Written by Nick Main Thursday, 31 January 2008 13:33
The artist behind the long-running comic strip Maakies, the comic book series Sock Monkey, and the Adult Swim cartoon The Drinky Crow Show tells how drawing houses and scribbling on bar napkins got him where he is today.
Tony Millionaire's weekly newspaper strip Maakies follows Uncle Gabby, a drunk Irish monkey, and his adorable, suicidal pal Drinky Crow on their adventures over the sea. Though undeniably violent and offensive, his work is often compared to early twentieth century comic strip artists like Popeye creator E. C. Segar for its linework and style. Maakies grew from sketches on bar napkins to syndication in alternative newspapers across the country. In the late 90's, it appeared on Saturday Night Live in a series of animated shorts and in the 2007 pilot for The Drinky Crow Show, which aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block.
His longer format Sock Monkey books, written for a more general audience, have received plenty of accolades and awards and have lead to his illustrations appearing in such prestigious, mainstream publications as The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal.
PLAYBACK:stl got Mr. Millionaire on the phone to talk comics, the return of The Drinky Crow Show, and the best places to run around naked.
Have you read anything good lately?
Tony Millionaire: I have a problem with reading lately, in the past 5 years or maybe longer...since I moved to the Los Angeles area. I live in Pasadena now, which is very pretty, but in order to get anywhere, I have to drive. I used to read all the time constantly, but it was because I was riding buses or trains or subways. And now I'm married, so I can't turn the light on at night so the only thing good I've read lately have been a couple of comic books—Fun Home, which I really liked very much. Did you ever read that?
Yeah, it's a great book.
Alison Bechdel. Yeah, it's great. It reminded me of my own crazy teenagerhood. Though it turned out I wasn't gay. I just had a bunch of crazy parents.
Have you picking up the Krazy Kat collections?
I have. I love the Krazy Kat collections. And that's something I can just leave around because you don't have to invest the time it takes to read a novel. I leave that around all the time for inspiration. I love that new one, The Kat Who Walked in Beauty. I love that. I have about six or seven Krazy Kat collections, and I just like to pop them open now and then and read them. There's also another comic that's similar to that I've been reading lately, which is Mutt and Jeff, The Early Years. The drawing style is so beautiful, and it makes me realize where my drawing style comes from, because a lot of my drawing style I got from Winnie The Pooh books, and then I got some from Robert Crumb. I used to copy Snoopy when I was a little kid in school. Yeah, a lot of it comes from Robert Crumb and I realized that even Crumb's drawings come from Krazy Kat and Mutt and Jeff.
You know, I want to get into Krazy Kat. Everybody says its great, and I've got a couple of the books, but it just hasn't really hit me yet.
It truly is great and the key to any kinda high art like that...I mean, I don't like to call comics art, because I don't like to categorize things. Comics are comics. But when you read Krazy Kat, you can read it the same way that you read certain poetry or the way you look at modern art, which is, you just open your eyes, relax, and look at it, and you listen to the flow of it. The motion of it. And it doesn't make any sense. A lot of it doesn't make any sense at all. But it's just about the way each panel opens into the next panel, and you just let it seep into your mind rather than try to figure out what it is. You know what I mean? And then you just suddenly—you know, it's like looking at a garden or something. You don't try to figure out what kind of flower everything is, you just realize, "Man, everything's beautiful here."
Well, next time I pick it up, I'll try reading it in Millionairevision and see how it goes.
I think I first starting reading that stuff when I read the Smithonian collection that was put out in the 70's. It was a collection of newspaper comics. It had a lot of Popeye in it, which I also really loved.
They're putting out some nice collections of those now too.
The new collections are great. I really like the first one, I Yam What I Yam, and the second one's even better because it really gets into the adventures of Popeye himself, and Sea Hag. That's when he really started taking Popeye on real adventures.
I read somewhere you made a living for 20 years, going door to door, drawing people's homes 2 or 3 times a week. I punched that up on the calculator. Are there 2500 Tony Millionaire home drawings out there?
[laughs] No, not really. I think it might have been somewhere like five or six hundred, because in the harsh winters, if I could get a job, I'd get it, doing some construction work or something. And in the middle of summer it's very difficult because everybody's on vacation. But just before Christmas time, it was great. I could do 3 houses a week. It was beautiful. The thing is when I first started it, I was only getting $35 or $50 dollars per drawing, and people kept telling me "you gotta raise the prices". So I finally got it up to around 250 bucks when I realized if I went higher than that people wouldn't do it. But $250 drawing 2-3 times a week. That was great money.
Yeah, that's not bad.
I mean, I couldn't live on it now because I've got two kids and I'm an actual adult, but that was great money when I was a single drunk.
Did you sign those "Tony Millionaire"?
No, I was signing them under my legal name. I'll give you the initials. "S.R."
A clue! I was going to avoid asking your real name.
Actually, now I realize I should give you my real name, because I'd love to be able to see some of those and track them down. My name was Scott Richardson. That's been my name since I was little kid, ‘til I started drawing comics. I would love to see some of those. I did them all over the place. In the suburbs of Boston, the suburbs of New York, and the suburbs of San Francisco and the suburbs of Berlin, Germany.
Do you think any of the buyers are familiar with your current work?
No, probably not at all, unless they're really good at catching the style, but I'm sure hardly any of them know that. Unless you read the Comics Journal article about five years ago, there were a couple of the drawings in there.
Oh, I missed that. Whoops.
Yeah, I really liked doing that, because when the job is: "Here's a house. Draw the house. Don't screw around with it. Don't make it arty. Don't think of a great angle for it. Just draw the house." That's how you really learn how to get a sense of gravity in drawing. Because you're not really trying to do anything except draw itself. You're not really trying to have a great concept or any other thought behind it. Sometimes I would cut the house off or try to put it at a more interesting angle, coming from behind a tree and somebody would say "What? You didn't put my daughter's bedroom in there!?" So I'd have to do it over.
Just draw the house!
How do you like living in California?
I love California. When I first moved out here, I thought I would hate it. I came out here to court my wife, and my plan was to move back to upstate New York or the woods in Massachusetts, where I grew up. I spent my childhood there, near the ocean and one of my grandparents lived in one of those beautiful big old houses in Newton, Massachusetts and my idea was to move back east, where the architecture is nice. And then I realized she's an actress, and she's not going to move to New York. I mean, New York City maybe but not the suburbs, not up the river where the big, beautiful houses are that I wanted to get. So I decided to try and find a place in LA that I liked, which was really hard because most of it was pretty displeasing to my eye. I like old buildings, but then I found Pasadena. I love Pasadena. A lot of the buildings were built at the turn of the century. It ain't New England, but it's close enough.
How'd you meet your wife?
My wife's name is Becky Thyre, she's an actress (Six Feet Under, Weeds, Mr. Show). A very funny comedic actress. She's got 3 sisters that were like this crazy—I met them a couple of times at parties in New York. I'd think, "Who are these women?" They're, like, raised in the swamps of Louisiana by this crazy Catholic mother. I thought, "Man, oh man. There's something about all of them together talking, fighting amongst each other but still just really loving each other." I just loved the whole clan thing about them. And then I got an e-mail from one of them who said "I'm one of the Thyre sisters. The one you never met." I'm like "Wow, there's another one?!" And the first thing I e-mailed her was "How old are you?" because I knew most of them were too young for me...and married. And she tells me she was 31 and that's when I was 41 so I said perfect, I'm just ten years older. That's perfect. So I said I'm gonna get it. A free Thyre...the last one!
Did you start to change your style of writing in the Sock Monkey books when you had children?
No, they ended up turning into children's books, but not really. The first couple of Sock Monkey books were not made for children. They were made for adults who remember old children's books. So, basically I had done them because the strip that I do, Maakies, is so bitter and pessimistic. Well, it's sort of optimistic, but it's got a pessimistic tone to it, and it's very dirty and kind of grueling. I wanted to do something to pull myself away from that every now and then, so I started doing the Sock Monkey books, which are much lighter, even though the drawing is heavier. I wanted to do something that I could dig deep into the back of my mind for inspiration, further back than just my own drunken state at the time, so I would think about the times I spent at my Grandma's house, going up and down the old squeaky staircases. So I started writing the Sock Monkey books.
Then later, it turns out that a lot of kids liked them, even though some of them were kind of scary for kids, I would think. Maybe not. But that all started maybe ten years ago, so I didn't switch for my kids. But now the good thing is my kids are old enough—I always have an extra page in the back of the Sock Monkey books for kids' comics. I used to have my nephews and nieces do them, but now I just get my kids to do them, and they love them. Fortunately they're very good. They inherited my talent.
Were they in The Inches Incident?
Yes, In each one of them. It came out as four separate comics and now its collected as one continuing story in trade paperback and each one of those were drawings by my daughter. (But they're not in the trade.)
On the back of the Inches trade, there's a photo of a real Inches doll. Where's it from?
The three main characters in the Sock Monkey books are drawn from actual toys. I actually found her a few years ago in a tiny drug store way out in the middle of the desert in California. The eyes are kind of too small so that they're set kind of too compact. And there's black behind her eyes.
It's pretty creepy.
She was very scary looking, but cute at the same time. So, now that I put her on the cover of the book, everybody thinks its a kids' book, so I don't know. I guess it is a kids' book. There's nothing dirty in it. But the sock monkey and the crow are both old toys I've had around for a long time. My sister made the sock monkey.
What's wrong with the kids these days?
[laughs] Is that one of your questions?
"What's wrong with da kids these days?" They're not perfect in every way, like we were. No, I don't know, that's just from an old movie. I don't think there's anything wrong with the kids today. I think there's something wrong with all the freaking buildings and air pollution, but not the kids.
What's going on with The Drinky Crow Show?
The Drinky Crow Show is in full production. We are working on them. We've got a meeting tomorrow. We're going to redo a lot of the models. We're going to punch up the colors more. Get the characters to work a little better. I want to make it more like the comic strip, and fortunately that's what they've been saying at Adult Swim all along. "Make it more like the comic strip." It's just unheard of. I'm really glad to hear them say that. We've got a whole season coming up starting, I believe, in the spring.
Is the writer's strike affecting it at all?
It is, only in that I don't want to be running around going "Look at me writing scripts". Even though I'm not in the Union, and the writer's strike doesn't affect animation for TV. The animators have their own little guild, which doesn't give them any rights at all, so they're in a different union than the writers. Although my producer said—and I agree with him—we've already written quite a few scripts, so we're going to work on those and we're not going to be writing any more scripts until the strike gets removed.
Do you have any fears or reservations about your characters growing out of your hands? Like, seeing a day with street vendors selling Drinky Crow shirts that say "Don't have a cow, man."
No, not at all. There's a lot of people that viciously protect their copyright. I've got a good lawyer and everything I do is copyrighted. But as far as I'm concerned, Drinky Crow started in a bar, I was drawing him on napkins, and everybody in the bar was drawing him and I too. But as far as I'm concerned, the more people who try to sell fake T-shirts—I mean, my lawyers will try and catch them, but secretly, I hope they do it. The more people put graffiti of Drinky Crow all over the world, that'll help me take over the world, which is my goal.
Where's the worst place you've seen your characters pop up?
Somebody directly took my Drinky Crow drawing and put it on some website in Norway or some place, which I wouldn't mind if they'd drawn a crow that looked like it, but this guy took my actual drawings and was selling loads of glasses or something. But you know what? The truth is I really don't care. I'll tell you the worst place I've seen my work was tattooed across the chest of a beautiful 20-year-old girl. I mean, that was heart-breaking. I shouldn't say that. People like to make tattoos. I'm just not crazy about tattoos, but when people do it, it really is a great honor. A lot of people have Drinky Crows.
I think Drinky Crow makes a fine tattoo.
I think he does make a fine tattoo—actually, all my characters [do]. If anybody wants to do any tattoos, I'd rather them do my characters than a lot of other things. You know what I'd like to get is a tattoo of a big, giant ship across my chest, you know, like some kind of crazy sailor. But it couldn't be new, it'd have to be a 20-year-old—Maybe I could get a transplant of some old sailor's chest transplanted on myself. That'd be fun. That's the way I want to do my tattoos.
How long was it between the first Drinky Crow napkin drawings and his appearance in The New York Press?
Those were scary times for me. I was very depressed and drunk. I didn't really have a place to live and no prospects. It didn't look like spring was ever going to come and I could start my miserable job again. Which, I say that I enjoyed doing it, but I only enjoyed doing it when I had the work. When I didn't have the work, it was terrible. Poverty is no fun at all. You know, I say poverty but I could have got a job washing dishes at any time I guess. When I was drawing those things in the bar, I was overjoyed when one day somebody said, "Listen, do you want to do a comic strip about this character for a newspaper?" I thought, "Oh my god! That's it. I'm finally saved." I mean, as far as being able to have a way to make a living and do something that I loved doing. That's everybody's dream.
What else are you working on now?
I'm working on another kids' book called The Small Things League. It's about a bunch of little bugs living in some kid's backyard. I'm working on the sequel to Billy Hazelnuts, which is called Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird. It's about Billy Hazelnuts and an owl. And I'm working on taking care of these little kids. They're 6 years old and 4 years old. Two girls.
If you had a get-out-of-jail-free card, what would you do with it?
I think I'd probably go back in time, to the time when I was drunk and I woke up in a Florida jail and I was outraged that I was in jail. I couldn't remember being put there and I took my shoe, the one shoe that I had on, and I banged it up against the bars and I yelled, "What are you doing? Why did you put me in jail!?" And a little fat cop walked over to me and goes, "You may think you're in Disney Land boy, but you're in the Deep South now. You best behave." I sat down and I waited from Friday ‘til Monday, when they let me out. On the other hand, if I had a get-out-of-jail-free card, I probably wouldn't have used it, because I probably did deserve to be in jail. I don't even know what I did, but it was probably really bad.
Did you ever go back to the South?
Yeah, but never for any crime worse than being loud and drunk...with my pants down. I say with my pants down, because one time I did actually get in trouble for running around in a cemetery naked. But that was actually worth it because they let me out the next morning, and the cemetery at night is a great place to run around naked.
It makes a good story.
Yeah, plus it was just beautiful...all the gravestones. I felt like a nymph. You know how to spell nymph?
I think so. | Nick Main
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