We've always been fascinated by American cartoonist, illustrator and author Tony Millionaire's infamous character Drinky Crow. Lo and behold, it turns out he's a big Grateful Dead fan too! (Insert light bulb) With great pleasure, we've enlisted Mr. Millionaire to design the artwork for the 2014 Dave's Picks series. Find out how he plans to leave his indelible mark in the Dead world in our exclusive interview.
You come from a family of artists, how did that influence your life path…
I was a wild kid and my parents were rough on me, but one thing shone through all of the turmoil. They constantly told me that I was a great artist. I believed it as much as a Catholic kid believes he can be forgiven of sins, as much as a kid raised by wolves believes he can catch a rabbit running on all fours. My grandparents on my mom's side were professional artists, my dad was a designer, my mom was a high school art teacher. My grandfather was very interested in newspaper comics, he showed me his old collections of those big colorful Sunday comics. He was friends with Roy Crane and Les Turner (Captain Easy, Wash Tubbs) so I got it in my head early that comics was serious business. Cartoonists smoked pipes and drank whiskey.
So you ultimately set out to be a cartoonist?
No, I thought I would be a "commercial artist" til one day my mom said, "You mean you want to do those drawings of pork chops on the sides of meat crates?" I realized I was a fool, and set out to be a Fine Artist. Comics got in the way. I loved to draw them, but never knew I could make a living drawing them until I ran into a bunch of cartoonists in New York. I was soon drawing MAAKIES in the New York Press for $35 a week. Not much even way back in 1994, but art directors started seeing my work and I was hired by many magazines, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York magazine etc. Then MAAKIES was picked up by dozens of weeklies across the country, and my career blossomed.
Can you remember the first comic you ever drew?
Yes, I was 10, it was called ZEROMAN, a four panel strip about a little egg-shaped guy with a cape and a zero on his chest. He would crash into trees and was a general failure at everything. My parents thought it was a cry for help so they sent me to a psychiatrist. A real one with leather seats and a large wood-panelled office. He asked me a few questions and then asked me to draw a comic strip. I drew ZEROMAN crashing into a telephone pole after proclaiming his greatness. The psychiatrist asked, "Do you read PEANUTS?" I told him it was my favorite strip. He told my parents I was perfectly normal.
Tell us a little bit about the origins of what might be considered your most well known character - Drinky Crow.
It was the winter of 93/94 in New York, one blizzard after another. I couldn't find any work and my girlfriend politely asked me to get out of our apartment. I was in a bar in Brooklyn, almost broke, drawing on a napkin. I was very depressed so I drew a little crow drinking a bottle of xxx, then thinking for a second, then blowing his brains out. This time it really was a cry for help. The bartender saw the little comic and said, here's some paper, draw another one and I'll give you a beer. I drew so many I got happily drunk. The bartender Xeroxed the comics and put them into his newsletter, which sometimes was just the strips. This became my winter job. After a while people started drawing Drinky Crow on the walls all over the bar. Soon I was published in the New York Press and it all became rosy for me. Still broke, but rosy.
Drinky Crow has taken the world by storm! Comic strips, books, a TV show…
He is my lucky bird, how I love him! He saved me that awful, awful winter. The coal of my broken heart broke open, and a diamond popped out, it was Drinky Crow.
You've done record covers for Elvis Costello and They Might Be Giants among others, how does your process differ when you are working on projects for musicians versus your own?
I try to understand what the artists want, what their listeners want, I try to find imagery that vibrates in these individual worlds. There are many bands that I love and have loved, so I know how important it is to hit just the right tone with the artwork. Fortunately I can work in many different styles, so I like to have long talks with the artists if possible, or I listen to the music and interviews and try to give them what I think they need. All my drawings have my own style built into them, so I don't have much conflict with commissioned work vs my own work. Even in my own work I use lots of different drawing styles. I did get fired from a Simon & Garfunkel cover because I couldn't get it groovy enough! Ha!
Tell us about your connection with the Grateful Dead and their music.
I grew up in the 60s and 70s, so the Grateful Dead was the background music to practically everything. It was like the soundtrack upon which everything else played out, great music to listen to in the car on long road trips. Like James Brown, you could always rely on someone to play some Dead at a party.
Any particularly interesting first-hand experiences? Favorite moments?
Yes, one in particular involving a pretty young girl on the beach at night in Manchester, Mass. I can't reveal any details except that she was crazy about the Grateful Dead, and I lost my three false teeth that night. I went back to her beach house the next day to try to find the teeth, but her brother suggested I retreat homewards immediately and forget about the teeth forever (his fist clenched).
Has the Grateful Dead's rich iconography influenced your work in any way throughout the years?
I learned that through the beautiful mixture of Victorian skeleton drawings and an abundance of flowers you can create psychedelic flower power imagery that suggests that the message goes way beyond the present moment in history. I love the mixture of Art Nouveau and Underground comics, and you can see that in my comics. I have R. Crumb influenced drunken monkeys and crows sailing on turn of the century sailing vessels. I find the mixture of old and new styles enchanting, they bring authenticity into the mix.
You've been enlisted to create the artwork for the 2014 Dave's Picks series. What can we expect?
Well, I don't know yet, I've done one so far involving bones and flowers, but as to the rest, we shall see. We discussed the fact that Jerry Garcia was a funny man who loved humorous art, and when I see some of the Victor Moscoso, R. Crumb, Rick Griffin, etc. covers and posters, I'd really like to bring some of that strange comedy back into it, mixed with the Art Nouveau lettering and framing. But what we end up doing, you'll have to wait. I promise I will pour my heart into it.