I did not trip and fall.

*Which is why I did not edit the prior post.

Billy Hazelnuts

I don’t quite recall when this book was first released. The legal indicia cites February, though that seems a bit far back for me. Regardless, it’s fitting that I write about this tome, a Fantagraphics release, mere days after that same company announced the upcoming release of a fresh set of hardcovers compiling E.C. Segar’s Popeye-related run on Thimble Theater. With its broad comedy, nautical accouterments, bruising protagonist, and imaginative sense of adventure, there’s more that a little Segar in Tony Millionaire’s latest project.

Millionaire is already a well known artist for separate works - most constant in its presence is his sometimes absurd, sometimes despairing, sometimes grotesque, sometimes poetic adults-only weekly comic strip Maakies, thus far collected by Fantagraphics into a quartet of annual(ish) books. Fitting somewhere in there is the miniature hardcover Mighty Mite: The Ear Mite. Then there’s his Sock Monkey work with Dark Horse, encompassing four separate pamphlet-format miniseries (collected into two trades), three children’s picture books, one illustrated prose book for children, and an original 48-page graphic novel. As you might guess, this material is far less visceral than Maakies, though it exists as something of a parallel version of the same world - both works deal with the misadventures of a talking, comedic primate and a crow team, and both of them are infused with Millionaire’s love for classic newspaper comics craftsmanship, turn of the (20th) century architecture and design, fables and yarns and songs, and vintage children’s literature.

Billy Hazelnuts thus fits right in with Millionaire’s body of work, though it shares little direct connection with any of his other books or series. Certain character designs are recast into different roles, yes – you’ll recognize the little old fellow with the pointy hat, and the shipload of mechanical pirate crocodiles – but the overriding feeling of bibliographic unity arrives through common authorial concern and the drawing from similar influences. It’s just that each corner of Millionaire’s work amplifies certain aspects of the collective body to different degrees, though I’ve found almost all of the results I’ve read pleasing in some way (I’ve not kept up with my Sock Monkey, though).

This is possibly the most immediately pleasing of all Millionaire’s work, though. It’s a straight-up comedy/adventure yarn, told in a single 112-page hardcover book, and it absolutely crackles with energy and pure goddamned joy, though that’s not to say that everything is happy. Actually, the start of it is quite grotesque – a sort of golem is created from slop and garbage by mice living at the Rimperton farm, basically as a means of shoring up their cheese-snatching ability, flies packed into the muck-being’s head as a means of making it wild. The resultant being gets into nasty scrapes with brooms and cats, until he’s discovered by brilliant young Becky, an amateur astronomer and all-around scientific mind ("Ha ha, it works! A perfect holo-graphic image of 'Venus,' the morning star!"), who simply hates being distracted from her research by Eugene, a young poet who's taken a shine to her:

"I am a scientist, Eugene, not a starry-headed romantic! I don't have time for all your versifying and dalliance!"

No, Becky is more interested in the trash creature; she removes the flies from his head, pops in a pair of hazelnuts for eyes, plops the upper half of a grand cake upon his crown, and calls him Billy Hazelnuts. This does not quite cure the creature's natural spoiling for fights, nor his childish curiosity about how the heavens work, questions like 'where does the moon go when night is over?' fluttering in his now-frosted skull. Of course, the answers eventually found by Billy are utterly logical, once you accept the whimsical fable-logic of the book's world. Needless to say, there's a junkyard over the hills where broken, worn-out planets go to rot, along with a number of nasty dangers, some of which can perhaps be traced back to the jilted, not entirely scientifically untalented Eugene.

What results is a frankly wonderful series of encounters and cliffhangers, all executed in the high style of a fast-moving adventure strip of consummate ability, flying ships roaring through the skies, whales hooked like trout, talking animals manning cannons and rocking horses turned into motorized wonders. It's Tony Millionaire, so needless to say the dialogue is a blast ("I'm the pet child of calamity! I'll swallow a live goat with all his hair and horns on!" and "Hold fast, Becky! Stick on like grim death!" and "Hmm... the little fellow is tougher than he looks... a regular brass cupcake!" are but a few of my favorites), and the visuals are lovely. More here than seemingly ever before, Millionaire spikes his sense of woodcut solidity with vivid, fluid cartooning verve - or maybe it's just more evident here since Millionaire's working in longform, with lots of action scenes given glorious space to fill. And when things slow down, and night falls, and bats flutter in and around and out of Billy's head, Millionaire's visions match even the most achingly sad and gorgeous Sock Monkey set pieces.

Oh yes, I did mention that not everything is happy here - Billy must pass through a void before the work is done, the same dark space that seethes around the edges of Sock Monkey, and pulses through every orifice of Maakies. There's a recurring motif of eyes in this book; Billy aquires several different sets, and another animal-made construct desires a pair for himself. Even the wildest of comics heroes can be cast adrift, left to wander in the desert, generally lost, if they're not given the means of living in a meaningful way. Ah, but worry not - this is more Sock Monkey than Maakies, and Millionaire's evocation of an earlier spirit (in only the way he can do it) is too loving to let his lost sailor and fighter stumble alone for too long. Some some things, some types - even after their failings, how can we not forgive them?