Balancing light and dark in any story is always a tricky proposition.
Veer too much to the bright and cheery and you risk leaching the narratively-necessary darkness from the more intense elements of your storyline; but go too dark and the comic quotient looks oddly out of place and damn near dispensable.
The brilliance of Happy! by author Grant Morrison (Batman, The Invisibles) and artist Darick Robertson (The Boys, Transmetropolitan) is that manages, with a deft mix of grit and fairytale fun, to balance these two competing demands.
So successful is this inspired tale, which first appeared in 2012-2013, that you are somehow able to process with great ease that it is a story about a pedophilic Santa who is kidnapping little girls, with only one washed-out, alcohol-soaked, disillusioned ex-detective and an imaginary tiny bright blue flying horse capable of thwarting him.
At face value, the story’s central conceit is ridiculously preposterous, a mix of extreme elements that couldn’t possibly work in any kind of cohesive manner.
But work it does, in a manner so profoundly adapt and affecting, that you easily move between horror at the girls predicament, sympathy for Nick Sax, the washed up anti-hero who, at first, wants nothing to do with a nasty situation and sublime joy and amusement at Happy’s plucky, giddily-upbeat, and as it turns out, necessary tenacity.
Why it works is primarily because both Nick and Happy are finely-wrought characters who make sense; they, and in Happy’s case, this is particularly important, feel real, their motivations entirely understandable and their predicament all too impossible to deal with.
And the way they arrive together as the most unlikeliest of odd couples, and indeed the very reason it happens at all (to give that away would be far too spoilery), is so perfectly-paced and so meaningful, despite Nick’s quite trenchant resistance at first, that it feels like the most believable and organic of relationship.
As you can imagine in a story that features an imaginary blue flying horse as the main narrative driver, this is crucial to creating a story that is emotionally-affecting, truthful and real.
Another key element in the success of Happy! is that it doesn’t stint on the grave events underpinning the story.
It’s world is dark, real, disillusioning and soul-sapping, on the surface irredeemably broken, something that is underscored with a vividness so stark that it temporarily stops even Happy in his deliriously-upbeat tracks.
This is important not simply because it makes Nick’s eventual willingness to go along with the mission of Happy, who is the imaginary friend of one of the kidnapped girls, all the more remarkable, but because it gives some grunt to Happy’s flighty behaviour.
He’s sweet, delightful and fun sure but he’s doing what he’s doing and doing it the way he’s doing it, because important, life-saving things are in play.
He may seem lightweight and insubstantial but in reality, he is possessed of an imperative so robust and a goal so vitally important that he cannot give up.
In other words, there is steel inside his happy velvet glove, something Nick eventually sees and acquiesces to, especially once Happy, who’s been querying how he and Nick are connected at all, puts two and two together, and realises why fate has drawn and he and the drunken law-enforcement has-been together.
This continual pivoting between darkness and light, sad resignation and buoyant hope propels Happy! through a thoroughly-arresting storyline, accompanied by artwork so vivid that you can’t help but be drawn in.
Yes, there’s a gross ton of language used but that simply adds to the veracity and truth of the tale, helping us to understand why Nick and Happy would end together and would work as a team.
Happy!, for all its personal-dystopian greys and shadows, is a joy to watch, a brilliantly-told and illustrated tale that reminds us at every turn that life is never, ever straightforward and that even if you’re not confronted by blue flying horses, you need to be open to anything life can throw at you and be willing to run with it, particularly since you have no idea where it will lead or what might be at stake.