Book Review – We3

We3We3 by Grant Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I saw the cover of this comic, I thought “hmm…” Three pets (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) in mech-warrior suits. When I read the cover treatment, I thought “oh, cooooool.” A story of lab animals breaking free. Of course it had to go on my reading list.

The story lived up to its cover and more. Since Charlotte’s Web or maybe Three Bags Full, this is the first fiction I’ve read that takes its animal heroes seriously, with their desire for life, and life on their own terms. In fighting to escape from the callous U.S. military, and to return to the safe place they vaguely remember as “home,” the three protagonists are firmly sympathetic. In part this is because the narrative makes them as beloved pets — we see the “Lost Pet” signs that their respective families made searching for each of them — but to its credit, the story is not about the grieving (human) families, but about the animals themselves. In fact, we never meet their human “owners.” It is the animals who matter here.

Nor are the animals anthropomorphized or cutesy (a failing that Charlotte’s Web does sometimes have). While the story uses the conceit that part of the experiments done on them have given them human speech, the animals’ syntax and vocabulary is distinctly other than human, and their perspective, at least so far as human authors and readers can imagine, is suited to their animal identities. The rabbit, for instance, is interested in grass and munching. The three animals have been taught to work together as an elite team of super-soldiers, but their emotional bond with one another makes sense in a non-human way. They are a pack, a pride, or a bonded trio.

Predictably, the dog is the most loyal, conventionally moral, and pro-human of the three; the cat is most aloof and stubbornly anti-human; and the rabbit is a sweet, simple soul who tries to smooth over the others’ disagreements. These are stereotypes of these species, to be sure, and yet believable characters in their way. I grew up around cats, shared an apartment with a dog, and now live with rabbits; I have known individuals of each species who fit these descriptions, and the characterization of We3’s heroes resonated with me. The artwork on the animals also impressed me with its accuracy, capturing the anatomy, expression, and personality of each.

The storyline, simple as it is, carries big themes. Not only do the three main characters’ lives matter to them (and us the readers who are following them), the plot explores the speciesist contention that animals matter less than humans, v.s. the idea that companion animals (pets) deserve special consideration, and the animal rights perspective that all sentient lives are equally important and valid. The bad guys here are the U.S. military and a politician who want to make non-human soldiers out of animals, thus saving humans from death on the battle field. For the time being, their work has been kept secret, in part because, while they believe in the ethics of their goal, they realize the American public may not be on board. One boss tells the researchers that, in contrast to their work thus far, they need to breed animals specifically for this purpose; if animals are bred to be used as war-machines, their exploitation and deaths will be more palatable, rather than if family pets are press-ganged into it. For me, this perfectly articulates what Gary Francione calls the “moral schizophrenia” of Americans toward animals. In our society, when a pet is harmed in some unusual and outrageous way, there is public outcry and disgust; at the same time the daily exploitation, suffering, and death of millions of chickens, cows, pigs, rats, fish, and other species in slaughterhouses and labs is ignored. What might have been empathy and calls for justice is tempered with the sense that those uses are what those animals “are for.” We3 troubles that narrative; the three protagonists are sympathetic, yes, in part because we know these animals are pets and we’re probably familiar with their species’ traits from experience with our own pets. But other victims of the lab experiments are also presented as pitiable (lab rats and even the monstrous mastiff who is to replace the main three when they are euthanized), as well as wild animals the escaped soldiers meet.

If one does not read the story literally (as many critics insist on doing with stories about animals, perhaps uncomfortable with the ethical imperatives that would result from taking animals’ lives seriously), it is like many tales of workers who find out they’ve outlived their usefulness to their bosses and are now disposable. It is about a small group of such exploited people resisting, revolting, and ultimately escaping the machine. Here, the story is triumphant, and the heroes (mostly) succeed because of inter-species cooperation. At no point do the “good” characters, animal or human, understand each other perfectly. Yet, in spite of this, they empathize, and put themselves in danger to protect one another.

If the story has any faults, it is in some early sections, when the graphic narrative is difficult to follow. I had to repeat a sequence told only through images on CCTV cameras a few times to understand what had happened. Other readers will, I’m sure, question the violence and gore of some of the images. I wonder about that myself, if it’s strictly necessary to show so much blood and mutilation. Yet overall, the explicit images (much as I felt watching Django Unchained) are there to expose the violence of an unjust system. While the scientists, military, and politicians wax poetic about how they will save human lives, the storytelling makes them hypocrites. The violence they unleash on the animals and human bystanders through their super-solider program is just as horrific, brutal, and disturbing as any human-fought war. (The story does not explore the reason or need for war itself. That wars happen and must be fought is a given.)

I wasn’t expecting this quick little read to grab and twist my heart quite so much. Sure, reading about animals in danger always gets me. But in the surreal world of comic books, I thought the effect might be softened. Nope. Nor was I expecting such a powerful, serious treatment of species. While I cannot speak to the author’s particular political orientation vis-a-vis animal rights or research on animals, Morrison has created an excellent text to start that conversation, one that gets beyond purely theoretical debates about sentience and ethics. If you’re ready, I highly recommend it.

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