Underground cartoonist Tony Millionaire is quick on the draw

Underground cartoonist Tony Millionaire is quick on the draw
Cartoonist Tony Millionaire, with his dog Whitney, at his home studio in Pasadena on Wednesday, January 25, 2012. (Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

Tony Millionaire spends his nights in the garage. That's where you'll find him, in a space built just wide enough for a Model-T, bent over his drawing table until 4 a.m., a beer never far from his fingertips. The wife and kids can hear him in there, listening to talk radio or laughing and shouting, with the occasional crash when things are not going well.

He is happy this way, a cartoonist left to his own whims and solitude at his 1926 home in Pasadena, drawing his weekly "Maakies" comic strip about a hard-drinking, suicidal crow or his ongoing series of portraits of the famous and infamous for esteemed publications The Believer and New York Magazine. It pays the bills.

"Being a cartoonist is a great way to make a living — it's a lot of fun, but it doesn't pay for college," says Millionaire, 56, thinking ahead for his two daughters, both still in grade school. "I can't save. I have to strike gold. Soon."

It's early afternoon in the garage, and he's eating a healthy breakfast of blueberries and cream cheese on toast. Work for him starts at about 10 p.m. Other cartoonists depend on cigarettes, coffee or some other ingredient to anchor themselves to the desk. For Millionaire, it's Budweiser, and without it he can feel every pen stroke, every squeak of his chair, and the sound of the gears in his head.

"When I was 40, I decided I was going to stop drinking hard liquor, because I kept getting in jail and smashing stuff, forgetting everything that happened and almost getting killed," he explains with a smile. Now, he says, "I need a couple of beers to put me in the right place."

Millionaire, born Scott Richardson in Boston, has two drawings to complete this evening, very much like the faces and personalities collected in his new book, "500 Portraits," published by Fantagraphics. The book came about mainly because Millionaire had "piles and piles" of portraits around the house, in files, in the garage, all done on assignment. Each drawing is crafted in his distinctive inky hand, with faces rendered in lush, rugged detail that echo the comics of a century ago.

Some of the subjects date back to the 1800s — mayors of New York, the owners of railroads, forgotten captains of industry in starched collars and flamboyant mustaches. Many are collected in the book, along with the faces of socialist Karl Marx and comics writer Harvey Pekar, of singers Billie Holiday and David Byrne, of author Norman Mailer in the afterlife, throttling demons and angels among the clouds.

Like his contemporaries Charles Burns ("Black Hole") and Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World"), Millionaire was pulled into mainstream magazines from the pool of malcontents who came out of underground comics and alternative publishing houses like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. It was a movement helped along by the presence of art editor Françoise Mouly at The New Yorker beginning in 1993.

"You take a cartoonist — every time you draw a face, it's got to have an expression that describes his emotion. That comes through in every illustration," Millionaire says of their shared qualities. "If I have a drawing of an apple, there something weird and quirky about it. It's personality, and that's what cartoonists have over illustrators."

In his introduction to "500 Portraits," Millionaire writes that life experience has taught him that 85% of all people are "bogus" or worse. In the garage, he describes himself as misanthropic, but admits his drawings often suggest otherwise.

"As it turns out, you can tell by looking at these portraits, I obviously love people — even the [jerks]. Hitler's done very lovingly," he says. "I think it's nice to have the juxtaposition of my disgust for humanity mixed with my obvious love for humanity. You can't draw like that if you really hate something."

Drawing faces for magazines is an old tradition that appeals to his obsession with the art and texture of the past. It can be seen in his obsessively detailed drawings of ancient ships and sea monsters in "Maakies," and in the golden cherubs of his studio's table lamp or the accordion at his feet. Vintage newspapers with Winsor McCay cartoon strips of "Little Nemo" are tacked to the wall of his garage. There are books of old Popeye strips, a watercolor painting of a lobsterman by his grandmother and a group photo of white men dressed as Native Americans he found on a trash can in Staten Island.

"It just has more style and more character," he says of the vintage artifacts. "Modern things are much more functional. In olden times, you take an old Victorian house and you put gobbledygook all over it, it's going to look great. Badly designed or not, it's going to look funny and cute. The same with ships."

Since 1994, he's drawn a new "Maakies" strip every week, but there are fewer alternative publications that even carry comics regularly now, and his ill-tempered, often profane work is a bad fit for daily newspapers. "It's awful," he says of the dwindling number of venues on newsprint. "If there was one paper left, I'd still do it every week. I don't know if I would be able to do it if it was only online. That would be tough. No deadline? I don't think I'd do it."

He was groomed by his parents to be an artist, and one of his favorite courses at the Massachusetts College of Art was life drawing, and not just because of the nude women paraded in front of him. He became a cartoonist, but was never attracted to superheroes, other than Batman. Millionaire twice drew the Dark Knight for special DC Comics books as a Gothic, paunchy oaf with a creepy vigilante complex.

"When I draw him, I always use a mirror," he says. "I draw myself as Batman. That's why I always draw him a little older, a little bit of stubble, with these weird lines I have in my face."

His wife is actress Becky Thyre (TV's "Parks and Recreation," "Weeds" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), and she's done voice work for the Cartoon Network's late-night "The Drinky Crow Show," which was based on characters from "Maakies." That show ran from 2007-2009. He has other animation projects in the works: "Billy Hazelnuts" is being developed for either film or TV as a stop-motion project, and "Sock Monkey" is being reimagined as a combination of puppets and CGI digital effects.

Animation could be his answer to paying for college. "One thing I'm interested in is riches. Any time something you do gets on TV, suddenly everybody knows who you are," he says. Until then, Millionaire will be drawing more faces deep into the night. "Illustrations pay the bills. Comics don't, really."