As "Happy!" As Can Be: Darick Robertson Talks Comics, Censorship, and Cuddly Cartoon Unicorns

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Darick Robertson is no stranger to the extreme. From the highly political, socially-aware urban dystopia of Transmetropolitan to the brutal, over-the-top violence and themes of brotherhood in The Boys, Robertson has never shied away from challenging our perceptions of what constitutes acceptable funny book content. This winter, he teams up with another creator known for pushing the boundaries of the graphic narrative, in Grant Morrison.

Happy! chronicles the pathetic, somewhat tragic life of failed cop Nick Sax as he physically and mentally unravels under an onslaught of bloodletting, booze, and bad skin during a particularly grim and gruesome Holiday Season. Guided by an imaginary cartoon unicorn named Happy, Sax frenetically attempts to navigate his way through a bizarre, labyrinthine underworld of murderous mob surgeons, crooked cops, and seriously disturbed serial killers.

Lauded by many as Robertson’s strongest work to date, Happy! is a series that has taken on a new peculiar resonance in light of recent tragic events in Colorado and Connecticut. As real violence against our young takes center stage in the hearts and homes of families around the globe, books like Happy! take on a different meaning for fans and creators alike.

It is important then, as Robertson notes, to “strive to make good stories seem plausible, with art that compliments and progresses the narrative. The balance in Happy! is an easy one to strike, because it’s a story of contrasts, and meant to be slightly ridiculous at the same time. It ends up being a somewhat powerful statement on hope and love in a dreary world. By showing a world at its ugliest, the beauty ultimately stands out.”   
BROKEN FRONTIER: You seem to have a habit for working with mad, brilliant writers from across the pond –

ROBERTSON: And a number of brilliant writers that are on this side of the pond as well...

BF: Ennis on The Boys, Ellis on Transmetropolitan, and now Grant Morrison on Happy!. How did you come to be involved in this project? What besides Morrison’s involvement attracted you to Happy!?

ROBERTSON: It was really about the opportunity to work with Grant, something we’ve both been looking forward to for many years. But when Grant described what Happy! would be about and the characters, I could immediately see the fit.

I love bringing my own ideas and really take my title of Co-creator seriously, in that I like to be sure that what I bring to a project that I share the creator title on, represents my ideas as well as my abilities as an artist.

BF: You’ve never been afraid to push the boundaries of what many deem acceptable content or ideas in comic books. What are your views on censorship and how did you and Grant strike such a compelling balance between violence, humor, and morality in Happy!?

ROBERTSON: What is “acceptable” content? I have a hard time wrapping my head around why modern comic books are still held to a different standard for telling a compelling hard-hitting story than film, or TV. Comics can be adapted for the screen and no one questions the acceptability then. In fact, something like the brilliant Walking Dead is far more gruesome in full color with actors in motion than Charlie Adlard’s excellent narrative in black and white. And that show wins Emmy nominations!

In many ways, the comics medium is the least offensive, as we’re not using actors to re-enact horrible violence, but just drawings inspired to trigger the imagination. But there’s this misguided idea that if something is illustrated with words, then it must ultimately be designed for and aimed at children, and that’s not been the case for decades now. So the idea that there’s any bravery involved in just telling a good [comics] story with a hard edge, any more than Tarantino making a violent movie about Nazis or [making] a show about a protagonist serial killer, like Dexter on TV, is not scrutinized the same way, strikes me as something of a double standard.

Comics should fall under the same First Amendment rights that Fifty Shades of Grey or the like enjoys. Art should not be censored. As long as comics are labeled for mature readers, that should be about the end of the discussion. Not all comics, just like not all movies and TV shows, are for the same indiscriminate audience.

BF: Despite his obvious flaws, Nick Sax is a disturbingly engaging protagonist. How did you contribute to his development and that of the other cast members? What makes him so compelling?

ROBERTSON: I think his everyman quality makes him compelling. He’s not a typical action hero. His body isn’t cut and lean; he’s losing his hair, he’s suffering from eczema and clearly an alcoholic. But beneath it all, he’s tough as nails, and a great detective, as well as a compassionate man who just screwed up his life. In Happy! we get to follow him on his road to redemption.

BF: Happy, despite a cartoonish appearance, somehow never feels visually out of place zipping around Nick Sax’s dark, gritty reality. How difficult was it to portray Happy “realistically”, so to speak?

ROBERTSON: Happy is the easiest and yet most challenging character I’ve ever designed. I love the challenge, though and drawing him cheers me up. It’s a strange phenomenon. Happy, an imaginary friend in a real world, makes me happy in my real world.

BF: The level of expression and detail you achieve in Happy! is astonishing.

ROBERTSON:: Thank you!

BF: At the same time, your work never has the feeling of being “over-referenced”. Some have even said – and I agree – this is some of your best work ever. How true do you feel that statement is? What about this particular project elevated your art to this level of accomplishment?

ROBERTSON: I really appreciate that compliment, and wish to thank “Some” sincerely! I have really given this book 100% and for the first time in my career, I’ve placed quality above all else, in that I believe this is a story that is worth the sacrifice and devotion in time that I’ve given to it. Most of my career has been built around getting books out monthly, and this story, being a standalone four issues, feels like I have an opportunity here, and I am doing my best to use that opportunity to create a classic as best I can. It will be up to the audience, of course, whether or not we achieve that, but that’s my goal. I want this to be something that lives on.

BF: Happy! deals with some pretty disturbing material. How hard was it to detach yourself from this story, after spending so much time within its confines each day?

ROBERTSON: You know, up until this last issue it was fairly easy, but the tragedy in Connecticut at Sandy Hook elementary has been like an open wound. I am a father of young children, one of whom is just seven, and drawing fictitious kids in danger is all part of the job (after all, this is fiction that I am creating) but when my mind and eyes are absorbing the most brutal stories and images of non-fiction, one starts to affect the other. That tragedy is heartbreaking, and I feel so awful for those parents and that community. Working on this last issue has been challenging and is affecting my output, I admit.

BF: Happy! is a limited series. What’s next for you after it comes to a close?

ROBERTSON: I will be co-creating more original work. Ballistic with Adam Egypt Mortimer, a mutual friend and talented writer and director, (who in his own way, helped Happy! come about, as he got Grant in I in touch when the timing was right for both our schedules). I’ll be creating a book with him, due out in the spring of 2013. It will be the first real world building exercise I’ve done since Transmetropolitan and is a story set in a bizarre future world that I am eager to explore. I will also be co-creating Oliver with Gary Whitta for next fall, as well as two projects for DC Comics that are in the works, one that I’ll be writing as well as drawing.

BF: Finally, what are your happiest moments in comics as a fan?

ROBERTSON: As a fan these days, I get overjoyed when I see guys like Joss Whedon get the helm of something as wonderful as the Avengers franchise and we all get to see the true characters us hardcore nerds recognize, make it to the big screen, with whip smart stories and A-list acting and effects. As a fan, I dreamed about this for years.

BF: And as an artist/creator?

ROBERTSON: I am most gratified by the intelligence and sincerity of the current readers. Comics has finally come back around to where it was before the 90s collectors’ bubble that nearly destroyed the industry, in that people are buying comic books to read, more than to just collect. I meet a wide range of people, men and women, who truly love comics. To see titles like Happy! sell as well as Marvel and DC titles, and Image Comics with truly creator-owned books, thriving, not just surviving, is truly rewarding. It tells me that as an industry we have come to a new place where we are seeing that creators of the comic matter as much as the characters within, and sometimes, even more so.

I have people who are telling me enthusiastically, that they’ll buy a comic I draw simply because my art is inside and that they trust it will be solid. That makes me feel like I’ve done something right in my career, as that is a great trust to have earned.

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