Grant Morrison on Happy! "the world is a nihilistic hellhole plunging toward screaming entropy, but … we have hope"

For three decades, Grant Morrison has been the most prominent voice of the avant-garde in the world of graphic novels. His work has redefined every landmark comic book title from Batman and Superman to the Justice League and the X-Men, and he has written more books that redefined the boundaries of the genre than could be comfortably listed here.

While his creative stamp is visible all over the cinematic landscape (The Matrix films borrowed heavily from Morrison's book The Invisibles, and characters and dialogue created by Morrison regularly find their way into the Marvel and DC superhero movies), what has been noticeably (and absurdly, to comic fans) absent is a wholly Morrison-driven project.

On December 6, 2017, that oversight changed forever with the premiere episode of Morrison's first television show, Happy! on SyFy, starring Chris Meloni as Nick Sax, a cop-turned-hitman who finds himself plagued by the desperate, imaginary friend of a kidnapped child: a blue, winged unicorn named Happy the Horse (voiced by Patton Oswalt).

Thomas Negovan: Why do you think Happy! was the story that was the first property of yours that made it to the screen?

Grant Morrison: It's the one that seems least definitive, the one that seems least representative of my work, because it was an attempt to do something I hadn't done, which was a crime genre comic; I had to add my own kind of twist, which was the character of Happy. But I think it's because this is the one that condenses everything I've said. It's a really simple story, but it condenses every other story I've done… it's All-Star Superman, it's got all of those things, because it ultimately says "Okay, we acknowledge the world is a nihilistic hellhole plunging toward screaming entropy, BUT… we have hope." And right now, when people are getting really freaked out and things are seeming quite dystopian and out of control, and spinning even further out of control, hope is reduced to this tiny little unicorn. In some of my other stories, it's been Superman and it's been the Justice League or it's been something, but right now it's so down to nothing, it's the tiniest last little candle flame. I think Happy just dramatizes that so nakedly as a way of condensing all my themes and all my ideas into something that's primal and simple enough that it actually has this mass appeal.

TN: Understanding that Happy! takes your ideologies and puts them into this crime-story package, where did the inspiration for the story structure itself come from?

GM: I was watching Pop Idol, which was obviously American Idol, the British version, but it was Simon Cowell in his early days before he became a father and mellowed out a little bit, so it was Simon Cowell, the X-Factor, the whole thing, but basically watching those shows where kids would come on and dance their hearts out and sing… and even if they were so bad, he would sit there in terrifying judgement. Cowell would sit behind the desk, and everyone else would kind of let them off gently, but he would always just go "you're terrrrrible" and at the same time on the internet we had this… it's like every attempt to entertain would be met by "meh." And that wasn't the only thing that was out there, but there was a sense, there was this tidal wave of absolute disinterest, and the sense of futility in even daring to present your hopeless, misguided efforts to do a tap dance, or to write a story, or to sing a song. So I thought, there's definitely a story here — the sensation of the critical community and the artistic community being so close that it had become destructive… So I thought, as some way of dramatising this: the idea of the most cynical man on Earth who eventually became Nick Sax, the detective-turned-hitman character, and Happy. But I needed something for them to go up against, and I was listening to The Hollies, they did a couple of psychedelic albums in the 60s, it was like "Butterfly" or whatever one it is. And there's a song called "Pegasus," and it is the most –- and I'm going to say this as a Hollies fan — it's the most saccharine, sickening, creepy, pedophilic kind of acid song you've ever heard, and I think it's about acid, it's all about you know "I'm Pegasus the flying horse, climb on my magic back and we'll fly away," and there's a middle-eight in there which is about "this is just our secret, don't tell mom and dad, don't tell anyone what's been going on here," and it's REALLY creepy, so I suddenly thought, what's this Pegasus thing, this pedophilic sense that ties into something here? And that was it. And I guess that's how ideas had formed, a colliding of atoms, and suddenly it was "okay, what if this most cynical man on Earth meets this absolutely optimistic super-hyper cartoon animal who only wants to save the day and believes in nothing but the best in us? Oh wow, that would be good, these two would strike sparks off each other, and then from that the story formed. It was that, and the story has this kind of pedophilic element where the evil santa is capturing children. So it all came out of the feelings that listening to that song gave me, that's how ideas can kind of fuse together and start to grow tendrils and they become stories that have to be told.

TN: And was part of that expansion because television is a different medium that afforded that to you, or is it mainly because of the new length of story that you had the opportunity to touch on larger ideas?

GM: It's the length of story, and the possibility of expanding what was already there, which was only four issues… and it was really quite tight and condensed because that was all we could do, that was all Darick (Robertson, artist of the Happy! comics) had a window to do but I always loved the characters, I wanted to do more with them. So, when this thing opened up it was just the opportunity to plant the seed and grow something new, the cutting… what could come out of this? And being in that writer's room, and everyone's throwing ideas in, and I was kind of "okay, I don't even have to do all this work myself," made it something completely different.

It has mythological qualities, it has all the things I usually try to put into stuff, and which really didn't quite make the cut in the original comic. So this one is interesting because we have this mystical, mythical dimension that starts to infiltrate more and more as the show goes on and to see how people respond to that and then what they think– "oh my god, it's about this."

TN: When I read the first issue of your book The Invisibles, I thought I was getting a kind of straightforward spy story, and I stepped away from it. Then later I read it as an entire series and I couldn't have been more wrong about my preconceptions, because I wasn't familiar at that time with your skill of setting up one expectation and then using that to take your audience places they don't expect. The basic elements you describe above, that's definitely what you get in the first episode. Using The Invisibles as an example where you are looking at something, but then come to realize it's like fixating on a mask but the person wearing it keeps changing, how would you explain what Happy! is versus the expectations that you just articulated? People will watch the first episode and think "corrupt police, pedophile Santa, an avatar of optimism…" I know your work well enough to know that I'm not not even close to seeing the bottom of the iceberg here.

GM: Absolutely, we have created now, for the series, a mythology that didn't exist when the book was originally done, which is kind of for me almost the equal of what we did with The Invisibles… it's as big, it's as global, it has cosmic tendrils. So there is now that element of the Happy! story. But yeah, initially it was a Christmas story, I wanted it to be super simple, the first season is a Christmas story. It starts off and it's hyper violent, and it's cartoonish, but halfway through strange mystical elements come in and there's a much deeper delve into the emotions and the backgrounds of the characters and then it changes again, and it becomes… well, there are moments where you burst into tears, and there's kind of manipulation of emotions like E.T. and we kind of wanted to cross a lot of different feelings and ideas in the show, and that's why I keep saying I can't wait for people to see it all together. I want it to be this Christmas thing you can put on every year; it's the Scrooge of the 21st century, "It's Not A Wonderful Life." I'd love to have it be something where people say "okay, every Christmas we watch Happy!"

Thomas Negovan is an author, art historian, and the founder of The Century Guild Museum of Art in Los Angeles.

Happy! airs Wednesdays on Syfy.

Image: Syfy