The comic book mausoleum: Happy!

Retrospective reviews of significant and socially relevant comic book cycles and their adaptations that every fiction fan should immediately consume.

Creators: Grant Morrison, Darick Robertson
Publisher: Image

Did you ever see Arnie’s somewhat underrated cop movie The Last Action Hero? This rather enjoyable piece of tosh baits the viewer with the fleeting revelation that our favourite hunk of Austrian man-meat was once partnered with a wise-cracking cartoon cat. Intriguingly, said cat was clearly conscious of the fictitious nature of his existence, breaking the fourth wall before and playing with meta-fiction in an unexpected context. I always wanted to know more about this briefly referenced feline gumshoe.

Present day: unexpectedly, a natural successor emerges via the adaptation of Grant Morrison’s limited run graphic novel Happy!. Protagonist Nick Sax, a scabrous, drug-addled New York cop finds himself paired up with a tiny, relentlessly positive blue unicorn, that only he can see, on the hunt for a unsavoury child-murdering Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

There’s no denying that this is something of an acquired taste, but I would queue for hours in acid rain to watch a remake of Se7en with Morgan Freeman replaced by Snarf from Thundercats, or even Lethal Weapon with Riggs played by Rainbow Brite.

Happy! is one of The Grantiac’s more obscure titles, published in 2013 with relatively little hoopla. Less critically acclaimed than most personal projects and less widely distributed than his stuff for DC and Marvel. It’s also notable as the first collaboration between Morrison and Darrick Robertson, an artist much beloved by sequential art freaks for his hyper-detailed, excellently repulsive work on big titles like Transmetropolitan and The Boys. His splash-pages depicting horrific scenes of urban decay are like the Sodom and Gomorra edition of Where’s Wally. That these guys haven’t knocked out more work in tandem over the years is a shame.

Images from Image Comics, Grant Morrison & Darick Robertson

Unusually for Morrison, Happy! is a foray into outright comedy, and most amusing it is – though before you rush out and grab a copy for lil’ Jimmy you should note that lashings of the old ultra-violence and degenerate behaviour abound. While he has produced loads of funny stuff submerged in his preferred psychotropic themes, I can’t think of any pure comedy in the last 20 years. Except, perhaps, the degenerate Seaguy, which personally, I find too disturbing to be considered comedy. Like Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Uncomfortable snorts of merriment usually stem from interaction between Nick, a very bad lieutenant, and the titular Happy: the scene where the invisible Happy helps Nick cheat a bunch of low-life street punks during a game of poker is priceless. In the interests of completeness, I should add that “Alicorn” is the anatomically correct term for an equine equipped of both horn and wings—thanks to Hasbro for clarifying.

Is Happy a symptom of Nick’s psychotic-break induced by PTSD and shitloads of drugs, or is he really the imaginary friend of a sweet little girl called Hailey who desperately needs the self-absorbed NYPD scumbag to spring to her rescue? Either way, the juxtaposition works well and their constant bickering is most enjoyable, providing lots of funny scenes, gallows humour and choice, cheap gags.

The Happy! graphic novel holds a hallowed position in my own imagination after I acquired a copy once owned by Morrison under weird circumstances. It consists of four issues only and Robertson’s down and dirty style suits the somewhat grubby subject matter perfectly. Deep and profound it is not; disgusting, visceral, occasionally moving and loads of fun it certainly is. To state it is not exactly “made for TV” is a massive understatement.

But here we are. I had no clue that this unlikely adaption existed, so you can scarcely conceive my surprise and joy when on a recent trip to the land of cholesterol and tiny flags I stumbled across the entire series available on demand. Even worse, my wife and I had randomly spent the day wandering around the sleazy neighbourhoods that Sax frequents. Spooky.

Images from Netflix

As this was our last night with access to the hotel’s unfeasibly large idiot box only one response was possible: binging the whole thing in one night aided only by dubious over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and toxic Yankee-candy. Probably not a normal person’s Honeymoon experience, but Happy! is very rich fare and grinding through the whole thing in one session is not to be recommended; the last two episodes resonate in my memory like scenes that David Lynch rejected because they were too confusing. But, after recovering from the trauma, I concluded this is one fine adaptation.

As you would expect with Morrison, AKA “the Big Tartan Cheese”, on board in the perennially vague position of executive producer, tonally it’s right on the nail and the show hits every beat of the comic in a tremendously faithful way, as per Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Though, unlike Watchmen, it isn’t so tedious to be in danger of chewing off a finger before getting halfway through.

Happy! is gleefully determined to offend at all costs, note its jaundiced parental guidance introduction reminiscent of the public health warnings scattered through Morrison’s earlier work The Filth. A relentless tirade of bad taste imagery and jokes, pitched at a slap-stick level. Its tongue is so far in its cheek that by about episode six, it rips through its own face exposing its nicotine-stained gums. I think it’s safe to say this show will at least have the decency to polarise opinion. It may be become a firm favourite or spark a campaign of dispatching vitriolic complaint letters and envelopes stuffed full of sarin gas.

The central role of Nick Sax is played to the hilt by Christopher Meloni. This guy was clearly determined that the tiny electric blue Alicorn will not be the most memorable cartoon character in his show. So, despite the obvious disadvantage of existing in three dimensions, Meloni upstages his animated cohorts at every turn with a demented, kinetic performance. Imagine Bruce Campbell playing John McClane. Speaking of which, I suspect this show is destined to join Die Hard as the humbug’s choice of seasonal entertainment. Despite the protestations of the perpetually upbeat Happy, it is relentless in its lampooning of a middle-class consumerist Christmas and its queasy red and green colour scheme should put even the jolliest viewers off the concept of fairy lights for the rest of their miserable lives.

The first season runs to eight episodes and with the second already in the post, padding was definitely required to make up the run time; the extra stuff is not only in keeping with the tone of the comic but adds a lot. Without veering too far into spoiler territory there is some great new material, mercilessly skewering reality TV fame cults and introducing new villains. Gangster Blue expands into an amusing, angst-ridden, chunky sweater wearer and we are privy to some unnecessarily personal details about unpleasant henchman Mr Smoothie.

Images from Netflix

When a fan of a comic considers a TV adaptation, it’s usually a case of bemoaning material that the writers were forced to leave out because of runtime or forlorn attempts to appeal to a wider audience. When adapting something like Daredevil or Hellblazer with decades’ worth of storylines, characters and nuances, all of which are subtly different in the mind of each reader, it’s impossible to please everyone. Often, in trying to appeal to a broader church of tastes TV writers are condemned to please no one, churning out product with the relative flavour and nutritional value of a Findus crispy pancake.

In comic form Happy! is short – perhaps two hours of TV if transferred verbatim. Thus, new material cannot be viewed as sacrilegious or inaccurate; without extensive new writing we would only get two episodes. To the snobby insider, extra material covering Blue’s home life, the weird sex-beetle cult or the Very Bad Santa’s backstory is a joy; Easter eggs that we never expected to see. The tone is so consistent that those sucking it up for the first time will find it both hard and pointless to separate the new stuff from material in the comic.

In my humble opinion this could be the way forward for TV producers who want to plunder the imagination and back catalogue of iconic comic savants but want to avoid the howling approbation of obnoxious fans with too much time on their hands.

Morrison’s own We3 would seem like an obvious candidate, along with other self-contained comics with short runs, hence room for expansion on the screen. How about a 10-hour version of Garth Ennis’ 303, Ian Edginton’s Kingdom of the Wicked or any number of 2000AD titles with relatively short runs:  Cradlegrave, Armitage, Caballistics, Inc. and others too numerous to mention. Themes and characters hinted at in the comic can be given substance and weight as they are introduced to a new generation of fans, using the new medium to build constructively on elements established in a comic, as opposed to defecating on them from a great height.

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