Vicious violence. Malicious murder. Witty, foul language. A talking imaginary friend named Happy the horse who is on a mission. These elements and more make up a book that will either cause revulsion or move the reader in ways they wouldn’t expect. Grime, constant bombardment of profanity, hideous imagery, and graphic violence may not seem like a pleasurable reading time for some, but once you enter the world of “Happy!” and realize what Grant Morrison and Darrick Robertson have created, you’ll get an appreciation of their masterful miniseries. This is a Christmas story containing the power of hope wrapped in a veneer of filth. Morrison has crafted a story of deep meaning in the most over the top way imaginable. “Happy!” is an allegory of redemption and the power of hope that first requires the reader to experience evil and injustice on the grandest of scales. If one suspends disbelief, then the reason for the heightened, cartoony feel of the book is understood and appreciated. This is an operatic Christmas tale of the power of light over darkness, but for adults only.
Mr. Blue, a Fratelli family mob boss, believes disgraced ex-detective Nick Sax has in his possession the password to one of the family’s bank accounts that Blue can’t access. Sax, once a happily married New York police department detective, is now alone and must become a hitman for hire and, according to him, “kill people for money to buy booze, sex, and eczema medication.” Life has brought him low and now his moral and physical self has transformed into something grotesque and against all he once held dear to his heart. As the flashback scene so beautifully rendered by Robertson progresses, the reader sees Sax becoming physically and spiritually darker, grizzled, and haunted. He didn’t always have eczema, leading one to believe the stress and burden of life has begun to affect even his physical appearance.
The first thing one notices, right from the first page, is the dialogue. Although it seems every other word in the book is the f-word or some other vulgarity, the language is witty, snappy, and especially poetic. At times it can be downright moving. Mr. Smoothie, a man who tortures information out of people for Mr. Blue, is an especially over the top character. Before going in a hospital room intending to do unspeakable acts against Sax, Smoothie says, “I feel the ghost of a hard-on that will not die.” In another scene, the card shark named LeDic (a name that is easily ridiculed by Sax) says he is “in the mood for fuckery” when Sax enters a card game. Other, more coarse dialogue is said throughout the book, but when Happy the horse says things like, “I’m hope”, the reader can see beauty in the story. Happy is driving Nick toward a mission that will redeem him in this ugly world and the flying horse even says he will turn Nick’s harrowing downward spiral of a life into a “heartwarming tale of redemption.” Happy is the only character in the book who does not utter any profanity or hateful language, proving himself to be that shining light of hope that maybe is possible in a world so dank and dark. Happy, for example, uses playful language in one panel when calling the bad guys “Yerks!” Morrison’s uses dialogue for a reason, not just to shock and pander to the teenage boy looking for a cheap giggle. One can see the heart through this exaggerated world of “Happy!”
Darick Robertson’s artwork is detailed and, in unison with the exaggerated language of Morrison, elicits strong emotions from the reader. The over the top violence along with the sensational dialogue make the marriage of these two artists one that works on every level. On the very first page of issue one, a homeless man is seen throwing up while a dog is peeing on him. Two men are on their way to kill Nick Sax, cursing up a storm. From the beginning of this story, the reader can see that the focus of this tale is the seedy underbelly of life. The only glimpse of light is the voluminous amounts of snowflakes that fall throughout the entire miniseries, contrasting against the dark. When someone’s head is shot at point blank, detailed bits of brain and blood fly outward from the panel toward the reader. Teeth fly out of people’s mouths as they’re being hit. Touches of humor are brought to the violence when Robertson adds stars appearing when Sax’s hand meets Smoothie’s stomach with a punch. Morrison and Robertson mean to bombard the reader and elicit emotional reactions, and they succeed handsomely.
The train ride in issue three is a masterfully executed scene, once again creating a dichotomy between writer and artist. As the train is chugging along in the night, various types of passengers and their conversations can be seen and heard. The talk and actions are of the holidays and frivolity. When the train is abruptly stopped, the tone and content of their language drastically changes for the worse. The passengers become angry and highly irritated and they take that anger out on the people with them or the loved ones they are talking with on their phones. A wife accuses her husband of infidelity, a mother becomes frustrated with her complaining child, and so on, until the escalation of anger and hatred can be felt through the art as well as the writing. As Happy experiences the pandemonium in the train, all his feathers begin to fall off and he physically droops and wears a face of resignation and despair. It’s heartbreaking to see his response to the passengers and Nick Sax’s malicious words. Happy then disappears into a small burst of blue light, leaving our hero, Sax, on his own. Then, once Nick realizes what he must do and why he must do it, he is a man on a mission to save innocence, just as his “friend” Happy was pushing him toward all along. The train starts up again and the passengers’ conversations revert to ones of apology and love.
What’s seen and what’s concealed is key to this story. Mr. Blue, the face of ultimate evil in this operatic miniseries, never reveals his physical face in the book. It only resides, fittingly, in the shadows. Happy is only visible to children and to Sax. Mr. Blue never reveals his face because the cause of evil can be many shapes, sizes, or actions, according to Morrison and Robertson. Happy, though, is seen by those who are innocent and those who are capable of redemption. By showcasing a heightened sense of vulgarity and violence, the power of those concepts of hope and redemption can be felt more powerfully than if they were expressed in a saccharine or simplistic way. The reader is horrified and enlightened at the same time, and simply needs to embrace the power of light over dark and believe that, yes, an imaginary friend can really exist. “Happy” is a twisted take on “It’s a Wonderful Life” and should become a perennial Christmas tale for adults to read every holiday season.
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Darick Robertson
Issues 1-2 coloring by Richard P. Clark
Issues 3-4 coloring by Tony Avina
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Published by Image Comics