Drunk on cheap beer and india ink, a Gloucester artist’s creatures are ready for their close-up
Tony Millionaire’s working habits are monastic. Nearly every evening it’s the same: Laboring late into the night, cheap American lager coursing through his blood, he’ll dip a nib in India ink and set to work, filling the panels on his five-by-12-inch page with studious precision. His pen conjures stately sloops and cannon-scarred man-of-wars, their capstans and mizzenmasts perfectly realized, their forestays and staysails rendered in exacting detail. On the shore, gorgeous Georgian and Federal houses stand facing the salt air, quoins and balustrades worn like finery, their dormers and widow’s walks drafted with an architect’s sure hand.
But in the world he creates in these beautiful, cross-hatched drawings, you won’t find many people. Rather, Millionaire’s frames are filled with anthropomorphic animals, creatures muzzled by none of the social graces that distinguish man from brute.
On the deck of a ship across the harbor, an oafish ape with pliant nostrils grins stupidly. Next to him, a small crow drinks himself into oblivion, a revolver by his side. Here is an ear-mite comedian, working blue; there, a French soldier with the grotesque head of a crocodile, shaking his fist at the sky. “Du sublime au ridicule,” he says, “il n’ya qu’un pas.”
In his weekly comic strip, Maakies, Millionaire straddles both terms of Napoleon’s famous aphorism: “There’s but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.” His delicate pen strokes limn a vicious, hilarious state of nature where violence, scatology, bad sex, suicide, and alcoholism are pervasive. Adept at drawing buildings and boats, he also delights in drawing revolvers shoved into mouths, triggers pulled to splatter gray matter in black-and-white showers. Vivisected wildlife. Buffoonish humans. He draws talking boogers, plumes of textured vomit, and “ass babies” made of poorly digested cheese, all with the same loving attention to detail he uses to etch architectural images.
And he draws booze. Lots of it. Bottle after bottle, marked with that standard cartoon shorthand: XXX. It’s chugged and glugged and upchucked, then glugged and chugged some more. Drinky Crow, Millionaire’s existential protagonist, is an avian alcoholic, drinking copiously. Intoxication bubbles float around his drooping, beaked noggin. Once, Millionaire even staged an intervention, appearing in photographic form in his own strip: “See here, Drinky Crow!” he scolded. “I’m a very busy man, I don’t have time to run around drawing bottles of rum for you to drink every week!” But Drinky Crow lives by the Latin maxim semper bibendum est. His best buddy, Uncle Gabby (an ape), puts it more plainly: “Being drunk is the best feeling in my poor world.”
The artist’s own blotto days are more or less behind him, however: Tony Millionaire (né Scott Richardson) is getting older. Knocking on the door of 50, the Gloucester native and MassArt alum is mellowing a little. He no longer runs around with a fifth of vodka in his pocket. And while he still draws the riotous Maakies every week, his other work is more restrained. His long-time comic-book series, Sock Monkey (Dark Horse), still focuses on simian and avian characters distantly related to Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow, but its rich panels and subdued, dreamy story lines are more akin to fine art than underground comix. (Here, drawn in much more realistic fashion, “Gabby” is a child’s stuffed animal, and “Mr. Crow” is a real bird with a taste for distilled spirits.) The new Billy Hazelnuts (Fantagraphics), Millionaire’s first graphic novel, is suffused with a whimsical charm and a cockeyed beastliness at once. Echoing devilish illustrators like A.B. Frost and Edward Gorey, it’s his most fully conceived and substantial work yet.
And, after years of showcasing his comics mainly in alt-weekly newspapers such as The Stranger and New York Press (he’s also an occasional illustrator for the Phoenix), Millionaire may soon be on the verge of wider acclaim. The Cartoon Network just scheduled his animated pilot, The Drinky Crow Show, for its Adult Swim programming block. But don’t expect him to dilute his warped world-view for the sake of mass consumption. “I’m lucky that it’s Adult Swim doing this rather than Walt Disney,” he says. “They’re actually encouraging me to keep everything as dirty as I can.”
man from garbage
The title character of Billy Hazelnuts is a pugnacious homunculus made of suet, rotten-mincemeat pie, and assorted other “stuff from the bottom of the trash can.” The smallish golem is created by mice, in a mansion in some distant mountain hamlet, with the express purpose of fighting the housewife and housecat who mean to exterminate them. Before long, Becky, the girl of the house and a budding astronomer, rescues him from his servitude, and together the two of them set off to sleuth out who stole the moon. Along the way, the narrative moves at a brisk clip, and Millionaire’s detailed, etching-like chiaroscuro is sometimes sublime.