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December 14, 2016

All Hail Maakies! Tony Millionaire Ends His Stupendous Alt-Weekly Achievement After 20-Plus Years…

imageThe cartoonist Tony Millionaire has announced today through social media, publisher press release and directly to his remaining clients that today's Maakies strip will be the last one in the feature's history.

His statement:

Since that cruel icy winter in February, 1994, Drinky Crow and Maakies have been my constant companions and lifesavers. With a broken heart I sat in that bar in Brooklyn and drew comics for beers. The black coal of my heart cracked open and a bird popped out, a drunken bird, a crow, Drinky Crow. It grew, I grew, people read my little strip and they grew.

Now we're all grown up, the weekly newspapers across the world which carried the strip have almost all disappeared or dropped their comics sections for one reason or another, and here I sit, at the edge of a granite boulder, jutting out into Gloucester harbor, watching the good ship Maak sink.

This strip has been my diary, all my odd thoughts and the funny things my friends have said were jotted down in a hundred pocket notebooks and ended up in the strip, in the newspaper. I was a hard-boiled newspaperman, I was proud! The world has changed, the only comic strips that can sustain themselves anymore are those who have ambitious young strong-arms with the self-discipline to set themselves up on dedicated home-made sites or those that can land a spot on a big website or two.

Thanks to everyone who told me a good joke, to all those who told me terrible jokes which I threw in the garbage, and especially to Helena Harvilicz, without whom Maakies would have been something else entirely.

I remember Capt. Ed Grey, standing in the middle of the street in Brooklyn, his small ship sunk, homeless, his blue eyes gleaming with mania, as he stared over the cold East River, (or "sluice" as he called it,) laughing.

"What are you laughing about, Ed?"

"Oh, just the horror of being alive."

--Tony Millionaire 2016
As its creator notes, Maakies debuted in early 1994 in the New York Press. At its height sales-wise, it ran in just over two-dozen papers and the stupendous-looking originals became a much-desired premium collectible. A book series initially designed by Chip Kidd and recently re-imagined by Jacob Covey was a sales staple of early 21st Century alt-giant Fantagraphics and garnered a number of awards and additional admirers. Save for the first and final books, all of the Maakies volumes were in hardcover and in a format that presented one long strip per page.

Due to his success on Maakies, Millionaire has been able to launch two other series aimed more squarely at comic book readers and trade collection: Sock Monkey, a rollicking and touching examination of the overlap between the desires of toys and their owners, and the more wistful, slightly more straight-ahead fantasy Billy Hazelnuts. Both of the newer series should continue. Hazelnuts has a third volume in the works, while Sock Monkey is a continuing item of development interest by other media.

Millionaire currently has a strip on the Adult Swim site and plans an autobiographically-informed comics project in which longtime semi-muses Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow are planned to make appearances.


For now, though, we say goodbye to Millionaire's signature strip, one of the great works of the fruitful and prolific alt-weekly era, perhaps the great effort of its long afternoon.

Maakies reputation moving forward will likely be based on its art, its idiosyncratic sense of humor and its unique tone. Millionaire's creation was one of the most beautifully drawn commercial strips in comics history, and is one of the few comics efforts to debut after the middle of the 20th Century that one might imagine could stand alongside the meticulously crafted greats of the first and second glory periods for newspaper comics.

Maakies was focused in large part on the sometimes feeble, sometime glorious and almost always luridly-realized efforts of the ambulatory monkey Uncle Gabby and his friend Drinky Crow to push/stumble/sort their way to advantage on the horror show that can be Planet Earth. Each character had a variety of signature moments within the strips, each was equally capable of having their desires and appetites force the action, and both were strongly featured in subsequent licensing.

As readers settled into Maakies' groove to get past the extremes of its surface action, the strip came to be defined in great part by its non-recurring elements and how individual installments were informed by its creator's psychological state.

Set primarily against a nautical backdrop of ships and seaside towns that would have been familiar territory to residents of EC Segar's Thimble Theatre, Maakies subverted multiple elements of the continuing story features. Many of Millionaire's best strips felt like a jarring reversal of an ongoing saga that a quick check of previous installments verified actually didn't exist. His featured characters could die in one strip and be fully among the living one week later. Friendships could be tweaked or altered for the sake of a gag. The constant suicides and sudden deaths by happenstance were a reflection of heavy, blackout-level drinking and desire for numbness that were necessary in a world Millionaire depicted. In the world of Maakies, the most intense experiences could become that much more so with a bullet. In Tony Millionaire's world, grand human failings and dramatically monstrous acts made characters humans and fallible as opposed to demons and indictable.

This outlandish and frequently violent action combined with the darkness of its humor did make Maakies a strong target for reader dissatisfaction and pushback, although in practical terms perhaps less for the way the strip handled certain topics than for the perceived line-crossing represented by the choice of subject matter. Millionaire told CR he believed Maakies ran into more reader resistance as the years passed, and that he expected such battles to continue in intensified fashion for the life of the feature. In at least one circumstance, Maakies' take on the world was summarily and publicly rejected by the staff of the publication in which it was appearing.


Despite the sturdiness of Millionaire's basic presentation, part of the effectiveness of Maakies was that Millionaire carved out an enormous space for self-expression within what in other hands might have been narrow thematic grounds. Some of the most memorable Maakies installment eschewed jokes for serious, even elegiac declarations: the lyrics to Moon River, a lowering of the sails for the author Patrick O'Brian in 2000. It was one of those deviations that led to his most useful structural ploy. Millionaire crafted a bottom-tier strip within the strip, an homage to the old Sunday-comics habit of including a supplementary feature. The bottom strip almost always indulged in straightforward joke-making.

Millionaire recalled to CR a camaraderie among the alt-weekly cartoonists in the 1990s into the 2000s. He was one of the cartoonists in the early stages of his career offered the Jules Feiffer slot in the Village Voice upon that publication taking away his editorial salary and Feiffer's subsequent retirement decision in 1997. Millionaire's refusal to jump from the Press into what was at the time widely considered the flagship slot of alt-weekly comics publication was direct, contemptuous and without nuance. Millionaire told CR that there were a few strip-to-strip rivalries in terms of content and space over the years, but that most cartoonists in that world were as a rule helpful to one another. When Millionaire moved to Los Angeles, he says the cartoonist Carol Lay helped Maakies find a local outlet.

Cartoon efforts featuring the Maakies characters were shown as flash-animation shorts on Saturday Night Live and almost a decade later as its own show (The Drinky Crow Show) on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim time slot.

As a fan of Maakies for nearly the entirety of its run, I am grateful for its messy, ludicrous but largely humane worldview. Maakies has also acted as a delivery system for Millionaire himself: a larger than life, inebriated uncle-figure given to grand gestures and dramatic acts of kindness. When his strip first started in the Press many of us in towns without Maakies in our free papers heard as much about Millionaire as the strip itself: this legendary carousing giant in New York, doing this beautiful work the night before it was due, inexplicable and slightly not of this world. It was a different time.

The only thing like Maakies out there now that Maakies has ended will be whatever work Millionaire does in its place. With over 1100 strips in its history, Maakies is a strong candidate for eventual archival presentation marked by fewer, larger volumes and supporting material. It deserves that place on our bookshelves.

Tony Millionaire and I sat down for an interview on December 8 in advance of this news, and our interview will run Sunday to give it the widest possible exposure. We talk a lot about Maakies and what comes next.

I hope you'll come back and join all of those that hit CR on Sunday, its highest-traffic day.

Until then, enjoy Millionaire work here. If he's within range that he will hear you, thank him for a great comic strip. They don't come all that often.

posted 12:00 am PST | Permalink

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