WE3written by Grant Morrison art by Frank Quitely hardcover deluxe edition, 144 pages published by Vertigo Comics (August 2011)
It is gruesome. It is drenched in blood. It is, as one of its creators puts it, a story of meat and motion. It is startling, cute, horrifying, vibrant, humorous, absurd, logical, disturbing. And it is heartbreaking.
It is We3. A comic mini-series about three domesticated animals transformed into war machines. Grant Morrison wrote it, Frank Quitely illustrated it. I could call it a masterpiece, but that word seems too small. We3 is a conquest. In the space of three issues it achieves more visual and emotional impact than most series ever do.
The premise is simple. A dog, cat, and rabbit – Bandit, Tinker, Pirate – have been surgically and genetically altered to become a team of assassins. The armor and weapons they wear are an unexpected combination of streamlined and bulky. The animals’ enhancements allow them a limited ability to speak; their dialogue is believable, largely because it looks/sounds both alien and familiar. We are quickly given a demonstration of their capabilities. The three furry cyborgs infiltrate the compound of a man named Guerrera. Is he a criminal? Terrorist? Diplomat? All that matters is that he has been designated an enemy. Bandit, Tinker, and Pirate are all stealth until it’s time for things to get messy – and make no mistake, it gets really fucking messy. These scenes of wetwork are among the comic’s most inventive. Here, for example, is gun-toting Guerrera being torn apart by 56 bullets (give or take a few – they’re hard to count).
As you might have guessed, things are about to get worse.
The government project that has created this lethal trio has been ordered to decommission them, to make way for the next, and presumably deadlier, group of cybernetic mammalian killers. Bunny, dog, and kitty escape – but I have to pause here because the way Morrison and Quitely handle the escape is one of the most memorable parts of the entire series, which is saying a lot. Using grids of panels set up to look like fuzzy security camera screens, writer and artist juxtapose security guards, scientists, janitors, empty halls, computer monitor close-ups, animal eyes, staff locker room shots, hypodermic needles, and teeth. The silence and aloofness of these images, coupled with their repetitiveness, builds an uncomfortable tension as we strain our eyes to pick out details, nuances, a gnawing feeling growing inside that yes, we can guess what is going to happen but how will it happen and now this has been going on for four pages and the feeling is only getting stronger, like knowing you’re in the middle of a nightmare but being powerless to stop it and the entire time the sense of danger escalating, and still the images go on—five pages—and we’re certain a bloodbath looms, we’ve seen what these creatures can do and these people don’t stand a chance and dammit but the grid keeps on, going for a sixth page and your skin is crawling and there they go darting through hallways, knocking people aside, little more than blurs on these crappy security monitors and then—
The two-page spread that Frank Quitely and colorist Jamie Grant give us is dazzling in its crispness, its simplicity. I could tell you what it is, but to do so would cheat you of the incredible feeling these eight pages provoke. Speaking of Jamie Grant (All-Star Superman, Hellblazer), I should point out that his colors are never anything less than perfect, whether he’s drabbing it up for a night scene in the rain or going for spring meadow vivaciousness. And then there is Todd Klein. Todd Klein has worked his lettering magic on Sandman, Fables, and numerous other titles. He routinely dominates the Eisner Award for Best Letterer category (he’s won 16 times), and here he brings to life the idiosyncratic voices of the We3 team.
The government pursues, of course. The military tries human soldiers first, then more unorthodox methods, including one that involves a drooling mastiff — which, if it sounds kinda of funny, it is. Funny, ludicrous, and frightening.
Do our three protagonists make it home? Do they even know what home is? Revealing more might spoil the experience. If you haven’t decided by now that this is something you need to rush out and find, there’s little I can do to convince you. But I’ll try anyway.
We3 hit stands as a three-issue series back in 2004 by Vertigo (an imprint of DC Comics). In 2011 a deluxe collected edition made its way into bookstores and comic shops. (Get it if you can. The script pages, sketches, and writer/artist notes at the end offer terrific insight into the development of the series.) Blurbs of praise on the back, from publications as varied as The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal, give some idea of the comic’s reception. For a thorough, superbly written article, I urge you to read John Parker’s “Comics We Love: ‘We3,’ The Heartbreaking Story of Cuddly Killing Machines.”
Anyway, my point:
If you’ve ever wondered how a cat would catch birds if it had projectile weapons and laser-sighting at its disposal, We3 is the comic for you. If you questioned the lost pets’ dialogue (but loved Don Ameche as Shadow) in the movie Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), then We3 is for you too. If you don’t fall into either of these categories, but still yearn for a comic that has deceptively simple writing and innovative art, then congratulations: Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have something they want to show you. There are times when you’ll want to look away. Don’t. The journey is worth it.