My Little Pony meets Sin City: Comic book stars Grant Morrison, Darick Robertson talk up the surreal pulp of 'Happy!'
Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson have created some of the most acclaimed – and controversial – comics of the past two decades. Scottish scribe Morrison has spent the past several years writing best-selling Superman and Batman titles for DC Comics (and penning a great history lesson/memoir Supergods: Our World In The Age of The Superhero), but before that made his name with audacious original work like The Invisibles, The Filth and Flex Mentallo, filled with challenging ideas, formal experimentation and high strange surrealism. California-based artist Robertson, known for his strong, visceral style, has worked in many genres, from pulp to sci-fi, and is best known for long runs on two hard-edged satires, The Boys and Transmetropolitan.
Now, the two talents have teamed up – for the first time – to produce the ironically titled Happy!, a four-issue mini-series that tracks the twisted downward spiral of an utterly reprehensible thug named Nick Sax… and his imaginary friend Happy!, an aggressively sweet winged horse. The first issue, now in stores, includes foul language, brutal violence and a sexual encounter involving a man dressed as seafood.
Naturally, it’s a Christmas story.
It’s also a gleefully gonzo-sick crime comic, and the beginning of a return to trippy-edgy creator-owned stuff for Morrison after years of marvelous mainstream toil. In separate interviews, EW.com spoke with Morrison and Robertson about their collaboration.
EW: What was the inspiration for Happy!?
Grant Morrison: Well, doing the superhero stuff I’ve been doing, it’s been this all-ages stuff, and there was this kind of… well, bile building up there. [Laughs] I was writing these really positive characters, and it is nice to always try to see the best in things. But as a normal person, when you’re living life, s–t is kinda building up, you know? So Happy! was about venting a lot of negative feelings that you can’t really express through more noble characters like Batman. At the same time, I always like to put some kind of positive message in my work. So, once I got this notion of doing this really bleak crime story – because I haven’t really done a crime story, and I always wanted to try that genre – I needed something to lift it out of the mire. Hence, the idea of this imaginary friend, this irritating little creature, but so positive, teaming up with the most unpleasant fallen man you can imagine.
Darick Robertson: Grant described [Happy!] to me as the symbol of creativity in a world where, almost from the moment inspiration is born, life sets about drowning it in greed and misery until there’s nothing left. Happy! represents that small beautiful part of, say for instance, young Michael Jackson’s creativity. You see him smiling, singing and dancing, because he loved it and was good at it, and then, money, family, fans, tear it all apart. So in Nick Sax’s world, Happy! represents something good that he’s lost, as he’s a pretty un-happy guy, as you can see when we meet him in the first issue.
Morrison: So the comic came out of this stew of different things, and ended up crystalizing into a tight little Christmas story — a modern version of It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol.
EW: The irritatingly happy creature in question is a hallucinatory blue-hued flying horse. Sorta. Why horse? Did you consider any other animals?
Morrison: That came from The Hollies, that 1960s pop group. I was listening to one of their albums – one of their more interesting psychedelic albums of 1967 – and there was one song in particular that was quite sickening. I hope the surviving Hollies don’t feel dishonored, but this song was pretty horrible. It was called “Pegasus.” I think it’s about acid. It’s all about ‘jump on my back and travel away to magical lands’ kind of thing. The middle adds a ‘creepy uncle’ vibe, because it starts talking about ‘don’t tell anyone about our secret,’ don’t say anything about the flying horse. But the whole tone of the song, so sweetie pie and saccharine, got to me. We tried to do a few designs but they weren’t working – they looked like things we had seen before. [Note: “Pegasus” was a track on The Hollies second of two albums from 1967, entitled Butterfly. The exact lyrics: “This can only happen to you/If you keep our secret/Don’t tell anyone/About our magic horse.”]
Robertson: Our first take on the character came from Grant’s initial idea that Happy! would look something similar to a “My Little Pony” creation, a parody of sorts. He loved the notion of this sweet, adorable, ever smiling, ever positive character contrasted with this hard as nails, tough guy detective. So I came up with a version that met that description, and while it wasn’t bad at all, something was missing from it for me. Apparently, Grant felt the same way as we both ruminated on it a bit and I suggested a goofier looking character, and Grant replied, maybe something, ugly duckling like, and I came up with the current design, based loosely on a donkey that thinks he’s a horse. We both knew we had the right recipe. For me it was a ‘eureka’ moment as Happy! then came to life in my imagination almost immediately, before I’d even read the first script. In a strange way, the character has had the same effect in my reality as he’s having in his fictional reality, as I feel elated when I am drawing him. He’s a fun challenge.
EW: Happy! blends a mix of strong tones. The comic is hard and surreal, a brutal Christmas fairy tale. How would you characterize the tone? And has that tone been easy to maintain while drawing the book?
Robertson: Strangely, yes, as I see the contrast in it as vital to what makes this quirky buddy tale work. It’s been a fun challenge to keep the noir aspect within it as Happy! himself creates this surreal atmosphere about it all, like someone showing up to a funeral in clown suit.
EW: You compare Happy! to It’s A Wonderful Life. So it’s about redemption?
Robertson: With a name like ‘HAPPY!’ in big, bold letters on the cover, I would bet on it, although I haven’t read the finale yet myself.
Morrison: You’ll have to wait and see. I want to leave a positive glow, mixed with a look of horror on your face.
EW: Well, you pretty much got me there already with the scene with the guy in the suit and the prostitute dressed as an angel. What the heck is he wearing?
Morrison: He’s wearing a giant foam prawn suit. We wanted to start with something that was, like, ‘what the f—?’ It felt like a proper way to introduce you into this world.
NEXT: Future plans, and why “MorrisonCon” isn’t “some gigantic ego fest.”
EW: Grant, what are some of your influences or favorites when it comes to crime comics?
Morrison: I feel ashamed to say this, but I’ve never read too many comic in that genre – it’s never really been an interest of mine. I am aware of tropes, and I love Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, so I’m more aware or crime movies. I’ve read Greg Rucka’s crime version of Batman, the Gotham Central comic he did [with fellow writer Ed Brubaker], but I’ve never had a big enthusiasm for crime comics.
EW: Darick, your body of work includes two remarkable series with strong points of view on the world (or their genre) marked by strong “adult” content: Transmetropolitan (written by Warren Ellis) and The Boys (written by Garth Ennis). Are you naturally attracted to those kinds of stories?
Robertson: Both stories appealed to me because of the writers I would work with. Warren Ellis was a writer that I worked with first at a small company called Malibu back in the early 90s when I was just breaking into the mainstream. We collaborated on a book called Ultraforce but there was so much about it that felt restrained due to the marketplace for comics at the time. But his scripts showed a brilliance I could see coming, and I got ahold of him in London and said I’d love to collaborate with him on a monthly book. When Transmetropolitan was born, we didn’t believe it would even last more than four issues, but I believed in it because I believed in the ideas behind it. I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. I like gritty dramas that have comedy and a ring of truth about them.
EW: Do you miss Spider Jerusalem?
Robertson: Sometimes. Mostly I miss hearing him talk, and putting him into crazy situations, as that came from Warren’s mind. But since his appearance came from me, he’s not far away to really miss him. I can create him any time. Spider Jerusalem remains the most requested character that I’m asked to draw when I do signings, so in many ways, he’s still with me.
EW: Moving forward, will creator-owned books remain your focus?
Robertson: I hope so! Next year I will be rolling out a series with my friend, Gary Whitta, the writer and creator of The Book Of Eli with the first of a three part story told in four issue arcs, called Oliver, based loosely on the classic Dickens tale, but set in a futuristic war-torn London.
EW: Grant, looming for you this weekend is an event called MorrisonCon, which suggest an entire fan convention devoted to… well, you.
Morrison: I keep trying to say it’s not really all about me! I’ve gotten so much flack for it being some kind of gigantic ego fest, where I sit on a throne and everyone will dance around me. But the idea came from the event organizers who are friends from San Francisco. They do these kind of boutique events in a store, where readers get to come out and hang out with creators of comics all day. But they liked the idea of one person standing out and being the face of it. So I said yeah, I’ll do it. Only later did I realize that it could cultivate this bad idea that it was some kind of focus on me. But we’ll see how it works out. Robert Kirkman [the creator of The Walking Dead] will be there, and he’s certain a draw himself. So hopefully I can convince people it’s not just a Morrison-fest.
EW: I have only heard good things.
Morrison: Oh, that’s good. See, I only heard the bad, and only focus on the negative things. ‘Oh my god, this guy must think he’s so fantastic, he’s built a whole convention around himself.’ But we’re doing all sorts of different things. Gerard Way [lead singer of My Chemical Romance and a comic book writer himself] is doing some music and a spoken word piece. [Note: Other guests include comic stars Jim Lee, Jonathan Hickman, Frank Quitely, Robertson, and more.]
EW: Do you plan to do any more long-form serials, more in the vein of your more high strange/mature audience work like The Invisibles and The Filth?
Morrison: Oh, for sure, and I think Happy! suggests that turn. There are a few more limited series stories I want to tell, but I’m building up to doing one of those long ones. That stuff has been calling to me again. I have an idea, which I would like to tackle. I’ve spent a long time in the DC Universe and as much as I love it, it has its own rules and way things work. It’s nice to write about the real world again – even if it’s the real world of guys in prawn suits.