Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Testing the waters: WE3

In recent years I've made an effort to be not just a fan of certain comic books but to try and appreciate the medium as a whole. Of course, there are a lot of bad comics out there and some books which simply aren't to my tastes. I've taken a few risks that didn't pan out. I've tried a few well-regarded books that fell flat. And I've found some wonderful treasures that slipped through the cracks along with giants of the medium which were as good their reputations implied.

Recently I picked up four graphic novels. Two are by creators I had never sampled before and I was largely unaware of the contents of each book. However, they were each reputed to be fine books, so I made four leaps of faith. This is the first of four "testing the waters" reviews I'll write this week on those four books.

First up: WE3 by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (Vertigo, 2004).

The only common ground of communication upon which dogs and men can get together is in fiction. - O. Henry

WE3 follows three animals (the cat, dog and rabbit depicted above) who have been transformed into lethal killing machines by the US Air Force. The experiments to render them into assassins have also granted them the ability to speak, although their faculties are well beneath those of humans. When the Air Force decides to terminate the project one of the scientists sets the animals free rather than see them die. And so, three immensely powerful creatures are unleashed upon a world they don't understand.

First up, I have to talk about Frank Quitely. Until WE3, I didn't think much of his work. Although some sequences in his New X-Men tenure some 8 years ago impressed me, overall I didn't think he was suited for super hero work. However, in WE3 he writes all the rules of his reality and the outcome is stunning. Check out this (gory) two-page sequence:

65 panels! This is a far cry from the all-too-common tack of artists inserting multiple splash pages to save the writer time on scripting and fashion a few pin-ups to sell at cons. Quitely was clearly drawing with passion here, pushing himself to find creative ways to tell the story. Check out the panel placement in this spread:

Another kinetic masterpiece; the sense that the cat is traveling through the panels is incredible. The series is full of moments like these.

I was also very impressed with Grant Morrison's story, which isn't a straight forward animal rights parable. The animals are victims who get to turn the tables on their aggressors, but we see throughout that they aren't entirely capable of understanding what goes around them, that their concept of morality is fuzzy (no pun intended). Notably, there is a scene where the dog rescues what he thinks is an unconscious human wounded during one of their fights; it's actually just the upper torso of a human, rendering the dog's actions rather pathetic. The animals are as flawed as the humans and while we still hope they make it out of the story alive, we feel badly for the lives lost along the way.

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