Billy Hazelnuts Rides Again: The TFT Review of Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird
Recently I was asked what authors I find so interesting or compelling that I have to immediately get any new book they put out. There are, of course, a ton of authors I love. But with most I wouldn’t feel desperate to immediately read their latest work. Most of them still have backlogs I’m slowly working through. So the list isn’t very long. George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Brian Evenson, David Foster Wallace (whose final posthumous novel should be coming out next year), and probably a few more. One name that would go on my list though is the twisted genius Tony Millionaire.
Millionaire seems to do a million things, but he is best known for two series: the ribald Maakies comic strip and the beautiful and surreal Sock Monkey series. Although Maakies is decidedly for adults and Sock Monkey is ostensibly for children, the world between these series is blurry. Maakies chronicles the nautical adventures of an alcoholic crow, Drinky Crow, and his vulgar monkey friend, Uncle Gabby. In Sock Monkey, these two characters are suddenly inquisitive stuffed toys. Sometimes the Sock Monkey versions invade Maakies strips, other times the Sock Monkey comics seem as twisted and violent as their Maakies counterparts. (Tony Millionaire has said that “some of the Sock Monkey books I do are for kids, and some are definitely not.”)
Unlike those two series, the Billy Hazelnuts books are safe for children, while still being unique and complex enough for adults. Here Millionaire combines a gung-ho adventure spirit with a tempered yet still present darkness—two strains that have been the keys to so much of the greatest children’s literature. Think Alice in Wonderland, Brothers Grimm tales, Hans Christian Anderson or Where The Wild Things Are. Billy Hazelnuts fits comfortably alongside those classics in both temperament and quality.
The first book, which won Eisner and Ignatz awards in 2007, tells the tale of a golem created by mice to kill their housecat nemesis. The golem, first named Billy Houseflies, slowly realizes his humanity during his adventures with a scientifically-minded young girl named Becky. The story is jam-packed with wild adventures and a rollicking, surreal sense of story and humor. Its sequel, Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird (Fantagraphics, 2010, $19.99), is no different.
Where the first story featured Becky as the protagonist, Crazy Bird is all Billy’s tale. And where the first book showed Billy Hazelnuts struggling with his mind—his skull is at various times filled with houseflies, frosted cake and bats that distort his personality accordingly—the sequel shows him battling with the body. Billy is sickened by the base animals around him. “One animal licking the juice of another! The sickening world of beasts!” he screams upon seeing the housecat lapping up a little milk. Billy seems to have no outlet for his disgust except violence. He tosses the cows, fights the housecat and then later brawls with an owl in defense of the cat (“I do loathe that cat…but it’s our cat!”)
His bodily issues soon turn literal when he discovers the owl he spooked has left behind a hungry baby owlet. As the owlet begins chomping on Billy’s head and limbs, he begins a mad dash to return the “crazy bird” to its mother before he is swallowed completely. I won’t ruin the plot of the book, but will only say it involves a gingerbread racecar, an angry rant from the foiled housecat, an alligator boat salesmen, and plenty of other wacky and hilarious adventures.
Much of Millionaire’s appeal is his stunning artwork. Millionaire’s draws a unique combination of intricate line-art and a slapstick comic style. Ornate Victorian houses share the page with giant sweat drops, dizzy stars, and other classic visual tropes that date back to the beautiful comic strips of the early 20th century like Krazy Kat. Millionaire’s language feels similarly anachronistic. Characters regularly uses phrases like “my goat’s been gotten,” “you puny rapscallion,” and “where are you going you sinuous grimalkin?!!” The result is an odd and unique tone that softens the violence and enhances the bizarre humor.
Tony Millionaire is a genius and the Billy Hazelnuts books may be his best work. Imagine if Beatrix Potter had dropped acid with the 60s underground comix crowd or if A.A. Milne had collaborated with Franz Kafka. If you love fun, hilarious, and plain weird stories, then Billy Hazelnuts is for you.
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