A Children's Book for Adults | Book Review | Chicago Reader

A Children's Book for Adults 

Tony Millionaire's scary, magical new graphic novel

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Billy Hazelnuts

Tony Millionaire

(Fantagraphics)

One of the only fan letters I've ever written was to cartoonist Tony Millionaire. I wanted a bird tattoo, and he draws some of the best birds ever, especially crows in thick, black ink that hang somewhere between John James Audubon's nature studies and Ralph Steadman's expressionist nightmares. During a slow shift at Kinko's I e-mailed Millionaire, asking him to draw one special for me. He was game, as long as I'd agree to a tattoo of his drunk, suicidal Drinky Crow character as well. I wimped out on that deal, but we kept up a short correspondence after that about the best cheap beers. He recommended ice beers for their high alcohol content and low price. It was good advice at the time.

The Tony Millionaire who gives out drinking advice to his fans is the creator of Maakies, a strip that appears among other places in the Reader and has a huge Internet fan base. Each week's installment usually ends tragically for the heroes--Drinky and a monkey named Uncle Gabby--due to their own ineptitude and drunkenness. It's full of poop jokes, minority stereotypes, poetry, and endings that mock Henny Youngman-style punch lines as much as they revel in them. I keep a hardbound collection of strips on my coffee table, and visitors tend to read it front to back when they pick it up.

But there's another Tony Millionaire, who draws award-winning children's comics with Drinky and Gabby recast as stuffed animals having mild (but surrealistic) misadventures around the household of the little girl who owns them. These stories usually wind up with hugs rather than with violence by handgun.

Millionaire does his best work when--as in his Sock Monkey comics--he lets his profane and sentimental selves cohabit. And his new graphic novel, Billy Hazelnuts, may be the best he's done yet.

Becky is a prepubescent astronomer and inventor in pigtails, a pragmatic, science-minded girl who can't stand poetry but has no problem navigating a dreamlike world populated by talking sheep and talking meteors. Billy Hazelnuts is a golemlike creature with a head full of houseflies, crafted by the mice in Becky's cellar out of garbage and treacle to murder Becky's mother, a tyrant who keeps them from the family's cheese. Billy's birth is weirdly menacing--he rises unsteadily to his feet as a roomful of mice chant "Get alive! Get alive!"--but he doesn't turn out to be much of an assassin. Instead he hides out in the barn after an epic battle with a house cat. When Becky finds him there, she cleans him up and replaces the flies in his eye sockets with hazelnuts, so he can see. They become fast friends, and before long they're off on a quest to find the secret hiding spot the moon goes to when it sets.

Millionaire's drawings are like scrimshaw, with their deliberate, etched look and sense of high action frozen in place, but the ethereal, nonlinear way the pictures flow--landscapes that shift from New England mountains to southwestern desert rock formations, flocks of bats drifting through the corner of a panel--is even more indebted to Winsor McCay's early-20th-century Little Nemo strips. Like Nemo, Becky and Billy find not just danger--here in the form of a robotic alligator man built by the crushed-out poet Becky has spurned--but danger that follows the slippery logic of dreams. When the flying boat commanded by the gator man crashes with a broken wing, he simply rears the ship back onto its long, buckle-shoed legs and continues the chase "on foot."

As Billy and Becky travel further into the unreal, Millionaire draws the reader closer to the story's heart. As the action piles up in increasingly fantastic ways (peaking in a battle on the open sea, one of Millionaire's favorite subjects), Billy's relationship with Becky, and with humanity itself, comes under attack. When the smoke clears and Billy finds himself lost, alone, and blinded, it's hard not to feel more sympathy for a gross little trash man than you'd have thought possible.

Though Little Nemo, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz echo throughout Billy Hazelnuts, odds are there won't be many kids reading it. It's not bloody, but it's harsh and unlikely to become a staple of contemporary kids' lit. And though Tony Millionaire may deserve the love of children, most of his followers are adult comics geeks. But when they find themselves caught up in Millionaire's gorgeously deep dreaming, they'll probably forget that they're grown.

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