In those halcyon days of the early ’90s, in Brooklyn’s hipsterdom of Williamsburg, amid the Doctor Seuss hats and pierced nipples, there once stood a towering figure of a man ever ready for a stiff drink and a chance to see his art take yet undreamt of form. In that era, Millionaire came across as one of those guys with a streak of mad genius who could draw you anything for a little beer money. I knew a guy like that. You did too. But these guys never saw their ships come in. Millionaire did. And, no, he wasn’t just a lucky bastard. He made his ship come in by creating it himself, drawing every intricate detail of that vessel from stem to stern. And it would be populated by the most glorious creatures: Uncle Gabby, a deranged ape patterned after a dear alcoholic genius; the navy of alligators, suggested by a violent friend in New Orleans; and Drinky Crow, standing in for all of humanity, drunkard or otherwise.
“The Art of Tony Millionaire,” published by Dark Horse, is a serious, yet irreverent, mid-career retrospective of one of the best known and beloved cartoonists around. Read his comic strip, “Maakies,” in your local alt weekly and feel the rush of anarchy take hold. Read this book, full of honest recollections from the artist, and feel like you know the man. “Maakies,” by the way, goes back to when Millionaire drew a comic strip called, “Batty,” for a sports zine. The guy who put it together, Spike Vrusho, loved to yell out, “Maakies!” whenever he caught sight of the tugboats with the big M’s on their stacks coming into New York harbor.
Like any good coffee table book, along with a marvelous selection of comics and illustrations, this book is full of wonderful anecdotes you can enjoy flipping to in order or at random. There’s stories, for instance, about bumming around Europe as a young man. In Rome, he created one really good drawing of the Roman Forum, made a hundred prints, and proceeded to sell each of them to tourists who thought they’d just caught him as he was drawing the original. For good measure, full of youthful rage, he pissed in every famous Roman fountain he could find. With security tight for the two Vatican fountains, he had to piss in a cup and discretely pour it in during the day. Then there’s Berlin, where he may have stirred an international incident.
Before any of this, there was Gloucester, Massachusetts. Unsuited for college, and even less for a job as a dishwasher, young Tony hit upon selling drawings of his rich neighbor’s houses. “I always knew it was my bread and butter,” he writes. We can imagine him reassuring himself of this with each sale. “I always knew it was my bread and butter.” He also had his family for moral support. His father was an illustrator and his mother and grandparents were painters. When you learn that, to round out his income, he would go down to the wharves to draw schooners just as beautiful as the ones his grandfather drew, it might bring a tear to your eye.
It is the curse and blessing of the young turk to push and pull against society and hope to live to see another day. That was the Millionaire way of life. By the time he was forty, he decided it was time to cut back a bit on the rage. A bunch of his friends had hailed a cab. There were five of them and the driver would only take four. Tony crawled on the top of the cab, screaming through the windshield. The cab took off with him on top and he was forced to jump. Luckily, there were no broken bones. He could afford to bring things down a notch. He was now a featured artist in the “New York Press” and his life as an artist was tangible. He could probably sense the upswing in his life. “I always knew it was my bread and butter.”
The success that followed would flow from “Maakies” and evolve to full length works of exquisite complexity like “Sock Monkey” and “Billy Hazelnuts.” Like Crumb, he followed his own muse from a bygone era and imbued his art with a timeless grace.
You can’t rush anything worthwhile. That certainly holds true for comics. You can’t rush creating anything of lasting value and you can’t rush reading it either. That’s the tradition comics come from. It is what makes “Maakies” so darn good. The eye is teased to linger on some nautical detail or some arcane turn of phrase or some unusual use of body parts. It is a modern day miracle of comics is what it is.
“The Art Of Tony Millionaire,” 200 pages, hardcover, 9″x12″, $39.95, published by Dark Horse Comics