Before becoming a renowned cartoonist, Tony Millionaire struggled to find any work at all. But after quitting a middling dishwashing job, he had an epiphany. He decided to go door-to-door in wealthy neighborhoods drawing the manicured mansions to sell to the people who lived there, earning a living one $25 piece at a time. In the winter, though, the drawing work dried up and Millionaire had to scramble to find new income, eventually landing a job as a demolition man.
“The people who had money to spend on drawings lived in big, fancy houses,” recalls Millionaire, now a nationally syndicated cartoonist. “If you have a nice, big old house, the garden comes in perfectly, the roof is fixed, the flowers are coming in nicely. How do you put a period on that? You have somebody draw a picture of it. But you can’t really do that in winter. So, I had to find a job in construction. I used to do the demolition inside houses. I’d tear them down in winter and draw them in summer.”
The grueling grind would become a theme in Millionaire’s professional life. But it was also the path that led him to his greatest creative successes. Down and out, freshly single and a self-identified alcoholic, Millionaire found himself one night at his local bar in New York City, a place called 612. Dejected, he began drawing a big-eyed suicidal bird. It was the birth of his most famous character, Drinky Crow.
“I was sad, depressed, and broken-hearted,” says Millionaire. “I went down to the bar, and I started drawing this depressed little crow blowing his brains out. And the bartender looked over at me and said, ‘Oh, you draw comics?’ I said, ‘Kind of.’ And he said, ‘Draw me a comic, and I’ll give you a beer.’ And I thought, ‘Good God, I’ve got a fucking job. This will get me through the winter.’”
Eventually, more customers in the bar began drawing crows blowing their brains out,but Millionaire remained the sole recipient of beer as payment. Drinky Crows ended up on the bathroom stalls and the walls of the bar. And the owner of 612 loved it. Drinky Crow was the watering hole’s new mascot. And soon, Millionaire didn’t have to draw houses for rich people anymore.
You could say Millionaire was fated to be a cartoonist. Despite a lifestyle and orientation to the world that resembled more skid row than MOMA, art remained thick in Millionaire’s blood. His grandfather and grandmother were professional artists, as was his mother and father. And Millionaire credits their talent and encouragement for shaping his confidence.
“I picked up a crayon and started scribbling and never stopped,” he recalls. “At three, I drew an elephant, and my mother said it was the greatest thing she’d ever seen. She continued to convince me I was a great artist and that’s why I am a great artist.”
At 10, Millionaire told his mother he wanted to be a commercial artist. But she had higher hopes for her progeny.
“She said, ‘You’re going to go to art school, take fine art, learn to draw and learn to paint,’” Millionaire says. “She said, ‘Don’t ever worry about your career, just keep working.’”
As a result, Millionaire has established himself as one of the most prolific cartoonists working today. He’s a craftsman. He doesn’t doodle. Rather, he gets an idea for a strip and bangs it out, creating deep, rich panels with expressive, eye-catching characters. He’s a student of the Sunday papers of the ‘30s and ‘40s, an art form that has all but dried up of late due to vast newspaper cutbacks.
This year, though, he relaunched his popular strip “Maakies”, which originally ran from 1994-2016, online, and has used Instagram to get his work back out in the world. Now he has more readers than ever. His comics are drawn with his lush style and quick wit. But most of all, people love the crass, real-life content — the gut-punch lines — like a crow at a bar with X’s for eyes talking about wanting ice cubes in his Scotch, or a character coming out of jail “impregnated” in 4 places in his head, or another character decapitated.
Millionaire likes to drink. He says he can’t draw without it. He loves drinking and doesn’t shy away from it, subscribing to the Rat Pack ethic that says if you don’t drink, then the moment you wake up is the highlight of the day, and it’s all downhill from there. But, unlike most alcoholics, Millionaire has been able to function both creatively and professionally while drinking— a reality, he underscores, that does not work for most.
“When I was young,” he says, “I learned how to be very drunk. Now that I’m older, I’ve learned to be a relaxed alcoholic and I only drink beer. For me, it works. I sit at night and drink and draw. I can’t draw sober, I’m too aware of everything. Everything’s too serious. So, I drink some beer and feel fine and off I go until 6 or 7 in the morning.”
Today, many of Millionaire’s fans sport Drinky Crow tattoos. Drinky Crow even had his own cartoon show. Millionaire has had many books published to go along with his seemingly endless number of strips. He’s an enterprise, and it was a fortune both destined to happen and that was nearly impossible to come to fruition.
“I can’t stop it,” Millionaire says of his production. “I don’t have a choice. To me, it comes down to what the job requires. That’s why I love my comics. I can draw whatever I want. I don’t sketch, most artists sketch. I get bored doing that. I want my pen to do a thing that I’m planning on. But that just comes from drawing too many fucking houses.”