Everyone’s had bad days, but Nick Sax is unfortunately an expert at it. Between getting fired off the police force, being a raging drunk, and seeing his career as a hitman go south with his own employees out to get him, Sax is having such a bad day that makes anyone else’s look positively transcendent. Between all the things he might look to for some help, the last place he’d expect to find it is in a tiny blue horse named Happy.That’s the story of the upcoming Image series Happy, with writer Grant Morrison and artist Darick Robertson mixing crime noir with straight-up fantasy in what Morrison has described as Sin City meets It’s A Wonderful Life. Although both Morrison and Robertson have done minor work for Image before and have both done creator-owned work, this is the first time either of them have done their own series at the creator-owned bastion of Image. The announcement of Happy was the centerpiece to Image Publisher Eric Stephenson’s keynote at the Image Expo in February and is growing a burgeoning line-up of new creator-owned series this year at the publisher.
With the first issue set to debut on September 26, Newsarama spoke with both Morrison and Robertson about Nick Sax, about creator-owned comics, and about a feathery blue horse named Happy.
Newsarama: From what’s been released about Happy! It seems like a straight up crime noir comic… until you bring in the blue feather and a miniature horse named Happy. How would you describe the tone and feeling of Happy!?
Darick Robertson: As Grant described it to me, it's Sin City meets It's A Wonderful Life. It's a funny comic overall, at least from the first issue. I love it, as I'm drawing stuff that's really in my 'wheel-house' as they say...
Nrama: So just who is Nick Sax, the lead of Happy!?
Grant Morrison: Nick Sax is a fallen man – an ex-cop and former golden boy who now makes a living as a freelance hitman. How he got from there to here is revealed in the third issue. Sax is cynical to the point of nihilism, constantly drunk, permanently wasted, and suffers from raging eczema. Although it was only several months after I’d named him to sound like a Mickey Spillane hero that I realized how ridiculously ‘Christmassy’ the name ‘Nick Sax’ is!
Robertson: He's cynical and calculating. As one line from the scripts describe him in Nick's own dialogue "I’M A KILLER. I KILL PEOPLE FOR MONEY TO BUY BOOZE, SEX AND ECZEMA MEDICATION -" but you sense there's something good about him despite all of this and he's been a lot of fun to draw and create.
Morrison: I’d say Sax is just about the worst sort of human being you could meet…except that there are several characters in this story who make even Nick look like a choirboy. When your hero is a repellent human wreck, the villains have to be absolute monsters.
Sax a great character to write – and hopefully to read about - but you wouldn’t want to be around him.
Nrama: From the sounds of it, Sax is someone who has few friends – especially as a disgraced cop. Does Nick have anyone in the world on his side?
Morrison: Nick has no-one on his side. Nobody likes him, not even his ex-partner. His only ally is a cartoon animal no-one else can see.
Nrama: I take it that cartoon animal is the titular character, Happy The Horse. How does Happy fit into this seemingly crime noir story? And is that feather in the cover Happy’s?
Morrison: The iconic blue feather belongs to Happy, yes. The driving engine of this story is the idea of dropping what is essentially a charming cartoon character into the filthiest corners of the human experience and watching the fallout. I wanted to explore the contrast between the ultimate hateful cynic and the ultimate incorrigible optimist and to place upon this tiny blue horse the entire burden of a culture that’s afraid to be hopeful. Happy desperately needs Nick’s help for reasons revealed in the first issue but Nick only cares about saving his own skin – and it’s that tension that drives our story toward its conclusion.
As for what Happy is (or isn’t) and what he looks like, you’ll have to buy issue 1 to find out!Nrama: OK, moving back to Nick then. As if being on the run from his old employer the police and his current employers the mob, Nick is also reportedly fallen into the story of a child killer dressed in a Santa suit. What’s going on?
Morrison: The story takes place over three days leading up to Christmas when something very, very bad will happen (the four-issue series will be released over four months from September 2012 to December, when the final issue comes out in Christmas week). Nick Sax has been injured during a botched hit and when he recovers, he discovers he’s able to see something that nobody else can. That’s when his troubles begin.
Nrama How does the Christmas holiday play into that, and where this book takes place?
Morrison: I wanted to do a classic Christmas story – like A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life – but with all the junkies, killers and pedophiles which make our modern world so colorful! The holiday setting is important to the atmosphere and tone of the book and provides us with a memorable and disturbing villain. Darick also draws an amazing snowbound New York, with dirty freezing slush piled high in the gutters.
With the creator-owned work, I like to put my own spin on various familiar genres – The Invisibles was ‘conspiracy thriller’, We3 was ‘animal adventure’, Seaguy, is ‘superheroes’, Joe the Barbarian was ‘fantasy’ – so Happy! is my personal definitive take on the ‘Christmas story’, mashed up with the ‘crime noir’ and ‘mismatched buddy’ genres.
Nrama: Speaking of things being mashed up, Darick you’ve been quoted as saying Happy! almost feels like you’re “jamming along with someone” ala musical performances, saying there’s a lot of back and forth. Can you maybe pick out one morsel of an idea that benefited from you and Grant jamming on it?
Robertson: Well, Happy the Horse's look is a good example, but I can't really elaborate on that without spoiling some of the fun. But Happy had a complete transformation from the initial drawing to what he became and what he became is one of the most enjoyable things I've ever designed to draw. I hope readers will have as much fun with this as I've been having. But Grant has a great way of expressing what he wants in a page and still giving me lots of room to bring my own ideas and interpretation, and like music, that's how you make music; each person on their instrument, tuning in and listening to the other while playing the same song... and when it's fun, like this has been, it just starts to rock.
Nrama: As the artist and co-owner of the book, I’d imagine you’re setting the tone of the book in terms of who’s coloring it. Can you tell us who’s coloring, and what you conveyed to them you’re trying to show with your artwork here?
Robertson: Richard P. Clark, and he's doing an outstanding job. Richard's a good friend and we work closely together via Skype and he really gets my work. We were recently discussing a page and disagreeing on how it should work and when we found an almost magic compromise by accident it became something neither of us originally were arguing for and ultimately something better. I love having that kind of collaboration.
Nrama: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe this is the first time the two of you have done a comic together -- you were both working at Vertigo simultaneously -- Grant on The Invinsibles and Darick on Transmetropolitan -- but I feel like this is a first.Robertson: Well, I did some work on 52, but not directly with Grant's scripts, and he was writing Authority: Lost Years but in that regard we SORT OF worked together. I've known Grant personally since the mid-nineties, but our careers haven't presented the opportunity to collaborate until now. I've always been a fan, and this project feels like serendipity. Our mutual friend writer/director Adam Mortimer let Grant know that I had an availability in my schedule after I had finished the The Boys: Butcher mini series last fall. I had no idea that when I said yes, that Image was bringing on board so many talents that I respect and am friendly with, so to be a part of this new wave for Image is just great.
Nrama: Grant, you’ve had brief stops at Image writing smaller pieces like Spawn, and done creator-owned work in the past, but why was now the right time for you to step out and do Happy! at Image and not Vertigo where you’ve done creator-owned work like Joe The Barbarian and Sea Guy?
Morrison: As you say, for the last 20 years I’ve released most of my creator-owned books through Vertigo - and I’m currently working on a couple of new titles for Karen Berger’s imprint - but after meeting Robert Kirkman and Eric Stephenson from Image last year, I was so impressed by their energy and enthusiasm, as well as the quality and range of the material they’re putting out, that I wanted to be part of what feels like a revolution. I had a few ideas I thought might be a perfect fit for the Image style but Happy! was the story I most wanted to write so it came first. Catching up with Darick Robertson again sealed the deal; we’ve been talking about doing something together for years and his work was perfectly suited to the grimy atmosphere of urban sleaze I wanted to tap into. Not only that but his brilliant design for Happy the Horse is an eye-opener and likely to surprise readers who are more familiar with his work on Transmetropolitan or The Boys. He’s been an amazing collaborator so far.
Happy! is also a fairly hardcore adult book in terms of its language, violence and twisted sexuality (we couldn’t find a single page to put in Previews that didn’t have to be censored!). I know from previous discussions that Karen Berger’s a little uncomfortable with any story that puts children in sexual peril so this is a book that would never have been appropriate for Vertigo under any circumstances and I’m grateful to Robert and Eric for seeing its obvious potential – and for understanding what it’s really about.
Nrama: Darick, you’ve been doing creator-owned work for years, from Space Beaver to Transmetropolitan to The Boys, making you one of the few people working in comics who are better known for their creator-owned work than their work-for-hire. What are your thoughts on that, and from your vantage point what do you see that’s changed since doing Transmetropolitan and now during The Boys leading into Happy!?
Robertson: I guess I take that as a bit of a compliment, to be known better for my original work than my hero stuff. I like creating original stuff more than I ever thought I would and foresee a lot more original projects in my future (assuming that people keep buying what I'm drawing!). Image and their new direction (or realization of their original direction) is exciting. I look forward to doing more books through them.
Overall, Happy! has been a rejuvenating experience and while I am a long way from the finish line, I feel I am doing some of the best art of my career thanks to a supportive group of people at Image and a fantastic creative partner in Grant Morrison. We are now in an era where original creator-owned material is anticipated, rather than tolerated as the alternative. That's a great opportunity for everyone and a true realization of what Image set out to be back in the mid-nineties.