Writer Peter Milligan has a new satirical comic book series, Happy Hour #1, coming out from AHOY Comics today, that imagines a near-future world where everyone has to remain happy at all times. Or else!
From the observant, off-kilter and always funny mind that brought you Shade The Changing Man and X-Static and more recently Kid Lobotomy, comes a new and dark humoured take on the rise and establishment of tyranny. It’s a comic book series that will no doubt draw parallels with our own world, as Milligan explains in our interview.
We talk about Happy Hour in some depth, its prescient themes, its influences, the writer’s longtime friendship with AHOY Comics’ EiC Tom Peyer, as well as the tale of Milligan’s meeting with the literary heavyweight Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange).
AHOY Comics’ newest title, Happy Hour #1 drops tomorrow from writer Peter Milligan and artist
Olly MacNamee: I’ve read a lot of literature about fascistic dictators using the long arm of the law to maintain control of a grumbling population in my time, but never one that uses happiness as a weapon. A brilliantly dark comedy, where did this particular brand of friendly fascism you are exploring in Happy Hour come from originally?
Peter Milligan: For one, I wouldn’t call it friendly! As always with stories the inspiration or starting points are varied. For one, it’s a satirical look at how a government might choose to rule not by solving underlying issue – joblessness, racism, inequality – but by instilling a kind of forced optimism and feel-good factor. You meet people like this, people who feel that being happy is their God-given right, and conversely that unhappiness is a kind of failing or illness. Over the years a lot of governments have tried to harness this notion of forced happiness. To paper over the problems in society, Dictatorships use it. You just have to see the hysterical happiness of people in North Korea if they get a sight of Kim Jong-un. In fascist Germany, Soviet Russia, and other countries to be unhappy with the regime or the prevailing philosophy is tantamount to treachery. Democratic politicians also often try to sell a kind of false optimism as a way of deflecting attention from how messed up society is (there are some obvious current examples). On a more personal note, I was also a pretty miserable kid. I sometimes had complete strangers approach me in the street when I was young, telling me to “cheer up, it might not happen!”
Even as a broody eight year old, I knew these adults were wrong. It already HAD happened.
OM: AHOY Comics is fast becoming the home for dark satirical humour. With Happy Hour, was it a case of you approaching them or the other way around? Tom Peyer was your associate editor on Shade The Changing Man, so I know there’s a great relationship right there already.
PM: You’re right, Tom and I go back a long way. I enjoy working with him and it was great to have the opportunity to re-ignite our working relationship, first with the Edgar Allen Poe spoof stories, and now with Happy Hour. I ‘d been working on the germs of an idea that would become Happy Hour for some time. When Ahoy was formed and I started talking with Tom about doing something, those germs kind of coalesced. It was certainly developed with the idea that it would be a good fit for AHOY.
OM: You establish this brave new world remarkably quickly, leaving us lots of room to meet our leading lights of this six-issue series. And, add a bit of mystery surrounding one Landor Cohen. A man we hear a lot about, but yet to see by the end of this debut issue. Any clues to his role in this saga? After all, the last man – Agent Hamm – who went looking for him seems to have lost his own sense of humour as a result. This can’t be a coincidence, right?
PM: It is no coincidence. Landor Cohen is the man whose philosophy of miserableness underpins and enlightens much of the resistance to the enforced happiness of society. At first, he’s almost a mythical figure to Jerry and Kim… but he and his followers will be revealed as all too real, and will play a bit part in the story and in Kim and Jerry’s relationship.
OM: A lot of the first issue’s drama takes place in a hospital/rehabilitation centre. But, one that’s rehabilitation program has more in common with methods used in A Clockwork Orange than it does Holby City. One scene in particular, involving Agent Hamm, is great example of the kind of dark humour I referred to earlier. Now, the influence of Kubrick’s film is a more obviously at play here, but there’s a lot of philosophy included on the opening page too. I am also reminded of some of Jello Biafra’s spoken work diatribes of the late 80s too, as as sampled by Ice T (The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech LP). So, I suppose what I’m trying to ask in a very roundabout way is, what inspirations have you drawn from for this series?
PM: I touched on some of inspirations earlier. I have to say, I wasn’t influenced by Jello Biafra. I’d heard a bit of the Dead Kennedys and it was clear he was smarter than your average post punk poseur, but that didn’t impact upon Happy Hour. As for Kubrick – or rather, Anthony Burgess – yes, there’s a clear homage to A Clockwork Orange and Ludocivo Treatment here. I once spoke to Anthony Burgess about the part of the book where the little thug or Droog undergoes treatment and that has always stayed with me.
OM: And, keeping a straight face throughout is artist Michael Montenat who brings a very real-world sensibility to this story. Was it important that you adapted a more realistic style to other works you have written? What was the thinking behind the artistic choices behind Happy Hour?
PM: I think this is vital. Both Tom and I wanted an artist that could bring a sense of realism to the book, as a counterpoint to the absurd things are going on. When we were looking for artists, Michael seemed to fit this bill. He’s done a great job and maintains a straight face – and pencil – throughout the story.
OM: I can’t help put draw parallels with this dystopian near future and the world we are living in at this current time. It can feel as though governments of the free world are using the current pandemic to hastily change laws in their favour, and often quietly done too, which can be seen as undermining our liberties. Now, I do know comic nooks can often be written years in advance but did this current shit show have any bearing on your writing of Happy Hour?
PM: You’re right, as in Happy Hour was mainly writing or at least devised before the current pandemic but I always did think it was saying something important about how governments try to rule us, and also how we try to view reality.
OM: I assume as of next issue, events move away from the hospital setting now we have established our main cast? There is the inevitable Landor Cohen to hunt down and, I imagine, a good deal of civil unrest yet to come. What can I expect from this six-part series going forward?
PM: God, you make it sound all so predictable! The truth is there’s a lot of unexpected plot and emotion twists and turns. There are some disgusting moments and some hopefully moving or romantic moments. There’s also sick humour, ice cream, and wonderful lunch menus. AND don’t think it’s so easy to escape the cheery and malign influence of the Rehabilitation Centre!
OM: Finally then, Peter, last time we talked in was as part of our lockdown series of interviews, Shooting the Breeze, you admitted to being something of a misery, which I find hard to believe really. So, what comedy series or box sets are currently making you laugh?
PM: Come on, Olly! I refuse to watch ‘comedy’ or be ‘entertained by box sets. I demand my inalienable right to be lugubrious, with an audacious undercurrent of self-pity!
Happy Hour #1 is out Wednesday 4th November from AHOY Comics