Review: Happy! #1 (of 4)A comic review article by: Nick Hanover, David Fairbanks, Danny Djeljosevic
Nick Hanover: For the past several years, Grant Morrison has been on a mythology kick, attempting to turn the bulk of his mainstream comics work into an exploration of The Superhero as a modern family of gods, with their own designated roles and purposes within that. His event comics, like Seven Soldiers of Victory and Final Crisis, have even repurposed any number of Twilight of the Gods-style end world scenarios, leading to golden new eras in the triumph of man with Batman Incorporated. But for his Image Comics debut collaboration with Darick Robertson, Morrison has scaled back considerably, instead crafting a dirty urban tale about an anti-hero and his guardian angel, who happens to be a floating bucktoothed magical horse.
David, when you and I spoke after first reading Happy!, we both came to the conclusion that in a way, Happy is akin to Grant Morrison doing The Punisher, albeit with a possibly magical edge. Now I want to add something to that: what do you think of the idea of Happy as potentially Joe the Barbarian meets The Punisher?
David Fairbanks: I do agree that that's a bit more appropriate than just a magical Punisher type story, with the difference being that in Happy!, it feels like magic intruding into the real world and Joe felt the other way around (despite it all taking place in his house anyway).
I actually think this is in line with pretty much the bulk of Morrison's writing career, from Animal Man all the way up until now. They have mostly all been about the power of imagination and/or the stories we tell ourselves. You'll get deviation in things like Batman Incorporated so that he can finish fleshing out his ideas on superheroes and mythology, but those have their root right in the power of stories.
So, to me, Happy feels like it could easily line up pretty well with the rest of his work, which is why it surprised me when Morrison claimed that he didn't think it would fit in at Vertigo. I'm glad to see him over at Image, who are very swiftly establishing themselves as an option for creators and readers who are tired of the usual Marvel/DC shenanigans.
How's Morrison's first Image book stack up for you, Danny?
Danny Djeljosevic: To be honest, Image puts out a lot of comics about hit men -- it's the easiest go-to career route for any action comic protagonist. Couple that with someone as infinitely imaginative as Moz contributing to that tradition, and it was a little difficult to be excited for Happy! Moreso than the Punisher, Morrison seems to be doing a riff on what would be the average Garth Ennis crime comic, right down to getting Ennis collaborator Robertson in on the fun. In a lot of ways Morrison and Ennis are opposites -- one has a love for comics' dominate genre while the other despises it; one has a tendency for the spacey while the other is more down-to-earth.
That darkly comic urban decay continues until the latter part of the comic, where the eponymous blue feathered horse shows up. It's a jolt of color in a gray, dreary world, which is certainly in line with a lot of Morrison comics as far as dark, depressing realities being at odds with the brightly fantastic (Joe the Barbarian, Final Crisis). It's also pretty dang hilarious, thanks to Robertson's cartoon rendition of the horse finally popping up and being incongruous as fuck.
Nick: I think the Ennis note is what I was getting at with the Punisher comment. There's a crassness and a sardonic brutality to Happy! that makes it somewhat jarring from the perspective of this particular Morrison obsessive. But a lot of that has to do with Robertson, who I mostly enjoy but who lacks the flexibility and dynamism of classic Morrison collaborators like Quitely and Weston. To me, Robertson's art, for whatever reason, always recalls MAD, with its goofiness and jaggedness. A Robertson story always looks like a Robertson story and not in the way that a Quitely story has its own distinctiveness. While making judgment calls on any Morrison work based on a first issue is obscenely silly, my biggest concern about it at this point is whether Robertson will really be able to pull off Morrison's script as the more fantastic shit happens, as it is surely going to.
Am I alone in that concern? Do you think Morrison had Robertson in mind specifically when he was writing this? I imagine Morrison can more or less pick any artist in the entire world for any project, so personally I'm inclined to believe that this is a very calculated move on his part, even if so far it isn't entirely clicking for me.
David: You know, I agree that Morrison probably has his pick of artists on a series, as long as they aren't busy with something else at the time, and you're right on the money about Robertson. He's not a bad artist at all, but he really, really does not feel like the guy to illustrate the craziness of an imaginary friend that Morrison has going on here.
There's a variant cover by Allred that feels more appropriate, but that could just be because his style gives human characters a strange, somewhat otherwordly quality to them as well, which would make that blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality a bit easier.
The only Robertson work I've read more than a few issues of was Transmetropolitan, which I feel he did a very good job with, but with the first issue of Happy! under our belts, I think that a great deal of the credit for any weirdness we're going to encounter will probably go to Richard P. Clark and his coloring skills. Happy already pops off the page whenever he's there, and I would be reluctant to credit Robertson with that.
Danny: If you want to draw a terrible city with terrible people in it, you can't really do better than the guy who drew Transmet and The Boys. It's right there on the first page as a dog pisses on a puking homeless guy. The worlds Robertson draws are horrible places to live, and it seems that's the kind of space the characters of Happy! are meant to inhabit.
David: I think it's really telling that we've spent this much time talking about the art in Happy! I think the three of us are all pretty well-versed in Morrison's oeuvre, and I'm wondering if the story felt as lackluster to the two of you as it did to me.
It certainly feels like it could be going somewhere, but I wish it had started there in the first issue.
Danny: By the end of this first issue, it seems like Happy! might end up being a bit by the numbers. The script tells us that Nick Sax once was a decent guy who became a bastard, so I bet helping Happy save a little girl will make his heart grow a couple of sizes like some kind of Bad Santa that murders people. Otherwise, it's a lot of Act 1 stuff as we're introduced to the world and learn just how crafty a hitman Nick is. At least Morrison didn't wait to introduce Happy in the final page. I hate when first issues do stuff like that, and Moz wisely drops Happy into the mix a little more than halfway through.
Nick: I still think it's too early to properly judge the viability of this series yet but I'm not going to lie and say it blew me away as much as Morrison's works typically do. The only other latter day Morrison work that has left me this hesitant to commit was Action Comics which likewise -- in my opinion -- suffered from art that was good rather than the requisite great I'm used to in Morrison collaborators. I agree with Danny that Robertson is the go-to guy for the awfulness of urban humanity, but is that really what this story is about? Are Morrison's stories ever so simple? Because you could make the case that We3 is merely about animal testing or loyalty and technically you'd be right, but a collaborator like Quitely brings out the best in Morrison's scripts, elevating the complex subtleties of his writing to a more fantastical yet wholly believable level. When Morrison is working with collaborators like Quitely, it's a true collaboration, with both halves challenging the other and forcing out elements of strength that aren't necessarily there by default.
It's interesting that you note Clark's coloring contributions as perhaps more important to the success of Happy as a character over anything Robertson is doing, David, because I feel that in some ways, what Robertson is bringing to this equation is a lifelessness, urban decay in sequential art form, crime and city solutions laid out in violent rigidity and Clark's shocking color palette packs more of a punch because of that juxtaposition. If Allred had been the artist, for instance, would Happy have even stood out? Allred somehow imbues everything with a hyperhallucinogenic sheen and Laura Allred's coloring completes the effect. The Allreds can of course make for a killer urban team as any reader of Madman's various series over the years can tell you, but it's important to note that in that case, figures like Happy are more or less commonplace. Even Quitely is similarly manic, albeit with less optimism and a more gleeful embrace of the hideous. I don't know, maybe I'm just talking myself out of doubting Robertson here, but if there's a reason why Morrison chose him over all others, I'm willing to bet it's related to that idea.
David: I see what you're saying about Allred, I don't know how I would feel about his interiors on this story at all, I just saw that cover and it screamed "Happy" more than any drawing Robertson had done.
I pretty much agree with everything the two of you have said, though, especially with the trepidation on this feeling similar to Action Comics. It's a short run, and it's supposed to be a Christmas story, so we are probably going to get Morrison being a bit cliche, but even knowing that, I don't expect to be picking this up and reading it again for some time, if ever.
But who knows, we're only one issue in. He could end up tumbling down some psychedelic rabbit hole next issue, and I'll be eating my words. As of now, though? A bit too boring for me.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Hanover.
David Fairbanks doesn't get many things right the first time. He studied physics in college, loves science, music, comics, poetry, movies, books and education pertaining to all of the above. He will talk your ear off about Grant Morrison and Ben Folds, has an indie bookshelf larger than his Marvel, DC and Vertigo ones combined and if he ever actually grows up, more than anything else, he wants to still be happy as an “adult,” whatever that is.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.