Sometimes it’s okay to be unhappy, see. Sometimes being miserable is a sane reaction to shitty circumstances.
At the time of writing, Agent Mann, a leading player in this opening issue from writer Peter Milligan and artist Michael Montenat, probably speaks for quite a few of us. However, with a typically Milliganesque sting of irony, Happy Hour – the tale of two outcasts who want to exercise their inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of unhappiness – lights a flare of (bleak) humour amid the gloom.
The high concept of this 20-minutes-into-the-future dystopia is an America where unhappiness has been effectively eradicated and outlawed; with neurologists having discovered the part of the brain that controls happiness, a simple procedure should now provide an altogether more productive and profitable lifetime, free of doubt or misery. But what about those neurodissidents who don’t want to play the game?
Our protagonist, Jerry Stephens, is one such malcontent. As he recovers from a car crash in which his sister died, his ‘regression’ into grief is enough to see him committed to a ‘readjustment centre’, where a variety of cruel and comical techniques are used on the patients to banish their blues. Having heard of a commune in Mexico “where everyone’s free to be as miserable as they wish”, he buddies up with sparky female judoka Kim to plot their escape.
Milligan’s treatment of mental health issues is never orthodox and usually sails close to the wind of questionable taste; here, as you’d expect, much of the sparky satirical humour on display is as dark as it comes. And, as is also often the case, what lifts one of Milligan’s comics above its peers is the writer’s willingness to take a punt on his readers’ intelligence. Within the first four panels of the opening page we have a philosophical discussion of the nature of happiness, citing Plato, Diogenes and Jeremy Bentham. Then, just as typically, the high-brow chit-chat is brutally cut short by the arrival of the Joy Police.
The visceral and arresting image on Michael Montenat’s cover anticipates the bold work inside. However, the book doesn’t really live up to its visual potential; the pages are a little too cramped and word-heavy to allow much of a flourish in the storytelling, and the minimal backgrounds and Felipe Sobreiro’s expressionistic colouring don’t really do justice to the precision of Montenat’s character work. The exaggerated ‘acting’ of the characters also takes a bit of getting used to, although it does play a key part in a story built on wildly overblown false emotions.
Nevertheless, Milligan’s sideways view of the world and Montenat’s technical skill create a strong hook for the six-issue series. As Jerry and Kim prepare to make their big break into an intriguing fictional world, the reader is willing them on to find the unhappy ending they deserve.
Peter Milligan (W), Michael Montenat (A), Felipe Sobreiro (C), Rob Steen (L) • Ahoy Comics, $3.99
Review by Tom Murphy