Comics We Love: ‘We3,’ The Heartbreaking Story of Cuddly Killing Machines
...to your nearest comics retailer to pick up the new We3: Deluxe Edition this week and you will be treated to the most heartfelt, kinetic, violent, and universal lost-animals-going-home-story ever told. A compact slice of minimalist storytelling mastery, We3 is Milo & Otis meets "Call of Duty": a simple, touching story of three scared animals looking for a home remixed to the mayhem of the first-person shooter. And if you're wily enough to pick up the hardcover Deluxe Edition, you will be treated to no less than 10 pages of story that previously went unpublished. I know!
But We3 is more than a cute and fuzzy tale wrapped in latex and razorblades. It just may be the very best comic to introduce a new audience to the uniqueness and potential of the modern medium...Back in the heady, exciting days of "comics activism," there was a frequent topic of discussion on the boards: what was the best comic to hand to a non-reader to get them interested in comics? Answers were all across the spectrum, from sensible to quirky to seriously? (Really? Palookaville?) The consensus opinion, though, was that the book would have to be short, self-contained, non-superhero story that appealed to an audience of all tastes and ages.
Boom. We3. The "comics activism" movement faded a couple of years before the book was published, but it's a clear contender for the imaginary title of "crossover grail." I'm not sure that the crossover grail exists, especially since I just made up that title. But such a comic would be that perfect example of the forms, traditions, and possibilities of comics in neat package that could be read by pretty much everybody. If it does exist, it's gotta be We3.
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have both had long, storied careers in comics independent of one another. If they had never even worked together, each would still have to be considered one of the top innovators in the field. They've each dissected comics to its inner workings and probed around in the guts of art and story. So when the two work together, which they've done frequently over the last 15 or so years, the result tends to be mind-bending.
Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery, a Morrison/Quitely team-up that will finally be collected next year, explored the potential real-world power of superheroes as Quitely constructed a passageway into the form that almost seemed to have its own gravity, making you lean in and tilt at the pages. JLA: Earth 2 obliterated every other comic that claimed to be "widescreen," ripping out at the reader in roller coaster upside-down angles. All-Star Superman, New X-Men and Batman & Robin wrote new guides on the 21st-century superhero. And dammit, We3 might actually be better than all of them.
We3 is the story of three animals -- Bandit, Tinker, and Pirate -- a dog, cat, and rabbit engineered into living weapons and given the call-signs 1, 2, and 3. Escapees from a remote-controlled soldier program of cybernetic enhancement and control by greasy, sadistic nerds, they flee from constant military pursuit and slash through every obstacle towards that place that once meant safety and comfort: "home." And the level of craft and ingenuity on display in telling that story is absolutely berzerk.
Morrison and Quitely have often described their approach to We3 as "Western Manga": nonstop kinetics and wildly dramatic angles given the weight of line and photorealism of Western comic books. Not a comic book western. (That's what I thought, too.) But it's more like an anime you can watch without a screen. There's a liquidity to Quitely's black-guttered panels, a heft of realism given to the animals wearing manga supersuits that's oddly filmic (aided by the super-wicked coloring of Jamie Grant), but in a way only comics can be. The narrative pulse of the visual story and Morrison's acute sense of pace keep the story constantly flowing, frameless, just occurring on its own tempo. Sound effects are nowhere to be found, replaced with iconography and the reader's imagination, deepening the collaborative relationship and allowing the reader to add their own soundtrack.
Everything they try in We3 works. When they parse six pages into eighteen panels of silent surveillance footage, it works, erupting into a miraculous two-page spread unlike any you're used to. When Morrison writes dialogue for weaponized animals who can speak, it works, convincing you that's exactly how it would be if (when) that ever happens. 1, 2, and 3 speak in an approximation of commands and rewards, engaging the reader with emotions in the simplest vocabulary. The effect is primal, haunting, and sad. In perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the book, 2 asks 1 "?HOME IS?" 1 replies "HOME. ? IS RUN NO MORE." If you don't at least tear up at that moment, I will come to your house and kick you in the face so that you do.
We3 isn't just a visual marvel, or a clinic on form. It's a morality piece with an emotional core that taps the audience's primal empathy. It's compelling storytelling, and for anyone who has had a pet or cared for an animal, it's a must-read. Yes, that's pretty much everyone. That's the point. We3 is the crossover grail because its appeal is nearly universal. Age, race, gender, and comic geekdom are wiped away by the simple fact that nearly everyone has loved some kind of animal, and nearly all of them would be jarred by the emotional impact of the story. And within limits, even kids can read it.
Children have always had violence and death in their animal stories -- Bambi, Old Yeller -- We3 just turns it up a bit. Morrison and Quitely take the realities of desensitization fully into consideration: the violence is given the flash of manga and video games, but the results of the violence are never brushed aside. The action is never amoral, or grotesque, but it's never ignored, either. Death is death, and the cruel results of a bad experiment are delivered with the even temper of a dad explaining why your dog died. It's simple enough for kids of about 10 or so to understand, so go buck wild, former comic activists. Buy a copy of the deluxe edition for your niece or nephew, and be the one to introduce them to comics, heartache, and ultra-violence.
So: We3: The Deluxe Edition is a short, self-contained non-superhero story of amazing craft that appeals to readers of all tastes and ages. Here's a short preview, courtesy of Vertigo Comics: