Tony Millionaire’s characters may look cute, but that initial impression won’t last long once you see them get drunk and bloodily lop each other’s heads off. Drawn in a detailed style reminiscent of classic Little Orphan Annie or Popeye, Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby the monkey booze it up in bars and sail the seas before inevitably devolving into mayhem. Their bizarre gags were revealed each week in Millionaire’s Maakies comic strip, which was one of the most popular comics published by alternative news weeklies around the country. But, faced with a dying alt-weekly industry, Millionaire retired the strip in December 2016 via Facebook post: “The world has changed, the only comic strips that can sustain themselves anymore are those who have ambitious young strong-arms with the self-discipline to set themselves up on dedicated home-made sites or those that can land a spot on a big website or two, which could support it financially.” Nevertheless, it was an impressive run—Millionaire also has collections of artwork and comics (including Sock Monkey) published by Fantagraphics and Dark Horse, had cartoons aired on Saturday Night Live, won several Eisner Awards, and even had his own line of toys and assorted merchandise through Critterbox and Dark Horse. Major irony: He never planned on becoming a cartoonist.
Originally posted February 2005
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Your drawing style looks like something from the 1920s. Did you read a lot of comics from that era?
The first comic that I ever read was Peanuts—Charlie Brown and Snoopy. I just loved it. I was the guy in the class who could draw Snoopy better than anyone else. But my grandfather and grandmother were both artists—actually, so are my mother and father—and were friends with Roy Crane and Les Turner. Anyway, they had a lot of old comics around and they would save all the Sunday comics, so they would have stacks of them. I would go to their house some afternoons on the weekends; they had this whole house full of antiques, and they’d pull out these drawings and show them to me because they really wanted me to get into the same things that they did, because they were both illustrators for magazines. I would love those old Sunday pages because I would have the whole comics section, and I could open up one page after another. I remember having dreams about it where I’d open up one page and the whole page would be taken up by one strip, and down at the bottom would be a smaller strip—sort of an extra dessert for having read the big strip. Big Tarzans, The Gumps, and all those big adventure strips… I remember dreaming that the further the pages would go, the more surreal it would get, the more like a dream it would become, these oranges and blacks….
What were some of the particular comic strips that grabbed you?
That’s the thing—I don’t really remember even the titles. I just remember reading these amazing strips. I look back at them now, and I must have been reading Smokey Stover. I used to love The Kin-der-Kids, even though now that I think about it, I probably never saw The Kin-der-Kids until I saw the collections. Kin-der-Kids was drawn by Lyonel Feininger and he was only around for maybe one year; he was a fine-art, abstract artist from Germany, and they brought him in as competition for Krazy Kat, and I guess he didn’t like it or he just thought it was too grueling. I don’t know how they managed to do those Sunday pages; I still don’t know how they do it.
What do you think of contemporary Sunday comics?
They’re completely different now, but I still read them whenever I see them; I’m drawn to them. The problem that I find with them isn’t that they’re getting worse; the problem is that they’re getting smaller. When you’ve got six comics on one Sunday page, it ruins it because they’re all kind of cut up and botched around and stuck in there, so the whole Sunday comics section itself isn’t a work of art—it’s just a conglomeration by some editor with a pair of scissors, cutting them up. It just doesn’t look as good as it used to be. As far as the strips themselves, they’ve never been really very good. It’s just like anything else. If you flip through the television, you’ll find one good show that’s on; most of it’s garbage, but you want to watch it anyway. That’s like the Sunday pages—there are always one or two that are all right. But it was just the fact that there were these huge pages, and you could just keep going through them, reading these dumb stories….
When I lived in New York, I would always pick them up. Now that I’m in California, I don’t read them much anymore. It’s a car culture; you don’t walk by newsstands. I prefer looking at collections of old comics now.
How did you eventually become a comic strip artist yourself?
When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was a big drunk. During the week I would set up what was going to happen during the weekend for my drunkenness—either setting up a party or figuring out where to go for a really fun party, finding the funniest people I could to hang out with. So I was basically focused on that: those two or three drunken nights. In order to pay for those, I had to figure out a way to survive, so I would go out to the suburbs and drop cards in mailboxes for people to call me to draw their house. So I would draw these houses for $50 or $100, and if I could do one or two of those a week, it was barely enough to pay the rent, sort of, and get drunk during the weekend. After a while, I was like, “This is really all I’m doing,” and I started getting nervous because I was going to be 40, so I said, “I better do something regular.”
So a friend of mine said he was doing a photo-copied weekly magazine called Waterfront Week, it was in Williamsburg, and I did a little comic about this transvestite named Medea. Medea would tell me his adventures of things that he did that week and then I would try to do comics of them. So that ran for about a year, and I thought “Well, I’ve got some structure to my life, at least: a weekly deadline.” It was $10 a week. But then people started to see that and they would ask me to put comics in their ‘zines, and then somebody at the New York Press saw it and asked me if I wanted to do a regular weekly strip. I loved the idea because I had seen Kaz, Ben Katchor, Mark Beyer, all these cartoonists in the New York Press. I just loved that paper because of that, until I actually started reading the articles—then I wasn’t that crazy for the paper, but the comics were always so great. When they asked me to do that, I thought, “That’s it. This is destiny. From here on, I can see fame, glory, and honor all coming to me because of this.” So I finally found a way out of the ghetto of drawing people’s houses.
So you really just fell into the comics business?
I never really wanted to do it. But I kind of like doing it. If I had to go into it now—make up my mind, “Now I’m going to be a cartoonist.”—I don’t know how I would start doing it. Because it’s not easy.
But once you got started, didn’t you try to market yourself and expand circulation of your comics?
Basically, what I would do is every time I knew there was a party where the right people were going to be, I would go to the party and be funny. Like, the New Yorker was having a party and some people that I knew were going, so “Yeah! I’ll go there.” And then I’d go to the party and I’d say, “Who’s the art director? Is there one of the art directors around here?” “He’s standing over there.” So I’d go stand next to him, and then I’d be funny, and before you knew it, I was illustrating for the New Yorker. See, that was my plan—it’s called “networking,” I guess.
Where did Maakies’ main characters and setting come from?
My grandparents lived in Gloucester, Mass. and their studio was in Rockport, so we were down at the wharfs a lot, and they were always drawing boats and really loved the nautical stuff. So when I started drawing this strip, I thought, “I’ve got to tap into the deepest memories of real beauty that I can find.” So I would always go back to my grandparents’ place with the ships and the wharfs, and I always loved that sailor stuff. But then I thought, “I also have to write about what I really know.” And I knew plenty about being drunk, so I combined the two and there I was. Cartoon characters are always funny, so there’s the magic triptych.
Did you ever have to convince editors that Maakies was something worthwhile or did they just pick up on it?
I only had to once. The strip had been running for three weeks at the New York Press and the editor couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing. He said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this strip. It doesn’t really make any sense.” I said, “I don’t know why you thought that.” Because they were pretty straightforward jokes, as far as I was concerned. But then Danny Helman said, “No, you’ve got to let him stay with it.”
When you draw these strips, are these stream-of-consciousness creations or do you have a plan?
I found that the only way I that I was going to be able to come up something funny enough—because I had set up some high standards right from the beginning—I was going to have to hang out with the funniest people I could. Either they would say something funny that I could use in a strip, or when I thought of a situation I’d think, “What would Wilson think about this situation?” And then Wilson’s voice would talk to me and something hilarious would come out of it. So as long as I was socializing with the funniest people I knew in New York at the time, I would always have these hilarious voices talking to me. When I think of a joke, I immediately write it down. Sometimes I’ll have three or four ready to go for three or four weeks, and sometimes I’ll have just nothing, absolutely nothing right up to the last minute, and then I’ve really got to force it. Sometimes that works really well, but not often.
How long does it take you draw such detailed strips?
That’s a problem sometimes. Deadline is 3 o’clock in the afternoon California time for The Village Voice. That means I usually start drawing it around 10, so that gives me like five hours to do it. But then I screw around till around like noon, and then I’ve just got to bat it out as quickly as I can in three hours. I used to spend six hours, but I’ve been getting a little bit lazy, doing a lot of close-ups and head-shots.
Does it ever feel like a job?
Sure it feels like a job, like if I have a really bad hangover and I’ve got to take a bunch of aspirin and just do it. Sometimes it’s just torture.
Now that you live in Los Angeles, do you still hang out with funny friends for ideas?
Now I have to hang out with them online or on the telephone because I have a family, two little girls, and I live in a house up in Pasadena. There’s not a lot of going out, hanging around, and getting drunk with friends anymore. Nowadays, I’m just jotting stuff down that somebody sent me in an email. Or, what I’ll do often on Friday is call my friend Helena or somebody: “I need a joke! Any joke! I’ll call you back in 15 minutes! Get me one!” Click. And sometimes they’ll do it.
Have people ever misconstrued the strip as something for kids?
I’m a little nervous about that since some of the Sock Monkey books I do are for kids, and some are definitely not. I got a deal with Hyperion to do a kids book, and I’m a little nervous that some mommy will pick up the book and then go, “I’m going to get some more Tony Millionaire stuff on Amazon.” And then she starts hitting the buttons and pretty soon there’s a joke about a big turd coming out of a guy’s ass and a black widow spider biting him in the balls. I’m going to run into some trouble. So I might have to go under a different name when I go for those serious kids books.
There was a major online fuss about the attorney general forcing you to censor your language. What was that about?
There was a problem with that. The problem was I got onto the Internet and announced that the FCC had banned my comic strip and made me change the word “cunt” to “vagina.” Then I realized that the FCC doesn’t control comics, so I had to quickly change it. So I said, “I just got word that it wasn’t the FCC. It was directly from John Ashcroft. It was the attorney general.” So then, of course, it got picked up on all these blogs. Suddenly, I started getting like 8,000 hits on my website, and I’m rubbing my hands in glee: “It worked! Ha ha ha!” But actually, no, I never got a call from anybody. I made it all up. It was a complete, pure publicity stunt. And I sold about four pieces of artwork, so I got about $1,000 out of it, which is the reason why I did it.
So you’ve never experienced any censorship?
Never. And I do some of the most obscene stuff. This is in weeklies that any kid can pick up. Nobody ever gives me a hard time. One time, I wrote one where Drinky Crow’s father comes onto the scene, and he goes: “Drinky Crow, I am your father.” Drinky Crow shoots him immediately. He goes, “Why’d you shoot me, Drinky Crow? I’m dying!” He says, “You fucked my mother. I am, therefore you did.” So the editor at the New York Press emailed back and said, “Tony, this is not Screw Magazine. Put that on the bottom strip.” The bottom strip is always smaller. “Okay, I’ll do that.” But that was the only editing I’ve ever gotten from anybody. I don’t know why. Sometimes I really try to push it, but nobody cares because it’s Maakies—it makes fun of everybody. Once you go across the board, making fun of mostly myself and then everybody else, people see that what you’re doing is humor. Like, you can’t call Howard Stern a racist because his primary target is himself.
You’ve been venturing into toys. When you started this, did you ever expect to see Drinky Crow dolls?
When that comic strip first started running, I was walking around Staten Island on my way to draw somebody’s house. Staten Island has got a big dump way down on the end of it, so the whole sky was filled with crows. So I said, “Oh, my empire begins! This is a sign! Soon, there are going to be Drinky Crow dolls, Drinky Crow TV shows, Drinky Crow stickers in the backs of car windows, Drinky Crow will be everywhere.” I knew it!
What kinds of projects have you got in the works?
I have a lot of stuff planned. But the thing is, for the past five years—ever since that Saturday Night Live thing—Hollywood people have been courting me and taking me out to lunch, talking about these movies and TV shows they’re all going to do. So far, most Hollywood set-ups end up fizzling and turning to nothing, which is the way it stands now. But there’s still another crop of people who now want to try and get one made, so we’ll see. Eventually, maybe it will happen.
And you know what? As frustrating as it is—getting these pitch meetings set up and doing these drawings for it in preparation, and then waiting, and then three weeks later they call to say they passed—it’s all worth it. Number one, in the process, I’m writing stuff so I’m coming up with ideas for the strips and the books, which is the main thing. And number two, eventually one of them is going to hit, and I’ll be able to buy my gigantic Craftsman house in Altadena [Calif.] with oak trees—just far enough away so you’re not sitting around going, “What am I doing way the hell out here?”