Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #113: Happy! by Grant Morrison & Darick Robertson

It's difficult to know which Grant Morrison will show up to one of his miniseries. Will it be the literary, allusive laughing skull of Seaguy? The ferocious, committed, devastatingly clear-eyed surgeon of We3? Or the well-meaning, slightly clumsy fantasist of Joe the Barbarian?

(It's never the same as the chilly, all-big-moments-all-the-time Bond villain Morrison affects when he writes big superhero comics: that pose is consistent, at least.)

For last year's side project, Happy!, Morrison headed into Frank Miller territory, with a hero much too hardboiled to be taken seriously and a city so corrupt the reader wonders how a single person can be left alive in it. Morrison was canny enough to bring artist Darick Robertson along for the ride; Robertson has a solid, realistic, modern style that's equally excellent for shouty faces and bloody explosions, and that moves Happy! far away, visually, from the stylization of Miller-land.

But ex-cop (and current murderer-for-hire) Nick Sax is a hard-luck Joe right out of Sin City: we don't learn his whole story until most of the way through the four-issue miniseries collected here, but trust me that it's Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One turned up to Eleven, and without a Batman to save him. Instead, Nick has Happy, a little blue flying horse that appears to him as he's rushed in an ambulance to the hospital after a double-cross hit doesn't go quite the way he hoped.

Morrison always wants to be a realistic writer -- no matter the bizarreries in his stories, he believes in them, at least for the length of that story -- so the fact that Happy is a little girl's imaginary friend means that the horse can't affect the real world at all. He can only talk, and only Nick can see and listen to him. This immediately slices the potential tonal variation of Happy! down immensely; it's can't really be the story of these two very different characters -- gruff cynical assassin and lovey cartoony sweetheart -- when Happy has to spend most of his time explaining the plot to Nick, warning Nick about danger, and cajoling Nick to do the right thing, like a bargain basement Davey and Goliath.

We know Nick will do the right thing, because this is a comic book, and because it's written by Grant Morrison. So all of the feinting in the other direction is just a waste of time, or an exercise in noirish atmosphere. Eventually, Nick will need to run into danger, to try to save someone, because redemption is what these stories are about.

Happy! is a decent enough thriller: it threatens to be much bloodier and nastier than it ends up, which is pretty much exactly what the comics crowd wants. It's not one of Morrison's best works, but it's not dreck like his Batman & Robin either. And Robertson's work is entirely exemplary here: Happy seems to be an invader from another reality (or a pop-over drawn by an entirely different artist), which is exactly as it should be. If you're looking for a noir comic with a redemptive ending, you could do a lot worse than this.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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