Thursday, 6 November 2008

[68] We3, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely [Great Comics]

We3 just might be the best comic starring super-powered animal mechas ever written. The limited series, which ran for 3 issues in 2004, was written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely, and is one of those short, oddball gems that demand and most of all deserve attention.

The book is centered around a military project involving researchers looking into technological advancements that would render the job of the common soldier obsolete. One such development is the 'We3' project - a trio of highly trained, highly augmented household pets who are heavily armoured and remote-controlled. They work as a team: #1 (a dog) is strong and brutal, #2 (a cat) is light and stealthy and #3 (a rabbit) is a fast scout packing high explosives. The unit deals out bloody slaughter for their masters, performing dirty-work that usual practice would not acknowledge (such as assassinating unsavoury characters), until they are ordered to be decommissioned by a power-hungry senator. Set free by the lead researcher, Dr Roseanne Berry, We3 must try to understand the notion of 'home', all the while being pursued by the armed forces. It is part The Incredible Journey, part Robocop, but the creators infuse the storyline with such affecting thematics and effective style that such a simple, strange premise ends up working as a true masterpiece.

Morrison is at his best here. His basic choices regarding the genesis of We3 immediately evoke issues regarding animal rights and testing, but his decision to make Dr Berry's most innovative accomplishment that of granting the animals the ability to talk strengthens the book's punch. It recalls mid-to-late 20th century science fiction and its mulling over A.I. and robotics, and recalls similar, if slightly different questions. Of course, animals are already sentient and autonomous, but is there a lack of empathy represented by their lack of speech? Their dialogue is a crude hybrid of txt and L33T speak, but it goes a long way to deepening the reader's affections for the characters outside of the stock 'aw, cute' reactions.

In fact, Frank Quitely's superb art style for We3 is anything but cute. His pencils, coloured by Jamie Grant, are kinetic, brutal, horrific and experimental. It is fascinating that the comic is written by one of the biggest-hitting scribes in the comic business, yet there is still so much visual storytelling involved. Indeed, the issue #1's first 13 or so pages are rendered in pure silent-film mode. No dialogue is written, instead Quitely presents an action sequence of the We3 team infiltrating a shady mansion and taking out a team of no-gooders as pure physicality. The scene is shown through snapshots of surprise, bullets and gore and, in true horror genre tradition, the source of the violence is kept in the shadows, just out of frame. It is not until the mysterious mobile weapons are transported back to the research facility that their protective visors peel back to reveal the pets inside the suits.

Quitely approaches the comic with a real verve for experimentation. Throughout the three issues, Quitely bursts open the conventional approach to framing his art. An early example is the pet's escape from the facility, which is portrayed through pages of ordered images from the POVs of various CCTV cameras. Once more, the book succeeds with a powerful, bare-bones visual storytelling. The pictures shown are almost meaningless on their own - fingers on a keyboard, a man walking past a reception desk, a dog's teeth, a whirlwind of papers in the sky - but together work towards a raw, compelling narrative. This is carried over into the action sequences, where widescreen splashes are punctuated by small, ultra-violent close-up shots (an eye, a fingernail split by a razor-sharp projectile, a hail of bullets shattering a pair of spectacles). It is thrilling stuff, and gives action scenes a breathless pace in an economical amount of pages.

The art in We3 does a lot of the legwork. Indeed, for such a visual medium, that is saying a lot, but Morrison allows Quitely's illustrations to stretch out the narrative, deepen the thematics and tug at the reader's emotions. The transformation of the three protagonists, the slow degradation from the pristine cover image to the bedraggled, scarred, hounded victims towards the comic's conclusion, is an integral aspect of the characterisation and pathetic anchoring of the story. Equally, Quitely details the cruelty and violence towards the animals with as much care as with humans, certainly much more than is usually seen when animals stray into the pages of comics. This helps to make more clear Morrison's themes of the distancing, de-familiarising of animals as unfeeling or any less conscious than a human. The dog, cat and rabbit at the heart of this comic may not be as self-aware, psychologically-empowered or as capable as their human masters, but Quitely and Morrison imbue their journey with a great emotional depth without typical "Family Movie" humanisation.

We3, despite its barmy premise and hyper-violent execution, is actually a tearjerker. The final pages, including the protagonists facing a huge, imposing foe, and their fate, are littered with emotional pay-offs that do not surrender to sentimental cliche. It also achieves that impressive feat of, while being a tightly structured 3-part sprint, opening up the narrative beyond the immediate context on the page. This is foremost achieved through the issues' original covers. They are designed as unique, finely detailed 'Missing' posters for pets. The reader soon realises that these pets depicted on the cover are We3, and were abducted for the testing - a revelation that is not explicitly stated in the comic itself. These posters themselves unearth a great deal of opportunity for the reader. The writing of the note, the photographs, the original names of the pets - these create a peripheral narrative for the reader to create themselves.

For example, the rabbit's poster is scrawled in crayon and felt-tip by two children; it reads 'Lost Rabbit: can you help up find Pirate? He is white with a brown patch over his eye. He likes Lettuce and carrots. Thank you Johnny and Claire'. A postscript, in more adult handwriting, reads 'Pls phone Mrs Mortimer: 555 6783'. The attached photograph shows the rabbit, Pirate, with two out-of-shot hands petting him. Without referring to crass backstories , conventional flashbacks or convoluted reunions, the covers of We3 are works of genius in their relation to, and expansion of, the world contained within their pages. Rarely have comic book covers been used to this standard or, indeed, purpose.

We3 is an important book, because it is experimental, different, and wholly unique. It shows an artist and a writer at the very tops of their games. It is a thought-provoking, powerful work, which justifies its gory excesses with solid themes and effective presentation.

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