Thursday, 17 July 2014

Happy! (#1-4)

 "Christmas came early" - McCarthy

Time to discuss the first offering on this blog written by Alan Moore's arch enemy, fellow Chaos Mage and proud Scot - Grant Morrison.  This is one of Morrison's creator owned series, created jointly with artist Darrick Robertson and published by Image comics.  I have to admit, it was Robertson's artwork that drew me to this four issue mini-series released in 2012 more than Morrison's name on the cover as I hadn't started rediscovering Morrison's work when I bought it.  Robertson was the main artist on Garth Ennis's The Boys, which I was reading at the time and is in my opinion up there with Frank Quitely and John Cassaday as one of the best artists working in comics today.  He especially excels at drawing the seedy, and sleazy aspects of life, and so was the perfect choice to illustrate this comic, with it's grizzled hitmen, corrupt cops, violent mob goons and drug addicted paedo Santa Claus's.

Morrison is well known for his often spawling amd confusing narratives, but Happy! sees him restricting himself to telling a full story with economy and discipline and he nails it.  Happy! is a tremendously enjoyable work, which see's Morrison taking on the trope of an odd-couple "buddy" narrative and having a lot of fun with who the pair in question are - an ex-cop turned hitman called Nick teaming up with a small, blue imaginary horse called Happy.  The initial setting is so bleak and dystopic and the protagonist so miserable and cynical that it feels like Morrison wants to rub humanity's face in it's own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.  And yet by the end it becomes a lesson in hope and redemption much more in line with Morrison's usual attitude and Happy the Horse is his agent in bringing light to a dark world. Morrison has made no secret of the fact that he regarded the turn towards extreme violence, grit and misery of the post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight Returns era of US comics to have been something of a wrong step for the industry, so the extreme grimdarkness setting of Happy! reads almost certainly as having parodic elements, as well as making the extreme cuteness of Happy the Horse so amusing by contrast.
It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!
The story begins at Christmas with two mob hitman discussing their target, Nick Sax, who apparently is a complete son-of-a-bitch.  After the pass a creepy looking Santa, the action cuts to a man in an insect suit being given a blow job by a hooker.  He's about to kill her with a hammer when Nick arrives and shoots him dead.  He asks the prostitite to do him a favour, then the action cuts back to the hitmen, now in a house and they discover two of their brothers dead, tied up with Christmas lights and a note pinned to them saying "answer the fucking phone".  So one of them does and it's Nick who tells him to look out the window, where the hooker is holding a sign saying "behind you".  Nick then appears and blows his brains out, but is confused by the fourth man being there.  They shoot at each other, with Nick getting winged in the arm.  The fourth man tries to bargain with him saying he knows the password that will access large amounts of cash, but Nick shoots him and then staggers outside and collapses in the snow.
Our "hero"
The police and ambulance arrive and take away Nick and the final Fratelli Brother, Mike, who he hadn't quite killedMike mumbles over the phone to a shadowy figure that he needs to ask Nick, that "Sax knows..."   And this is taken to mean the password.  The female cop, Maidreadh McCarthy seems to be in debt to this shadowy figure as well. The shadowy figure tells his colleague "Mr. Smoothie" to go and sort this out.  While in the ambulance, Nick is stablised and sees blue feathers falling on him from the sky and a shadowy blue thing telling him to "hang on in there".  Mr. Smoothie is waiting at the hospital, planning to torture the password out of Nick, who awakes with Maidreadh McCarthy by his bed.

 Macarthy: "Officers.  This tragic, paranoid husk of a man used to be the best detective in the whole department.  Medals. Citations. A beautiful wife and a golden career.  Behold the man."

He snaps at her to go away and suddenly he sees... a small blue horse sitting on his chest.
Nick meet Happy, Happy meet Nick
Bewildered he accuses the doctors of making him see things. Macarthy whispers in his ear about giving her the password so she can claim the cash for the city, but merely earns a "fuck you" for her trouble and she angrily leaves.  The horse gets his attention again and tells Nick he's the only person able to see him and they need to go and save a girl called Hailey who's imaginary friend he is.  He introduces himself as Happy The Horse and tells Nick that the only way he'll escape the mob hospital is working together and the first issue ends after comprehensively establishing a grotty, down at heel atmospehre and cynical, murderous anti-hero and leavened it with an adorable cartoon horse.  Thanks to Darick Robertson's fine art the whole issue drips atmosphere and Happy looks both a part of athe world and yet strangely hyperreal on top of it at the same time.  So he can both interact with Nick and yet stay fantastical at the same time.

The second issue begins with Nick and Happy making a daring escape from the hospital.  Nick armed only with a drip stand and Happy's ability to warn him of ambushes.  They manage to get outside and MaCarthy confronts them saying all the mobsters want is the password.  Nick says "there is no fucking password" and she should jus shoot him and get it over with.  But she lets them go and Nick and Happy make their getaway in a car.  An angry Mr. Smoothie who had his teeth knocked out by Nick, phones the Shadowy Man who reiterates he wants that password.
The odd couple.
Meanwhile, Nick has found some clothes and keeps telling Happy to fuck off and that he doesn't care about saving the girl.  Happy tells him he only has a limited time to save Hailey, but Nick ignores him and tries to sleep Happy off.  But he awakes to Happy still floating there, telling him he has only thrity-five hours now to save the girl.  Nick has an idea, to use Happy to win some money in a poker game.

So they sit down with some very shady thugs, and Happy tells Nick what cards everyone has.  After some trash talk Nick goes for a final raise and Happy disappears.  Sweating with anxiety, Nick almost wills Happy back, who reappears and says he'll only help if Nick agree's to help Hailey.  Nick says yes, Happy tells him to call it, and Nick cleans up.  Unfortunately his oppnents are somewhat sore losers and Nick ends up shooting all of them.  Then he goes to the train station to get out of town and Happy is upset Nick went back on his word.
Who needs a poker face when you have Happy?
Nick: "Fuck you, and fuck Hailey. He probably fucked and strangled her by now.  So Hailey's never gonna grow up a bitch and make some poor slob's life hell.  Boo-fucking-Hoo."

Happy keeps up the pressure, saying he "knows there's a hero inside of you".  But Nick just gives him the finger.  The final page of the issue cuts to the creepy Santa in a room with several kids bound and gagged on the floor.  Taking the storyline to it's darkest point.  It might seem almost too bleak to carry on right now.  The only likeable characters are Happy and Detective McCarthy.  Nick is so far down the anti-hero road he's pratically a villain protagonist.  But after taking us to the very pits of despair by this halfway mark, things slowly start to get more optimistic and the contrast of the darkness and the light makes the eventual triumph of good far more satisfying.

Issue three starts with the police interviewing a man who overheard Nicks "strangling" comment.  Now the police think he might be the kiddie snatcher as well.  Nick is trying to sleep on the train while Happy begs him to help. He finally goes to the toilet so he can talk to Happy privately.

Nick: "What is it to you if one more kid dies? What the fuck does a cartoon horse know about  life and death and fucking pain?"

Happy: "If Hailey dies, I die too.  If Hailey stops believing in me, I die Nick.  But you... how do you get to be you Nick?"

Now follows a six page flashback, using a technique of single frames with large time skips between them and floating text bubbles to convey the sped up passage of time.  He was happily married and transferred to homicide to work with McCarthy.  The grind of day-to-day death alienated him from his wife, until one day he tells McCarthy:

Nick: "I can't talk to her about any of this shit.  She... she has a hard time with depression.  How am I supposed to tell her the whole world is just...It's all just... just gift wrapping on a fucking skull."
Happier times for Nick
He has an affair with McCarthy and then the mobsters try and blackmail him over it.  He tells them to fuck themselves.  He gets fired and one day gets his first hiring as a contract killer.  Happy agrees that it's a sad story but then in one of those meta touches Morrison loves so much, says:

Happy: "How about turning this into the heartwarming tale of redemption it's supposed to be?"

The train stops and a man tries to  ambush Nick on the loo, getting gutshot for his trouble.  Then Nick tells Happy that everyone on the train is a miserable asshole and why should he care about them?  And indeed we hear snippets of dialogue from angry, bitter people, cursing and frowning away.  This practically breaks Happy, reducing him to a forlorn looking specimen, with most of his colour leached away.  Nick rages about why he doesn't care about Hailey and Happy quietly responds:

Happy: "Well.. see that newspaper? I think I just figured out why you of all people in the city can see me Nick.  Hailey's your daughter."
Aww, poor Happy
Then Happy disappears, leaving a dumbstruck Nick, looking at the photo of Hailey in the paper and realising it's true.  As he makes his way to the front of the train, the previously angry people are all making up and telling each other they love each other.  Getting off the train Nick yells for Happy to come back or at least give him a sign, and he finds a blue feather.  Meanwhile back with the imprisoned kids and paedo Santa, a mysterious man says that people over the net are into "some sick fucking shit".  End issue.

The final issue sees McCarthy sneering at the shadowy man over the phone, now called Mr. Blue. Who is displeased with her, telling her she can start looking for a new job. Meanwhile, following the sign from Happy, Nick finds himself in a church and asks the priest if he knows anything about angels appearing as blue horses.  The priest is flustered and starts fiddling with his PC.  Nick sees he is looking at live footage of the kids under a Christmas tree, he sees a blue light over one of them and grins.  Happy pops out of the PC still mad at him, Nick half apologises and uses his detective skills to narrow down where the room must be by the flashing barsign outside it's window.  The priest tries to get away, and Nick dispenses his own brand of absolution.
Tough break, pervert.
As the rush to the kid's location, Nick falls to his knees with heart problems.  Meanwhile, McCarthy decides to dispatch a squad to Mr. Blue's cellphone location - "this one's for you Nicky Sax".  At the building with the kids in it, Nick asks Happy to scout ahead, and we see paedo Santa shooting up.  Nick bursts in but gets stabbed in the belly.  He shoots his assailent and takes out two more before heart problems bring him to his knees again. Mr. Blue scolds him for ruining his kiddie porn set-up, Nick also states that Mr.Blue hired him to kill the Fratelli Brothers at the start of the book.  Mr. Blue asks for the password, but Nick spits in his face.  Then Santa attacks Nick from behind with a garotte.  Things look bad, but then Happy arrives with the cavalry.  Every imaginary friend he could find, totally breaking the grimness of the setting with a dash of pure, unadulterated, feel-good fantasy. How the power of imagination can beat out dull reality and save the day. Paedo Santa is distracted long enough for Nick to fling him out of the window.
Note Superman in the top left corner.
Tenderly he goes over to the kids, and tells Hailey it's going to be alright now.  But as they hug, Mr. Blue shoots Nick in the back.  Nick, somehow still standing says he'll trade the password for the kids.

Mr. Blue: "It's cunts like me who rule the world." [gunshot, blood spurts out of his chest]

McCarthy: "And cunts like me shoot cunts like you in the back.  It all evens in the end."
A short-lived reunion
Nick is finally slumped on the floor dying.  Nick makes McCarthy promise to look after his wife and Hailey, as the kids are led away to safety.  Happy returns to Nick and lets him die at peace, symbolised by the blue feather.  Which also seems to symbolise the password as on the final page it's heavily implied McCarthy has the password and has claimed the money.

Oh, all of my feels.
Despite being a much darker setting, Happy! ends up having a lot in common with the end of Morrisons run on Animal Man.  After putting Buddy Baker through hell, by killing off his wife, kids and pets, Buddy actually meets Morrison in the final issue.  After decrying the then current audiences demand for darker stories, Morrison states what could be his mantra "maybe we could just try being kind", before returning Buddy's family back to life.  Happy the Horse is Morrison's "kindness" given adorable form, railing against the misery of the backdrop and "saving" Nick's soul in the process.  With the final part of the story being the only bit that takes place in daylight (bright, golden, almost unreal daylight too) and the McCarthy who is as genuinely good person a person the setting will allow being able to claim the cash that was driving the other plot of the story, it seems Happy the Horse was able to change more than just Nick, and even just for a short while there is hope and light again.  Tightly written, with fantastic artwork, Happy! feels like a real labour of love for both Morrison and Robertson and if you can tolerate the spiral into darkness of the first half of the comic you'll appreciate the clamber out of the pit in the second half all the more.

And they all lived happily ever after (I hope)


  1. I wrote a comment on this post but it was eaten by blog daemons. Or maybe it melted in the heat. It is so hot! It's like living in the Caribbean or something, but without the sparkling blue ocean gently lapping on white beaches.

    This sounds like a really good story where the grim 'n' gritty bits make the happy ending feel hard-earned. I guess the protagonist kind of had a mental breakdown over the work he had to do. It's sad that there's work out there which can corrupt the person who does it, but someone has to do it 'cos it's vital. At least McCarthy seems to have escaped unscathed (ish?), but Nick Sax was dragged down into the vorago of sorrow and suffering. Could this be a story about the redemptive power of the imagination? A bit like Promethea, then. Maybe the redemptive power of the imagination is a wizard thing, and Moore and Morrison are both wizards/warlocks/magicians/whatever.

    So Nick Sax is saved by his daughter's Patronus. This was before Harry Potter, of course. (Why does Alan Moore hate Harry Potter? Is it just 'cos it's successful?) If I had a spirit animal I don't think it would be a winged blue unicorn donkey. (Happy is clearly a donkey. It's the ears.) I think it would be a blackbird. Called Helios. Don't laugh!

    I'm going to stop now because I have the song 'Happy' going through my head and I can't shake it out.

  2. Yes, he does look more like a donkey doesn't he? But he introduces himself as Happy the Horse, so I stuck with that. It's definitely the darkest work by Grant Morrison I have read of his too, the setting feels like something Garth Ennis would come up with, although he, like Mr. Morrison has his sentimental side that offsets the grimness so it doesn't become intolerable.

    A blackbird sounds cool. If I had to have a spirit animal, I'd pick an otter (doesn't one of Harry Potter's mates have an otter patronus?). I think it would be more reliable than a cat based one!

  3. Hermione Granger has an otter Patronus, so you'd be in good company!

  4. Cool, she was always my favourite Potter Pal by miles. And she has a clever pet cat too, I remember that clearly. I have both Lego Harry Potter Xbox games and played them to death, I'll have to show them too you next time you pop round, I think you'll be impressed at the detail in them.