|Having outlived their usefulness to their government facilitators, WE3, a trio of animals outfitted with armed exoskeletons, is set to be put down. Freed by an employee and relentlessly pursued by the military, WE3 do whatever they can to find a place they can call home.
|October 2004–March 2005
Several years ago, my sister and I watched the 1978 animated film Watership Down, an adaptation of the children’s novel of the same name. The film’s DVD case depicted rabbits surrounded by a massive green field, promising a seemingly whimsical adventure. The package gave no indication of the not-so-sweet treat inside: in several scenes, rabbits bite, claw, and bloody each other. I remember little of the children-friendly portions of the film, my memory regrettably stuck on moments of paw-to-paw combat.
WE3 offers a similar experience, though done in a different literary format. “Disney with fangs,” Grant Morrison has called their and Frank Quitely’s three-issue limited series. The descriptor is accurate, if not somewhat unbalanced. More fangs than Disney, I would argue. More bullets, missiles, and entrails too. Even the more violent entries in Disney’s videography share little with Morrison and Quitely’s narrative here. James Gunn has expressed interest in directing a film adaptation; given his most recent take on graphic literature, he seems like a good candidate. Imagine Suicide Squad but with pets.
Violence: WE3 is a surprisingly graphic affair for a story about household pets. Frank Quitely leaves few details to the imagination as both humans and animals are mangled and murdered. Scores of rabbits are trampled. Humans are viscerally torn open or shot through. Characters are mauled, bitten, and blown up. A dead body is picked at by birds. A mansion and a farmhouse explode. It’s not worth going on about how viscerally detailed Quitely constructs his action sequences. There’s a lot. It’s the reason the series received an “M” for “mature” rating.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: A homeless man mentions getting a drink.
Spiritual Content: Someone briefly mentions prayer.
Language/Crude Humor: 3 uses of God’s name in vain, as well as 1 use of h***, 2 uses of d***, and 1 use of a**.
Other Negative Content: A government research facility intentionally kidnaps and reprograms house pets in order to murder foreign dictators and other enemies. This same program seeks to keep such activities hush-hush and stoop to euthanasia as a method of doing so.
Positive Content: The government’s experimentation has other uses. A group of genetically-altered rats assemble a jet engine, so, hey, there’s that (though these rats are referred to as “slaves”… so, hey, there’s that as well). 1, 2, and 3 also create a unique, almost familial bond on their adventure. They protect one other. Two characters mourn and avenge a fallen friend. The animals are rescued by a kind-hearted employee and are later assisted by a homeless man. 1 rescues a dying man.
Disclaimer: Earlier this year, Grant Morrison came out as non-binary and noted their preference for “they/them” pronouns. Out of respect for the writer, we have elected to use their preferred pronouns for this review.
Putting the “Graphic” in “Graphic Novel”
There’s an argument to be made for violent content in comic books and graphic novels. I half-heartedly defended Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s liberal use of bloodshed in Old Man Logan, and I would more emphatically rally alongside fans of the Hugh Jackman-led Logan. The line, for me, has always been intention. Is violence utilized only for the sake of graphically depicting the varied and sundry ways the human body can be brutally obliterated? Is the intention comedic? Narrative-driven?
WE3 presents its gruesomely-detailed violence through a fascinating lens–the perpetrators are augmented domesticated animals, government bio-weapons deemed unnecessary and slated to be deactivated/euthanized. Freed from captivity, the three pets–a dog codenamed “1,” a cat named “2,” and a rabbit named “3”–flee their masters as waves of soldiers track them down.
These animals are innocent. It’s a stark realization driven into the reader from almost the beginning. As one of their handlers explains, they only attack when provoked or threatened. They’ve been transformed from common domestic animals into brutal weapons of war, through no fault of their own. You’re never supposed to forget that, even as armed men and innocent rabbits alike are torn asunder.
From the start, Morrison and Quitely want you to deeply empathize with their power-suited protagonists. The intention isn’t subtle–who wouldn’t empathize with kidnapped pets turned into weapons against their will?–but it is effective. The writer/artist duo understand the need for readers to connect with their main characters. Even if you’ve never been brainwashed and biologically fiddled with by a covert government agency (which, I expect and hope, is most of us), you’re still bound to connect with 1, 2, and 3. You see their pain and suffering while captive, their boundless joy once freed. You grapple with the deaths they cause even as you want them to find a home.
Amazingly, even brainwashed and genetically manipulated, the animals still retain characteristics from their previous lives as pets. The same technology which made them weapons of mass destruction has also enabled them to speak. Animal instinct personified through human language. Dialogue is sparse, but even the few words the animals utter powerfully communicate their wishes.
“Is gud dog?” 1 asks his captors, looking for approval from generals and scientists as if they were his owners. When 1 later viciously mauls an armed man, he feels shame. “Bad dog,” he chides himself mournfully. “WE3 no home,” 2 mutters, indicating his belief that the animals will never find peace, retaining the pessimistic outlook we associate with cats. Part way through the series, 3 is injured twice. His first injury becomes his primary focus–“Tail bad, fix now”–and his second injury renders the poor rabbit unable to speak. His speech, already limited, is impeded further. He can no longer even verbalize his desires.
Not Going “Quitely” Into that Good Night
Quitely’s covers enhance the situation, injecting further pathos. Each cover depicts a missing pet poster, corresponding to our main characters. “Photos” of the character accompany text, describing the pets’ physicality and personalities and how to contact the owners. Through these, we not only learn our characters’ actual names but the heartbreaking fact that they used to be loved.
Without these covers, readers can easily grasp the grim situation facing these animals. Yet Quitely’s images introduce another layer of sympathy and emotion. These animals aren’t just random strays picked up off the street. 1 was probably someone’s “gud dog” in the past. 2, at one point, knew what a home was. “Look at who they were stolen from,” Quitely seems to imply through the covers, “And look at what they’ve been turned into.”
WE3 is surprisingly straightforward, a remarkable feat considering its author. Morrison is no stranger to complex stories with high concepts and deep philosophical notions that toy with comic book tropes. This is a writer who “killed” Batman in DC’s Final Crisis only to transport him back in time, forcing Bruce Wayne to claw his way back to the present. Morrison’s New X-Men (illustrated, in part, by Quitely) tackled themes of genocide and evolution on biological and societal scales. Morrison is known for insane, large scale stories. For them to pare down their ideas and write something both easy to grasp and engaging–simplified, yet not simple–is a treat.
This doesn’t mean, however, the reader is let off the hook philosophically. Morrison combines two controversial topics–animal rights and genetic warfare–creating a heavy theme through their narrative. You’re meant to look at the plights of these characters and understand the deeper meanings. WE3 feels like an indictment of the military-industrial complex, a system which would kidnap and manipulate helpless, harmless pets. These animals are meant to perform their duties, keeping their handlers’ consciences guilt-free and their hands clean. When scientists discover more effective systems, they simply plan to euthanize WE3. Even as soldiers hunt the escapees, military officers quibble behind-the-scenes on how best to hush this mess up. Their plans to keep things quiet and to stifle the rampant violence often lead to further bloodshed.
Interestingly, Morrison’s condemnation of such practices is somewhat subtle. Quitely’s violent action sequences aside, the narrative feels no need to belligerently hammer home its moral nuances. No characters rant about injustice; nobody goes on about the unfairness of the situation. Instead, a fantastically-rendered sequence depicts the animals’ grand escape. Quitely constructs a whole series of scenes shown through security cameras, panels jumping between cameras as the escape unfolds. Our heroes are aided by an employee, Roseanne, who believes her superiors’ actions are incorrect.
This is as close as the series gets to openly defying the radical experimentation. Even here, Quitely’s pens describe what Morrison’s words could prove inadequate in conveying. Grand speeches and dramatic proselytizing are set aside in favor of a young woman acting out of kindness and desperation.
The Impact of WE3 on U
Is it right for Roseanne to go behind her superior’s backs? Therein lies one of the series’ main sticking points. If it weren’t for Roseanne’s help, the animals would be euthanized. Yet, if it weren’t for Roseanne, the following pages of excessive gore would be blank. A few innocent people, scores of soldiers, and several rabbits would live.
Morrison and Quitely allow you to grapple with her culpability. Does the benefit of freeing the animals outweigh the trail they leave? And how much gore and gristle do you lay at the feet of 1, 2, 3, and Roseanne versus the government higher-ups who send soldiers after them?
WE3 is a quick read. I completed the series in about half an hour. The questions and insights involved in constructing this narrative, however, linger. As Christians, we believe God gave man dominion over the wildlife and livestock of the earth. Yet with power and authority come the responsibility to care. Adam painstakingly named each of the animals, from the lowliest insect to the mightiest predator. He took the time to establish their identities, and though the Fall distorted human/animal relationships, those characteristics remain.
Morrison and Quitely’s series doesn’t outright condemn genetic experimentation on animals, but it pokes and prods at the notion. Though their subject is specific, I suppose readers could extrapolate and apply the notion of animal experimentation to any industry, such as medicine. They see this program as an effort to strip away identity–the pets are given numbers instead of names, discarded once they’ve depleted their usefulness.
Additionally, Morrison and Quitely touch on notions of military might and a genetic arms race. Their scenario–augmented animals–may be a tad sci-fi, but the deeper points resonate: the lines we cross for safety, the truths we manipulate in the name of protection, the personal freedoms we surrender for national security. As military technology and science develop, warfare becomes increasingly effective. I wouldn’t argue Morrison and Quitely are predicting a future where your pet goldfish is going to be kidnapped and equipped with high-tech stinger missiles. They’re laying moral lines down for the protection of a country and show how those lines are occasionally crossed.
Bottom line, Morrison and Quitely offer their interpretation of how man can disrespect creation and hint at the loving, caring world 1, 2, and 3 were removed from before they were altered. They offer a balance between right treatment and wrong treatment in both the care of animals and the care of a country. 1, 2, and 3 mowing their way through waves of enemies is a brutal, downright disturbing sight at times. The violence, I’d argue, is oftentimes too over-the-top and unnecessarily detailed. You may not be inundated with verbal proselytizing, but Quitely’s graphic graphics more than dramatize Morrison’s themes. “Disney with fangs,” you’ll recall. These fangs are perhaps too sharp at moments but declawing this narrative completely would ruin the point.
You’re supposed to struggle. As much as you wish 1, 2, and 3 didn’t have to brutally sunder soldiers tip to toe, you also don’t want to see them captured. As much a hand as Roseanne plays in their upbringing, she also gives them an opportunity to escape. You’d like to box up the tension, leave it easily defined. Much like real world politics and policies, however, the answer isn’t so straightforward.
I think, rather than quibbling over the amount of bloodshed, Morrison and Quitely would rather let the impact sit with you. They aren’t forewarning some kind of animal uprising akin to Animal Farm, denouncing the military for fear of an actual cyborg-housepet revolt. They want you, plainly, to look into the eyes of 1 as he asks his military masters whether he’s been a “gud dog.” And, I believe, you’re supposed to picture 1 without all the robotics, armaments, and wires. You’re supposed to peer behind the brainwashing and genetic tinkering and think to yourself, Yes, there is a good dog in there. He just needs to be found.
+ Empathetic characters you root for
+ Powerful lessons in caring for God's creatures
+ Impactful imagery over excessive exposition
- Incredibly detailed and graphic violence
The Bottom Line
Morrison and Quitely's series is graphically, realistically violent, but if you can work through the action, you'll find a powerful story about care and conspiracy.