Monster interview with Tony Millionaire, creator of the Maakies comic strip.
See more and better reproduced Maakies strips, here.
Tony Millionaire's sort of the Charles Bukowski of comics. That is, if Bukowski'd been obsessed with Patrick O'Brian novels, French shipbuilding, and eating monkey brains. Millionaire, 51, is the creator of the world's greatest comic strip, the Maakies, which runs in alternative papers all over the country, and has graduated to the small screen in shorts shown on Saturday Night Live and in a pilot that ran this May on Adult Swim.
I interviewed Millionaire shortly after the pilot ran. It took me forever to get this beast of an interview transcribed, but here it is, slightly truncated. I would truncate more, but I figure this will mainly appeal to fans of Millionaire's brilliant, booze-addled strip, with its drunken monkey Uncle Gabby and its suicidal avian Drinky Crow. And those fans will likely dig Millionaire's tales of Gabby-esque depravity. You can see more of Millionaire's work at maakies.com. Also, if you plug in "Drinky Crow" or "Maakies" into YouTube, you can see some Maakies animation.
I consider this part of my ongoing campaign to get Phoenix New Times to pick up the strip. Other papers in New Times' family rock the strip, why not us? Hey, I'm working on it.
When the Maakies was first picked up by the New York Press back in 1994, did you anticipate the success it would have?
Tony Millionaire: I actually did. I thought to myself, I remember I was walking along in Staten Island – I used to draw houses for a living, and I’d just like drop cards in people’s mailboxes, and they’d call me up and I’d draw their house. I kinda liked the job ‘cause I got to walk around in beautiful neighborhoods a lot, and during some parts of the year it paid pretty well and some parts of the year I was starving. But I thought man, I gotta do something different than this.
Then when the New York Press picked up that strip, I was walking along Staten Island, and there were these huge flocks of crows, flying across the sky, ‘cause they were headed over to the dump where they fight with the seagulls. And I thought, that’s a sign! Crows! That’s Drinky Crow! Thought, oh my god, I’m destined for great things! Now I can finally spew my poisoned mind out over the world.
Drinky Crow started on a cocktail napkin or something, right? Is that the story?
TM: It was. The first one was on a cocktail napkin in a bar called Six Twelve in Brooklyn. The bartender started giving me pieces of paper, and he said, “Keep drawing those things.” So I started drawing little comic strips. I was very depressed, it was during one of those winters where it was just so frozen cold, ice everywhere and I couldn’t get any work drawing houses. My girlfriend said, I think it’s time for you to move out, you’re not going to be able to pay the rent. So I moved to a friend’s couch – and, I was fighting with these awful cats that he had that were always attacking me.
The guy [at the bar] said to me, “Every time you draw one of those little comics I’ll give you a free beer.” I said, “Great!” So he put them in the bar newsletter, which he then, you know used it as like the mascot to his bar. I was the resident cartoonist. And then from there somebody saw it and brought it over to the New York Press . And they said, "Why don’t you work up three strips, see how they look." I did the first three Drinky Crow comic strips, and then it just took off. Then I started working for magazines. I got a lot of illustration work. And eventually I started paying taxes.
Is that bar still there?
TM: I don’t think so. The problem with that bar is it turned, I don’t know, some Sopranos types started hanging around there, like looking around, and wanted a percentage of it. I mean it started out as a hipster bar, but then it was in like, an Italian neighborhood which, when these young tough guys would show up there and start muscling everybody, each other, around, and threatening people, and you know, wanting a percentage, and finally, eventually they just took it over. Riley was the guy who ran the place. Don’t know if he sold it to them, or if he just gave it to them and left. But I don’t know what it is now, probably a bakery. Or a pork store.
I heard you drew drinking crows in the bathroom there.
TM: Yeah. The thing was that people in the bar generally picked up the concept. And they started drawing their own drinking crows, and I was encouraging them, like yeah come on let’s just keep drawing em! So we’d draw drinking crow comics back and forth. People started drawing them in the bathroom and uh, drawing them on the walls and they made a big Styrofoam drinking crow that they put out on the front of the bar. I think that’s when the neighbors started to notice something weird was going on in there.
What’s the appeal of a crow as a character?
TM: I don’t know. Just, yeah, ah, you old crow, walking along, getting something to drink, all to hell with it all, quick gimme a bottle of booze, good that’s enough, now gimme that gun, bam! I was quite depressed in those days.
Drinky Crow's the more suicidal of the two, right?
TM: Yes, the more introspective.
How did Uncle Gabby evolve?
TM: Uncle Gabby, he’s more like a Peter Bagge character. [Bagge’s the creator of the comic book Hate.] Peter Bagge once said to me, we were walking along, he goes, “Uh God, why didn’t I kill myself when I was 20 when I had the nerve?”
Why make Uncle Gabby a monkey?
TM: You think of a crow, dark old crow, walking along, beat up old bird, scavenger, very smart, thoughtful, but still just like a dark character. And then, juxtaposed to that you have to have a monkey because a monkey is just like stupid and goofy and funny. You know, there’s all the mystery that goes on behind monkeys, like the monkey’s paw, the brass monkey, the whole idea about cutting a monkey’s head off and eating its brains.
Which has happened in some of your cartoons.
TM: It has.
Did they eat Uncle Gabby brains? I can’t remember…
TM: I think there’s an old trick where you have a table with a circle in it, and you put the monkey’s head up there and they take a machete and chop the top of his head off and eat the brains. But the joke is, it’s sort of just full of strangers, and you really stick a coconut up there, you tie the monkey up there so monkey screams, but you actually put a coconut through the hole. When you lop it off, it’s actually loppin’ off a coconut. I’m not sure exactly how that story goes, but I did play with it a little bit.
Is Drinky Crow always drinking rum?
TM: Drinky Crow will drink anything he can get his hands on. His motive is not to get a flavorful drink, his motive is to get hammered. In fact at one point he didn’t have any booze, so he got Uncle Gabby to shove a can of turpentine up his ass and hit him with a chisel.
Who do you identify more with? Drinky Crow or Uncle Gabby?
TM: Well I think any cartoonist [who] is trying to get at something close to the truth, is basically doing all self-portraits. Drinky Crow is a part of me that’s just like boringly staring into a wall saying, “What’s the use, why am I bothering at all to live?” And Uncle Gabby is me when I’m trying to justify my absurd behavior…But if you’re gonna have a story that’s gonna just describe the cosmos-searching eye of depression and evil, you gotta put that crow in there. But not evil so much, I don’t like to use the word evil, but it’s, you know, it’s just sort of introspection. That eye that looks at yourself and says, “What am I doing?”
Do you drink heavily yourself?
TM: I drank much more heavily than I [do now], but I do drink quite a bit of beer in the garage at night when I’m working.
One of the interviews I've read about you said you used to drink harder stuff, but you went to beer, basically.
TM: I used to always carry a bottle of vodka in my pocket because it was the liquor that would get me the drunkest without making me throw up. When I’d go to bars I’d try to cadge drinks, or buy drinks, but I always had a bottle of vodka, back-up.
Did you order something to mix it with, and then dump it in there?
TM: Not really, I don’t like mixed drinks too much, because they get in the way. But you order a beer, coupled with taking hits off your half-pint of vodka, you end up pretty drunk by the end of the night. So all you need to do is buy two beers. You’re all set.
I wouldn’t call it quality, but it’s a buzz alright. I mean, I tell ya, I would get in a lot of trouble. I was in jail maybe ten times for drunkenness, throwing bicycles through windows and stuff like that.
TM: Oh yeah. I do not recommend carrying a bottle of vodka in your back pocket.
Was this all back on the East Coast?
TM: Oh God, all over the place. I lived in Berlin for five years, I lived in Florida for a year, I lived in California for half a year. I lived in Rome.
I woke up in jail one time, I don’t know how I got there, in Fort Lauderdale, but not spring break. I hated spring break, but I wanted to be in Florida during the winter months. And I woke up in jail with only one shoe. And I jumped up, and I took the shoe off, and I started banging on the bar, the bars of cell. I said, “What am I doing in this jail and where’s my other shoe?” And the sheriff walked over, it was a fat little sheriff, walks over and goes, “You may think you in Disneyland, boy, but you in the deep South now. You best behave.”
Were you in there with other people, or were you solo?
TM: No, that time I was solo, but I’ve been in drunk tanks many times. It’s not fun. A lot of vomiting and sleeping on cold floors.
So at some point did you decide, okay, I’m not going to do this anymore, that’s when you made the switch over to beer?
TM: Yeah one of the things that did it actually was getting this comic strip going. Once I had a regular deadline, I had something in my life to sort of pour all my anger and frustration into, it was like, now I’ve got this, like, venue. It really saved me. And from then on, I kept drinking, of course, but every Monday I had to get down and do the strip. Get to work, do the strip, gotta have it done. You had to meet that deadline, otherwise, that was it. Those paper guys, especially in those days, they wouldn’t fuck around. They would like, they were like, “Millionaire, I know you’re hungover.” They’re on the telephone, “Get that strip in now! You’re fifteen minutes late.” Like, whoa! And I’d have to jump up and do it. And they weren’t kidding around. So it was good.
What I had to do finally, I knew I didn’t want to stop drinking, and I still don’t want to stop drinking, but I knew I had to do something, so I switched to beer and wine. But then on my 40th birthday, I found myself with a couple of bottles of Merlot, and I was just chugging ‘em down as fast as I could. I ended up on the top of a taxi cab, banging on the window, yelling, “Why won’t you let six people in your cab!” Cab takes off down the street, and I thought, either I could hang on, or jump off. And he kept going faster, and I said, I better jump off. So I jump, and I land, I like ripped the pants on my leg all the way up the side, and I got a giant cut. I screwed up my back, and I was quite bloody and bruised. My face was all bruised, and then I said well maybe I’ll switch to just beer from now on.
That’s like classic Uncle Gabby activity. Have your adventures ended up in the strip?
TM: Oh yeah, of course, everything. I did a strip about the safety harness that the doctor invented for Uncle Gabby where if you got into a car accident it would set off these cherry bombs that would go off all along his vertebrae. Pop the whole spine out of his back. And land by the side of the road in a parachute. That way, he wouldn’t be damaged by the crash. Unfortunately, this usually results in the death of the patient. But the spine was fine.
Were you happy with the pilot that ran on Adult Swim?
TM: Oh, I loved that. It was so much fun making that. We’re gonna start working on some more.
When are we going to see the next ones?
TM: I’m not sure what the timetable’s going to be, but I just got the call today and we’re gonna start working on them next week.
It’s a very different animal, even from the ones [that were on YouTube]. Now I haven’t seen the ones that were on Saturday Night Live, but I’ve see the ones that were on YouTube. I assume those are the same ones that were on Saturday Night Live, is that correct?
TM: Yeah, those are the old Saturday Night Live ones.
Those have a comic strip timing to them. There will be a pause, and then something will happen. But with the Drinky Crow Show that we saw on Sunday night, it was like very fast, it was a lot of action going on. So do you think it’s very different in that way from the comic strip?
TM: Yes, it’s a much different format. The things for Saturday Night Live were done, basically they were taken from the comic strips, and we didn’t have very much time with them at all. So we had to get the joke across pretty quick. Some of them were like combinations of one or two strips. But when you’re doing a quarter hour show, you’ve got to develop a whole story, then you’ve got to put a lot of action in it, ‘cause it’s funny. So it’s working long-form, it’s…it’s why working with Eric Kaplan is so great, because Eric Kaplan, he’s a producer and writer on this show, he writes for Futurama and he writes for Malcolm in the Middle, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, he wrote for that show, so he knows how to write long-form shows, which I don’t. I’m just good at getting to the gag, getting the concept out. So when we combine our forces, that’s when we get some really good long stories.
In the weekly comics, what materials do you use?
TM: I use ink on Bristol board, just like and old-fashioned fountain pen, just the same kind of stuff that they used in the '20s. I really try to get the look of a combination between the '20s and the early '60s, the underground comics.
I have this vision of you in some cluttered space with ships in bottles and all these nautical things. What is your working space really like?
TM: You just described it perfectly. The garage behind my house, it was built for a Model-T. I don’t even think you could get a modern car into it. It was built for a Model-T, and I didn’t want to put sheet rock up on it or anything, because I like the rafters, and all that stuff, so I just kinda painted it. And then I put deer heads, and oil paintings of some of my grandparents, and I have a couple of stuffed animals, lot of taxidermy. And you’re right, ship models. Ship models everywhere.
Old newspaper comics, I have taped to the wall all over the place. So it’s really nice. Then I got a bunch of antiques. When I say antiques, I like to buy broken antiques, because number one, they look like they’re really used, from a real house. Number two, they’re really cheap. If you buy a broken antique, that means the lighting in that garage is very nice ‘cause I’ve got a lot of antique lamps in there.
And then of course bookshelves everywhere, so when you walk in, it’s like, aah, comfort. And then I’ve got lots of books about ships – ships in the ocean. So I can figure out, I really want to make sure that when I draw a ship, even if it’s a cartoon ship, it’s gotta be properly rigged. You know, it’s gotta come from a real ship. So I’ll make it bold and funny and humorous, but the masts are all in the right place, it has the right number of sails.
I’ve read it was your grandfather who influenced you as far as all the nautical-themed
TM: Yep, grandfather and grandmother, she was even better than him. She was amazing. She did beautiful portraits and paintings of ships. She could paint the ocean’s water color better than anybody I’d ever seen. I mean really great paintings. My grandfather was really into comics and he had collections of old newspaper comics that he had put in a box and saved. So I would be looking at stuff that you could buy in collections now, but you couldn’t buy then. You know old Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, stuff like that.
Yeah, I was going to mention Krazy Kat. So all these comics were influential in the way you execute your work?
TM: Absolutely. I mean that stuff was just, as far as I’m concerned, just the finest artwork Americans have ever made...the architecture of the 1800s and the comics of the early 1900s.
SL: Why are the French depicted as alligators in your strips?
TM: The thing is I was reading a lot of Patrick O’Brian, and the French were such great warriors in those books, and they had beautiful, splendorous uniforms. Napoleon himself just always looked so cool to me, riding around on that horse, you know with those big stallions and buttons and sashes, and all those guys in the Napoleonic era, that I wanted to bring them into the comics. I was in New Orleans during some part of the earliest Maakies. For like about four months of the first year of Maakies, I was sending it up from New Orleans...We would go on alligator tours and swamp tours, so I decided to make the French alligators. They would be speaking in sort of Cajun talk. After the Napoleonic wars a lot of the French escaped to New Orleans, so they were down there. And they were eating frog legs, just like an alligator would, you know.
One of my problems with that was that, later on, during the whole bullshit American wars that are going on now, they all decided we hate the French. And calling French cowards, I mean, what? Cowards! The French? The French were like, some of the fiercest warriors, they had a French empire. Nothing cowardly about the French. So you know, that kind of bothered me. So now it kind of looks like I’m making the French be the enemy. But that wasn’t my intent at all. My intent was to show the French as ferocious warriors.
I think that comes off, ‘cause they’re scary. They’re definitely scary.
TM: Oh yeah, those guys were. Did you ever read Patrick O’Brian. Oh, god, those are some of the greatest books I ever read.
So that was a big influence on you as well? Was that before, or during the period you were writing them? How has that influenced you?
TM: During. I mean, I was drawing Maakies, and I started drawing the French alligators and somebody said you gotta start reading Patrick O’Brian and gave me the book, and it was just like…There’s 20 of them, you know, 20 novels, historical novels. Just beautifully written. And I just read them like three or four times each. They were just so great. And you know, the French were really good at – they were very good at – torture. And building ships. And the thing was that half the British navy was captured French ships, ‘cause the French, they really knew how to build ships very well.