Review: Happy! by Grant Morrison trade paperback (Image Comics)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy! by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson (Image Comics)The broad strokes of Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson's four-issue miniseries Happy!, newly collected -- a Christmas story in which a hitman reluctantly teams with a cartoon blue horse to save a kidnapped girl -- tells the reader most of what they can expect from the book. Happy!'s arc is fairly predictable in the way of the other Christmas tales it honors and lampoons, but the enjoyment comes in watching how Morrison dizzily mashes up crime drama and Christmas story cliches into a story demented and warm at the same time.

[Review contains spoilers]

Happy! teams former police-detective-turned-hitman Nick Sax with Happy, the equine imaginary friend of a girl named Haley, who only Nick can see. Nick's on the run from Mr. Blue because of a botched hit job and seconds away from torture at the hands of Mr. Smoothie (all of this purposefully like something out of a Quentin Tarantino film) when Happy helps him escape in exchange for helping Happy rescue the kidnapped Haley.

The story's real attraction, again, comes from the juxtaposition of an extremely graphic crime story with a flying blue cartoon character; Robertson is an inspired art choice, blending pages reminiscent of his work on The Boys with animated ridiculousness. The creators, appropriately, ratchet the filth of the book to absurdity, all the better to make Happy's presence equally absurd. When, on the first page, Robertson draws a man vomiting in an alley while at the same time a dog pees on the man, the reader gets a sense what they're in for, especially set against two rival hitmen discussing, also Tarantino-like, which part of the male or female anatomy their rival Sax best epitomizes.

I only regretted that Morrison puts a foul mouth on Happy (mild, as compared to the other characters). Though Happy is at times predictably irreverent as one might expect an imaginary horse to be -- spouting fluff a la Roger Rabbit -- at other times he uses words like "screw" and "ass," where I thought it might be stronger if Happy were separate, mind as well as body, from Sax's world.

Though Sax is initially resistant to Happy and his mission, the reader knows Sax will eventually come around, so the arc of the story isn't all that surprising. Happy! actually works better when Morrison lets the story unfold unrelated to the larger plot, as when Sax uses Happy to cheat at a poker game, or when Happy peers through walls to scope out Sax's later targets. If Tarantino is strong here, so is Harvey, though Jimmy Stewart never used Harvey quite like this.

If Morrison is riffing on crime movies and buddy comedies here, he's riffing even more on classic Christmas tales. Happy is certainly a Clarence to Sax's -- again -- Jimmy Stewart, though perhaps the best moment of all of Happy! is when Happy tries to prove to Sax that the Christmas spirit exists and that people are inherently good, and instead encounters a train of the surliest, most misbegotten people who ever graced the page. It is a familiar Christmas story moment -- with shades of the Whos down in Whoville enjoying Christmas despite the Grinch's antics -- but gone horribly, horribly wrong, and Morrison honors his source material even as he twists it delightfully.

In the end, after Sax has both killed Santa Claus and shot a priest for good measure, he does indeed, if predictably, become the St. Nick that the story needs. Happy!'s ending is equal parts It's a Wonderful Life and crime noir again, as Morrison reveals the McGuffin "password" that underlies the book, which unlocks a fortune that will support Haley and her mother.

If Happy! should become a movie, as rumored, hopefully those involved don't separate it from its Christmas roots -- it would be possible to do, but the story would be lesser for it. Happy! is a delightfully wrong Christmas story, the kind of thing you might read while the family watches Rudolph for the eighteenth time, irreverent but also faithful to its predecessors. This is neither Grant Morrison's most creative nor surprising work, but it's certainly worth a few hours of holiday entertainment.
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2 comments:

  1. I didn't realize this was out in trade already - thanks for the heads-up! I liked the Christmas aspect, too... has Morrison done other Christmas work that I'm forgetting?

    There's some real interesting cross-pollination between this and other Morrison stuff on imagination (going back to Flex Mentallo but more recently Action Comics and Bat-Mite in RIP). I know it's not a new theme, but I could listen all day to this guy wax poetic about the virtues of having imaginary friends and ideals to which we can aspire. I love when Happy mentions that he's five degrees away from hallucination, just like Bat-Mite's Fifth Dimension IS imagination.

    That, and I love the apparent Millar satire (which I may be reading into the text, knowing the tense relationship between Morrison & Millar). Although I had a question - how does Nick know the password? He kills the kid before he can tell it, right? I got the sense that Nick didn't believe such a password even existed...

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    1. ** SPOILERS **

      I mentioned Bat-Mite in some draft of this review and I don't know what happened to it. But yeah, Happy! is a book that doesn't immediately seem to fit into the Grant Morrison canon, as it were, but when you begin to unwrap the real/imaginary/living imagination business, then the ties to his other books start to emerge.

      The password is the question, isn't it? At the beginning of the book, you're right that Nick doesn't seem to believe the password exists, but he comes around to it by the end. Mr. Blue mentions it to him straightaway in the end, so maybe that's how he gets it, but a loftier interpretation might consider Nick's arc of gaining faith through the book, until in the end he "believes" in the password (and Happy, and Christmas) even if it seems ridiculous.

      I guess I thought maybe Nick never knew the password, but Happy did, and Happy put the feather in Nick's hand so then Maireadh could go get the fortune. Or, I've tried to watch the feathers flying toward the beginning -- I don't see it, but I wonder if Nick got the feather from one of the brothers somehow.

      Now, what about the guy in the cockroach suit in the first issue? Morrison's giving Kafka a shout-out, or why does he have the guy dressed like a bug?

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