way it gets to the kid. It’s a decision by the mother. So I have to really pitch to mommy.
You’ve gotten a lot of press for the cover to Elvis Costello’s new album.
Yeah, I’ve been trying to run the press into the ground. [Laughs]
You covered an earlier album of his as well. Have you done much of this work over the years?
I do a lot of illustration work for magazine and various projects. My wife is always, “Where is the money going to come from in the next couple months?” I’m like, I don’t know. What do you keep asking for? It just comes. Someone calls me up. I was just really surprised when I got a call from Elvis Costello. “Do you want to do a record cover?” Are you kidding me? [Laughs] “Watching the Detectives” on “Saturday Night Live” was the first time that I understood what was going on with new wave music. From then on, it just totally changed my attitude towards music. And that guy called me on the phone saying, “You want to do a record cover for me?” Of course I do. So we worked on the first one and it was great. I sat in his hotel room and we talked for an hour, and he was talking about this Hans Christian Anderson stuff that he was working on, which was an aborted project that he melded into the “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” album. I had just been studying Hans Christian Anderson, so I knew what he was talking about. He was funny and smart. Then Becky and I went to his concert and we went backstage and I started going, “Where’s the beer.” She’s like, “Shut up, you’re embarrassing me.” [Laughs] He’s like, “Tony, I don’t have any beer back here. I don’t want to get carried away.” [Laughs] Then he called me up for another record. I was surprised. Two records out of one superstar. That’s pretty good.
Did Costello have thoughts or suggestions about the album? How did it work?
The first one was pretty much his idea from the beginning. He wanted to do a big LP and have an image that represents each one of the songs. I was like, how many songs are there? He said, thirteen. I was like, fuck. I have make thirteen little iconic images and fit them on the cover? But I did and it looked pretty good. And then for the second one he said, “How about a big pile of dirty money?” I said, I’ve drawn a pile of dirty money like six times for different magazines, do you want to do that? I came up with the idea of the carpet-bagging wolf. He said, “Tony, you don’t know how right on you are. My boys are really into the big bad wolf right now.” [Laughs] So these four year olds sold my concept for the album cover.
The cover’s gotten a lot of attention. It seems like all too often, the cover is more of a throwaway image.
Yeah, it’s a picture of a flower. That’s what I would have done. I would have done some iconic image that would have been easy to recognize and easy for me to draw. A hand holding a flower. I’m glad he wanted to have a lot of symbolic imagery all through the cover. Fortunately, I work with a pen, so I could fit it all in. I’m really happy with it. Besides, I could use the publicity.
Your art seems to lend itself to being appropriated for design, tattoos, graffiti. You’ve run a few “Maakies” strips over the years with people’s tattoos.
I’m always surprised about people getting drunken crows tattooed on themselves, but there’s hundreds of them out there. There’s one tattoo shop in LA on Sunset where they would give you a free tattoo if it was Drinky Crow. The thing is that Drinky Crow started as a group effort. When I first started drawing it, I was drawing it on napkins and scraps of paper at a bar in Brooklyn and then pretty soon everybody else in the bar started. The guy would give me a free beer every time I drew one, so I drew a lot of them and he put them in his newsletter for the bar. Then other people started drawing their own and before I knew it, there were so many I couldn’t count them. They weren’t getting free beers, though, only I was. But there were a lot of them by all different people. All over the bathroom walls people were drawing Drinky Crow. I really loved it.
Besides the strip every week, what else are you working on right now?
I’m trying to get some more animation going. I’ve got some friends that worked on “The Drinky Crow Show.” They’re messing around with a couple of projects, Billy Hazelnuts and Sock Monkey. We’re doing test shots and writing scripts and I’d love to get some animation going or a movie. I went over Dan Clowes’ house when I was in San Francisco and I walked into that place and I said “Fuck, I want some Hollywood money.” That place is nice. It’s this beautiful Victorian house up in the hills of Oakland, surrounded by trees with a big backyard. Where’s my “Ghost World?” [Laughs]
Also, I draw illustrations for “The Believer” every month and I do lots of illustration work. I’m working on “Billy Hazelnuts 3,” now. I don’t know if I want to do more than three, but I do want to have three so we can go back to the origin again and loop it all around and make it into one cohesive story. It took me a while to do the first one because I got a TV deal right in the middle of it. I had done ten pages of the book and suddenly I got that TV show on Adult Swim which took all my time.
Is there any chance we’ll see a DVD release of the show one of these years?
If you go on their site they’ll put it on a dvd that you have to make yourself. Unfortunately the whole season doesn’t fit on one dvd so you have to cut one episode out. But someday when my ship comes in, I’ll make a bunch of DVD’s and anyone that asks for it will get one. [Laughs] I mean, why not?