Give Me a Tall Ship and a Monkey to Steer Her By 

Tony Millionaire’s 21st-century Romanticism

Thursday, Nov 17 2005
Photo by Bill Smith

I’m high in the hills of Pasadena standing inside the Hunting Lodge for Wayward Comic Artists, otherwise known as Tony Millionaire’s garage-studio. We are four beers into a six-pack and Millionaire — raccoon carcass on head — is fumbling with a stuffed fox. He tells me that he bought it from an Indian who’d taxidermied the animal — a roadkill — with available materials. The fox’s lips curl away from the whittled-wood insert that crudely forms his snout; pointy sticks fill in for teeth. It looks like his wooden dentures are falling out. This strikes me as doubly funny because Millionaire himself is fond of dropping out his front teeth to make memorably grotesque faces, and one of the prints hanging directly behind him is, I think, of George Washington. Near Washington are several old portraits painted by Millionaire’s grandmother, who was not a famous cartoonist but quite skilled nonetheless. The studio walls are the artist’s ink-and-paper fixations come-to-life: sailing ships, 19th-century houses, dead critters and, of course, sock monkeys.

L.A. WEEKLY: The last time we talked, you were working on an Uncle Gabby toy with a removable brain. How did that turn out?
MILLIONAIRE: It looks real good. You can see all of the hairs on his neck. But they made one mistake. I sent it back a couple of times. You see the green thing on his hat, it’s supposed to be a clover, but it’s a bow. I finally just said the hell with it.

It’s pretty obvious that it’s supposed to be a shamrock. But maybe to a sculptor in Asia . . .
Yeah! He’s supposed to be a drunken Irish monkey.

I guess an artist halfway around the world might not know that he’s an Irish monkey.
You should’ve seen what they did with the Sock Monkey figurines. They kept sending these models of it. And on the hat, they couldn’t figure out the concept of the pompom. They thought it was a flower. They did a rose. I said, “It’s not a rose, it’s a pompom.” And they said, “What’s a pompom?” In Japanese, pan pan [which is pronounced a lot like “pompom”] means a prostitute. I did a little drawing of it, e-mailed that to them and then it was a carnation. They sent back three different versions of flowers. Finally I went to the Salvation Army, went through the toy bin till I found a toy that had a pompom on it, cut it off and mailed it to them, saying, “This is a pompom.” Now it kind of looks like a pompom.

You’ve had a busy year with two Sock Monkey books [That Darn Yarn and Little and Large] as well as another Maakies collection. Now I see a stack of finished drawings on your drafting table.
I’m working on a book, 100 pages — first time I’ve done a 100-page comic book. It’s a story about a tiny little man who’s made by mice out of suet and yeast and all kinds of garbage that the mice find in the basement. They make him to fight against a cat that’s in the house. He turns into this ferocious fighter. They put flies into his eye sockets to allow him to see and he runs around like crazy tearing everything up. After [he has] a ferocious battle with the cat, the little girl who lives in the house picks him up and she plucks the flies out . . . and puts hazelnuts that she finds into his eyes. It’s basically a love story about a little girl and a tiny wild man made out of suet.

How does the thought process go when you write a book, before you start inking?
First I walk around for two months trying to figure out what I’m gonna do . . . For Billy Hazelnuts, I actually did some of the pages — the big-splash pages — before I started writing the book. At some point I knew there would be a big ship crashing through the clouds and somebody on the ground looking up at it saying, “What’s that?!” Then I had to map out the thumbnail sketches and then I kept honing it down. I’ll write some bits of dialogue that I think are funny, but I don’t like to write the whole dialogue out. The actual word-by-word dialogue is done as I go along, following the [visual] skeleton of the story. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The Sock Monkey story about the little baby bird turned out to be the best story ever, and I thought from the beginning that it would be the worst book I ever wrote.

Do you sell all of your art boards when you’re done with a book?
Everything must go, baby! That one on the wall, I did for my wife. That was an illustration to the song “Moon River,” that’s the only one I won’t sell. That and the first Maakies I ever did I won’t sell. I figure if somebody likes [the originals] enough to pay 350 bucks for them, they’re gonna take care of them better than I will. You’ve seen my garage — drawers full of drawings, spider webs on some of them.

Do you ever think about your place in the history of comics?
Number one, top of the list. Open up the giant book of comics and cartoonists and pull out the biggest name you can find and it’s gonna be Tony Millionaire.

I Googled your name and got 77,000 hits.
I recently got a million because I have a better computer than you. I’ll tell you what a number of those hits are: When I had my cartoon running on Saturday Night Live, I was all excited, I thought, “Oh great! This is it, my career is skyrocketing!” I Googled myself on Google groups, and the Saturday Night Live fans were on there. And they were like, “What is this crap?!” “This is the worst!" "This is terrible!” They weren’t that good, really.

I was so drunk and happy. I was famous and rich — gonna be rich, anyway. I was imagining the house I was going to buy on the Hudson River. I was gonna get a nice Victorian house and paint it red. And these bastards were telling me how terrible this cartoon was, so I jumped on there and said, “What the fuck? How stupid can you possibly be that you can’t understand this cartoon? It’s a cartoon for Christ’s sake.” And they were like, “Hey! A guy who was on Saturday Night Live is now talking to us!” And they jumped all over it. I said, “I see that you’re from Ohio, I get it, you’re from the middle of the woods and you’re stupid.” And then I just got deluged. They kept coming on, saying, “Oh, what an asshole he is!”

You’re working on another animated version of The Maakies for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
Probably be called Maakies’ Tavern. Dino Stamatopoulos — he was a writer on Mr. Show and wrote TV Funhouse with Robert Smigel. He and Jay Johnston are writing the script now. I’ll also be a writer on it, but I’m probably gonna step back and let them go. I’ll toss in jokes and tell them, “Don’t say, ‘Get a life,’ don’t say, ‘Hey, what’s happenin’?’” I’ve gotta make sure they don’t put in modern culture references. I have no idea how it’s going to work out, but I’m just really excited to see it happen.

Those guys are both big booze hounds, they love the world of old men in bars, fighting. When the hipsters come in, [in crazy old-man voice:] “My god, these hipsters are coming in ruining our bar!” At the same time the hipsters are bringing all of these young women, and they’re, “But look at her. Look at her boobs . . .” You throw Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow into the mix and you’re all set.

Between you and Fantagraphics, who talked whom into doing a 100-page book?
Gary Groth called me and said, “Would you like to do a 100-page book about Drinky Crow of the Maakies?” And I said, “Sure!” I had an old script that I had written that was actually a treatment for a movie that somebody told me they were gonna make years ago. And I sent it back to him, and he said, “That’s the book, write it.” Then I thought, I don’t want to do that because the Maakies stories are all bam-bam-bam, one joke after the other. If I start writing a book about those guys I’m gonna be using old jokes. Or writing new jokes, that, when I really need a good joke for my comic strip, I’m gonna steal. I’m gonna be eating myself as I go along. So I said, “Fuck that, I’m gonna write a totally new story.”

The Billy Hazelnuts story is okay for kids. There’s no swearing or nastiness in it. And Gary Groth said, “We can’t sell a book for kids.” I said, “No no no, this is not a kids’ book, it’s an adults’ book.” But I kinda think it’s a kids' book. Ha, I tricked him. The Sock Monkey books are the same as Billy Hazelnuts, really. They’re based on kids’ books. They’re for adults who remember and love great old kids' books. All of the really beautiful books were done in the 1920s and 1930s, like the Raggedy Ann books. Terrible stories but beautifully illustrated. And Winnie the Pooh of course, the greatest book ever made, before Disney fuckin’ ruined it.

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