The first half of “Happy!” #1 by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson doesn’t feature the titular character but focuses on the world of the other main character, hitman and eczema-plagued former cop Nick Sax. A large cast is introduced, all of whom curse like sailors. At first glance, this felt like a poor copy of Garth Ennis’ approach to dialogue. Ennis liberally salts his scripts with profanity much more resonantly in “The Boys” and “Preacher.” There, the swearing is dropped at appropriate points in the text or rhythmically punctuates the distinctive speech of some characters like in a Mamet play. The profanity also heightens tension, although even with Ennis, the effect deadens after too many successive repetitions.
In “Happy!,” everyone dips into cursing haphazardly, and the mob characters swear like callow twelve-year-old “bros” trying to prove they’re hard instead of actually being intimidating. The use of profanity isn’t effective, but I suspect that is the point. In retrospect, the satire is obvious when a character says, “Tone it the f— down, willya? We can do this without all the f—ing language.”
Everything gets better with the arrival of Happy the Horse. Meta-ironically, Happy provides clarity and high spirits not only for Nick Sax but for the reader. I almost read “Happy” as a straight-up gritty crime comic until Happy showed up to set me straight. If nothing else, Happy is refreshing because his perky, goofy voice makes an immediate impression and is totally at odds with narrative expectations, even if the reader has been spoiled by previews and interviews. Happy the Horse is the point.
There are hints of further acts of violence to come from villains named Mister Blue and Mr. Smoothie, but like their names, they too will probably be fodder for parody. The action is dense in this debut issue and characterization is relatively thin. Nick and his world mostly function as a foil to Happy, but there are glints of unorthodox characterization even aside from Happy’s bright glow. Morrison goes for shock value in a Jack the Ripper-inspired scene, but hilariously, it’s a throwaway bit for both the writer and Nick Sax. Nick does something that can be considered a bizarre act of vigilante heroism, but he throws it off like it’s nothing, because to him, it is nothing, just some poo that he had to step over to make his actual, more sordid mission of the day go more smoothly. Neither the character nor the writer dwell on this scene, but it’s another tell that Morrison is deliberately not shooting straight.
Artist Darick Robertson shows himself to be more than capable of meeting Morrison’s demands for grotesque and crazy visual tableau, but this is no surprise from an artist who is the co-creator of “The Boys” and “Transmetropolitan.” Colorist Richard P. Clark shows excellent restraint, using only a few warm, harsh accent colors in the first half of the issue, keeping the tone of the issue dark and neutral to make Happy’s first appearance as visually alarming as possible. Robertson frames the last full-panel page with appropriate dramatic weight as Happy yells one of the most memorable exit lines I’ve read in comics.
“Happy!” is shaping up to be an impressive, successful satire, perhaps a satire of a satire, because it is a reaction to gritty, “realistic” comics which are in turn a reaction to superheroes and their wholesome patriotism and family dynamics. The perpetual pitfall of satire is that no matter how obvious it may seem to the writer, it is always subtle if it stops short of beating the reader over the head. “Happy!” works a lot better if the reader knows that Morrison is sending up “Kick-Ass” and the like. Without that knowledge, “Happy!” #1 is weaker, but it still works because Happy the Horse has an appeal that transcends “messages.”
If “Happy!” #1 is an example of what readers will be getting more of as Grant Morrison makes an exit from DC, that’s good news for this year and onwards.