Here’s a Patrick Smith fun fact: despite identifying as agnostic since I was sixteen I went to a Catholic college where I ultimately got my degree. There were a bunch of reasons for why I went to that kind of school (financial, personal, it was the only college that accepted me, etc.) but in many ways I’m glad it’s where I ultimately went. Mostly because the school was near New York City which allowed me to take part in any number of wonderful experiences and various debauchery that was offset from the three years of religion classes I had to take. Those courses didn’t necessarily change my views on organized religion or God in general, but they did give me some valuable context on how the other half lived. My main takeaway though was that there were legitimately good things that can come from religion and there are legitimately good people that use their faith to try and make the world a better place. But I also learned that the good that those people can do is often overshadowed by their petty and cruel counterparts. It's an examination of those counterparts at the core of Happyville, but I’m just not sure how effective that examination actually is. Happyville is written and illustrated to Jose Fragoso and centers on the small titular town where it seems that the only thing to do is hunt caribou and go to church. Or, if you’re the book's protagonist, Thomas, you could also spend your time arguing about the merits of hunting and church with the kind of people that cant be swayed one way or the other. This all comes to a head one day when a long forgotten beast of the sea washes up on Happyville's shore causing Thomas to revaluate his life among the rest of the townsfolk.
Right off the bat I'd like to say that I do think Fragoso is a fine artist. He’s a cartoonist of definite skill. Of that there is no doubt. In particular I enjoyed his use of a distinct color palette, particularly where he uses red against white slightly but to great effect. His character designs aren’t very diverse but at the very least your able to tell the characters apart (he also does well with the design for the beast that serves as the book's main conflict which looks like a giant sea lion). But the actual story in the book isn’t much longer than the above summary and overall a lot of this comic feels like it's way too short.
I don’t know Fragoso from Adam, and I can only use my own judgment to try and see what he was trying to do, but the fact of the matter is whatever point he was trying to make with this book was ultimately made (I guess) so quickly that I have to wonder if the overall message got lost. If it didn’t, then either I REALLY missed something or the point wasn’t nearly strong enough to support telling the tale. I understand logistically why it’s the length that it is, both for artistic and financial reasons, but it seems that as soon as we’re given the main conflict it's just a hop and a skip to the conclusion, leaving something to be desired.
The main antagonist of the story is the town priest, who is our de facto bad guy, which we know because he’s short fat bald and sweaty. I wont even get into how played out that characterization is at this point, but he is convinced that the beast that has washed up on the town's shore is a monster that God wants destroyed. The rationale is that if it lives, their small town will be swarmed with reporters and their lives will be disturbed, which could be a concern of small towns somewhere I guess? I would probably side with the animal if the book spent more than three pages on it, but that’s all we get. Which is about a page less then the amount of time we get with the scientist, who just shows up and is supposed to represent the evils of science? Maybe? Why this book would throw in another villain despite barely characterizing the other one is beyond me, but in the end I suppose this is par the course for this book.
The real problem though is with our hero, Thomas, who is such an obvious liberal mouthpiece I couldn’t help but roll my eyes whenever he opened up his mouth. Also before any of you get the wrong idea let me just make it perfectly clear that despite my background I’m a liberal myself. I’m just the type of liberal that thinks other liberals need to step up their goddamn game. With Happyville, Fragoso is clearly trying to make an argument against small-minded individuals that don’t think about anyone but themselves, kill without mercy, and hide behind the moralist superiority that religion can (but doesn't always) defend. In the world of Happyville, no matter how much you argue, the ignorant and the evil will get their way because they just happen to have the most firepower (both literally and figuratively). Those people most definitely exist in the real world too and I have dealt with those people pretty much every day of my life. So on the whole, I agree with pretty much everything Fragoso is saying. I’ve agreed with it for the past ten years when I heard it from an abundance of other people. The thing is that it's not a new argument and this comic certainly does not make the old argument interesting. This story while clearly a well-intentioned parable, ultimately doesn’t say anything. And while I wouldn’t necessarily call this book an example of a straw man debate, it is most definitely preaching to the choir. You know that might be my biggest problem with this book, the preaching to the choir aspect. Because I know that their will probably be a whole lot of people that think this book is a great takedown. But the only reason they’ll think that is because they aren’t the ones that aren’t being aimed at.
It could be said that this book isn’t trying to argue anything at all, which is absurd because nobody would make a comic like this if they weren’t trying to enact some sort of social change. This is an admirable goal and I admire it when well done, especially in comics, but in this case it's not quite hitting the mark, despite the bullseye on the cover. Artists that make comics with social goals need to assume that their book will make it into the hands of people that disagree with their position, and as such they need to make their best arguments. Happyville does not present its best argument and instead gives the reader a bunch of weak talking points that have the wrapping of being argumentative but in reality wont get any reaction except from those who already agree and will nod their heads in predetermined agreement. In a world increasingly driven by social and religious issues (see Todd Akin and the upcoming RNC), a book like this could really make some people think. But unfortunately I don't think it will be this book.
Now does all my political ranting mean I didn't enjoy the comic? Not necessarily no. It wasn't an awful comic for what it was and, as I said, the art is spot on. But did it achieve its goals in terms message? Unless I seriously misread the book, I don't think so. But as with all things dealing with religion and politics, to each his own.
TL;DR: Happyville is a comic with the trimmings of socially and politically conscious cartooning but ultimately doesn't end up saying anything new or interesting despite being a competently constructed comic.
Happyville is written and illustrated by Jose Fragoso. It is self-published and you can purchase it (and any of his other titles including Puggle in Pajamas which he illustrated and Beth insists is adorable) through his website.
A review PDF of Happyville was graciously provided to Spandexless by the creator.