by Aaron Alexander
The delight that comes from Sock Monkey, the comic masterpiece by the delightfully named Tony Millionaire (even if it is, or maybe isn’t, his legal name), is almost inexplicable. If one were to write out the plot of a typical story you would find yourself, as you do when reading the actual work, temporarily entranced with the most warm and fuzzy of fuzzy animal stories, and then suddenly, find yourself verging on a predicament one might describe as “happily heading towards disturbed.” Your level of true disturbance by the end of most stories probably depends a great deal on your temperament, sense of humor, and the particular story you are reading. Macabre death and dismemberment are often waiting just around the corner from the denouement. Nonetheless, if you can stomach the morbid gallows humor, there are always some form of “elysian fields,” as Uncle Gabby (the Sock Monkey of the title) puts it, nearby as well.
In fact, the back of this gorgeously designed and illustrated new volume from Fantagraphics — Sock Monkey Treasury collects several Dark Horse comic-book issues, two graphic novels, and a children’s book featuring Uncle Gabby, Mr. Crow, and their friends — quotes our favorite podiatric sprite’s question from the first tale, “Dare I traipse through Heaven’s constellated wilderness?” The answer Tony Millionaire appears to give time and again in these tales is “yes, only be prepared to potentially die an untimely (and probably grisly) death if you do.” Wonders abound, but so do extreme terrors. This, I believe, despite the gruesome ends of some characters, is not a bad lesson for any child to learn. To call these works truly “all-ages” would not be out of place, though perhaps, for the young, best read with a parent. This is not true of Millionaire’s other work featuring a different (more adult) version of the same characters found in Sock Monkey: the award-wining comic strip, Maakies. Do not under any circumstances show Maakies to your children. It is a crass, sexually explicit, and even more violent work of cartoon art featuring a much saltier Uncle Gabby (here an actual monkey) and the booze-drenched Drinky Crow. This is a real shame, in my opinion, because what makes Maakies great is what makes Sock Monkey great (and does not require the filthier elements, despite the fact they prove funny, in a very high school bathroom sort of way): fantastic, traditional hatching (and what Charles Schulz called the true cartoonist’s “scratchy pen technique”), Herrimanesque poetic language (including quotes, I believe, from Milton), finely structured plots, amazing background detail, old ships, unexpected twists, slapstick, lovable characters, true depth, and all served with a big dose of perfected whimsy. They haven’t made them like this in along time. Maybe ever.
For all his preoccupation with alcohol, the macabre, terror, and heartbreak — and all presented in a G to PG way here in this tome — Millionaire is really a soft-hearted sentimentalist. He has only been, like Uncle Gabby and friends, worn a bit rough around the fluff-filled edges from being tossed in the sea a bit more often than he would have liked. Sure, Millionaire tries to pop our long-held Sock Monkey bubble in the final story “Uncle Gabby,” but I’m not buying it (despite still enjoying that tale as well). I dare you not to read “A Baby Bird” (the one which begins on page 115) and not have your heart soar with the possibility, and truth, of “Disfigured Salvation.” I hope Mr. Millionaire finds this himself. He has certainly painted a picture of it very prettily.
To riff on the Conan O’Brien quote from the book jacket blurb, “Tony Millionaire is worth ten billion Tony Thousandaires.” You may, puzzled, be scratching your head at this math. But, like Sock Monkey itself, not everything has to add up. Maybe that’s the point.
Check out Sock Monkey Treasure and other books by Tony Millionaire: