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If You're Happy! and You Know It: Grant Morrison's Return to Creator-Owned Comics

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Sex, drugs, violence, and a cutsie-wutsie cartoon horse mark Morrison’s first foray into detective fiction.

There’s a whole generation of comic book fans who only know of Grant Morrison through his groundbreaking mainstream superhero work for Marvel and DC. His runs on franchise properties such as The New X-Men, JLA, Batman, and most recently, Action Comics have helped redefine the way all of us get our superhero fix. They know nothing of his underground comix of the Seventies or his genre-bending Vertigo Comics work on books like Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Arkham Asylum and his creator-owned mind-shattering opus The Invisibles. This is the man who invented Danny, the Street and dreamt up the world’s first scratch ‘n’ sniff comic. He’s actually been breaking new ground for quite some time, now.

What to make of Happy!, then?

Truth be told, the jury’s still out on that one. Teased for months by publisher Image Comics as Morrison’s long-awaited return to high-profile, creator-owned work, the buzz for Happy! has only increased exponentially in the weeks leading up to its release. Even now that the first issue has hit the shelves, speculation still runs rampant. More than just a foray outside the confines of mainstream superhero comics, Morrison seems to be trying to make a statement of some kind.

Or maybe not.

Some critics and reviewers have already gone on record positioning Happy! as Morrison’s response to the ultra-violent, over-the-top stylings of writers like fellow Scot Mark Millar, who has made a name for himself by pushing the boundaries of exaggerated super-realism in books like Wanted and Kick-Ass. Others believe Happy! to be some kind of gesture, a compromise of sorts, bridging the gap between Morrison’s meta-fictional super-epics and modern-day superhero schlock. At the end of the day though, does a creator of Morrison’s stature and intellect really need to make such a statement or gesture? As stated, this is a man who’s built an entire career on uncompromising experimentalism.

The first issue of Happy! reads like a surreal concoction of gritty, in-your-face realism, over-the-top, uber-violence, ultra-powerful criminal masterminds, and bizarre sexual fetishism. In short, drop a hit or two of LSD, slap in a copy of Bad Lieutenant, while reading William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and maybe then you’ll get an idea of what Morrison is about in Happy!.

 Or maybe not.


Within the first few pages of Happy! Morrison introduces us to quite possibly the most dysfunctional, morally-bankrupt character outside of a Garth Ennis comic in Nick Sax. Anything but your typical cold-blooded, stone-faced hitman, within minutes of meeting him, Sax foils an ill-fated, hammer-toking, insectoid serial killer’s attempted murder of a prostitute, evades a hit by a trio of mobbed-up brothers, murdering all three in cold blood, and ends up in the local mob hospital facing eventual interrogation by a stone-cold team of killer doctors. And that’s when the blue, flying cartoon unicorn enters the picture.

Or maybe not.

You see, only Nick Sax can actually see and hear Happy, the Flying Horse and herein lies Morrison’s true genius. For even as despairing, decrepit Nick Sax falls headlong down the rabbit hole, so too does the audience experience his sense of overwhelming disorientation and mounting frustration. Sax is a man with his back literally to the wall, his only option for survival a flying cartoon horse that may or may not be the product of heavy sedation, lifelong psychosis, or some combination of the two. Like the audience, Sax has no choice but go along for the ride, trusting in his hallucinatory guide to pull him through.

                                                                                                                                                                            

It’s always been easy to attribute a little more to his work than Morrison originally intended. Fresh off the paperback release of his examination of the archetypal superhero Supergods, this is a creator who has clearly put some hard thought into the conventions of the graphic narrative. Does that make Happy! another chapter in his ongoing creative manifesto, though? Perhaps, but only in the broadest possible sense. All of a writer or artist’s creative output could and probably should be considered a running commentary on their ongoing development. When viewed from this perspective, that would make Happy! nothing more than a refreshing change of pace for Morrison.

It could really be that simple.

But then again, this Grant Morrison we’re talking about…

So, maybe not.

Happy! #1, Grant Morrison (W), Darick Robertson (A). Image Comics, limited series, $2.99. On sale September 26, 2012.

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