Award Winning Cartoonist Has a Story For the BIRDS

Award-winning cartoonist Tony Millionaire released his latest book recently: Billy Hazlenuts and the Crazy Bird. In it, the ribald and impetuous Billy Hazlenuts, a walking, grousing cookie man, chases away an owl, discovers that it had a chick, and determines to return the abandoned youngling to its mother.

Of course, this being a Tony Millionaire book, the journey is nothing like you’d expect.  Not to spoil much, but there will be punching and biting.

Newsarama caught up with Millionaire to discuss Billy Hazlenuts and the Crazy Bird.  We nearly got a straight answer out of him.

Newsarama: Billy Hazlenuts is like a children’s fable gone wrong, reminiscent in way of the old, dark Grimm Brothers tales with a modern, high-octane approach.  Is that what you’re going for?

Tony Millionaire: Take a closer look at those Grimm's Fairy tales, or even better, Hans Christian Anderson, and you'll tell me my stories are chocolate milk sopped on toast compared to that stuff. I don't know what it was, walking wounded with dripping sores coming back on crutches from endless wars, famine, plague, but those old stories were made to either shelter children from the horror of the world or to prepare them for it.

But the artwork was always very good, so that's where I come in, studying and copying the old styles. I loved Der Struwwelpeter and the old Max und Moritz stuff. It later got tamed down to the Katzenjammer Kids and softer stuff for the American Sunday papers in the twenties. My grandfather had collections of that old stuff, he'd let me go through piles on Sunday visits. Giant orange and black pages almost as big as your whole self, full page comics. I'd have dreams about falling in there, I still do.

Nrama: How do you balance your various projects, such as Maakies, Sock Monkey or Billy Hazlenuts?  Is it simply following a creative impulse, or do you try to offset each project with another?

Millionaire: It started with Maakies; I was doing this strip for the New York Press, and I wanted to keep it pretty dark, urban and gritty, without actually being set in the city. I set it on the high seas on merchant sailing vessels, the type where you might get into trouble with the captain’s daughter or the cook’s wife. These comics were inspired by guys like Kaz and Doug Allen, Ben Katchor and Mark Beyer. Suddenly after seeing no good comics anywhere, these guys all popped up in the weeklies. From there I learned about the comic book guys, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, The Hernandez Brothers, but I had been in Berlin standing on a stage with a duck on my head blowing a saxophone mouthpiece into a vacuum cleaner for five years, that kind of thing. I missed the beginning of this new craze with the really good American comics.

I read Maus somewhere and felt the beginning of the avalanche of art comics returning. Zap Comix was always a huge part of my life, but in the 80s they just weren’t working for me anymore, so I concentrated on painting and performance. I did some very wild performances in New York, dressing like a tree with wood grain contact paper and branches wrapped around me, then my short friend Doug sat on my lap dressed as a ventriloquist dummy. “What are you going to do now, Mr. Jinx?” I asked him. I grabbed the back of his neck and ventrilocualy made him say, “I’m going to give you a blowjob, Mr. Tree.” Unbeknownst to my friend I had a giant wooden pepper shaker under my chair which I plopped into my lap and then jammed his face into it, damaging his front tooth. He scrambled off my lap and punched me hard on the side of my head. I tried to defend myself, but was hampered by the contact paper and branches. He got in a couple of extra good punches to my face before some big guys broke up the fight. It was a great performance, everyone loved the reality of it and Doug and I were great friends ever since.

Then, I wanted to find my softer sides, with Sock Monkey and Billy Hazelnuts, but my creepy side kept sneaking in. Which I think is good for children’s books. They’re not really childrens’ books; they’re books for people who remember the sort of creepiness of childrens’ books they read when they were young. Eeyore was kind of a freak, always on the verge of suicide, eating thistles. Until Disney ruined him, that is.

Nrama: With broad stories like Billy Hazlenuts and the Crazy Bird, do you start with the big idea for the narrative, or do you find scenes, or even images, that you want to write or illustrate and then find the narrative that congeals them together?

Millionaire: Fist I think of the big concept. Who is this character and what does he want? What hurdles does he have to jump to get there? When he comes close to his understanding of the truth or the way towards his idea of completion, what obstacles set him back and totally destroy his idea of how things go?

How does he reconcile all that, how does he deal with compromise, etc. Every turn in the story is an opportunity for comedy and extra characters. There is a lot of thought about certain scenes, like I really wanted to build a planet for broken planets where they are used for spare parts or repair. I really wanted to have a chase scene with Billy through tiny caves in a huge mountain, lots of squealing and squeezing through. I think that worked out nicely in Billy and the Crazy Bird.

Nrama: Given the market for comics and graphic novels, what compels you to continue telling stories in this format?

Millionaire: I don't pay any attention at all to the market, I love drawing comics and the more I do, the more I get actual jobs with fat paychecks like from record companies, illustration work, and every now and then a TV show or a movie. It's not about selling out; it’s about finding ways to pay for your kids’ dentists while never giving up the work you love. The thing is, if I quit the not so good paying job of a cartoonist, my very good paying job as everything else would evaporate. So that’s it, good comics are a great way to advertise yourself. Hello, New Yorker. I see all these cartoonists doing New Yorker covers, my blood boils. Françoise! Over here!

Nrama: You bring an amazing illustrative style to what’s essentially a story about an abrasive cookie man.  You’ve mentioned many of your artistic influences in various past interviews, but what about story influences and how those influences merge with your artistic forebearers?

Millionaire: My biggest storybook influences were a mixture of Winnie the Pooh and Charlie Brown. The first book I ever carried around like a bible was Winnie the Pooh. These stories were so compact and real. It was like everything else (Except Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, another very early influence, I speak of her like a saint...shhhh) was just entertaining nonsense. Example: Eeyore, the pathetic ass, has a birthday. Pooh Bear takes him a jar of honey, which he devours on the way and then has nothing but an empty jar to give. Piglet runs to the party with a leftover half-deflated balloon he has from a previous party with Christopher Robin. He falls, the balloon pops, he arrives with a popped piece of rubber. Eeyore, to everyone’s surprise, takes joy in having a pot with a colorful blue rubber rag to put in it. He puts it in and takes it out. It reminds me of my Uncle Bob, my sister brings him BLTs to the home because he always asks for a BLT when she visits him. One day she brought him the BLT wrapped in tin foil as usual, and she saw him open a drawer full of tin-foil covered BLTs. This is the joy of life.

I also read lots of Joseph Conrad, Dickens, Melville, Mark Twain, Tolkein, Ken Kesey, and Patrick O'Brian.

Billy Hazlenuts and the Crazy Bird is currently available from Fantagraphics.  

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