Having survived his perilous journey to reclaim the moon from the horizon and settling down (more or less) to life on the farm, Billy Hazelnuts embarks on a different sort of adventure in June, courtesy of Fantagraphics. Billy, a creation of cartoonist Tony Millionaire, was crafted by rats out of miscellaneous garbage as a golem-like warrior to fight off the household cat. He is soon rehabilitated by girl scientist Becky, and as the new story opens Billy finds himself in the role of protector of a baby owl. CBR News spoke with Millionaire about “Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird.”â€¨
â€¨”I’ve always seen the Billy Hazelnuts story as a three-part story, maybe more parts eventually. With comics you can stretch and move around with time like you can with novels or films, prequels, sequels or like ‘The Sock Monkey,’ just anything that comes to mind if it’s a good story,” Millionaire said. “But I always wanted to continue the stories. A couple of years ago the Drinky Crow TV Show came up and swallowed 85% of my working time, so although I promised Fantagraphics many times that I would not go far over deadline, I went, I think, the furthest of any cartoonist there. So that makes me the Worst Deadline Breaker in the History of Fantagraphics, I believe. But when all the books are finished, they should make a nice solid story package regardless of when it was made.”â€¨
The first Billy Hazelnuts book had many plot points turn on what sorts of objects Billy had in his head – first flies, then hazelnuts, and, briefly, bats – but in “Crazy Bird” Billy has stabilized, at least in this regard, as Millionaire shifts the focus elsewhere. “I’m not sure exactly how it will roll out, because I love to make concrete plans for a story and then as it goes along, learn something and then change the storyline a little,” Millionaire said of this shift of center from volume 1 to 2. “My original thought was that Book One would be about the birth of Billy, and the way he is influenced by the world and creatures around him to come finally to his own vague understanding of who he is. Built by rats as a monster to fight a cat, he soon develops a distaste for bloody carnage and is comforted by Becky, the young scientist, who plucks out his horrible living horsefly eyeballs and replaces them with delicious hazelnuts. She replaces his ugly scalp with a large yummy cake she swipes from her mom’s refrigerator. This tames him a bit and he feels very comfortable,” he said, recapping the character’s origins from the original story. “While they gaze at the moon, which Becky loves as a scientist and a romantic, it disappears behind the horizon, throwing Billy into a fit, running into the world to try and retrieve it. Now I’m not going to rehash the whole story, but he goes through various changes, getting mixed up with the bad sort, and his value system goes through revolutionary revolutions and in the end he ends up where he ends up (spoiler); he decides to choose the path of love, comfort, family. In Book Two, we find that Billy has come to the second stage of life: RESPONSIBILITY! DUTY!”â€¨
That responsibility, as it happens, is to the “crazy bird” of the title, a baby owl whom Billy displaces by fending off an attack by its mother upon the household cat. This introduces a challenge involving another aspect of Billy, that of his edibility. “Well, in Book Two he has this sort of disgust with the corporeal reality of life, his own ‘flesh’ as well as the flesh of all these hideous, smelly farm animals around him,” Millionaire said. “My wife kept trying to tell me how wonderful babies smell and so I smelled one. It smelled like really fresh pee, poo and vitamin B pills. She said, ‘No, smell the top of the baby’s head.’ It smelled like a clean hamster or a soft kitten, not bad but still awful in a way, with all that baby wiggling under there, grabbing dirty spoons and dripping snots. Billy rebels against the whole animal stink, the horrible stench of being alive. But when he fights the owl, he is suddenly thrust into a position of responsibility; he has to bring this baby owl back to its mother who has flown off after the fight. My Aunt Judy knitted us a pillow with the words, ‘Raising children is like being pecked to death by a duck.’ The baby owl loves Billy, as he is made of suet and other leftover baking doughs which the rats found in the garbage. So with this loving creature eating him alive, swallowing everything about Billy, including his flesh and his time, [he] runs to his duty, and the adventure unfolds.”
Despite his physical vulnerability, Billy has been shown to possess an incredible degree of strength, at one point early in “Crazy Bird” tossing a cow in disgust. However, Millionaire said that Billy Hazelnuts’s prowess is more a function of him as a character than a necessary property of his composition. “He is a character in a comic book, therefore he must have powers,” the artist said. “He’s not as strong as Superman or Iron Man, but he is about as strong as Batman, Popeye or Spock. He’s just really strong. I’ve never seen him fly, he’d probably have to fashion some kid of propeller to fly, or swing a hammer, like Thor.”â€¨â€¨
The Popeye reference speaks to Millionaire’s influences in classic comic strips, evident in the dynamic between Billy and Becky and the particular brand of mischief they get up to. Asked about classic or modern series for which he feels an affinity to the humor, Millionaire said, “I look to Popeye, the old strips and some of these Japanese cartoons, where the little girl controls the monster with this maternal relationship, like ‘Ranxerox,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ even ‘Monsters, Inc.’ I like those movies about a strong young girl who controls a big, wild horse.â€¨â€¨”
As for the drawing style, this is pure 1920s-30s newspaper comics – ‘The Gumps,’ ‘Mutt and Jeff,’ ‘Popeye,’ ‘Mickey Finn.’ I love all those old-fashioned hardball newspaper adventure/comedy strips, cats with striped tails.”
With the “Billy Hazelnuts” cast joining the company of Millionaire’s other recurring characters, “Maakies” the most prominent along with “Sock Monkey,” CBR asked whether the ability to switch from one set of characters and situations to another granted him a bit of leeway to follow whichever series complemented his mood. “Of course, and as a freelance cartoonist I really have a freedom that my grandfather and his friends didn’t have. They had jobs, working on ‘Captain Easy,’ ‘Wash Tubbs,’ and ‘Buzz Sawyer,’ which they loved, but they really had to focus on those specific characters for decades,” he said. “With my work, I’m always working on three or four different projects at once. So I can switch around, depending on my mood and what deadlines are urgent. I also have illustration work, record covers, magazines, and my favorite, putting on a clean shirt and driving down into Hollywood for yet another pitch meeting. Fun!”
Last year saw the release of “The Art of Tony Millionaire” from Dark Horse, which included several of the house drawings Millionaire illustrated to make a living in Berlin as well as other archival work. “I have an old suitcase full of copies and originals of most everything I’ve done for many years,” the artist told CBR. “My sister and cousin have lots of other stuff from my teen years. Seeing those old photos really made me itch for the days of oil painting. Someday hopefully I’ll have the space and the time to spend on some large oil paintings and some mixed media stuff. You really need a nice big room with big windows to do big oil paintings, I think. If I ever get a good film deal going and make a name for myself, I’ll be able to splash away on a canvas and let the gallerist worry about how to sell them.”
Beyond “Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird,” Millionaire is also at work on the third Billy Hazelnuts book, a new Maakies collection titled “Little Maakies on the Prairie,” and “500 Portraits by Tony Millionaire,” all to be published by Fantagraphics, in addition to “The Filth of Tony Millionaire,” from Dark Horse. “I have some new record covers coming up, a new 6-pager for Marvel featuring Thor, and hopefully some animation if all goes well,” Millionaire added.
Fantagraphics will release “Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird” in June.