Last year saw publisher Image Comics celebrate its 20th anniversary with an explosion of new series very much in the company’s tradition of creative greatness. And while I have enjoyed much of them (Saga, The Manhattan Projects, Peter Panzerfaust) there was one in particular that I was most looking forward to.
You see, 2012 was also the year that writer Grant Morrison’s exclusive contract with DC Comics expired. While I massively enjoyed his work on Batman, Superman, and others, I was eager to see the brilliant creator play in his own sandpit. Happy! represents Morrison’s return to creative freedom — not that he didn’t bring a lot of mad ideas to DC, but this is him really off the chain. I had absolutely no idea what Happy! was about going in; Morrison is just one of the few comics creators whose work I will consume no matter what. So, for me, it was a step into the unknown. Morrison unbound.
From the first page alone it is obvious the mad Scotsman (or Scots madman) relishes the opportunity to write a more “adult” story. There’s strong language, vomiting and urination on page one, and it’s all downhill from there. There are so many swear words in here, you’d think Morrison stubbed his toe while writing it. Not to mention excessive violence and strong sexual scenarios. Morrison is well outside the realm of four-colour superheroes here. And it’s bloody brilliant.
Some may decry such things as “gratuitous” in Happy!, and I did find the constant swearing a tad distracting, and the violence a bit much, but A) I’ll allow Morrison a chance to get such things out of his system after working at a mainstream publisher for so long, and B) he also uses such adult matters to create a strong theme running through the story. I’ll get to that in a minute.
At first, Happy! seems like a standard gritty modern crime caper. Disgraced cop-turned-hitman Nick Sax winds up badly wounded after a job gone wrong, and gets unknowingly wrapped up in a larger scheme, all while a child-snatcher is on the loose in the background. It’s an ugly, very grown-up story, with a main character to match. And then you get a reminder of who’s writing it. A small, bright blue, flying reminder.
While the fiercely unlikable Sax recovers from his injuries, he (and we) meet Happy, the little blue horse that only Sax can see. It is a change in story direction so sudden and unexpected that it gives one whiplash. Morrison has always been skilled at taking childhood concepts (here, an imaginary friend) and maturing them, but it is never been such a contrast as it is here. The eponymous Happy’s optimism and cartoon features could have been transplanted seamlessly from a children’s story.
That’s part of the theme I mentioned earlier. Happy acts as a beacon in this dark, depressing world; an exact counterpoint to Sax. Those who have seen the documentary on Morrison, Talking with Gods, will know that he reached a point in his life where he saw the cruelty and evil in the world and lost his cheer, as we all have at some point. I can’t help but feel that Happy! is a reversal of that: showing us that no matter how bleak things get, we cannot ignore the good that is imprinted in all of us from infancy. This is embodied in the character of Happy.
There is even a scene where Sax turns the tables on his invisible companion, forcing Happy to see the bad in people. Even the most cynical readers will feel defeat at Happy’s glum acceptance of this. But, without spoiling anything, I shall say that hope and optimism are strong themes here, specifically never giving them up. It’s a Christmas story for grown-ups. (It actually takes place at Christmas, I’m not just being metaphorical.)
It’s also a testament to Morrison’s skill that, despite being in the mould of many “wacky” cartoon characters, Happy isn’t that annoying. That may be because he is the only likable character in here, though.
Morrison’s return to indie comics isn’t the only “Big Name” pull here. Darick Robertson, of Transmetropolitan and The Boys, contributes some very atmospheric art. Not only does he evoke the murky, intense tone of the story and characters, but he does some damn fine cartooning on Happy too, with amusingly exaggerated poses and expressions. Should he ever get tired of drawing blood and guts, a career in kids’ comics awaits!
Colourists Richard P. Clark and Tony Avina, each working on half this collection, also deserve special praise. They also capture the tone perfectly, whether grim or bright, but it’s the small glimpses of light in certain scenes that really “shines,” if you’ll pardon my pun. Not only is it beautiful work, but relevent to the overall theme of the story too. Those little moments of brightness in the dark are important.
Happy! is wonderful proof that all those years writing caped heroes have not softened Morrison nor dulled his skill, but that maybe, just maybe, some of their optimism has rubbed off on him. I can’t wait to see what he does next.