Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird by Tony Millionaire

Categories:  Reviews

Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird
By Tony Millionaire
Fantagraphics

tonymillionairebillyhazelbirdcoverAs an honest-to-god grownup who spends little to no time with human beings under the age of, say, 18, I can’t claim to have a good fundamental grasp of what it is that children like. Any educated guess I might have on the subject would almost certainly be fully formed by my own tastes as a youth. It’s a subject I’ve given a bit of thought to over the past couple of years, as an ever-growing number of indie cartoonists flirt with the concept of kids books, thanks in no small part to publishers like Graphix and Toon Books and outlets like the now sadly-defunct Nickelodeon Magazine.

The handful of books and movies and TV shows that truly had an impact on my young sensibilities share a few abstract, but important, characteristics. They were strange, thoughtful, and—at least by the standards of children’s entertainment of their era—dangerous. Not dangerous in the sense of necessarily being a poor influence on my developing brain, but rather dangerous in their insistence on pushing the boundaries of what kid-targeted work should do.

All of these decades later, these themes have become important factors in the standards by which I judge kids books. Devoid of some test child by which to run these pieces, I’m also proned to factor in my own enjoyment of the pieces as a jaded adult. Perhaps it’s not the most scientific approach, but let’s face it, we’ve got to work with the tools at our disposal.

And really, any piece of children’s entertainment beyond those early life public television programs that are largely unwatchable for anyone over the age of two not under the influence of some psychotropic substance, ought also appeal to adults, as well, both because they too will often be required to experience said entertainment and because, let’s face it, kids are a lot smarter than we tend to give them credit for. They, to say the least, know when they are being pandered to.

It’s some combination of these elements that have coalesced into a longing for a pre-Disney age era when kids lit was dangerous—those days or truly terrifying witches and monsters, when bad children were tossed into boiling cauldrons and promptly eaten.

It’s a world in which Tony Millionaire has firmly planted himself for his Billy Hazelnut series, books that, fittingly, seem to skirt the sometimes hazy line between the world of comics for adults and children.

Opening with a dedication to “Phoebe and Pearl,” this second volume is no doubt the product of Millionaire’s own search for the perfect bedtime reading material for his two daughters. The result is a fairy tale from a darker time, a work that both visually and thematically seems indebted to the darker 19th century fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans-Christian Andersen, tales dumbed down and dressed up for the warm and fuzzy audiences of the last century. The befuddled gnomes and candy houses will no doubt prove familiar to anyone remotely acquainted with those tales, even through subsequent watered-down tellings.

Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird almost certainly owes more to The Gingerbread Man than any other kids tale of the era. It’s as if Millionaire used that tale’s final, troubled lines, “I’m quarter gone…I’m half gone…I’m three-quarters gone…I’m all gone,” as something of a jumping off point. There are, after all, certain logistics to take into account when building a story around an edible protagonist—and a delicious one at that.

Of course it would be a gross oversight to paint Billy Hazelnuts as a purely dark fairy tale—this is, after all, Tony Millionaire. Drawing humor from the disturbing is his forte, something he’s not keen to dumb down  for younger audiences—well, aside from some of the clearly out-of-bounds subject matter that peppers works like Maakies.

Hazelnuts is a perpetual troublemaker. A boy crafted from foodstuff, after all, ought not be beholden to the manner of social construct imposed upon flesh and blood children. A beast with a self-contained moral structure, Billy’s self-stylized attempts at valiance generally revolve around the terrorizing of innocent animals several times his size.

And, in spite of a general scrappiness on his part, it should come as no surprise that he manages to be slowly devoured over the course of the book, his rapidly depleting body parts themselves a source of comedy for Millionaire.

There are lessons to be learned here, as well—some happier than others. We discover fairly early on that, in spite of being governed by a seemingly skewed code of conduct, Hazelnuts does, ultimately attempt to do what’s right, in this case returning a missing baby owl to the mother he terrorized in one of his self-righteous missions. But when you’re made of food, even the noblest of intentions can get you eaten.

But even beyond such themes, what really defines Billy Hazelnuts is a genuine sense of excitement on the part of the author, as though, like the daughters he’ll eventually read the book to, Millionaire seems eager to discover what sort of adventures await his hero on the next page. It’s a sensibility that’s even more apparent, given the rough, but detailed nature of the artist’s line work, as though bothering with touchup might impede his ability to follow the tale.

And in the end, Millionaire is no doubt as satisfied as the rest of us. Billy Hazelnuts is dark and weird and funny and strangely warm—it’s a book you wish you could have discovered at a much younger age. Thankfully, it’s pretty fun as an adult, too.

–Brian Heater