August 2005

Bill Baker


Der Struwwelmaakies Maakies

Like much of the country, my area's been enveloped in a brutal heat wave for most of this spring and summer. With the temperatures already hitting record highs, I know that for me -- and for many of you -- it's gonna be yet another of those days that make the very idea of the impending "Dog Days" of later August a truly terrible thing to consider, indeed. That is, if you're still capable of any coherent thought at this point, of course.

Which directly leads to today's subject, Der Struwwelmaakies Maakies, the latest collection of Tony Millionaire's idiosyncratic and inspired Maakies comic strip. Quite simply, the ongoing rolling heatwave noted above, combined with a series of really great but all too tiring "must attend" convention appearances, has had a real draining effect on me. As a result, my ongoing attempts to do some thoughtful and incisive reviews of some more serious-minded releases from folks like Crumb and Satrapi, among others, all have come to nothing so far. Still, I continually found myself being drawn back to Millionaire's strangely compelling, stubbornly childlike (as opposed to merely childish) train wreck of a collection. Which isn't to suggest that the work itself -- or the elegant, fun and functional design by the esteemed Chip Kidd -- are anything but examples of top notch craftsmanship. Quite the contrary. As I had discovered during my earlier readings of previous Maakies collections, I would often discover a new perspective after looking at these strips a second or even third time, suddenly discovering some touching and insightful moments of real humanity secreted within the confines of Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow's seemingly small-minded world. Consider, for instance, the very first strip presented in this collection (click to enlarge):

This particular installment centers on what has become, for Maakies at least, a now classic subject for jest: copiously wetting or otherwise messing oneself. And while the surreally ludicrous amount of the urine that issues from the passed out Drinky Crow is patently part of Millionaire's shtick, so, too, is that shtick offset by his inclusion of both the "high minded" poetic text and the plight of Drinky's beleaguered offspring. It's the juxtaposition of these final two human elements with the cartoon's ridiculous physical exaggeration -- as pure a distillation of the more than manic lengths to which Millionaire is willing to take his absurdist viewpoint -- which ultimately adds some real and subtle human and humane resonances to the artist's work.

Sure, it's all just plain, stupidly and quite outrageously funny stuff on the face of it. And all that's fine, as far as it goes, or it will take you to your own bliss. But Millionaire's real gift as a creator, and an unsettling one at that, is to suggest the horrific truth underlying the village idiot's grinning mask. There's some real pathos, and even some real empathy and compassion, underlying the spit takes, pratfalls and fart jokes here.

Pretty dark stuff? Sure is, just like life can be. But, just like this vale of tears can be a place of real peace and beauty, it's brightened by the basic thrust of the work, which is fired by the sparks of recognition caused by the friction between our hopes colliding with our failings and foibles, which is sustained by the heat generated between the clash of our individual fantasies with our shared reality. Ultimately, though, it's the unconditional embracing of all the elements that make up the human comedy -- both the high and the low -- that marks Maakies as something which is quite human and humane. After all, if the world is basically a crazy, screwed up place, then why would any sane person expect that the folks living there would be any less screwed up, any less confused or confusing than the reality they inhabit?

Still, the essential fact is that Maakies is a idiosyncratic, decidedly non-PC surreal strip stuffed to the brim -- sometimes quite literally -- with piss and vinegar, among other viscous fluids and unmentionable secretions that is always challenging, always startling in its simplicity and execution, and might not be for everyone despite the fact that it's a beautifully drawn strip.

While it's true that the artist's skills as an illustrator are not always obviously on display, it's always there, underpinning everything, more often than not being hidden or obscured by that installment's bombast and spit takes. Sometimes it takes but a moment to discover this anew, though. Consider, for instance, the delicate weave of lines which help create the illusion of water in many of his drawings, and their contrast to the sharp and hard lines used to carve out the shape of ships, clouds and other objects in both the fore- and backgrounds of his work.

Ponder, too, that each object rendered is easily identifiable, however sketchily depicted, and that each object seems to have its own weight, its own reality, and that each individual element depicted also displays a real relationship with and to everything else around it. The same can be said of Millionaire's characters. Each one, be they a stable and regularly appearing member of the Maakies cast or a simple one-off player, carries with them and displays not just a palpable essence or sense of their wait and place in their world, but also a specific and often immediately identifiable sense of self. Yes, a lot of them are archetypes -- the base ape, the drunken wastrel, the self-involved floozy, etc. -- but each of them is infused with the breath of life, however redolent of waste products that breath might have been originally.

Of course, if we were to stare into the mouth of the sway-backed gift horse that is Maakies for too long, it's possible that we'd run the risk of lessening the impact of this strip's gutbucket humor. So, let me end now by saying that if you're looking for something that's laugh out loud funny, and aren't easily offended or put off by a great deal of physical and verbal humor "of questionable taste" or dead-on and often scathing social and political satire, then Tony Millionaire's Der Struwwelmaakies Maakies would be the perfect complement for your next crazy, or lazy, summer's day.

Der Struwwelmaakies Maakies by Tony Millionaire
ISBN: 1560976543