Tony Millionaire graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his new book Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird, due for release next month. This interview was conducted over email by our recently-departed Comics Journal editorial intern Jenna Allen and proofread by TCJ's Kristy Valenti. Thanks to all! –Ed.
Tony Millionaire: The reason it took so long between Billy books was not that I didn't have an idea. I actually have the first three books generally laid out as a trilogy and maybe I'll keep it going from there. The problem was The Drinky Crow Show, which gobbled up huge buckets of time. I shouldn't really call it a problem, I loved doing the show and though the first few episodes were kind of awkward, by the time we got to the last few we were really running along. My favorite is the second-to-last episode, which takes place mainly inside Mme. Duboursay's uterus and Uncle Gabby's rectum. I also did the Elvis Costello record album and a few one-offs like the Iron Man piece for Marvel, and of course, the weekly Maakies. There was also about 80 pages of Sock Monkey squeezed in there somewhere. I hope to get Billy Hazelnuts 3 out much quicker.
JA: Have you read any comics lately that you enjoyed?
TM: Yes, Wilson by Dan Clowes. It's the funniest thing I've read in a long time. I love the switcheroo of styles all through the book, and I love the way you think at first that it's just a collection of one-offs about an annoying loser who you can identify with because he's blurting out all the things you'd blurt out but you didn't want your ass kicked. I've read his more serious stuff, it's refreshing to see this accessible, funny version of his earlier work, I really love this book. I've also been reading Fletcher Hanks, this guy was totally out of his mind, you can see his insanity in his drawings even more than in the writing, strange peculiar man, I am crazy about his work. I've been going over the Popeye books, the hamburger jokes never get old. "Come up to the house for duck dinner, YOU BRING THE DUCKS." Also, I check American Elf every day for my dose of regular family life, and while I could stomach the Pasadena Star-News I loved reading Drabble, Family Circus and Tina's Groove by Rina Piccolo with my kids.
JA: With all the attention and care you give to draftsmanship, it seems surprising that you're as prolific as you are. How long does it take you to make a single page of Billy Hazelnuts, from blank page to inks?
TM: Once I sit down, it's all work, I just crank it out. The problem is getting down to my table. When people say I'm prolific I have to disagree, I procrastinate a lot. Then again, walking around or doing nothing is a good way to come up with ideas, so I guess I'm always working. When I'm feeling good I get between one and two pages per night drawn from pencil to ink. I found a nice technique to speed it up, I work at a size which is just barely larger than the print size. That way, they shrink it down and it looks crisp, but I don't have to use a huge illustration board. With pens you don't need all that space, but if you work with a brush you do. I don't.
JA: Part of what makes your art so fascinating is the way you combine the grotesque with more classic illustration in the vein of Herriman or Winnie the Pooh. Do you ever feel conflicted between these two different aesthetics when you are drawing, or does it all come out very naturally?
TM: Sometimes I consciously try to draw more like Herriman or Ernest Shepard, but my hand always twists back to itself after a little while. Drawing is like handwriting, which is why you can tell a fake Pollock from the real thing. I can't, but I guess somebody could.
JA: Baby birds in your works seem to be connected to themes of life and what it means to be a living creature. It plays a big part in this Billy story, and it also came up in Sock Monkey too, when Uncle Gabby accidentally kills a baby bird. What do these baby birds represent in your work?
TM: Most baby animals are adorable; kittens, bears, horses, even alligators. But the poor baby bird, even with its giant eyes and wobbly head, is usually quite ugly. The grotesque pig-like skin, sticky feathers, ugly open screeching mouth. The curled up shitty feet and bumpy head, it really looks like a malformed earthworm. But it also exudes this charming sort of helplessness, you have to help the little guys, and when you see a dead baby pigeon on a city sidewalk it makes you tear up like a blubbering waif, pity mixed with nausea. There you lie, you hideous mass of garbage, if you'd gotten past this awful part of your life, you could have soared in the sunlight on a cold February morning! But look at you now, you look like the worst dish in a bad Chinese restaurant.
JA: Why does Billy feel such a responsibility to help this baby bird if he finds animals to be "disgusting bags of meat"? What motivates Billy?
TM: Billy's story in Book One was about him being made, going through changes which depended upon who was cutting his scalp off and stuffing his head. First he's a fighting monster, then a friend to Becky, a demon influenced by that crazy Gator built by Eugene, etc etc. It was about Billy's journey to figure out who he was. In Book Two he is still a tough guy, fighting the animals in the farm, full of self-hatred because he realizes he is close to becoming one of them. In his rage he harms this little bird by driving away its mommy, he is driven by guilt to help it. Being a very passionate person, he takes this new responsibility very seriously, it becomes his duty to assist the bird, even though the bird is eating his "flesh" (suet, bread dough, mold, molasses etc) all through the adventure.
It's the second stage of life, see? 1. Getting alive. 2. Having a duty. 3. Attaining enlightenment.
Our Aunt Judy embroidered a pillow for us: "Raising children is like being pecked to death by a duck."
So there you have it, I've spilled the beans about the whole book and series. Now I just have to figure out how to deal with Book Three, the whole Old Man Enlightenment volume. Coming soon!
JA: In this book, Becky assumes a much smaller role than in the first. Does she have her own adventures when Billy's away?
TM: Maybe, I haven't figured that out yet, but I want her to have a major role in Book Three. She's a very strong character and means a lot to Billy, just as all guiding angelic scientifical motherly saints do. Her presence means everything. She's the one who gave him the hazelnuts, she's an agnostical Goddess!
JA: Ann-Louise/Uncle Gabby seems to be almost the same as Becky/Billy, except of course with Becky being sassier and more involved than Ann-Louise. Do you think the relationships would be the same if genders were swapped around? Like if Ann-Louise or Becky were little boys or Gabby and Billy were girls? Would the stories still work? Or is there something about the mother/child relationship that is necessary for these stories?
TM: I think the mother/child relationship works for both genders, like me and my little dog "Whisky."
Even with me and my little girls, and vice versa. It just depends on the story.
JA: Have you received any feedback on the first Billy Hazelnuts from either children or their parents?
TM: Moms love the book, Daddies love the book, kids love the book.
When I presented my idea to Gary Groth at Fantagraphics he said, "Well, we don't really publish children's books." I said, "This is not a children's book! It appeals to the same audience that the Sock Monkey books appeal to!" He said, "I thought the Sock Monkey books were children's books…" I said, "No, they're great for kids, no swearing, but they're for people who remember being kids. Have you ever read an old favorite children's book and found it kind of lame compared to how magical it was when you were a kid? Well, Billy Hazelnuts is for that person!"
JA: Do you think there will be many more Billy Hazelnuts books?
TM: Yes, very many. I love these characters. I will always produce Maakies weekly, Sock Monkey now and then, and Billy Hazelnuts now and then. I don't like regular schedules, but I love continuation of character.
JA: Is there anything I've missed? Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
TM: Let's raise the tax on tea by 15% !!!