No other comic book writer in recent memory has been as prolific or successful as Grant Morrison. When he hit the mainstream in the late ‘80s over at DC, Morrison was part of a writer revolution that saw a dramatic shift in the tone and style of American superhero comics. After putting out titles like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and the newly-rebooted Animal Man, Morrison quickly became the hottest writer in the industry.
Since then, he has continued his success by creating new properties and reinventing older characters. Whether you’re picking up an original Morrison like We3 or his transcendent superhero work on All Star Superman, it's obvious that his writing never loses its edge. Now, he's making his Image Comics debut with the series Happy, which follows the tale of Nick Sax, a mob hit-man who befriends a talking, flying blue horse named Happy that only he can see.
Complex caught up with Morrison recently to talk about Happy and what the future holds for him in the superhero genre.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)
For our readers who might not know much about this book, what can they expect from Happy? What are the themes?
Basically, it’s about an ex-policeman, a kind of golden boy cop, who has fallen on hard times. He’s lost his wife, he’s lost his career, and now he works as a hit-man for the mob, and does these miserable jobs to get money to pay for medication, booze, and drugs. A hit goes wrong one night around Christmas time, and this character, Nick Sax, is basically badly injured. And when he comes to, he’s the only person in the world who can see a little blue flying horse named Happy. And Happy tells him that he has a special mission for Nick, and that’s kind of where we go from there.
It’s taking the most innocent, charming little cartoon creature and putting him side-by-side with someone who is like the Bad Lieutenant, this absolutely horrendous specimen of humanity. And watching these two characters strike sparks off of each other as they try to save the day and possibly fail.
The Christmas setting is obviously very important to this title. What came to you first: the setting or the story itself?
The idea actually came first, just this image of the little blue horse. It came through a song that I happened to hear a couple of years ago by that band The Hollies, the ‘60s band; they do this song titled “Pegasus the Flying Horse,” it’s on their 1967 psychedelic album called Butterfly, I think. It’s a really grotesque song. I like that band and I like that era of music, but this particular song is a really sugary sweet kind of bizarre childlike song. And I think it’s about LSD, but it seems weirder than that. So I had this image of this little creature.
I loved the idea of something so childlike and fantastical, and something so relentlessly cheerful finding itself in the company of the absolute most awful cynic in the world. So I had this idea of these two characters, but I didn’t know what to do with it until the notion of doing a Christmas story came up. Suddenly once I got that, I thought, “This is the perfect place to put a story like this.” And then it comes into the idea of doing something that is a bit like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, and doing one of those really classic little Christmas stories.
The main character of Nick Sax isn’t a typical hero that most people would associate with comics. Was it refreshing to write a character like that, as opposed to superheroes like Batman and Superman?
Oh, god, it was fantastic. I’ve spent so many years writing these supremely noble characters like Superman and Batman, so it was such a relief to spend time with this real horror of a man. He’s pretty much the worst that humans can get, although he does have his own skewed sense of morality. He’s a pretty bad guy, a pretty fucked-up character.
There's a lot of swearing that I had to get out, as you’ll notice in the first issue. I wanted him to be kind of malignantly swearing, and Nick is this kind of guy who is just “Fuck the world,” “Fuck peace,” “Fuck war.” He just hates everything. So for me, after writing all of these great good guys, it was great to come back and do an absolute anti-hero, and someone who could give a voice to some of the darkest thoughts that we all have.
Does your shift away from the superhero genre have anything to do with a specific event, or did you just feel like you needed a break?
Nothing in particular happened, except I was coming to the end of my very long Batman run, so it’s been six years on Batman. And I’m wrapping that up in Batman Incorporated right now.
I loved the idea of something so childlike and fantastical, and something so relentlessly cheerful finding itself in the company of the absolute most awful cynic in the world.
The same was with Action Comics, which I’ve done for the past year and I’ve got a few issues left. So I was coming to the end of those runs, and I felt the need to go and tell some different kinds of stories.
I’ve done a lot of work in the DC Universe, and I do love that. But it’s a very specific place and it has its own rules, and the goodies always win and the bad guys always lose. So I really wanted to write something that was set in the real world with real people, even though there are kind of fantasy elements. It was just to write about the world that we live in again, for a change, rather than this other world where the superheroes live.
What was it about Image Comics that made the company the perfect place for Happy? Most of your creator-owned work has been published by Vertigo up until now.
Pretty much all of the stuff that I have done in American has been at Vertigo, and I still have a great relationship with Vertigo, and I’m doing some more stuff with them. It’s just that I met up with Eric Stephenson [Image Comics publisher] and Robert Kirkman [creator of The Walking Dead] last year, and I was interested in spreading my wings a little bit and trying out some different publishers to see what it was like because I’ve mostly been working with Vertigo.
This is the type of story that I knew Karen Berger [Executive Editor at Vertigo] wouldn’t like because it wasn’t in her ballpark. It deals with threats to children, and Karen is a mother, so she doesn’t like that. So I felt that Image was the place for it; it was the kind of story that I didn’t think I could tell at Vertigo, and Image just seemed like so much excitement is happening over there this year. Once I met the guys, I really wanted to get involved in what they were doing. This project seems like the best way to start off.
Along with you, other comic book writers, like Ed Brubaker, have announced that they are leaving the mainstream Marvel Universe to work on their creator-owned stuff. What do you think of this mass exodus from the superhero genre towards more original characters?
It’s been happening over the past couple of years. As I said before, I’ve been doing creator-owned stuff pretty much every year since I started in the business, so to me it’s nothing new. But certainly there is a real feeling that a whole generation of creators, particularly the ones that came into the business at the turn of the century and the late ‘90s, and I think that what’s happened is that they’ve said what they wanted to say with Marvel and DC comic book characters. And a lot of those guys are at the point in their career where they’re able to launch their own titles and built off of their name.
So I think what happened is that a lot of people go to the same place at the same time, and all decided that the best thing to do is to create their own characters and earn money from their own stuff, rather than working for big corporations, which I can completely understand.
There's a lot of that, and I think everyone came of age at a certain time. It just seems to me that there has been a shift. DC Comics started its New 52 stuff, and there’s been a bunch of really new writers to come out to those monthly comic books like Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire and others. I think there is a definite sense that a new generation has come in, and a slightly older generation is now moving on to do something new.
How important do you think it is for a comic book writer to step outside of the superhero genre to do creator-owned work?
To me, it’s essential. Again, I started my career doing creator-owned stuff at the same time I was doing mainstream British comics. So for me there was always two sides of my career: there was the experimental personal stuff and there was the corporate superhero work, which as a fan was great fun in its own way. I think it’s essential. Every creative person, particularly in comics, should try and build up a portfolio of their own stuff.
Also, there's nothing better than seeing someone being allowed to let loose with what really excites them, and doing stories and characters that they created, that they made up, and that they’ve got a personal stake in. I think that’s always good to see. And it’s great to see good writers coming out with original and fresh material. We really do need that to liven up the business every so often.
What was it about Darick Robertson’s work that made you think that he would be the perfect artist for Happy?
Well, again, Darick kind of came first on this one because of my friend Adam Mortimer, the director, and he’s also friends with Darick. He basically was talking to me and said that Darick is free right now. I’ve known Darick for years and always wanted to work with him, but it just so happened that his name came up in January of this year. Darick and I met up, and I talked about Happy because I thought it had a style, that kind of amazing kind of grimy crime comic. So we talked it over and he was into it and we got started.
It was one of those really easy-to-do projects. We just talked it through, got started, and now it’s coming out. So it’s been interesting to do something that is thought up and released in the same year. A lot of times with these creator projects you have to wait a long time for it to happen.
You’ve been working on your extended Batman run for six years. Is this new Batman Incorporated book really going to be the end of it? Is it going to tie everything up?
Yeah, absolutely. Every single dot on every “i” and every bar on every “t.”
Is there anything else developing on that Wonder Woman project that you were planning on doing?
Yeah. Well, I’m still working on this Wonder Woman story that I’m doing, which I can’t really tell you what it’s for yet, although a lot of people have guessed. It’s not the regular Wonder Woman title, but it’s going to be a particular take on Wonder Woman that I’ve wanted to do. So yeah, that’s still happening. All that’s happening is that I’m not doing the monthly superhero books for at least a while, depending on when I feel like going back to it. I just wanted to go and do some different stuff. And also to do some projects that are finite, rather than take 10 years out of my life.
After Happy, do you have anything else lined up at Image?
Yeah, hopefully we’ll be talking to you guys pretty soon. I’ve got a bunch of projects I’d like to do at Image, at Vertigo, and elsewhere. I like to spread things around a little bit because certain projects suit certain companies. Hopefully we’ll be announcing something from Image quite soon.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)