From the Tangzine.com archives. This piece originally ran in December 2004.
By Matthew Ralph
As a musician, Michael Miller excels in subtle territory, spinning tender laid-back tunes on his guitar as a touring and recording solo artist. But music isn’t the only artistic endeavor at which this California surfer excels. For more than a decade, he’s applied his clever wit and drawing skills – evidenced on the liner notes of his most recent CD – to Christmas cards. The result has been a series of crack-ups and irreverent humor with Randolph the Butt-nosed Reindeer that has fun with the more ridiculous side of the most commercialized and secularized of the Christian holidays. Available at a trendy store near you, Mikey Boy, the maker of cards, has become a word of mouth phenomenon. I chatted with Mikey Boy via technology amidst the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, after of course ordering a random pack of 12 designs.
How and when did you get started making Christmas cards? Where did Randolph come into play and what was the inspiration?
I started actually about 12 years ago. after making cards for family and friends all my life, I finally tried selling them to stores. Probably a typical evolution story. Each year I would feel pressure to come up with a new card to out-do the previous year.
Randolph the butt-nosed reindeer was one of the first cards I drew. I was always a big fan of the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers cartoons, and I always thought their camels, or cats, or most any animal looked like they had a butt on their nose. That’s really where it came from.
Being a songwriter as well, do you see any similarities between promoting your music and promoting your card line? Any similarities between the two “industries”?
I probably promote them exactly the same. It is more of an entrepreneurial mindset. A “do-it-yourself” mentality that says you can’t wait for anyone to do you any favors; you just have to rely on yourself and believe in what you do and not let the imminent rejection get to you. Both heart-wrenching songs and humor are so subjective, you just have to keep searching for the right audience who “gets it”.
Both industries are a massive cesspool of a million people all trying to do their art. Within each, you have to somehow get your own voice heard. I think success in both industries is reliant or at least fueled by word of mouth. People like to share their misery and heartache, or something that makes them laugh. If they hear a song or see a card that personally effects them, they want to share it with someone else.
How did the Mikey Boy deal come about? Since getting more widespread distribution have you found there’s more pressure to produce? How many different designs do you have currently?
Mikey Boy is still relatively an “indie” label. I have always dealt with companies directly. The merchant. The printers and manufacturers. The assembly workers/children. Everything is as self-contained as I can make it.
However, I have recently signed licensing deals with Weinerdog (a subsidiary company of Hallmark) and Smart Alex (they carry an awesome roster of artists and cards including super genius Jim Benton’s Happy Bunny). Both companies will start releasing year-round cards, not just Christmas cards.
The only pressure I feel is the same pressure I have always put on myself. Mainly, to just make myself laugh. If it passes that test, then I am happy.
What’s the basic process you go through to come up with a design?
I have not come up with a secret formula yet. I wish I could. Mostly, the designs have come from sketchbook doodling or late night brainstorm sessions. Very irregular and inconsistent.
What kind of interaction do you have with the people who buy your cards? I know you have Randolph plush dolls that your fans take with them on trips and take pictures of. What’s the response like this time of year? Do you have people at concerts/shows ever coming up to you and talking to you about your cards?
It’s funny, I have been out traveling and touring for music lately and have gotten people coming up to me at shows to say they saw my cards or the Randolph doll – which always takes me by surprise. As much as I know both worlds (my music and Mikey Boy) are so closely tied to each other in my own brain, I forget that anyone else does, and it is always a burning pleasure to be surprised with a crossover fan.
More typically though, someone writes me a nice letter telling me they love the cards. It always knocks me out – I mean, it takes a lot for someone to write a letter after buying something. I can’t remember the last time I have been so ecstatic about ANYTHING I bought that made me explore the company’s Web site or write a thank you to the president of that company. It always touches me or pricks my spirit!
I’m sure your cards have offended some people; what’s your response to critics who might think you are poking fun at Christmas or perhaps not taking the holiday serious enough?
It IS a fine line sometimes when you’re dealing with something that is based on something so sacred. I know I have offended some people. I even had a huge company request a recall because they were getting so many complaints (this was about the time of the Columbine incident). A few weeks went by and I never heard another word. I think once they saw the sales numbers, they quietly recanted. A sad testimony on the state of our capitalist society, but in the end, Mikey Boy prevailed! [laughs]
There are many cards and designs that I have drawn that were definitely over the top and too blasphemous or offensive. They never made it to the public. A few friends have gotten to see them, they laugh and shake their heads in disgust or dismay or disbelief, but even I have a ceiling of taste guidelines. I think they still have to be exorcised out of me, but then get stored in the vault.
My only response that I ever have to give is usually to a friend or family member who is appalled. Sometimes I say nothing. Sometimes I just shrug sheepishly as if I didn’t realize it was so offensive. Sometimes I say, “Jesus would have laughed at that.”
What is it about this holiday season in particular that so many people send cards? Why aren’t Easter or Labor Day cards popular?
It is probably tied to the fact that Christmas is the most secularized. Or maybe just more cleverly marketed. Or maybe people really do get more emotional at this time of year and need to exhaust it before it gets to be too much.
Any thoughts or plans to branch out into other holidays or occasions like birthdays, weddings? Hannukah, Kwanzaa?
I guess with the new licensing deals I will have a better opportunity to take a whack at those as well.
Has anyone ever unknowingly sent you one of your cards or told you that they thought you would enjoy Mikey Boy cards?
Not unknowingly. I have found out many stories of people sending my cards to each other not knowing they were mine, and only later realized I drew them. That always makes me happy. Or two people sending each other the same card on separate coasts, and not knowing until they each got the other’s card.