By Chris Reilly
Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird is a tie for best graphic novel of the year with Jim Woodring’s Weathercraft. What more can I say? Well, my earliest exposure to Tony’s work was his late 90s animated Maakies shorts onSaturday Night Live. I thought they were hilarious and then they were gone.
I became reacquainted with the man of a thousand serfs with his 2001 Dark Horse Comic Sock Monkey. I loved his work in a way that had not hit me since Jim Woodring. It was just brilliant. Tony is unique (unlike most indie trust fund kids) in that he has actually lived the life of a starving artist. He made a living going to rich neighborhoods and selling the well-to-do renderings of their homes, a time honored craft of just about any historical art hobo. The difference is that Tony has moved on and is making a living off what he would probably draw for free, just to entertain himself in front of a judgmental bottle of bourbon.
I had the honor of being one of five judges who nominated Tony’s Billy Hazelnuts for several Eisners a few years back but would be remiss in saying that that was my favorite Tony Millionaire book. My favorite Tony Millionaire book is Sock Monkey: Uncle Gabby, which I count in the top ten graphic novels of all time. Then came Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird, which is now also in my top ten. Go figure. I told my editor that I have interviewed a lot of creators (Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, Jim Woodring and the list went on) but that Millionaire was the only one who I was ever almost too intimidated to interview. I had no idea what to expect; he could have been cordial or just cut my head off. This was all based on message board posts and the fact that he is an imposing dude. How many people can look intimidating in a sweater vest? I think my quote was “He looks like a Frankenstein and actually drinks more than me.” I think he may have gone easy on me when I told him I wrote the interview in the trenches, something like 11 hours into a Hospice shift on my first break. Let’s just talk to Tony:
Chris P. Reilly: Tony, who was your first publisher, how did that come about, and was it a good experience?
Tony Millionaire: It was the New York Press. Yes, it was great; it was a real newspaper with reporters and editors, ad men, etc. I got the job by going to a party and standing near the big shots and being funny. The boss pointed to me and said to his art director, “We gotta get this guy a strip.”
CPR: Everyone has rejection letters—did you ever receive a very special rejection letter that you just couldn’t throw away? Mine was from Chaos, telling me I was not up to Evil Ernie’s standards.
Tony Millionaire: Yes, I got one from Kitchen Sink in 1995. They told me the Maakies strip wasn’t that good and wouldn’t sell books and that they just weren’t into it. I still have that letter. Ha ha!
CPR: We were both born in Boston. My only young memory of going to Gloucester is in the form of a photo of me at age one with that creepy Gorton’s frozen fish man. I know the Gorton’s man is an archetype of a New England fisherman, but when I look at that picture and read Billy Hazelnuts, I wonder if his traumatizing image was even a slight inspiration for Rupert Punch?
Tony Millionaire: The “creepy” guy on the Gorton’s box is based on a beautiful bronze statue by sculptor Leonard Craske (1882–1950). It’s called the Fisherman’s Memorial and it’s there to honor the thousands of men who died at sea making fish sticks for all you creepy kids. There’s a plaque on which reads: “They That Go Down To Sea In Ships.” It’s an inspirational statue, but it has nothing to do with Rupert Punch. [Note from Chris: My Nana told me when I was a kid that the statue represented the Gorton fried Fish Company. She also had me and my cousins wear woven crowns of blessed palm and run to the basement whenever there was lightning.]
CPR: Also, is Rimperton farm’s rural setting based on or in Gloucester?
Tony Millionaire: No, there aren’t any mountains or Live Coast Oaks near Gloucester. I just put in whatever I thought was pretty. That cliff where the robotic flying ship chases Becky and Billy is in Malibu, actually. But there are no snow storms or gingerbread houses in Malibu, so it’s not set in Malibu.
CPR: As a Millionaire, has anyone in your family owned a thousand serfs?
Tony Millionaire: Yes, the name is French and hundreds of years ago it meant a man who has control of a thousand serfs or more. Now it means someone who has a million dollars…which I don’t, but hope to one day.
CPR: Your work has always been funny and bizarre, but Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird seems much more psychedelic than prior endeavors. Especially Billy’s acid-infused trip in the marzipan car ride from the candy house, over the mountains, through a blizzard, leading up to that amazing encounter with the cat in the cavern. Where was your mind at? Was that stream of consciousness, or was it all planned out?
Tony Millionaire: It was all planned out and Billy doesn’t take acid. He doesn’t take any drugs, nor does he drink alcohol. My mind was at peace, sedated by Budweiser and Ibuprofin.
CPR: When you write a book like this, do you know how it will end or are you a slave to your characters and just hop on board and see where they take you?
Tony Millionaire: The characters are slaves to me; they wait to see where I will take them. The basic concept of the book is all laid out in a few paragraphs. Then I break it up into sections of pages with notes—this will happen here, this will happen there. I write down some specific scenes that I know I’d like to be in there, sometimes I’ll write a little dialogue and do some sketches for scenes, splash pages, big moments, all very loose. Then I start at the beginning and follow my story, and the dialogue comes naturally. I wrestle with it back and forth, steal lines from great authors like Twain and Melville, and just plow through it. Sometimes the story will present opportunities I hadn’t thought of (the personality of the cat for instance), and I’ll go with it if it feels right. Then I jam it all into an ending and hope it doesn’t all end up in a big pile of shit. I’m often nervous that I’m writing a crappy book. I’ve done it before and you can’t tell till it’s done and it is disappointing. So far I’m very happy with the Billy Hazelnuts books, but I’ll have to give the Crazy Bird one more read before I’m convinced of its greatness.
CPR: You are amazingly prolific for an independent comics creator. Do you have a work ethic that was imbued at an early age, or is it something you have to force yourself to do?
Tony Millionaire: My work ethic has developed into this: Get as much work done as possible and get paid or you will be out of your house with two little daughters, a long-gone wife and a dog. Actually just a dog, because the kids will go with her. So making good work which pays money is a high priority. I don’t know how to do anything else. My wife, nervous about money one day, said “Maybe you could get a job doing storyboards?” I said, “GREAT IDEA! A job which pays less, demands the energy of a 25-year-old, 60 hours a week, has less job security than I have now, and requires mad skills, the first thing about which I know zero. Why doesn’t the dog get a job as a circus monkey?”
CPR: Can you describe a typical Tony Millionaire day?
Tony Millionaire: Wake up at ten, try desperately to go back to the dream world for two hours, shower, vomit, hide in the garage reading Huffington Post till the kids come home. Pretend to read while secretly taking a nap, take the kids to the dog park till 4:30, drink 2 beers fast. Cook supper, watch the news, get up at 9 or 10, get in the garage, drink beer and work furiously till 4 am.
CPR: Your style is very unique, as are your influences. I have read that you were a big fan of Johnny Gruelle, the creator of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy. I found it hard to believe that the creator of Maakies was a Raggedy Ann reader as a child, but reading Sock Monkey I thought, “Of course Tony was a Raggedy Ann reader.” Did you actually read those books as a kid and were you big enough to fight off the bullies who caught you reading them?
Tony Millionaire: My grammy and mommy read them to me at home in bed. I did not fight bullies; I was afraid of them until I discovered alcohol at age 17.
CPR: I also read that you are a fan of the Aubrey–Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. Did your fascination with the ocean come from these books or the fact that you lived in Gloucester, or a bit of both?
Tony Millionaire: My grandparents drew and painted ships and boats in Rockport and Gloucester. I was drawing Maakies for a couple years when I discovered Patrick O’Brian. I wasn’t as interested in the navy battle stuff so much as the daily life of stinking rum soaked sailors, like you find in S. Clay Wilson comics. My favorite of his was when a motorcycle gang goes through a time/space warp and lands on the deck of a pirate ship. Amazing! He really is one of my favorite cartoonists. I finally saw the beauty of the Napoleonic Wars reading Patrick O’Brian. It’s not all shoot ’em up all the time; there’s lots of intimate details of life at sea. Like when the carpenter got slapped in chains for fornicating with the goat – in the goat house. Killick then asks the Captain if he’d like some milk in his tea? “Goat milk?”
CPR: What is the next big project your fans can expect from you?
Tony Millionaire: Lots and lots of more of the same and hopefully a break in show biz where the money rains like a California mud slide.
CPR: Now for the old standard—whose work do you currently enjoy in comics? I have to explain this question, because everyone says John Stanley’s Little Lulu Dark Horse reprints and, while I think Stanley is one of the all time great comic creators, I am actually asking what living creators you enjoy (ff you do indeed enjoy any living creators).
Tony Millionaire: Clowes, Ryan, Henderson, Kaz, Brunetti, Woodring, Kochalka, Rick Detorie and Rina Piccolo. And of course Crumb.
CPR: I have to ask this and I know it won’t be answered, but I promised a friend I would: Where does the name Maakies come from?
Tony Millionaire: That question will not be answered.
CPR: Lastly, if people want to cyber-stalk you on Facebook or Twitter do you enjoy that sort of social networking and if so where can they find you.
Tony Millionaire: http://www.facebook.com/tonymillionaire http://www.maakies.com/
CPR: Thanks, Tony.