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[whitespace] Sock Monkey A Millionaire's San Simian: 'Sock Monkey' is cartoonist Tony Millionaire's richest creation.

Monkey Bonus

Tony Millionaire's drawings animate sock monkeys and add edge to Spike and Mike's cartoon festival

By Richard von Busack

IN AN IMMEMORIAL Brooklyn tavern about eight years ago, I picked up a self-published, photocopied comic featuring the obscene antics of "Drinky Crow," a black bird with a bottle reading "XXX" tucked under its wing.

Drinky stars in a series of panel cartoons, scrawled by various artists. Mostly, he's shooting--taking a pistol to disagreeable fellows, among them some fake-out barroom bohemians ("I'm spending the summer in Prague," one boasts) and Buck Showalter, then-manager of the New York Yankees.

These tales of a bad crow were executed in what looked like dried-out felt-tip pen. The best of the cartoons were signed by one Tony Millionaire. While the boozing bird was no Maltese Falcon, I was destined to run into him again. Almost all bad-boy cartoonists buckle down to become solid citizens, a fate that gives me no pleasure. Drinky Crow, however, survives in several guises.

He's currently starring in the short animated film "Maakies," part of Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, which opens Nov. 30. Millionaire's weekly strip is also titled Maakies; the word is a nonsensical childhood term, no doubt, like "dada." Maakies, the strip, appears in the New York Press and the L.A. Weekly. Despite his plutocratic pen name, Millionaire deserves more currency. He could be the George "Krazy Kat" Herriman of the alternative weeklies.

Millionaire's comic book, Sock Monkey (Dark Horse/Maverick; $2.95), relates a continuing story of toys come to life. It's family fare of the kind summed up by the title of a long-deceased anthology as "Beautiful stories for ugly children."

Now, a sock monkey is an archaic toy, made from a pair of stout work socks stuffed with cotton batting and given a wide, painted mouth like Sandra Bernhard's. This once popular doll was first lampooned by Chris Elliott in his 1994 film Cabin Boy, in which David Letterman had a cameo selling a rack of them as souvenirs.

A sock monkey represents the uncanny thing in the playroom. ("Nostalgia coupled with discomfort is a sure-fire formula, don't you think?" Millionaire told interviewer Benn Ray.) Millionaire's sock monkey is called "Uncle Gabby." The sock-simian's button-eyed friend is "Mr. Crow," a drawing-room version of the profane Drinky.

In Sock Monkey No. 1, Mr. Crow and Uncle Gabby attempt to cheer up a mouse widow, an endeavor that ends in her bloody demise. Afterward, the toys are tossed into the rose bushes. Sprawled in the thorns, "Uncle Gabby" recites some verse by the impossibly morbid pre-Raphaelite poet Coventry Patmore (1823-96). Finis.

In another issue, Gabby accidentally knocks a baby bird out of its nest and tries to commit suicide with a pair of scissors in remorse. Fortunately, Gabby is rescued, forgiven and sewed up like Frankenstein. (The adventures of Raggedy Ann, Johnny Gruelle's famous yet highly distressing children's books, have obviously influenced Millionaire--one saw a lot of Raggedy Ann's cotton-wool guts during the course of that series.)

In the Sock Monkey comics, Millionaire's architectural drawings of Victorian houses, his cartoon mice and his orotund dialogue are delicate and strange. Millionaire's feeling for antique children's literature is matched with a sensibility that won't let him forget the cruelty of that age. Sentiment and cruelty are a very Victorian pair, as in the Patmore poem "The Toys," in which a father, having slapped down his son, is moved to tears by the sights of his son's playthings.

Millionaire can create something as sensitive as Sock Monkey and still get back to his dirty Drinky Crow crow's nest. Another side of Millionaire--his fondness for snazzy 1920s-'30s American cartooning--can be seen in the anthology Legal Action Comics (Dirty Danny Legal Defense Fund, PO Box 428, Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10113-0428; $14.95). Millionaire's several contributions to Legal Action Comics include the cover and "Shtuppi Eisberg, the Libidinous Penguin," starring a Polar version of Drinky, a ribald tale that adds to the theology of the Tijuana bible, the anonymous porno comic of the Depression.

The anthology is designed to raise money for the legal fees of "Dirty" Danny Hellman, a cartoonist being sued by editorial cartoonist Ted Rall in a dispute over a prank email. (The whole sordid story can be read at www.dannyhellman.com.)

Pulitzer Prize-winner Art Spiegelman did the back cover: a territorial-pissing cartoon, a response to Rall's 1999 essay in the Village Voice claiming that Spiegelman has the New York comics scene under his thumb. Still, despite the present of the much-lauded Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch and other luminaries, Millionaire's jaunty smut outshines all the other selections.

Backwards Day

Millionaire also does the best work in another new compilation: DC/Vertigo's Bizarro Comics ($29.95). The subjects of this hit-and-miss collection are the Bizarros, an race of imperfect humanoid duplicates who live on a square planet where every day is Backwards Day.

These creatures (who first showed up in Action Comics in 1959) exist in a conscious reaction against every human deed. So the Bizarro world illustrates--in four colors, yet--a conscious "system of the transgressive" several years before Michel Foucault outlined just such a scheme in his 1961 book Madness and Civilization. But why read philosophy when you can read comics?

However, DC's new version of the sinister/comic Bizarros consists of nothing more than non sequitur-spouting clowns, and Zippy the Pinhead has beaten them to this particular punch. There is some superior work here, yes: witty pieces by Hunt Emerson and Evan Dorkin, late of San Jose. Jason Little's story about a bathing child playing with an Aquaman toy harmonizes with Millionaire's own theory of nostalgia and discomfort.

In his "Bat-Man" story, written with Chip Kidd, Millionaire makes our hero uncanny through sheer quaintness, making Bruce Wayne a facetious, jowly old playboy ("Adieu, gentlemen!" he shouts, escaping a party of old-time gangsters). The detective investigates a mysterious villain called "The Fumbler," assisted by a killer gorilla. The fearsome gorilla is the traditional villain of the early-talkie Poverty Row movie mysteries Millionaire and Kidd use as a point of reference for their adventure. You can practically hear the static on the soundtrack, the underwater warble of a badly recorded orchestra.

Millionaire seems to have the freedom of a millionaire. He's an artist who has mastered a number of fields, from the eerie beauty of Sock Monkey to the robust crank cawing of Drinky Crow. When I sent him an email mentioning that early manuscript found in a tavern, Millionaire responded, "That crow saved my life!" Moral: Hang out in bars, you'll learn a lot.

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From the November 29-December 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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