Happy is the grimiest Christmas story of all time.
It’s not the fun kind of grimy, either. This isn’t an uber-cool noir like Sin City; it’s the kind of story that opens with a drug-addled, red-eyed Santa Claus sporting a three-day beard underneath his fake white one. The kind of world where serial killers dress up as insects while employing prostitutes. Okay, that makes it sound kind of cool, but really it’s more just sick.
Into this world tumbles Happy. Happy is a bright blue winged unicorn with oversize eyes and teeth. He looks and acts like something straight out of a children’s cartoon. He’s kind of annoying. This all sounds completely wrong for a sick crime fable, but you just wait: Happy’s Disney-fied demeanor contrasts with the surroundings even more than you might think. Imagine that, somehow, Donkey from Shrek wound up stranded in a David Fincher movie. Not Benjamin Button, either.
The story that follows his arrival is dark, amusing, and touching in all the ways it needs to be, and it’s indicative of all the qualities that elevate Morrison’s writing to the upper echelon of modern fiction.
First of all, on a pure writing level Morrison is incredible. He finds images, characters, and ideas that really pop off the page — even by comic book standards. A lot of his critics moan over his bizarre stylings (particularly when employed in Batman comics) and the frankly insane speed at which he tosses them out.
On the other side of the fence, lot of Morrison fans apparently treat the wacko way he writes as something that’s perfectly understandable if you’re simply smart enough, which misses the point in a different way. I’m sure there are some people who just totally freakin’ get what the bald guy is up to, but personally I find the dense insanity of his stories to be part of the fun. Sort of like how I hardly know what Tom Waits is getting at a lot of the time. That’s what makes it good.
Back to Happy for an example. I won’t bother to spoil the nature of the ending, but there’s a single panel that serves as our big action climax. In other, more reasonable hands, such a bonkers idea as this panel contains would need at least a panel sequence, if not a couple of pages. At the speed Morrison writes, we hit that idea with enough force and clarity to make it stick, then move on to the next one.
For whatever it’s worth, Happy is one of the most accessible stories I’ve read by him. It’s not, like… Seaguy or anything.*
Really, aside from perverse touches like the beetle-themed serial killer, the only truly left-field inclusion in Happy is, well, Happy. The rest of the story follows Nick Sax, a hit man selected by our title character to save a kidnapping victim. Sax is a real bastard, whose return to humanity turns the four-issue story into one of the stranger riffs on the “Christmas Carol” structure that I’ve seen. As such, the story isn’t exactly unpredictable, but it’s sincere and the ultimate message is the kind that’s always welcome. People, it seems, really can change.
This isn’t exactly new ground for Morrison. One subject that he returns to over and over again is the ability fiction has to alter our reality. Truthfully, the two constructs aren’t all that far removed from each other in his mind. Though he readily pushes back against those who take fiction too seriously, he also thinks of the comic book universe as its own place, with its own rules, with its own interactions with our “dimension.”
Grant Morrison writes himself into stories. He sort of infamously concluded one of his books with the main character wishing for a happy ending. Some of his heroes live in both planes simultaneously. However it manifests, the power of narrative and fiction and heroes is a very real thing in a Morrison story. This is quite literal in Happy, where you have a little girl’s cartoon imaginary friend trying to convince a corrupt world full of adults to just shut up and listen.
In Happy, the big question isn’t whether or not Happy is real. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not Nick’s gonna be able to save a young girl from a situation beyond hope or decency. Despite all his bizarre mythologizing, crazy ideas and breakneck pacing, Grant Morrison never loses sight of the people (or at least the ideas) at the end of his pen.
Like the little blue unicorn himself, maybe a comic book called Happy can do just enough to nudge one person’s life in the right direction.
Even if the whole thing is a bit daffy to begin with.
*Now’s as good a time as any to mention that I’m a huge Morrison fan, and this is likely not the last column you’ll see from me on the subject.