Tony Millionaire: Billy Hazelnuts and The Drinky Crow Show
Interview by Logan Kaufman
Tony Millionaire was born in 1956 and grew up in a family of artists. Through a house restriction on coloring books, and a love for the classical illustrations of Ernest H. Shepard, Tony began an early path towards art.
First published in the New York Press, Maakies soon took off and gathered a devoted following of fans, including Matt Groening of Simpsons fame and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. Maakies is still found in The Village Voice and other fine weekly newspapers around the country.
In addition to Maakies, Millionaire is the creator of Sock Monkey comics, which involve the adventures of Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow (in a sort of alternate universe to Maakies).
For his work, Millionaire has received multiple Harvey and Eisner awards. His latest works are Billy Hazelnuts for Fantagraphics publishing, and a currently in-development Adult Swim cartoon entitled The Drinky Crow Show, based on his Maakies comics.
Logan Kaufman: Almost the boxers or briefs question, but, Tony Millionaire: not your real name?
Tony Millionaire: It's FRENCH!
I once had a girlfriend who was talking to some people and one of them said "Tony Millionaire, what kind of name is that?" And she said, "It's French." And the guy said, "Oh, sorry, I thought it was some sort of performance art clown name."
Logan: But if I were to call your wife, and ask for Scott...
Tony Millionaire: Uh, yeah. Maybe she'd think the bank was calling or some far away uncle.
Logan: So, pen name?
Tony Millionaire: Let's say it's been my name for a very long time, long before I could use a pen. It is my legal name, and it's been around a lot longer than I've been a cartoonist.
Logan: Along those lines, how much of Tony Millionaire is a character? I've never been sure of about how much to believe, some interviews with you are pretty interesting...
Tony Millionaire: I'll tell you that most of the stories that are in interviews are true, in fact all of them. I don't really make up adventures and stuff for myself. But what I did, when I was younger, I thought to myself, someday I'm going to need some great adventures to tell people. I didn't know that I'd be doing cartoons or comics or what I'd be doing, but I thought "I've got to have something in my life now, that I can remember and tell people." So I did a lot of crazy things.
Like running into a bombed out building screaming, "My wife is dancing in there!" and having the cops pull me out of there, just yelling and screaming, "Oh my god, my wife, my poor wife." And then ending up on the front page of the Berliner Morgenpost, like the New York Times in Berlin, because I was the only guy that they had that was dramatic enough for a good photo for the bombed out LaBelle Discotech. Which, I found out later, that a couple people died in that. At the time, I didn't know that, I just wanted to get inside so I could get some photographs of the place.
But I got on the front page of the paper. And then, the thing is, two days later my father called me yelling at me, "You didn't tell us you were married!"
Logan: That was the one thing he was concerned about?
Tony Millionaire: Right. I was involved in a bombing, he was more pissed off that I had got married and not told him.
Logan: Being raised in a family of artists, were you pretty much destined to go into that field?
Tony Millionaire: Yeah, I really was. I picked up a pen when I was very young and just started drawing like crazy. My daughter, both of them, are doing the same thing. They draw faces, they draw animals and things like I did very early in my development. And my parents, they didn't give me direct lessons but they just gave me constant...My mother said, "Plenty of praise, and plenty of art supplies."
So that when I came to a certain age, like when I was a teenager, my grandfather started teaching me tricks. Like when you're drawing a house, don't just fill in the window black, take a razor blade and scratch it off so it looks like there is some kind of reflection in there. And so now I use razorblades all the time in drawings as an eraser sort of - to give it sort of a crumbly grayish area, you can just scratch the paper with a razor. He was very physical with the paper in his pen and inks. He did a lot of beautiful drawings of boats in Boston on the seashore. He did a lot of boats and he also illustrated for adventure magazines in the 30's. He did a lot cowboys, mountain scenes and things like that.
Logan: Do you still have much of his art?
Tony Millionaire: Oh, I've got a big drawer full of it. My grandmother was probably even better. She did watercolor portraits which are very difficult to do, because once you put the watercolor down, it's there. You can't really erase it or go back or cover it up like you can in oil paints. So she had to get it right the first time. And they are beautiful paintings, not just really good likenesses, but really beautiful, beautifully done.
They also did a lot of seascapes. That's why I really love putting those in my comics.
Logan: Were you the only of your siblings that went into the field?
Tony Millionaire: My brother started, and then he became a sculptor. And now he designs displays for trade shows and works on sculpture on the side. My sisters and other brother didn't really do anything with art.
Logan: Were you always heading towards illustration, or did you mess around with sculpture and painting at all?
Tony Millionaire: My brother was doing the sculpture, and I was doing drawings so well, at one point my brother said, "Look I'll be the sculpture guy and you do the drawing."
What happened with the illustration was that I said to my mother, "I'm going to be a commercial illustrator like my dad when I grow up." And she said, "What? You want to do those drawings of pork chops you see on the sides of cardboard boxes?" And I said, "Uh, no." Don't think about being a commercial artist, think about being a real artist. So, I went to school and studied fine art. And then, from there I went into illustration and cartooning. Which I think is a better way to go because you don't learn technique first, you learn the spirit of it, the spirit of fine art and how to capture feelings and moods through landscapes and drawings, rather than trying to paint the glistening beads of cold sweat on the side of a Coca-Cola bottle.
Logan: So, Massachusetts College of Art is specifically a fine arts college?
Tony Millionaire: They have a huge design department and I wasn't industrious enough to get my portfolio slick enough to get into the design department, which I actually tried to do, to get into the illustration department. And then, that's when both my mother and a teacher told me, you don't want to do that. Get into the fine arts department. So I majored in painting. I did mostly oil paintings for years.
Logan: Do you still do them?
Tony Millionaire: I don't do them anymore, because when I moved to New York and Berlin, I didn't really have access to a big studio, I just had small places to live. Pen and ink became, I mean, a piece of paper and a pen and you're all set. Sit in a chair and do it; you don't have to have an easel and all that. So, under those circumstances, I turned to pen and ink. Which I always loved too, because my grandfather taught me.
Plus, I loved comics so much, that I started doing comics with pen and ink. I always loved comics, I just never thought I'd be doing them until ten years ago.
Logan: After you got out of college, did you try to make a living as a painter with the gallery scene?
Tony Millionaire: Fortunately, I never had to go through the gallery scene. I've had a few shows in galleries, and I know I would not have been successful getting up into the higher levels of gallery showing because by the end of the show, I would be drunk atop of the table, swinging around, pulling my pants down and yelling. Because I've always been the loudest, drunkest, tallest guy in every room.
So, you have to put on a certain persona, stand right and have got to be able to answer questions properly.
Logan: Definitely selling yourself...
Tony Millionaire: Yeah. And not only that, you've got to have a really deep understanding of modern art, more than I do. And so when I first got out of college I was knocking on doors and drawing houses for a living. I'd get a hundred bucks to draw somebody's house, do that two or three times a week and I'd be all set. So no matter where I went, I always had just enough to get by. Except in the winter time, which was kind of tough.
When I went to Berlin, I just put cards in people's mailboxes. I couldn't speak German, so I put cards in people's mailboxes with a picture of a house on it. I pretty much lived on that for twenty years.
Logan: Really? Just doing houses?
Tony Millionaire: Pretty much. Just houses and then any other little illustration jobs I could pick up. I always had enough money to get drunk and not get evicted. Well, not always enough, since I did get evicted. But I always had enough to get by that way.
Logan: Did you basically just leap straight from doing houses to Maakies?
Tony Millionaire: I did. I went from houses to drawing Maakies. I was drawing houses one winter, and it was so cold, and it was snowy out, and then it snowed again. And then it was March, and it snowed a huge snowstorm and my girlfriend said, "I don't think you're going to be able to pay the rent. You didn't pay it last month and now I'm going to be paying it because it's too snowy out for you to draw your houses, so why don't you just move out?" So, I did. And I was pretty much homeless. I was sleeping on a friend's couch, wondering which was the next couch I was going to be able to sleep on, and I went into a local bar and started drawing Drinky Crow on a napkin. And the bartender said, "Draw me a little comic strip about this guy Drinky Crow, and for every one you do I'll give you a free beer." And I thought, that's BEER! Free beer. That's all I need! So I would go down there and draw these little comic strips and he collected them into a little photocopied newsletter for the bar. And that's how Drinky Crow got started.
Other people would come in and they'd draw little Drinky Crow comics, so they would collect them all together. It was like a group effort.
And then, somebody saw them. Somebody at the New York Press saw that and said, "Why don't you do a strip for us?" And that was my salvation. The New York Press pulled me out of the doldrums. It didn't pay very much, but it was a certain amount of discipline that I needed to get a strip done every week. And then, from there, now that I'm in the paper, that's when I started getting calls for illustrations in magazines.
Logan: How were those early strips taking form? Just one panel jokes on napkins, or were you doing a true-to-form three-panel, four-panel strip?
Tony Millionaire: The first Drinky Crow I ever did was on a napkin. It was just a drawing of this crow blowing his brains out. But after that, I started doing little four panel ones stacked on top of each other. And then, when I got into the New York Press, I did the long form, where it's a long strip form, with an extra little strip at the bottom. Because I know that back in the 20's they used to do that a lot, they would have an extra little joke thrown in at the bottom. That's how Krazy Kat was born. Krazy Kat was the bottom joke for a strip called "The Family Upstairs" by George Herriman, the grandfather of American newspaper comics.
So, I started doing that. So now I have to have an extra little joke at the bottom, which sometimes drives me crazy because now every week I have to come up with two good jokes.
Logan: Maybe one not quite as good?
Tony Millionaire: Yeah, you know, the not-quite-as-good joke, sometimes you can get away with by doing some really nice drawings around it. That's why often, the bottom joke is funnier. The joke has to stand by itself.
Logan: When you were offered the job, did you try and flesh out all the characters at that time, or have they just slowly evolved?
Tony Millionaire: I fleshed them out as best I could at the time, knowing that they'd grow over time. That's why I didn't call the strip Drinky Crow. I called it Maakies because I didn't know who would become the most important characters as I went along.
Logan: Did the houses come to a complete stop then?
Tony Millionaire: Yeah, as soon I started actually making money doing magazine illustration. And now, I'm not even doing much magazine illustration. Fortunately, the Sock Monkey comic book came because of the Maakies comic strip - Dark Horse hired me for those comics. And now I just did a graphic novel called Billy Hazelnuts which is for Fantagraphics. And collections of Maakies strips for Fantagraphics, so I'm pretty much working around the clock on comics, which is any cartoonist's dream. Finally getting to the point where all you do all day long is draw comics.
Logan: That's great, because there are a good number of other well-known comic artists that can't say the same thing.
Tony Millionaire: It's true. Just up to about four years ago. Well, I still do a little bit of illustration on the side. I draw for The Believer magazine and I do a cover for a book now and then. But I'm at the point where if it is a job I don't like, or it doesn't pay enough, I don't have to take it. Where, just five years ago I had to take everything I could get my hands on. It's not an easy way to make a living, but fortunately, it looks like I'll have a TV show on Adult Swim, and if that thing gets on the air, then I won't have to worry about it anymore. Just getting enough people to see your work.
Logan: You might have to raise your prices on your originals...
Tony Millionaire: *Laughs* I like to sell my originals cheap. I sell them on my website pretty cheap, because I know that other people are going to take better care of them than I do. For me, they're in a drawer all mixed up. I can never find the right one, and if a spider walks on it, it's going to make a little mark and then I've got to figure out a way to get the spider marks off it. If somebody else buys it, they're going to frame it and put it up on their wall and it's going to scatter across the world. And that's good.
Logan: So no house fire can destroy ALL your work?
Tony Millionaire: No. Each house fire destroys one. That's right, spread it all out so some of them will survive. But the thing is, once I started collecting them into books, I don't get that precious about the originals anymore.
Logan: Some of your freelance illustration has been fairly high profile, like the work with They Might Be Giants.
Tony Millionaire: Yeah. I got They Might Be Giants to do the theme song for The Drinky Crow Show.
Logan: That's awesome. Were they fans or your work, did they come to you for the work you've done with them?
Tony Millionaire: I've known them actually before I started doing comics, years ago when I lived in Brooklyn. I was friends with Brian Dewan and he was roomates with Jon Linnell. We'd go to parties and those guys would be hanging around, and then before you knew it, boom, they were famous. So they knew my comics and they asked me to do an album cover for them, which is called Then: The Early Years.
Logan: Sock Monkey was born around that time? From your love of old Victorian children's books?
Tony Millionaire: Yeah. Exactly. Maakies is just so dark and sort of violent, and scary that I really wanted to do something different. And then Dark Horse came to me and asked me if I wanted to do a book. And I said, yeah, I always had this idea of doing something that would take me back into those back stairways and closets of my grandmother's old victorian house. The memories of that are so rich, and that's where the Sock Monkey comes from. I try to use real houses and go photograph the insides of them. The way they would build those houses was so different than what they do now, with these crazy little turns and stairways that you wouldn't expect.
Logan: Not engineered for maximum efficiency?
Tony Millionaire: No. A lot of them, especially the Queen Annes, they're really whimsical and nutty. Why would they spend all this extra effort to make this thing so much fun, like a kid designed it? But, I'm just so glad they did because they're gorgeous. I wonder what will happen when those houses all eventually crumble away and all we've got left is glass and steel. I don't know, maybe somebody will come up with something else, nuttier than that, but I doubt it.
That was a great time in architecture, right around the 1800's to early 1900's. It's like a house that's earlier than, say, 1812, I'm just not interested in. But anything from 1812 to 1912, those things are just amazing. Especially the end of that century, the 1880's and 1890's. They really went all out building those things.
Logan: Which happens to coincide with a lot of the writing you like as an influence...
Tony Millionaire: Yeah. I started to read Patrick O'Brian because I wanted to get some of the nautical terms down for the nautical language in Maakies, because Maakies takes place at sea. The comic strip sort of has a 1920's feel to it, of the 1920's comic strips. Patrick O'Brian writes these seafaring novels, and then from that, I started getting all the old-fashioned talk, and sort of reading Jane Austen and Herman Melville and all these other old books. I rediscovered Mark Twain and started reading all those things. I pick and choose little pieces from them and try to sort of copy the style without getting it wrong. If you get it wrong, it really sounds stupid, so I've got to be really careful.
Logan: But you have that sort of flexible reality in Maakies, where metal detectors and pirate ships appear in the same comic.
Tony Millionaire: True. When we're working on the show, The Drinky Crow Show, they'll say we're going to need to have a computer in this scene, and I'll say sure, just put some rivets on the side of it and a giant incandescent light bulb on the top of it and you've got an old-fashioned computer. And make sure the keys are from an old typewriter. If it looks old-fashioned, it's fine. So I'll put a car in at the same time, but it's got to be a Model T or something. If it looks old-timey, it's fine.
Logan: Billy Hazelnuts was kind of born out of the spirit of Sock Monkey storytelling, correct?
Tony Millionaire: Billy Hazelnuts came from that I had been doing Sock Monkey and Drinky Crow for such a long time, that Fantagraphics approached me and said "Do you want to do a Drinky Crow graphic novel?" I said sure, and then I started thinking about it, and thought to myself, I'm already doing Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby with the strip. And I'm afraid that if I started writing the story, on those days when I'm stuck for an idea, I'm going to start stealing from this book. So, I better not do that. So then I thought, why don't I just start a whole new thing, a whole new character? And I had this idea a long time ago for a children's book which was about a guy named Billy Hazelnuts who was like a little soft, stuffed toy with a little crown who would run around and get into adventures, sort of like Sock Monkey, but more impish.
I actually tried to sell that as a children's book and people said "Billy Hazelnuts? I don't know about that name. The nuts, sounds a little bit like Hazel-Balls." So, I couldn't sell it that way, so then I said, well I'll just make him more of a tough guy character.
It's a story of a little creature made out of garbage, made by mice to fight off the cat in the house. He's very ferocious, and the little girl that lives in the house grabs ahold of him and pulls the flies out of his eyes and puts hazelnuts in there, so that he, instead of being the protector of the mice, he's the protector of her. So now she's got this very tough, small monster made out of garbage that protects her. So they run around and get into adventures.
Logan: I'm a big fan of the literary references in Hazelnuts; you can tell you're a fan of Alice in Wonderland and other books from that era.
Tony Millionaire: Sure. I've actually stolen lines from that book. I've stolen phrases from Herman Melville, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. But of course, I've credited them all in the front. But I won't tell you exactly where they are. If you hunt through the book and find the quotes from all of those, I'll give you a free tip-of-the-raccoon-cap.
Logan: Are stories like Billy Hazelnuts something you're going to do even more of in the future? A move towards children's books?
Tony Millionaire: Not really. I put a couple of children's books out with Dark Horse. The thing is, now that I have kids and I'm reading to them all the time, I'm realizing what you've got to do to do children's books. You've got to really get to their level and talk to them, straight to them.
I'm working on one now for Hyperion called The Small Things League. It's about bugs in the back yard that form a sort of crime-fighting league. They don't really fight crime because they're bugs, and they don't really have much power. The ant's power is that he can talk to people. The worm's power is that he can listen, but he can't really understand what you're talking about. So they don't have great powers. But for bugs, these are amazing powers. The toad's power is that he doesn't eat the bugs, which is amazing for a toad, but they really can't get much done. The adventure goes on with that.
The thing is, I really love getting into rougher-edged, harder storytelling than that. You've got to keep it really sweet when you're going to do stuff for kids, although they do have a dark side, and I do like to write stories for them.
I just pray that the mommies of the world and the librarians don't discover the harder stuff while they're trying to find something for their kids.
Logan: Do you then test the stories out on your kids?
Tony Millionaire: Sure. Yeah, they love them. The one I'm working on now, every page I do I show it to the kids. They're very happy with it.
Logan: What do they think of the flies in Billy Hazelnuts' eyes?
Tony Millionaire: They love that kind of stuff. Little kids...kids do love it. It's not really the kids you've got to worry about. My kids love all my stuff I do. Some of the obscene stuff in Maakies I don't read to them, but stuff like Billy Hazelnuts, that is for kids. And adults. The problem is getting past their mothers. Their mothers are going to look at it and go, "Gasp, oh don't show that to Junior!" And you know, they're the ones buying the books.
Logan: I've read in reviews of your work that "It's like a Victorian children's book with a dark edge." I would always assume that they've not read any of those old books.
Tony Millionaire: Yeah. I read The Little Mermaid the other day, not to my daughter, but I read it to myself first because I thought I don't want her to watch the Disney movie before she reads the original. So I read it, and it's horrifying. Have you ever read The Little Mermaid?
Logan: I'm not sure if I've read the original.
Tony Millionaire: A knife slices her fin all the way up to her cunt, she describes it as feeling like a red hot knife is slicing her so that her legs get formed. But it feels like she's walking on needles and knives the whole time. She gets her tongue actually cut out. She doesn't lose her voice. She gets her tongue cut out with a knife. It's very violent. And the end of it is really fucking tragic, too. So I said, "Great, go ahead and watch the movie, you're not going to read this book."
Those Victorian books were hard; life was hard back then.
Logan: The Drinky Crow Show coming to Adult Swim! Is that something you were actively seeking out, or did they come to you?
Tony Millionaire: They came to me. I was reluctant to do it because I had sat down through so many pitch meetings and Hollywood meetings about my comics and nothing ever happened. The guys said, "No no no, we really want to do it or we wouldn't be here." I said all right, let's go through the motions. And of course, it's been a year-and-a-half since that meeting, but it looks like it is actually happening this time. The contracts are all signed, the pilot is under way, we're working on it now, writing and drawing and getting all the scenes done.
There's a production company, an animation company in Romania that is actually doing the heavy work. They're doing it with CGI, but they're making it look like the comics.
Logan: So, a Flash animation type CGI?
Tony Millionaire: No. They're using Toon Shader, but they're putting textures on the characters. So it looks like a three-dimensional version of Uncle Gabby. He's walking around in 3-D, but you can see the little lines and stuff on his tail and on his arms.
Logan: So, it will look like the Tony Millionaire style of drawing?
Tony Millionaire: Yeah, it looks like my drawings in three dimensions. Like my drawings come to life. It looks great, it looks really good - I'm surprised at how well it is working out.
You've got to be a really good artist to know how to use CGI, or you've got to reinvent it like we're doing. Simplify it down. Simplify it down to the level of Bullwinkle, but it's three-dimensional. So it looks good.
And the good thing is, I've got Eric Kaplan working on it. He's a Futurama writer and he wrote for Malcolm in the Middle, and he's writing the scripts with me.
Logan: You're co-writing?
Tony Millionaire: I don't know how to write for TV, and he does. But I do know how to write funny, and fortunately he does too. So, it's working out well.
I got Tom Kinney, who is the voice of Spongebob. I got him to do the voice of Drinky Crow. I know him from Mr. Show because my wife was on Mr. Show in the final season. I met Tom through her, and he loves my comics, and I love his work so much, it's great to work with him. The funniest voice-over guy I can think of.
My wife is also a very funny voice-over artist, she did a lot of stuff on the Oblongs. So she's going to be doing the voice of the captain's daughter. A lot of very talented, skilled people on there, so hopefully we'll be able to put out a good show.
Logan: Any other voice actors lined up?
Tony Millionaire: We've got Dave Herman. Dave Herman was a voice on King of the Hill, and he was on Mad TV and a couple other movies. Really funny. He did a voice of Uncle Gabby I didn't expect. It wasn't at all what I thought he'd come up with, but he did it, and it was so funny, I thought it had to be Uncle Gabby's voice. It's a lot faster and more maniacal than I imagined it, but it's a lot funnier than I imagined it too.
Logan: Will you be taking material from the strips, or are you trying to keep it totally separate?
Tony Millionaire: We'll definitely be using stuff from the jokes, jokes that have been published, but it's mostly all new stuff.
Logan: Will the pilot actually be aired, or is it just shown to executives?
Tony Millionaire: I don't think Adult Swim has got enough money that they can make a pilot that they won't air. They'll call that Episode One.
Logan: Do they then see how the ratings go and decide from there?
Tony Millionaire: Well, what happens is that we do the pilot, and then if they decide that it's funny and they like it then they give us an order for probably twenty more episodes. Do them, and them put them on the air. If the audience doesn't like them, they put them on more until they do. Because when they spend that much money on a TV show, they can ruin the whole season. It's not like NBC where they can pull a show after two episodes because they're not getting enough ratings. There's not a huge budget over there.
Logan: Ratings can't tell you anything anyway.
Tony Millionaire: No, they can't. And I think the people at Adult Swim are smart enough to realize that. The ratings have more to do with what's on the other channel, or putting it on on Friday night when everyone's going out to dinner.
Case in point, the movie Iron Giant. Such a great movie. A great animation movie. And it bombed because somebody thought this kind of cartoon isn't going to do well, and some executive thought we should be doing something different, so they just didn't put any advertising money into it at all. So it didn't get into any theatres, and nobody saw it, and that was that. And then it became a cult classic, just from the DVDs. Anyway, hopefully ratings aren't all the people at Adult Swim are paying attention to.
They are getting good ratings though, that's good news. Adult Swim is beating out even Jon Stewart for, like, its ten o'clock spot.
Logan: So, assuming the pilot gets picked up, do you already have episodes lined up?
Tony Millionaire: We have ideas, but you can't work too much on something unless you know you're going to get paid for eventually. But we've been jotting down ideas and taking notes.
I really want to do this one episode about when Drinky Crow started to fornicate with a hole in the back yard, and he impregnates the earth, so that the earth gets this big giant belly, and they have to abort the Earth with a coat-hanger. A big egg pops out of the earth, this giant egg, and it flies across space and smashes the moon in the face.
Logan: Not too much network pressure on you then, huh?
Tony Millionaire: I don't know. It's funny, with all the stuff on Comedy Central with South Park and all that, they don't want to tone it down, they want to tone it up.
Logan: Do they have a time set for when the pilot will air?
Tony Millionaire: No idea. It moves in Hollywood time, which means wait, wait, wait, wait, jump!