When Happy escapes from jail, he finds himself in a place much worse than prison. Now he's trapped in the waxy, dystopic world of a little girl's drawing ruled by a maniacal unicorn, and he's desperate to get back home.
Matt Ellis takes the sweet, crudely drawn pictures of small children and puts a darker spin on them. Happy is titular Man of Many Shades, the only person in the girl's drawing who isn't a mere scribble of shapes and colors, but a carefully rendered creature of contours and shading. Happy, we learn, was convict who dreamed of escape from prison, until one day he woke up and found himself living in this crayon-created world. Maddened by the bright colors and the waxen smiles everywhere, Happy begins a quest for the Black Staff, an object of immeasurable power that might be his ticket home.
But while Happy is searching for the Black Staff, someone is searching for Happy. The girl's drawing is ruled by the dictatorial unicorn Rainbow, who introduced the concepts of money, property, and vice to the once idyllic land, effectively enslaving its people. Rainbow also happens to be obsessed with human culture (which he learns about through magazine collages the little girl makes), and believes that, if Happy can explain human culture to him, Rainbow will become the most sophisticated being in the drawing.
The Man of Many Shades juxtaposes childish innocence with unrepentant violence, but it's the moments of absurdity that make the first installment such an enjoyable read. As Rainbow, with his multicolored horn and his stick legs, swirls a snifter of brandy and wonders how to tie a cravat, we see what Ellis can do with his chosen style, and get a tease of how strange and silly Happy's quest could end up being.