Much has already said about the new series Happy! by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson. It’s a bit removed from Morrison’s recent comic work, coming off as far darker and sinister than his Action Comics run. But Morrison and Robertson are not just creating a typical grim noir tale here. What we have in this fantastic pairing of comic giants is something quite different. A tale that crosses between a Tarantino film and the FX show Wilfred — a show also about a man with a possibly imaginary animal friend. Morrison’s name garners a lot of attention, but the art is the true star here.
This is a truly enjoyable book, which could be a danger to make. There are so many potential pitfalls with a story like Happy! The book could have easily slid into cheap violence and cussing to sensationalize a lack of real story. Throw in enough “cunts” and pretty soon no one is talking about character development; instead, they will be talking about your need to use the word “cunt” so much. But… what if your story is about a “cast-iron cunt”? This is what Morrison and Robertson set out to find out.
Happy! is the story of Nick Sax, an ex-detective who has more than an ill-advised vendetta against the mob. The first issue follows the unfolding of an intricate plan by Sax to lure and murder mobsters out to do the same to him. After executing his plan, including murdering the world’s most bizarre fetishist (Seriously, it is a man in a cockroach outfit being fellated. Points to Morrison for dreaming that up, but more points to Robertson for crafting it in some truly great, vibrant pages.), Sax gets shot because he was distracted. Before he makes it outside to conceivably die, one mobster begs for his life by offering Sax the password to a stolen fortune. One that would make Sax filthy rich. After killing the man and collapsing outside, the police and ambulance arrive. As Sax is taken away in an ambulance, we see a small shadowy figure following behind.
It’s here that things start to shift, that this becomes something more than a homage to Tarantino films or gritty / noir genre fiction. At one point, we watch as the ambulance blazes down the street, which is half dark, grim, and NY-looking and the half rendered as a child’s drawing of the same street, but on a sunny day. We then meet the head of the mob that is out for Sax. Those who want him dead, even going so far as to explain that no “Earthly agency” can save him. Then, as if on que, Sax wakes up cuffed in a hospital.
We get our first real glimpse of Happy here. He is waking Sax up to help save him. Finally, after the mobsters torture team arrives, ready to extract the password Sax is believed to have, Happy explains that Sax better listen to him. Or else. This is the cliffhanger to #1, which will leave many people anticipating #2.
The story is great, but what really elevates this book onto another level is Robertson’s work. Darick Robertson should be a name most in the comics world are familiar with. If you’re not familiar with his work, this is a great place to start. Make no mistake, this is some of Robertson’s greatest work. This is not an artist just drawing a comic, this is an artist trying to get at something.
There is an electricity to his work in Happy! that should make the comic community take note. Here is an artist taking great pains to realize a brutal vision of urban life. If there is ever a comic book based on the HBO show The Wire, Robertson was born to draw it. His cityscapes are vibrant, while staying bleak and dreary, anchored in realism that is necessary to a book such as this.
The cover alone is a perfect example of how covers should be. It doesn’t hyperbolize the inside content. It doesn’t mislead with grandiose claims and speeches. Instead, the cover is a single, minimalistic image representing what you get inside.
The main character in all of his rag-tag glory is depicted in exquisite, subtle detail. Examine his clothing: his coat is ragged and is sporting a sizeable, worn hole in the left arm; his face is bandaged from being banged around by life; and even his shoelace is untied, hinting at the overall picture of the wreck that is Nick Sax. It’s like looking at the smashed body of an old Chevy in intricate detail. Things have happened to this man. Many, many bad things.
If Robertson had just stopped there and phoned in the rest, it would still be a fantastic book. Darick on a bad day is still head and shoulders above the pack.
Robertson is the rare artist who can pack a page with everything but make it never feel cluttered or overcast. His paneling is flawless. His choice in framing shots is an art in and of itself. In the apartment before Nick kills the two mobsters, there is a mirror on the wall at an angle that reflects the action of the room. This is such a small move, but it goes a long way towards grounding the book in reality. In a book like this, with an “imaginary” co-star, it would be easy to let the whole concept get away from you. Robertson pulls it all together in reality with little moves like this.
Robertson’s use of shadows alone is worth a study by a master class in sequential art. In the exclusive pages here, courtesy of Robertson, you can see that the precolored pages showcase a dark, Hitchcockian style to the book’s shadows / lighting. Notice how the darkness is graded, as if actually being cast and not just drawn. These are damn menacing shadows. But you can also tell here from the originals to the finished colored pages where Robertson and Richard P. Clark worked closely to give vibrancy to the world, despite the intentionally dreary color scheme of this world.
Color is an aspect of the art that is used with great, detailed effect. Happy! is colored in dire, depressing tones with a few exceptions. For instance, Happy’s blue hue stands out against the dark background of the world. Then in the cockroach scene with the flashing, color changing bulb creates a stark scene of desperate sexuality and perversion, one detonated by the entrance of Nick Sax. Then there is the Christmas string lights the mobsters are tied with — Darick and Richard P Clark really have these string lights pull the readers eye to them in each panel (even when Sax is outside, bleeding and stumbling around, you can see a string of Christmas lights in a window in the background).
The red of the police lights that flash on the detective and Sax, almost issuing a warning as if they are both in danger now. Soon the reader sees Happy flying in shadows after the ambulance that is framed deliberately against the giant blue moon in the sky (this hints at not only his dreamy blue coat, but the fact that Happy is not from our reality). Robertson takes us on the ambulance ride as it and the city shift into what appears to be a kids drawing of what the city could look like on a nice, sunny day.
From this panel, blue feathers start to slide down the page, showcasing the appearance of Happy for the first full time but also a tonal shift into something unknown. On the next page, when we see more color and Happy appears, Richard and Darick still tease the reader in the first few panels. It is midway down when we actually see Happy, but only the top half of it’s face (once again, we see the light blue glow of the Happy’s coat and the purple of his horn).
When we finally get to see Happy up close, it’s quite a color explosion after the issue so far. The blue and purple of Happy pop off the page. There’s an intentional choice on the parts of Robertson and Clark to make these colors stand out. This is not just a story of a man seeing a fictitious animal; there are some great choices made to initiate the reader into this world. Finally, when Happy actually introduces himself, the the page has a noticeable blue background, as opposed to the rest of the book which has categorically black backgrounds. The final page is less about color and more about overall tone. We can see the black silhouettes of the torturers coming for Sax, but there is a gradation to the light as it grows from black to lighter. Like a curtain is being lifted from an otherwise dreadful existence.
At the end of the day, this book about characters living in inhuman situations is something odd and peculiar, as it should be. This feels less a book written by Morrison and more like an amazing jam session between Morrison and Robertson (not to mention great company like Richard P Clark on colors). This is a book that could have gone so wrong, but instead we are delivered a gem. One that should be valued as much for its art as for its writer.