Have you ever had a day where you just feel under the weather? Or maybe felt a little down about things? Well, in the future America as depicted in Happy Hour, those feelings are illegal. The new AHOY series, the brainchild of writer Peter Milligan and artist Michael Montenat, depicts a dystopian American landscape where people are forced to slap on a perpetual smile or face some particularly dire consequences. We touched base with Mulligan about the series, balancing reality and fiction, and the value of the artwork, among other topics.
Happy Hour #1 is available starting November 4. You know, just in time for the election…
AIPT: In Happy Hour “being happy isn’t just a right—it’s the law.” What influences did you have in creating this authoritatively positive dystopia?
PM: There’s a wide range of stories that deal with authoritarian societies, from Franz Kafka’s absurdist, existential nightmares and George Orwell’s Big Brother—to the all-too-real worlds of Solzhenitsyn and Koestler. I knew about all those. And you just have to pick up a newspaper (or rather, download one) to see that authoritarianism is alive and kicking in our world. And I don’t just mean state-run authoritarianism. Maybe there’s a more insidious kind, a kind of authoritarianism of the mind, a closing down of what are you or are not allowed to think.
I knew about all this stuff but I have to say that my influences or at least inspirations for Happy Hour came from elsewhere. America and Psychology. When I first started going to America one thing that struck me was just how bloody happy people were, or at least pretended to be. Coming from a country whose default mode is a kind of ironic, miserable, it could be worse but not by much kind of attitude this was a revelation and one that stuck with me. Then, years later, I’d been reading some books on psychology and a common theme seemed to be coming through, one that chimed with my first American reaction. A lot of people were seeking help because they were unhappy. As though unhappiness were an illness.
As though – drum roll – happiness was a right.
Happy Hour is an exploration of these themes. If all this makes Happy Hour sound a bit dry it really isn’t. It’s one of the more insane stories I’ve written, which is why I’ve had such a blast working on it.
AIPT: In the Readjustment Centre, people rebel by being miserable. What can you tell us about the protagonists Jerry and Kim?
PM: Ah yes, the Readjustment Centre (or center, it’s in America). The population has had certain minor cerebral tweaks to make them happy, no matter how s----y things have become but sometimes things go wrong. Jerry and Kim are two young people who for different reasons find that their brains and their cheery outlooks on lives have altered.
They now hate what they see as the falseness of society’s happiness and so for them being miserable is a badge of honor, a mark of their rebellious souls. But there’s an underlying problem for Jerry and Kim. Life isn’t all s--t. Sometimes it can be wonderful. And when they begin to fall in love they do feel wonderful. And happy.
And happy is what they desperately do not want to be.
AIPT: The opening scene hits quite close to home at the moment. How do you find treading the line between fiction and reality when writing a comic like Happy Hour?
PM: Firstly, I wrote that opening scene long before any recent events. That said, state brutality is nothing new. And in the kind of society that America is becoming in Happy Hour a degree of state brutality is to be expected. This isn’t anti-American sentiment. America certainly didn’t invent state brutality.
To finally answer your question, there’s always a tension between reality and fiction. I think that’s a useful and interesting area to work in. I personally would want to draw the line at causing unnecessary hurt to the living and innocent – within reason – though if you take out everything that might be offensive or disturbing from your stories you can end up with the anodyne, the beige. I personally am quite relaxed about being offended by something—as long as I’m also interested.
AiIPT: The enforced happiness leads to some quite dark comedic moments. How would you describe the tone of the series?
PM: It’s a funny absurdist book about dark and serious issues. Hopefully, it’s that experience you get chuckling while you’re swallowing a mouthful of razor blades.
AIPT: The artwork is really spectacular. What was it like working with Michael Montenat?
PM: One of the great things about this industry is working with people you haven’t worked with before — whose work quickly blows you away. There’s so much about Michael’s art in this book I like. Yes, the opening scene is handled perfectly, that shift from humorous dialogue into hideous violence.
But what I really like about the art are his characters, which to me is all-important. I like that Jerry is a little…on the plain side (to put it mildly). I like that Kim doesn’t have breasts like torpedoes. And I like the bland, smiling, and eerily happy features of Agent Smith. It’s easy to go over the top when drawing a book that’s full of absurdist humor but Michael keeps a straight face and a straight pencil.
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