'Happy!' Creator Grant Morrison On The First TV Adaptation Of His Work And Why 'Wonder Woman' Works [Interview]

Comic book writer Grant Morrison has written Justice League, Wonder Woman, Batman, Judge Dredd and much, much more. So it may be surprising that the first Grant Morrison comic to get adapted for television or film is Happy!, which premieres on Syfy this week.

Happy! stars Chris Meloni as Nick Sax, a  grizzled detective who is already a strung out has-been when he almost dies. After the near-death experience, he can see Happy, an animated horse with the voice of Patton Oswalt. Happy is the imaginary friend of a kidnapped girl, so Sax teams up with him to find her.Following our interview with showrunner Brian Taylor, Morrison spoke with /Film by phone about adapting his short four-issue comic and his many other projects in the TV and comic world. Happy! airs Wednesdays on Syfy.You've written screenplays in the past that never got produced. What got Happy! through the system and on the air?

I'm sure there's all kinds of factors I have no concept of. I felt that what had happened in the few years, because as you say I've pitched a bunch of things, I've sold a bunch of scripts and nothing's been produced, but in the last few years, we've seen this explosion of material on television. I think because there's so much content now that that content is kind of stretching people's imagination. They're capable of dealing with a lot more on television. The imagery that people consume is a lot more fantastical and based in the kind of work that I've always done, the superhero and comic book stuff. I think it's just opened up a whole ecological niche of potential. I think people are willing to have material that's slightly wilder, slightly more out there and slightly more symbolic or allegorical. Honestly, if I was to say anything, I think that's what's cracked open the door for me and my stuff.

Was Christmas always part of the comic?

Yeah, it started out as an idea to do specifically a Christmas story. I wanted to do something that was in the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life and even more specifically, Dickens. I love the idea of updating Dickens' fuming metropolis of London in the late Victorian era to New York, which seemed like an enormously contemporary version of that, a great city where all these stories can play. So Christmas Carol was a big influence on it. It was always intended to be a specifically Christmas story, at least for this first season.

Did you publish the comic at Christmastime too?

Yeah, we did but because our artist, Darick Robertson, was very slow and meticulous, I think our final issue came out probably sometime in June so everyone had forgotten it was Christmas. It started at Christmastime.

What were some of your ideas for expanding the four issues of Happy! into seven episodes?

Obviously, the four issues was quite a short story. Again, it was pretty much based around the fact that Darick only had space in his schedule to do four. So I'd always felt that there was more story to be told. I really particularly liked spending time with these characters. When this opportunity came up, it was a way to suddenly add a lot of those elements in again. There's a much bigger mythology that comes in. We've been able to add a lot of new characters and again, going back to the Dickens model, we tried to, if we have a new character, there's always something that you could test about them. There's always some heightened or slightly unusual aspect to them. So yeah, we just populated it with new characters. We specifically created a wider mythology so that each new episode can reveal a little bit more about the scale and the scope of the world.

Were there any ideas you'd wished you'd done in the comics that you now got to do on the show?

No, I see them as different things. I think a story is always malleable so for me the comic story was done and dusted. It's quite different in its humor to what we've created for television. The television version for me now is where all the ideas are and where I think they would work best.

Did you ever wish you'd left the comic more open ended to do more?

Again, not at all. As you know, we know what happens at the end of the comic to the lead characters, but no. Again, if there's a tale that we told, it could be the tale of Robin Hood, it could be the tale of King Arthur. There's always another way to tell that story. There's always a new angle. As I say, I think the comic book stands on its own for what it is. It's still out there and hopefully more people will read it when they see the show but the show is very much bigger and richer and more exciting to me right now.

I've seen the first two episodes. What crazy things are coming up on Happy!?

Well, I think what I'm really excited to see is when people get into episodes three and four. Obviously, episodes one and two set up the world as very anarchic and crazy and fast moving. When we get to episode three, it goes a lot deeper and we start to understand a bit more about these characters and how they got to where they were. By the time we get into episode four, there's a mystical door that opens. There's things that I think viewers just will not expect to see. We start to basically open more doors in the world. I think anyone's assumptions from the first two will be challenged and upturned by three and four. We've tried to keep it up through the whole series so that the tone changes quite a lot through it. We see the characters from very different angles. We see the story from different lenses and I think that's what I'm most excited about, to see people's response when they think they know what they're watching and they start to see where it goes.

Brian said episode seven was the big one so I'm glad to hear big things happen in episodes three and four too.

Oh yeah, and Brian's right because we did keep trying to push it into new places. We thought that's the way to keep it dynamic, the way to keep people on their toes was to keep going to new places and surprise the audience.

Was Crank already an influence before you ever collaborated with Brian?

Yeah, I love Crank, specifically Crank II. That was my favorite. Crank II was like Crank I done even better. So Crank II is way up there and one of my top 10 movies. It was definitely an influence. I just loved the way it approached the material and the way it approached the screen, be it with cartoon moments or sound effects or all the different tricks he played. Yeah, very much. When I met up with Brian it was a real meeting of the minds. I think we were meant to do this together.

Have you kept up with their solo work, like Neveldine produced Officer Downe?

Yeah, it was a friend of mine who came up with that character as well. I try to see as much as I can. Honestly, I've barely watched anything recently because I don't like to be influenced, but since I've been working on television, I've actually started to watch fiction again so I'm trying to catch up on everything. Believe it or not, I haven't even seen Game of Thrones.

How is working with visual effects artists similar or different to working with an artist like Darick?

Again, it's different. With comics, it's very auterish. There's just two of us. Working on the TV show, we have hundreds of people coming together to create something which I found fascinating because I'd never really worked in that environment before. It was really interesting to see so many people working towards a goal. The special effects guys we got were actually from Glasgow, my home town. It wasn't nepotism in any way. These guys made the most amazing pitch. They posted everything within two days. They had 40 pages of illustrations. They've just done a really incredible job. It's like Pixar style animation on television which I don't think has been done to this extent before. Working with those guys was great and for me, it's very different from working with Darick with the two of us pushing through together. This was just to hand something over to people who were clearly highly professional and knew exactly what they're doing. The work they came through with was amazing but he's generally been working with Brian because he's having to direct a character who's not real. So he works very closely to make sure he's getting the right expressions and the body language and the postures.

Does seeing Happy in three dimensions live up to your imagination?

Yeah, absolutely. I was blown away by it. It could've gone a lot weirder. Early on they were talking about doing a two dimensional animation but I think this was the way to go. I think particularly in the world we've grown up with, where CG has become so intrinsic to movies, the character had to look real and I think we achieved it. I think it's amazing looking.

Could Happy! go the other way and have a comic book adaptation of season one?

Again, I don't think we need to cross the streams. It's just something that exists in its own space as a television show with a potential to do more. I don't know, maybe one day Darick and I can go back and tell some other kind of story but I think we kind of sealed that one off. We tied a bow on that one. I don't know if there's anywhere to go other than onto television.

When you were writing Happy! originally, was Patton Oswalt the kind of voice you imagined him speaking with?

In my head, I actually heard him as Donald O'Connor from the old Singing in the Rain, in that kind of 1950s gee whiz can do kind of kid's voice. That was all I had in my head. I know that Patton's one of the first people Brian saw and he said, "We should talk to Patton." So it kind of worked out. I'm really pleased the way he's approached it because there are a lot of different ways. It could be Roger Rabbit and I think the way Patton plays it, you get the feeling that there's a little bit more to Happy than we see. I think that's what we needed. Happy's not just necessarily what we see. We'll learn what Happy really is and what it really means as we progress.

Since you've had time to watch more fiction, have you seen Justice League?

Haven't seen the Justice League movie yet. My wife saw it and she actually liked it. I haven't seen it.

How about Wonder Woman over the summer?

I saw the Wonder Woman movie. I enjoyed the performances. It's not my take on Wonder Woman but I thought Gal Gadot was great, really likable. I thought Chris Pine was good but I do prefer the Amazons when they have technology. I don't think the idea that women lived on an island for 3000 years and didn't even invent a washing machine. I prefer my Amazons with philosophy and technology far beyond the rest of the planet.

It's obviously not your take on Wonder Woman, but given your concerns about her portrayal of her in Batman v Superman, did you like how they captured at least the idealism of Wonder Woman in that movie?

Yeah, I think it was a lot better. As I say, the actress was great. You were rooting for her all the time which I think is really important for a superhero movie, that you instantly like the lead character. Again, for me it's a different take. Wonder Woman, when she tells the generals to stop what they're doing, it comes more from a place of naivety rather than having an alternative to offer them. So I'm interested to see where they go with that. To me, the interesting stuff with Wonder Woman is the Amazon philosophy and technology and the fact that it's so different from anything that's developed in the world of men. So they don't have that in the film. It kind of takes it in a direction that's different from what I would think of to do myself, but that's fine. These characters are all open to interpretation and I thought it was a really good introduction to the character. As I say, she was great, Chris Pine was great and they carried the whole film.

happy tv seriesWhich comic of yours or that you like to read would you love to see as a movie?

Gosh, lots of my stuff. I'd like to see something with The Invisibles or even the unusual ones. Basically the ones that people say are unfilmable are the ones I'd most like to see filmed because I think that would be the interesting challenge, to translate it into a new medium.

Are there any you hope they don't touch because they'd just mess it up?

No, basically I've been so lucky with Happy! and I'm sure it doesn't happen this way all the time. Because I've been so involved with it and I co-wrote the pilot and the last episode with Brian and I was in the writers room, I think the important thing is to stay with your work as much as you can if you don't want it to be messed up. For me, I'd always try to assume that I would be involved, at least up until the point where I could avoid any particular disasters that might arise.

Would you prefer to have adaptations be for television where they can take more time?

Yeah, I find the television format quite interesting. It's a lot more like the comics that I wrote which were monthly serialized fiction. Every episode would be slightly standalone but at the same time, they'd form larger arcs. That's the kind of storytelling on television so I'm pretty used to that and I like thinking that way. I think television seems much more appropriate for my kind of thinking and the kind of stories I like to tell. It's been fun to explore that and the rhythms of it.

Does each episode of Happy! end on a cliffhanger?

I think they do. They all start with a completely different cold open. Every single one of them is done in a different style. One of them is kind of a Housewives of New Jersey kind of thing. So there's a whole bunch of cold opens. I think most of them end on a cliffhanger. I think you have to end on a cliffhanger.

Are you doing another take on Christmas with Klaus?

I seem to be monopolizing Christmas this year because I have this comic book Santa Klaus that I've been doing for the last couple of years. He comes out Wednesday as well alongside Happy! so it's a Christmas takeover.

What's the new Klaus adventure?

The new one is called Klaus and the Crisis in Xmasville. It's about an evil soda corporation in the 1980s who basically tried to co-opt Christmas and make it in their own image. They find themselves up against Klaus but they've created a town called Christmasville where it's Christmas all year round. The idea is to extend this into an endless corporate consumer fest that goes all year round. It's basically Santa Claus versus the corporation.

If it's the '80s, can we expect that they succeeded and that's the world we're living in now?

Well, you'll have to read the story but I think we know what happened in the '80s and how it affected the world we live in today. It could be an ongoing battle.

Are you still doing Heavy Metal full time?

Yeah, I'm still editing that and writing a couple of stories for every issue. It's weird. That one's just one such a track that I sometimes forget I'm even doing it. Yes, still working on that.

Was Multiversity the last ongoing series you wrote?

I'm still doing the Wonder Woman book for DC. There's three of those. The second one's out next year. I'm doing a Batman: Arkham Asylum sequel with Chris Burnham. That's kind of the last of the comic stuff I'm doing just now. Everything else has been on television.

Where does Arkham Asylum pick up?

It's going to take place in the future. It features the Damian Robin as Batman that we created for the nightmarish dystopian future of Batman 666.

What's coming in the new Wonder Woman?

It's a three part story so we actually get to tell a beginning, middle and an end. The central one is an Empire Strikes Back story where things go wrong for Wonder Woman. This one introduces the kind of Nazi version of Wonder Woman, the Uber Fraulein from the war. They've been trying to help her on Paradise Island for 70 years but it's not really working. Dr. Psycho who was one of the old Wonder Woman enemies from the old stories, we kind of recreated her in an interesting way, relating it to all that creepy pickup artist stuff and people's current obsession with narcissistic sociopaths and what they get up to. So we brought a lot of that current stuff in. I'm just trying to tell an action story that winds up in a sex war between men and women.

Is it present day?

It starts off in Nazi times and we see how the Amazons dealt with the Nazis which is very different again from the film. We went back to William Moulton Marston's original concept of the Amazons as peace-loving but highly technologically advanced. So they used what we might think of as questionable methods to defeat the Nazis, then it moves forward to the present day. We even see Wonder Woman using her lasso of truth on the White House spokesman.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders?

Well, whoever was the guy at the time. It was Spicer at the time we did the drawings.

Is that your full slate?

I'm still working with Brian Taylor on a Brave New World adaptation at Syfy as well. So we've got that .

Has that been a sci-fi story you've always loved?

My mother was into science-fiction but I was never a huge science-fiction fan so I've kind of learned about it retroactively. I love Huxley. I was always into Huxley as a figure rather than his work. I've read a lot of his work but I'm really interested in him as a thinker and a person.

Can you use the story of the book or more just the world with a new story?

Well, people will have to wait and see what we've done. Obviously, in the same way that when I'm doing comic books, I'm trying to honor the source material but at the same time do something contemporary with it that resonates.