Smile, or Else! Ahoy Comics' Happy Hour #1 Outlaws Unhappiness


I am going to take a moment here and be transparent. Life is hard. Really, really hard. Bad things happen and, sometimes, nothing ever goes as planned. Pessimism has taken hold of me over the course of the last several months with no real end in sight. Sure, I have a fair amount of things I could channel focus toward which would probably revert my attitude so that my unapologetically optimistic mother would be proud. “Give it to God”, “don’t sweat the small stuff”, “better luck next time”, “keep your chin up”, or the always-annoying “other people have it worse”; these are a few examples of how the painfully optimistic prefer to deal with the suffering that come their way.

The world is full of the glass-is-half-full type, and then there are people like me. Periodically I struggle with negative fleeting thoughts not cooperating with being fleeting at all. Myself, along with many others, find solace in our doomed self-destructive habits and can’t quite understand why bad things continue happening regardless of how many times we try, or how sincere we meant the prayer whispered last night before going to bed. Truth is, life kind of sucks sometimes and for many people it feels hopeless and minimizing such circumstance of ours only makes things worse.

Ok. Enough about me. (Don’t worry… I’ll... be… fine). Let’s transition a bit and look at the well-suited and timely new title from Ahoy Comics called Happy Hour. This new series from Peter Milligan, Michael Montenat, Felipe Sobreiro and Rob Steen jumps headfirst into a fictional world that has outlawed unhappiness and couldn't have come at a more ironically painful time as now. Sounds awful doesn’t it? The constant smiling I mean. Who in their right mind would be able to find happiness in awful things like Covid, or American politics, or Big 2 mega-events.. you get the idea. This story begins and as things progress you learn that the moment referred to as Happy Hour was when the permanent smile became law punishable by a type of medical procedure of which I'd prefer go without.

Starting things off in this satirical interpretation of our today we witness the Happy Police violently engage with a small group of Stanford college students as they philosophically discuss the relative meanings of happiness. The humor found in this immediate interaction of the comic is as on-point for the cliché college student as it is to imagine a scenario that would require an authority figure to enforce such thing. Events progress rapidly and the insightful group of students become the latest victims to the smile-by-force initiative. This scene-setting moment happens suddenly on the first couple pages of the story, quickly fades, and then gives way for a fast forward to ten years later.

After having a stage set such as this it allows the following pages to make more sense. Laughing at the pronunciation of a loved ones traumatic medical diagnosis, or finding endless and unabashed humor in self-deprecation, this is where society has found itself. But why? But how? We find ourselves following Jerry, the unfortunate lead character who suffers a head injury as soon as we settle in to this new time period. Somehow he has knocked the happy right out of his skull. He wiped the silly smirk clean off his face. He had a blow to the head so hard that all cognitive functioning beyond his solitary smile has suddenly been reintroduced to his frontal lobe. What comes to follow in the remaining pages of this side-splitting (you better be laughing!) debut are what make this such a strong first issue. Jerry gets institutionalized. Jerry finds new friends. Jerry discovers a conspiracy. This is such a fun little premise that I cannot help but be enthusiastic about its existence. 

Milligan and crew seem to have a good grasp on how to create a hook and cast it quick while not building a world that a mini-series cannot contain within itself. Packed all in this first issue are what feels to be an obvious antagonist, an apparent protagonist, a few innocent bystanders that could easily serve purpose, and a small supporting cast that will obviously take over as becoming the lead role. This has all the ingredients for a satirical story with an intent and a purpose; a story that makes you self-reflect and examine society on the macro level once said story is unraveled, revealing parts and pieces of what was hidden beneath all the ha-ha’s. (You better still be smiling!)

Choice of illustration style can have many different effects to a story. There is an artistic choice to simply draw what is happening while you let the narrative tell the story. Consequently, you also have the opposing option of telling the same story as the coinciding narrative, but told in ways the artist chooses to layout or illustrate the pages. Then there are the many different possibilities in between. A part of me wishes that Happy Hour had a secondary scratchier illustration style to provide reader a comparative contrast to the realistic cartoon-like quality that Montenat and Sobreiro bring to the story. Make no mistake, we have an incredibly strong artistic vision with them bringing to life the Milligan story. The eerie gaze seen with every meaningless smile would be lost having no impact to the narrative if it did not come with a style such as theirs. I just wish that there was an element of contrast to build a different dynamic and help grow the story. But.. I’m not credited on the title page, and I did not help create the story. And, the story that I seem to be scripting in my head is probably not the same one that they are going to tell. That said, this is a gorgeous book to look at. It has the level of artistic quality that we have come to expect from Ahoy Comics, not to mention the additional added extras after the main story. (Please, read those too. They are always equally as enjoyable as the cover story and will help maintain your own perpetual smiling.)

Let's get one thing straight and circle back to the fact that unflinching optimists bug the shit out of me. Knowing this, if I were a character in this comic then I’d be institutionalized long before the sunlit part of the day was done. But I'm not, so all is fine. Peter Milligan seems to always have a new satirical trick up his sleeve and Happy Hour is no exception. He has, with help from the rest of the creative team, brought us a comic that not only mocks our societal desire to remain hopelessly optimistic but also paints a dystopian picture of what it would look like if our utopian desire for perfection by way of constant happiness were somehow achieved.

Happy Hour #1
writer: Peter Milligan
line artist: Michael Montenat
color artist: Felipe Sobreiro
letterer: Rob Steen