As a kid in Gloucester, Millionaire used to read old comics compulsively. His grandfather was friends with Roy Crane, creator of the syndicated 1920s strips Captain Easy and Wash Tubbs, and the budding cartoonist would drink in every inky detail. “Back then, they would take up the whole page,” he says. “It’s not like now, where they jam 10 comics on one small page. These were large — one comic per page. They also would put a little extra comic down by the bottom by the same artist.” (Millionaire emulates that touch in Maakies, with a tiny subplot starring crude — and crudely drawn — characters at the bottom of each strip.) Later, he would discover turn-of-last-century classics such as Al Smith and Bud Fisher’s Mutt & Jeff; Bauhaus artist Lyonel Feininger’s side project, Kin-der-Kids; and Winsor McKay’s dazzling, kaleidoscopic Little Nemo in Slumberland. If their influence isn’t immediately apparent in Maakies, it certainly is in the textured Victorian dream worlds of Sock Monkey and Billy Hazelnuts.
Millionaire’s parents were artists. So were his grandparents. And they are partly responsible for the exquisitely rendered nautical imagery that’s so omnipresent in his work. “They did seascapes and boats in the harbor. Very old-fashioned watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings. Beautiful stuff.”
His architectural acumen came from the other side of the family. “The houses in Gloucester weren’t as pretty as the houses that I knew in Newton, where my paternal grandmother lived. It was this big, old Victorian house. My cousin would show us all these back staircases and attics and little doorways. She’d always tell us this little guy lived in the house. When I started doing my comics, I figured I had to try to capture some of the insane beauty of those crazy memories. That’s where I started drawing Sock Monkey. And with Billy Hazelnuts, the drawing there is of my great-grandfather’s house, in Dorchester. But I put it in a different setting. I put it in a bunch of mountains, so Billy Hazelnuts can run around all the mountains and valleys.”
But if the seed for Millionaire’s art was planted in bucolic New England, Maakies itself was born in the wanton dissipation of the downtown–New York cartooning scene of the early 1990s. A boozy gadabout — “a drunken giant in a lime green leisure suit,” the Comics Journal once called him — Millionaire did stuff for Al Goldstein’s Screw magazine (erstwhile home of such artists as R. Crumb and Spain Rodriguez) and bummed around Williamsburg and the Village cadging free beers.
In fact, that’s how Drinky Crow was born. One day, thrown out of his girlfriend’s house and at a low ebb, Millionaire was sitting at a bar, drawing pictures of a drunken crow who kept blowing his brains out. “They were very suicidal and depressing because that’s the state of mind I was in at the time,” he said, “but they were also really funny.” The bartender liked ’em. “He said, ‘I’ll give you a free beer for every one of those that you do.’ ” Before long, the bar’s bathroom walls were covered with suicidal birds.