Give Me a Tall Ship and a Monkey to Steer Her By
|Photo by Bill Smith|
Im high in the hills of Pasadena standing inside the Hunting Lodge for Wayward Comic Artists, otherwise known as Tony Millionaires 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 whod taxidermied the animal a roadkill with available materials. The foxs 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 Millionaires grandmother, who was not a famous cartoonist but quite skilled nonetheless. The studio walls are the artists 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, its supposed to be a clover, but its a bow. I finally just said the hell with it.
Its pretty obvious that its supposed to be a shamrock. But maybe to a sculptor in Asia . . .
Yeah! Hes supposed to be a drunken Irish monkey.
I guess an artist halfway around the world might not know that hes an Irish monkey.
You shouldve seen what they did with the Sock Monkey figurines. They kept sending these models of it. And on the hat, they couldnt figure out the concept of the pompom. They thought it was a flower. They did a rose. I said, Its not a rose, its a pompom. And they said, Whats 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.
Youve 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.
Im working on a book, 100 pages first time Ive done a 100-page comic book. Its a story about a tiny little man whos 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 thats 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. Its 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 Im 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, Whats that?! Then I had to map out the thumbnail sketches and then I kept honing it down. Ill write some bits of dialogue that I think are funny, but I dont 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 doesnt. 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 youre 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, thats the only one I wont sell. That and the first Maakies I ever did I wont sell. I figure if somebody likes [the originals] enough to pay 350 bucks for them, theyre gonna take care of them better than I will. Youve 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 its 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. Ill 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 werent 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 cant understand this cartoon? Its a cartoon for Christs 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 youre from Ohio, I get it, youre from the middle of the woods and youre stupid. And then I just got deluged. They kept coming on, saying, Oh, what an asshole he is!
Youre working on another animated version of The Maakies for Cartoon Networks 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. Ill also be a writer on it, but Im probably gonna step back and let them go. Ill toss in jokes and tell them, Dont say, Get a life, dont say, Hey, whats happenin? Ive gotta make sure they dont put in modern culture references. I have no idea how its going to work out, but Im 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 theyre, But look at her. Look at her boobs . . . You throw Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow into the mix and youre 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, Thats the book, write it. Then I thought, I dont 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 Im gonna be using old jokes. Or writing new jokes, that, when I really need a good joke for my comic strip, Im gonna steal. Im gonna be eating myself as I go along. So I said, Fuck that, Im gonna write a totally new story.
The Billy Hazelnuts story is okay for kids. Theres no swearing or nastiness in it. And Gary Groth said, We cant sell a book for kids. I said, No no no, this is not a kids book, its an adults book. But I kinda think its a kids' book. Ha, I tricked him. The Sock Monkey books are the same as Billy Hazelnuts, really. Theyre based on kids books. Theyre 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.
You ever see Karen Finleys Winnie the Pooh book [Pooh Unplugged: A Parody] ?
No, Ive never seen that.
I think Pooh sodomizes Eeyore.
I did do a strip one time about Disney Pooh going into the Hundred Acre Wood, finding the real Pooh. There was a big fight. Piglet shot him in the head. Poohs jumping up and down on him.
I love those books so much the real books. And I heard that when the illustrator of the books, Ernest Shepard, saw the first Disney animation of Pooh, he called it a complete travesty.
On your desk, there are pictures of Billy Hazelnuts having his head sawed off. It reminds me of the old stuff. Old fairy tales were very violent. People shoving people into ovens and cutting parts off . . .
The newest Maakies book is called Der Struwwelmaakies, and thats from Struwwelpeter, the classic German childrens book from the 1800s [1844, by Heinrich Hoffmann]. In America it was called Shockheaded Peter. Its about a little kid who wont cut his hair or his fingernails. In the end they finally cut his fingernails and his hair, but they cut his fingers off because he was a bad boy. I dont remember the end of the whole story, but it was something really nasty like his fingers get cut off.
Im actually working on a childrens book, with Hyperion. Its based on the Sock Monkey books. But Im not sure that I can even use my real name. I cant use Tony Millionaire because this is a real kids-book deal. If somebody buys this book then Googles me and finds stories about how a grandfather fucked his granddaughter in a comic strip, thats not good. [Laughs.] So I may have to use one of my other beautiful names, which Im not going to mention here.
The childrens-book market is a wall. Youve got to crash through, and the only way is to get a deal with a real childrens-book publisher. Then you can slip under there and start giving these kids some subversive stuff.
Some philosopher I dont remember who his theory was: Youve got to give kids really beautiful childrens books in order to turn them into revolutionaries. Because if they see these beautiful things when theyre young, when they grow up, theyll see the real world and say, Why is the world so ugly?! I remember when the world was beautiful. And then theyll fight, and theyll have a revolution. Theyll fight against all of our corruption in the world, theyll fight to try to make the world more beautiful. Thats the job of a good childrens-book illustrator.
A new show of Tony Millionaire's black and white drawings opens December 2 at Secret Headquarters, 3817 W. Sunset Blvd., at 8pm, and continues through December 31. (323)666-2228, www.thesecretheadquarters.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.