Tony Millionaire, Billy Hazelnuts (Fantagraphics, 2006). 112 pp. (hardcover) $19.95.
by Jared Gardner
I am a great admirer of Tony Millionaire’s work for many years, from his early alternative comics in the New York Press and the Voice to his more recent all-ages work with Sock Monkey, a truly remarkable and beautiful series. And my love for Maakies, his most famous (and decidedly “adult” creation, grows with each volume. The last, Der Struwwelmaakies [Fantagraphics, 2005] combines everything brilliant about contemporary alternative cartoonists such as Ivan Brunetti with the poetic vision of pioneering cartoonists such as Herriman and Opper. Better than so many of his nostalgic colleagues, Millionaire has found a way to recover the anarchic pleasures and aesthetics of early comics while making something completely new and contemporary.
His latest creation is a strange and monstrously beautiful creature named Billy Hazelnuts, who traces his origins back to a mad experiment by house mice seeking to overthrow the matriarch of the house. Compiled of suet, yeast, rotting mince-meat and house fly eyes (soon to be replaced by the hazelnuts that give him his name), Billy is half Frankenstein, half gingerbread boy. And as absurdist as this origin story might appear, it is perhaps the most realistically grounded aspect of the freewheeling fantasy adventure that follows.
Billy Hazelnuts lies somewhere between Millionaire’s strip work for Maakies and his novellas for Sock Monkey. It skews darker and grimmer than most of his Sock Monkey tales. It has an improvisatory feel, both in terms of its story and even on the level of the lines, that is very different than the highly mannered engraving style of Sock Monkey. But at the heart of this book lies a compelling girl-creature relationship that will be very familiar to readers of the Sock Monkey comics.
In the end, it is a book that will likely appeal most to devoted readers of Millionaire’s work, and despite some violence and rough edges, I would not hesitate to recommend it to a child already in love with Sock Monkey. Adult fans of Maakies will enjoy the surreal energy of the story and Billy’s physical similarities to that strip’s scatological hero, Uncle Gabby. It is, in truth, a minor work by a great cartoonist, and one that does not finally strike out from his more original works sufficiently to entirely justify this strange and rancid creation. But like the heroine of Billy Hazelnuts—the spunky child scientist, Becky—I just cannot help but love him. And I can’t for a minute regret that he walks among us.