Say hello to man’s new best friends
I first met Darius as he careened past me in a doorway, attempting to dart down the stairs behind us. It was a bit of a shock, frankly. This was my first visit to a no-kill animal shelter, and wasn’t quite prepared for how overwhelming the experience would be. I’d always wanted a cat of my own, having grown up caring for our neighbors’ feline friends when they were off on vacation or working a late shift. Suddenly, there were flocks of them demanding attention. Our guide rustled Darius back into the room while my husband and I began our walk-through amid every type of cat you could imagine — fat, thin, short hair, long hair, Siamese — playful, reclusive, hissing, and mewing in no certain symphony. To some degree, they must have been used to the game by now, competing for the chance to get out of this commune and leave the lazier of their brethren behind to become interminable lost causes.
Immediately after returning from his aborted escape, Darius became glued to us — to me — and followed my trail relentlessly from room to room, silent but determined to get out of this madhouse (regardless of how well cared for he was). An hour later, he was in our carrier and on his way home. I didn’t really make the choice, honestly. Darius chose for us.
Not everyone is an animal person, I admit. I’ve had many a houseguest over the years not particularly excited about the prospect of being singled out by Darius or another one of my cats. The rules are pretty much this: if you are wearing black, show little to no interest, and think keeping animals in the house just a little bit creepy, my cat will climb into your lap faster than if you opened a can of tuna over your head. This level of insistent devotion — pretty much a “whether you like it or not” proposition — from animals can be disconcerting to some, but I find it particularly endearing. They’re not exactly little persons, but the quality of personality we either project or recognize in our pets, as the case may be, resonates strongly with me.
It clearly does with one of the comic book industry’s superstars, Grant Morrison, as well. Morrison began his career in American comic books with the socially aware (while persistently wacky) Animal Man, wherein series star Buddy Baker frequently worked against those who would abuse, experiment on or otherwise mistreat the pals from whom he drew his considerable powers. The lead character in Morrison’s epic The Filth cares devotedly for his ailing cat Tony, and even viciously beats his para-personality replacement for letting Tony die on his watch. But it is in his collaboration with Frank Quitely, the brutally poetic We3, that Morrison’s true devotion to and understanding of our often silent furry friends take full shape.
Like Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, a reconstructed fiction about Jewish resistance to Nazis during World War II, We3 is a bit of a revenge fantasy for every animal ever done wrong by the inhumanity of man. Set in a military-industrial complex not unlike our own, this three-part limited series, published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint in 2004, follows the adventure of three military-grade weapons of mass destruction: a dog, a cat and a rabbit. Dubbed “Animal Weapon 3,” this branch of an experiment, blending domesticated beasts with a high-tech arsenal that would make the Terminator blush, is considered a grand success after the efficient elimination of an anti-American dictator. Despite positive outcomes, the call is made to decommission the three weapons. After a disturbing visit from Washington, it becomes all too obvious that the scientist caring for the animals treat them far better than she would an automatic rifle or war drone. Going so far as to teach each one basic English language skills, Dr. Berry finds herself soon to be out of a job and her furry friends in danger of being put down.
What follows is a madcap, but barbarically graphic, escape from the military facility for the animals now calling themselves We3, and each other by their numeric designation: 1, a canine retrofitted to resemble a small tank; 2, a cat designed to be a lethal stealth agent; and 3, the bunny trained to deliver mines and poison gas pellets into enemy territory. Language, as we soon discover, is only the tip of the iceberg to what separates man from beast, but it’s something Morrison uses effectively to center action precisely upon the animals, rather than on their human captors. It would be nearly impossible not to empathize with 3’s rapid obsessive chatter about fixing his broken tail, 1’s recurring concern about whether his actions make him a good or bad dog, or even 2’s animosity toward their former bosses with swears of “Stink!” at every challenge. By the end of their travels toward the elusive concept they refer to as “home,” Morrison has successfully defined each animal’s personality and motivation to such an individual degree — yet never forgetting that they are not, in fact, human. It would be easy to anthropomorphize, but the rawness to each weapon’s rationale is not simply survival instinct in action, but an honest reflection of how direct and unfettered by moral complexity the animals’ thought processes remain.
The illustration of time is another defining characteristic for We3’s treatment of the differences between animal and man. Indeed, as scientists postulate the passage of time to be perceived as much slower for small animals than for even larger non-humans, spatial adjustment must reflect temporal disparities on the page. When 2 moves to take down soldiers sent for him and his partners, the feline weapon is literally dancing between moments, ripping open aggressors faster than they can cognitively respond. Quitely executes spreads with movement in and out of panels turned in space to show how the action transcends recognition of its results for the human mind. Cause and effect are no longer purely consecutive endeavors.
Similarly, where an action has more ramifications than could possibly be noted from a single perspective, Quitely explodes out panels into dozens of intricately detailed components across the page. Each individual square layered on the primary image may represent a slightly different point of perspective in space, but also may follow through the next moment in time — leaving the reader with a sense that one hundred different points of damage are occurring simultaneously or, at least, faster than the camera can record. We’re left with the impression that animal senses exceed ours to such a great degree that new forms of representation have to be constructed just to translate information for human consumption. The artist is not distorting animalistic experience to fit into our comfortable worldview, but bending our perceptions to meet each beastly character on its own terms.
Ultimately, the only significant human perspective captured in the book is that of Dr. Berry, and even hers through a very distant lens. It would be easy to write her character off as shallowly constructed or one-note in her role as a post-millennial Doctor Doolittle, but subtle clues throughout the series point to her having a much more complicated back story. It is only because We3 is rendered through the eyes of the three animal protagonists that revelations about anything beyond her devotion to their care is completely irrelevant. Her role is simply to reinforce and illuminate their identities, not the other way around. From the revelation of 1’s true name to his realization regarding the nature of their existence after a damaging firefight, all compelling moments in this adventure belong to We3. The after effects for humanity are simply not fundamental to the tale.
By the time my little Darius passed away last year, at thirteen years of age from cancer, I had already read We3 more times than I can count. Not surprisingly, however, this book has never meant as much to me as it does today, after experiencing the loss of my first — and favorite — little pal. I often felt that I projected more personality onto my cat than was rational, particularly when I would share his exploits with the non-animal-lovers amid my friends and family. Now I’m not so certain.
Sure, Darius wasn’t a cybernetic killing machine, a fact that could have either lengthened or shortened (not entirely sure which) the three days I spent in tears after his departure. But he was a special little guy, and maybe even more special than I gave him credit for being. Like 1, he was deeply loyal to me, rarely wanting to separate himself from my side. Like 3, he would jump headlong into adventure without a second thought. And like 2, he wouldn’t take crap from anybody, even me. It’s probably for the best that all I had for him was a jaunty sweater and not a full-on war suit, but if We3 teaches us anything, it’s not to underestimate those for whom humanity is not a defining characteristic — for good or ill. Seeing the world through their eyes for even a little while may not be the worst thing in the world after all.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.