Who, besides the most priggish among us, has not guffawed at a portly fellow howling after a swift kick to the crotch? Who deigns to pity the long-suffering Zeppo?

Who weeps for the Stooge?

The halls of comic history are strewn with pie-spattered, beseltzered casualties, victims of an animal selfishness that dulls our own misfortune by spotlighting somebody who has it worse. "I cut my finger-that's tragedy," said auteur Mel Brooks, a man certainly familiar with the art of the self-sacrificing comic crotch smash. "A man walks into an open sewer and dies-that's comedy."

Of course, he said that back in the early 1980s, before his own career toppled into an open sewer and died. But his point is no less valid: that which does not kill us makes us laugh. And it's that sort of Nietzsche-meets-Marx-the other Marx-philosophy that makes Tony Millionaire's cartoon strip "Maakies" so affecting. You'll laugh when despondent, alcoholic protagonist Drinky Crow utters a last bon mot, fires a charmingly antiquated flintlock pistol through his temple, and collapses into a ragged heap-you are laughing, right?-but you'll be laughing at what Millionaire calls "the horror of being alive."

This collection of "Maakies," previously seen only in rags like the Weekly and at www.word. com's "Toozeday Komix" (discounting a few way-over-their-heads animated ventures on Saturday Night Live), comprises the past six years' worth of strips following Drinky Crow and his cohort Uncle Gabby (a sort of sock-monkey-looking simian fellow with a penchant for elaborate hats) on an endless sea voyage to nowhere. Both hapless souses perpetually on the verge of suicide, Drinky and Gabby serve as lowly crew members on a merchant ship under the command of the grizzled Captain Maak. The only relief from monotony comes from the occasional attack by loathsome giant squids or Frenchmen, romantic disaster at the delicate hands of the captain's aloof daughter and Drinky's hoity-toity "gull-friend," and, most frequently, the constant consumption of liquor.

It's a grim existence at best-and an even grimmer metaphor for life-but it's also an ideal venue for Millionaire's desperate brand of humor. He's an iconoclast even in the uniformly iconoclastic alternative-comics scene, crafting a strip that seems at once eerily quaint and ultrapostmodern. The gross-out humor that has been the bread and butter of alternative strips for decades is enthusiastically present, of course, but so is a devotion to craft and an underlying intelligence that recall the elegance of comics long gone-particularly George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," which echoes yet in the detailed art and calculated dialogue of "Maakies."

Indeed, it's the dissonant collisions between the conventions of the past and the overwhelming cynicism of this so far drastically underwhelming millennium that make "Maakies" unique: in the midst of a pitched naval battle that looks like a newspaper woodcut from the War of 1812, a launch full of proper-looking society types floats up alongside Maak and says, "Pardon, Captain, but we the readers would like to know when the joke will begin."

"A joke, sir?" Maak bellows as his ship sinks in flames. "How can one contemplate the intricacies of mirth at a time like this? Bunch of fools!"

And that, perhaps, is Millionaire's real and most nihilistic point-that the joke began a long, long time ago and only Drinky and Gabby have figured out the punch line.

It's all right there on the first page, even: after another clumsy rejection by the captain's daughter, a weary Uncle Gabby joins Drinky in the crow's-nest.

"Can you name for me one thing that is not bogus?" he asks. Drinky, after some pondering, simply presses his trusty pistol against what must certainly be a well-worn spot on his skull:


Get it?

Maakies by Tony Millionaire; Fantagraphics Books. 136 pages, Paperback, $14.95.


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