Two-Fisted Gingerbread Man
Billy Hazelnuts, the titular hero of Tony Millionaire’s newest graphic novel, might be called a two-fisted gingerbread man for the 21st Century. Even though its look may scream early 20th Century children’s literature, its narrative sensibilities make it a creature of the present age.
Farmwoman Mrs. Rimperton has successfully defended her kitchen from incursions by mice. In retaliation, the rodents create a champion of their own out of mincemeat pie, houseflies, and other garbage. Billy Houseflies, the mouse champion, is a dough-like boy who possesses speed and strength beyond his small size. These abilities allow him, at great cost, to battle both Mrs. Rimperton and her cat. But when Billy flees Mrs. Rimperton’s wrath, the mice abandon their creation.
Becky Rimperton, a girl scientist/inventor, knows little of these goings-on at first. Her interests lie in such things as using her very homemade holographic projector-telescope to examine the surface of Venus. The romantic attentions of would-be poet, Eugene, are definitely not one of Becky’s interests. Eugene regales the girl with verse that may not sink to the depths of Vogon poetry… but not through lack of effort.
Fulfilling an errand for her mother, Becky finds Billy hiding in the barn. Her hostility towards the creature softens when she understands his vocal bluster conceals an essentially innocent nature. The girl scientist repairs Billy, beginning by replacing the houseflies in the creature’s eyes with hazelnuts.
Billy Hazelnuts, as the homunculus is re-named, encounters Eugene. The would-be mechanical inventor cum failed poet immediately considers Billy a rival trying to steal his romantic property. Said love property furiously and permanently ejects her so-called suitor from her home. That ejection provides the final push to send Eugene down Mad Scientist Road.
Time passes. During one of Becky’s stargazing sessions, Billy notices the moon sinking below the distant hills and disappearing. Out of curiosity, the artificial creature sets off to find the errant celestial body. Becky, on her motor-powered rocking horse, joins Billy on his wild search. Along the way, the duo encounter sheep annoyed at being mistaken for birds and a garbage dump for broken and cracked planets. Their ultimate challenge comes from a flying and walking pirate ship whose captain, a blind mechanical alligator, is accompanied by a seeing-eye skunk. The pirates’ connection to Eugene, as well as how Becky and Billy deal (or not) with the pirates’ threat, inform the rest of this oddball tale.
Calling the art in Billy Hazelnuts classic comic strip art will very likely confuse readers younger than this writer. These days comic strips are very simply drawn items, possessing generic background detail at best. But that minimalist look is a response to newspapers’ tendency to reproduce comic strips as small as possible. In such circumstances, the fine artistic detail characteristic of classic comic strips would be no more visible than the fine print found in many consumer contracts.
It is the gorgeous visuals of those old strips that Millionaire freely draws upon for his artistic inspiration. His strange world of talking shooting stars and bizarre telescopes comes alive through beautifully detailed images. One favorite panel takes up a full page. The illustration uses variegated line work to show Eugene in angry mad scientist mode. His hair seems electrified by the approaching storm cloud. A drifting cloud silently rises behind Eugene’s head to the mountain-top, capturing his volcanic hatred and desire for revenge without the need for melodramatic declarations. In this age that cherishes the speedy processing of visual information, Millionaire’s images compel the reader to stop and reflect on each panel to admire the visual details encoded therein.
For readers more interested in page-turners than art appreciation, Billy Hazelnuts provides a picaresque adventure that will serve them well. The story set-up, which introduces the main characters, moves at a dynamic and fast clip. The sights, during the journey to find the apparently vanished moon, build from absurdity to exciting bits of two-fisted action. The clash with the pirates that propels the last third of the book never sinks into absurdity despite the bizarre nature of the combatants.
Make no mistake, Billy Hazelnuts does not exhume and polish the reactionary sensibilities of the classic adventure comic strips for a new generation. Becky’s self-assurance and inventive genius would have been ridiculed at best in the comic strips of yore. Newspaper editors of old would not have allowed the sight of Eugene vomiting, or the graphic fight between Billy and the cat, out of fear for family sensibilities. Billy’s macho attitude and abilities, which would have been lionized in the classic comic strips, ultimately prove less important to the tale’s resolution. That resolution is provided by a quietly transcendent moment.
Yet despite his updates to the classic American comic strip cultural assumptions, Millionaire’s tale still reflects some quintessentially American ideas. The optimistic belief in people’s fundamental decency until definitively proven otherwise pervades its pages. Eugene acts in an incredibly immature and cowardly manner for much of the story until he realizes the error of his ways. The delight of strange discoveries during a road trip is reflected in Becky and Billy’s pursuit of the disappearing Moon. Finally, there’s a pronounced dislike for flaunting one’s higher knowledge at others. Mrs. Rimperton seems unaware of her daughter’s mechanical genius. Becky herself hides her work in her bedroom or uses her inventions out of her mother’s sight. Eugene, by contrast, uses his poetic "skills" and inventive genius to unsuccessfully win Becky’s heart.
Could Billy be a quintessential American? His birth is the product of an improvisational mixing together of literally different ingredients. Brashness and fearlessness in the face of stronger opponents mark his life. Yet a strong moral sense tempers his strength, otherwise Billy might not have run off after Mrs. Rimperton hit him for cruelly injuring her cat. What people (literally) stuff in Billy’s skull affects his subsequent behavior, making a metaphor for political manipulation. Then again, these character elements don’t seem unique to Americans, as they sound like qualities that could appear in the tales of other people around the world.
What is certain is that Millionaire’s Billy Hazelnuts travels a creative middle road between the cheerful taboo-busting of his "Maakies" comic strip and the odd children’s stories told in "Sock Monkey." In this case, that path does not reach mediocrity at the end. Instead, Billy Hazelnuts proves to be a work whose cheerfully wonky invention doesn’t quite conceal its dark heart of spiritual struggle.