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Every now and then, I read a tragic story that breaks my heart, but no comic-book adventure has ever broken me so relentlessly as We3. A friend who isn’t really into comic books got into Grant Morrison thanks to the live-action show Happy—based on the four-issue series of the same name published by Image—so I’ve been digging into the Morrison archives. Along the way, I realized I’d never read what many people consider to be one of Morrison’s best works, if not the best. We3 is an action-packed story brought to life by Morrison’s long-time artistic collaborator Frank Quitely, and though I’ve enjoyed Quitely’s artwork for years, he outdid his own genius on We3. Before we delve into the book, let me just say that this story features one of my all-time favorite things: a cat who absolutely kicks ass.

The cat’s given name is Tinker, but she is only referred to in the story as “2”. Tinker is part of a team of three normal animals who have been surgically altered and had their brains messed with so they can become killing machines encased in high-tech armor to perform military missions and assassinations instead of having human soldiers do the job. Joining Tinker in this horrifying experiment are the dog Bandit—referred to as “1”, and the only one of the three to re-discover his real name in the story—and a rabbit named Pirate (“3”) because of a black spot over one eye.

Each of these animals was someone’s beloved pet before the story began. Instead of telling the reader this fact through flashbacks or exposition, the creative team shows it much more powerfully with “lost pet” flyers on the covers of each issue. When you realize what has been done to these hapless animals, the covers hit like a punch to the gut.

When the higher-ups decide that these lost and kidnapped animals need to be killed—decommissioned, per orders—the three of them escape their containment facility and run away. Their combat modifications and training make them dangerous to society, so the military pursues them. One of the many tragic aspects of this story is that the trio doesn’t mean to be dangerous murder machines. These animals were forced against their will to become horrors in the service of the same humans who want to put them down.

Nowhere is this more strongly portrayed than through Bandit’s canine emotional crises. Bandit truly wants to be a good dog. He wants to protect his beloved animal allies in We3 and also help humans, but he is forced into situations where his combat programming takes over and he kills humans. In the aftermath of the killings, his simple, mournful repetition of “Bad dog” hits home more powerfully than pages of dialogue or narrative captions could ever do.

Tinker does not share the dog’s remorse. She thinks the whole thing stinks. When Bandit tries to save a human body to convince himself he is a good dog, Tinker bluntly tells him the man is dead. As the two animals fade into the horizon while arguing, the panels reveal the human is annihilated from the waist down. In a combination of graphic images and minimal, broken dialogue, Morrison and Quitely set up the tension between the cat’s no-nonsense and apparently correct assessment of the situation with the dog’s potentially delusional idealism.

Each animal’s cybernetically enhanced speech pattern says volumes about them. On the first read, I had trouble understanding their speech, but it all became clear to me upon the second reading. Bandit the dog is haunted by regret over what he has been made to do, and he struggles to lead his “pack” in a volatile and untenable situation. Pirate the rabbit is the most simple-minded of the trio, only speaking in one-word sentences, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering a heart-wrenching reminder to his comrades that they are friends and are all in this together. Sadly, Pirate’s speech degrades into mere electronic noise after he suffers an injury.

Cat-lover that I am, I especially enjoyed Tinker’s dialogue. Her feline disdain for just about everything is expressed through the word “Stink”, rendered as “ST!NK” or, when she is really angry, “!SSST!!!NKK!” Compared to the peaceful rabbit and optimistic dog, Tinker appears to be the least bothered by all the killing. She seems at times to revel in it. Tinker is also the group’s cynic who doesn’t believe the trio will ever find a home, because “home” no longer exists for any of them—a point of contention that leads to an argument with Bandit.

And what is home? What does “home” mean to Bandit after all the awful things the team has endured? To the dog, home is a simple concept. “Home is run no more.” Home is a place where these involuntary machines of war can find peace and rest, and that is Bandit’s hope for We3. But as the story progresses, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Tinker is right, that home and peace will be forever denied these unfortunate animals because of what’s been done to them—and what of their lives and identities have been stolen from them.

Quitely employs many innovative and dramatic approaches to action. A video by Strip Panel Naked does a good job of analyzing the groundbreaking visuals in this story, so check that out. Regarding the page where Tinker hacks and slashes her way through a series of panels filled with her enemies, I am reminded of what Scott McCloud taught in his book Understanding Comics, where he asserts that part of the magic of comics is what happens—but is not shown—between the panels, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. Quitely gives us two-dimensional panels rendered in 3-D with Tinker in action, demonstrating how the cat is a fast-moving agent of destruction. While Tinker’s opponents exist entirely within the panels, she flashes like lightning through the spaces between them.

Go, Tinker! As Bandit says in a dramatic moment, “Gud 2! 1 Protect!”

Quitely also does amazing things with panels-within-panels to show a sequence of fast-paced actions in a slow-motion strobe effect, and he often employs elements of the scene’s environment to create panel-like divisions, such as rendering trees in all black to create dividing lines, or using the metal structure of a bridge to divide a series of movements across that bridge.

For a few pages, Quitely captures the narrative in an insane number of more than one hundred tiny panels to show footage from multiple security cameras in the containment facility—only to present a spectacular release from all that claustrophobic tension by finishing with a two-page double splash where our heroes burst into the night.

We3 has been collected in paperback, hardcover, and a second hardcover “deluxe” edition with ten new pages of story. But I recommend you read We3 either in digital format or in the original stapled comic-book format so you can see all the amazing two-page spreads without any part of them disappearing into the gutter of a bound book. Like I said in my recent review of the Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil, it is a rare and beautiful thing to see a comic book story where script, art, and overall design are perfectly married for maximum narrative and emotional effect. We3 is one of those perfect unions.

Collector’s Guide: It’s hard to find the original three-issue printing, but you can easily find a reasonably priced collected paperback on Amazon. Current prices on the deluxe hardcover are ridiculous. Instead, I suggest getting the $10 digital edition so you can fully appreciate the two-page spreads.