Katie Liggera is once again on the AHOY Comics beat here to chat with Peter Milligan about his most recent AHOY series Happy Hour, and to sneak in a question or two about his new series with Vault Comics, Human Remains.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Hello, Peter! It’s a pleasure to have you here at the Yeti Cave. Before we dive into questions about Happy Hour and your latest project, Human Remains, I’d like to ask you about your writing process. How long do you let a story germinate before writing a comic script? With Happy Hour, did you feel a desire to write immediately after inspiration hit, or did you wait until you’d plotted out a good portion of the narrative?
PETER MILLIGAN: It all depends on the story. On how quickly I manage to home in on the central themes, which is another way of saying what the thing is all about. Happy Hour actually germinated for a number of years, though I wasn’t really aware of it. It was just a process of making observations and reading certain things and finally a story coming into view. Human Remains was a relatively quick process. It was triggered by an observation and the story really came together very quickly.
CBY: I’d like to mention what a fan I’ve been of Happy Hour, published through pro-satire comic publisher, AHOY Comics. The first issue solicit and art sold me on day one. Congratulations to you and the entire creative team on seeing the first Happy Hour trade come to fruition! I see elements from popular literature, films, and philosophical theories present in the comic. What inspired you to write Happy Hour? Did you draw from any personal experiences in crafting the script?
PM: Thanks for this. I’m really glad that you responded so positively to the story. I’ve spoken about my influences in writing Happy Hour elsewhere but I’ll repeat them here. The first glimmer of the idea came when I first started to go to America, going to see DC and Marvel at their offices in New York and hanging out with some of the people. And later, doing a tour across America as research for my Shade, The Changing Man comic. One of the things that really struck me about the country was how upbeat people seemed to be. How bloody happy they were. Yes, I knew this happiness might have been an act, or just good service to get a better tip, and there must have been a good deal of unhappiness under the surface, but coming from a country where the default mode of social discourse was kind of neutral, pissed off or ironic, this was something to behold. It’s what you might call “American Optimism”. I think if you go to an American bookshop there’ll be a large section of self-help books, the idea that life can be fixed, that everything can, will, and damned well should be okay.
"I think the issue I like most of all is the trade paperback, because I really feel that this complex tale, with its complex characters, works well over one long book."
PM: I wasn’t really thinking about this in terms of a story until much later when I read a few books by a British psychologist called Adam Philips, who talked about how many of his patients seemed to want to ‘cure’ for unhappiness, as though unhappiness were a kind of illness. This idea, of unhappiness being an illness, struck a chord. And I remembered all those smiling, “have a nice day” faces I’d met in America. If unhappiness were an illness, surely, I thought, it’s only a small step for unhappiness to be downright illegal. And how much easier for a government to simply insist that people be happy — rather than having to deal with all those pesky things that might make people unhappy.
CBY: The government in Happy Hour outlaws unhappiness, ultimately establishing a tyrannical dictatorship and surgical operation to enforce the law. Apart from micromanaging people’s physical displays of happiness, rule-enforcers cultivate control through the power of manipulative language. Redefining language becomes fundamental to the comics’ narrative. What was your approach in writing dialogue for characters who all share similar speech patterns in a way that comes across as both non-repetitive and unique to the world of Happy Hour?
PM: I know what you mean. I just try to differentiate the characters, to think of them as more than just a few stock phrases. For example, Agents Sullivan and McSmith come across quite differently, even though at the beginning at least they both seem to espouse the government line. McSmith is a real true-believer and seems unthinkingly loyal to the happy cause. Sullivan is also a believer, at least at the beginning, but there’s more complexity there, and he has a complex backstory, and that’s reflected in how he talks.
CBY: In Happy Hour, Jerry and Kim are two dissimilar characters whose goals align. Still, both are similar age-wise and their opposite personalities mesh well. How did you decide what character traits were necessary to include for Jerry and Kim in order to distinguish them as individuals but authentically build a relationship between the two?
PM: When they meet, I think that Kim has a more fully realized sense of her right to be miserable. Jerry is just finding his feet, still reeling from the accident that’s led him to the re-adjustment centre. Kim is also a more assertive person. I think these differences are a big part of what brings them together. They’re different enough to be interesting to each other, but similar enough to feel that it’s them versus the world.
CBY: Each issue of Happy Hour ramps up the satire, stakes, and levels of bizarreness. This is an unpredictable miniseries with biting social commentary subverting expectations as we move further into the story. That being said, I think the first issue by itself is near flawless. Do you have a favorite Happy Hour issue?
PM: I like the first issue. It sets out the world and introduces us to our main characters in an unusual and exciting manner, which is great. But as you said, the further issues ramp up the insanity and the stakes. I think the issue I like most of all is the trade paperback, because I really feel that this complex tale, with its complex characters, works well over one long book.
CBY: I had a chance to read an advance copy of Human Remains, published by Vault Comics. Interestingly, Human Remains and Happy Hour draw parallels, despite the genre divisions. Whereas all humans must be happy in Happy Hour, all extreme expressions of emotions must be completely kept in Human Remains. The Happy Hour emotion enforcers are humans. In Human Remains, the punishment for rebellion is immediate, as the emotion enforcer is a decimating alien life form. Obviously, the pandemic has caused an outpouring of emotional responses. Have you always felt compelled to write about the physiological and psychological effects of repressed emotion?
PM: This is an interesting view, and I hadn’t seen the similarities between the stories in this way. You’re right, both stories deal with human emotions that are in some twisted out of shape, either forced upon us as a panacea for mankind’s ills, or suddenly the very thing that might get you killed. Interesting. I suppose most stories in the broadest sense deal with the psychological effects of repressed emotion. How does a character react in a certain high-pressured situation? What does that reveal about them?
CBY: As evidenced by the two comic series we’ve talked about here, monsters and terror can be represented in several ways. The “monster” in Human Remains is an unclassifiable entity that only targets people when they become overly emotional. How do you balance writing heavy emotional scenes with the monster murder scenes?
PM: That balance is at the heart of the story. It was vital that I created characters in situations that would normally elicit high emotions. For the very reason that in the world of Human Remains those emotions can get them killed. That juxtaposition of very real and raw human emotions and his monster-story craziness is what interested me.
CBY: Thank you so much for talking with me, Peter. AHOY and Vault Comics are fantastic publishers who are lucky to work with such a talented writer. Where can we find you on social media?
PM: I’m really glad to have started a relationship with both of these publishers. You can find and follow me on Twitter at @1PeterMilligan.