“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” – Roger Ebert
By Chase Magnett
Reading We3 at the age of 13, I was an unrepentant fan of steaks, bratwurst, and any other item that can be grilled—a prototypical Nebraksan. Papa had a hog farm and vegetarians lived in New York City. This was my way of life. We were farmers or related to farmers, and animals were a product before all else. Reading this comic book was the first moment I recall seriously questioning whether I was doing the right thing. Revisiting the comic over the years, those thoughts only grew and were compounded by subsequent events. Encountering documentaries on factory farming, debating the philosophical ramifications of pain, and, most importantly, rescuing a mutt named Tetra—it all stacked up.
We3 is unlikely to radically alter someone’s perception of the world when read in a vacuum, much less change their core beliefs. This is not the purpose of art and offers an unreasonable metric for judgment. What We3 accomplishes is the generation of empathy. It helps readers imagine understanding the lived experience of common household pets and lays the groundwork for growth. Empathy is not the outcome of change, but the seed that allows us to grow. In my case it was a moment that I now look back upon as an initial step and a refrain, something that made me think and would continue to make me think as I grew up in Nebraska.
No matter how often we encounter entropy in the universe, human beings possess an irresistible urge to impose order on the chaos of our lives through the use of narrative. This is what gives narrative art—whether it is film, novels, comics, or any other storytelling medium—its power. They reflect the world the way we perceive it and presents us with both mirrors and windows to our own lives, allowing us to look outward and inward, often simultaneously. It is why I take the disconnected elements of reading We3 and a hundred other elements and build a narrative about what I believe.
When Roger Ebert spoke about the movies as an engine of empathy, this is what he observed, specifically about the variations of humanity. He addressed race, class, gender, and other facets of humankind, and how movies could bring us together by expanding our own experiences and perceptions.
So what would it mean to apply this lens beyond the scope of humankind?
We3, a 3-issue comic book created by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely in 2004, offers the most remarkable response to this question from the 21st Century. It tells the story of three animal-machine hybrids developed by the United States to function as weapons of war. Each of them corresponds with a common household pet: a dog (Bandit), a cat (Tinker), and a rabbit (Pirate), although each of them are referred to simply as numbers by their handlers and are collectively known as We3. Their story delves into themes of animal experimentation and cruelty, the military-industrial complex, and expressions of empathy. Yet the most fascinating element of the story may be how Morrison and Quitely choose to present the animal protagonists.
What makes this presentation distinctive is its resistance towards anthropomorphization of the characters. The process of making an animal human devalues the existence of an animal. When creators provide human language, characteristics, and affectations to something that is not human, they assert the importance of sharing a species in order to feel empathy. Works like Watership Down and Animal Farm are classics, but they do not offer any notable insight into the existence of their characters’ original being. They opt instead to transform them into furry humans who can serve allegorical roles for our own society and problems. Whether purposeful or not, this form of storytelling reinforces a belief that any non-human life finds value primarily through its connection to human life.
The insistence in narrative media on anthropomorphizing animal companions and transforming stories about animals into stories about human beings goes even further than ignoring the value of animal life on its own; it reasserts the primacy of human life above all else. These narratives insist that the beings we should feel the most affection for are those that speak and think just like us, putting up dangerous barriers which can easily be pushed beyond speciesism to further limit the boundaries of whose life is valued.
We3 rejects anthropomorphic tendencies as much as possible within the confines of a traditional quest narrative. It accepts a non-traditional pack, led by Bandit, similar to the film Homeward Bound. It clarifies their goals and reactions, emphasizing those held by all household mammals. It even provides a unique form of dialogue for the three animals. Any household with a Bandit of their own is bound to recognize their canine companion in the pages every bit as much as themselves. It is impossible for me to not witness Tetra’s head tilt to a question or make meaning from scattered keywords in these pages. I do not see myself in Tetra or Bandit as much as I understand Tetra via Bandit.
The dialogue is delivered by implants wired into the animals brain that interprets their thoughts via a speaker. Their statements are not complex or precise in nature. When meeting a Senator, Bandit says, “I. M. GUD. R. U. GUD 2?” This moment is scaffolded on reinforcement from Bandit’s trainer, Berry, who informs him that he is a good dog as praise. It is a pair of sentiments that build upon the familiar language used around dogs and which dogs respond to with some clear degree of understanding. The concept of praise and finding praiseworthy humans should be relatable to anyone who has raised or cared for a canine.
Morrison abstracts the language as well. When Bandit responds to people by name, he uses phonetic pronunciations with no concern for grammar. The Senator is known as “MR. WAH-SHING-TON” as accentuated by Berry in her own speech. The language varies based upon the individual animal as well. Tinker’s thoughts are generally more self-interested and judgmental, while Pirate’s are skittish and driven by self-preservation (for most of the series). This realistic reduction in scope does not deprive the animals of complex thoughts and emotions though. While much of their speech is focused on survival and decision making, the animals engage in joy, melancholy, or anger as much as any other of their species might. Bandit provides one of the most insightful moments in American comic books when he laments that “HOME. ? IS RUN NO MORE.”
The goal of the animal dialogue in We3 is not to anthropomorphize animal thought, but to interpret animal understandings of the world. Morrison applies punctuation and other symbols in their speech in order to minimize the effectiveness of a computer-rendered pattern of animal speech. It bears some similarity to Hawkeye #11, “Pizza Is My Business,” in which writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja interpret a series of events from a dog’s perspective. Human beings in this comic are drawn in webs of essential symbols related to the most prominent senses of a dog, notably smell. In both comics the focus is on translation, an attempt to understand the essence of an unspoken language, creating a bridge for human beings to better understand animal thought.
There is something approaching the air of qualitative research in both of these depictions. The trial-and-error pathway of communication between man and dog represented in broken language. Within a few months of meeting Tetra we recognized how her posture would change, her head would roll, and eyes go wide at the phrase “DO YOU?” with a reaction based upon what came next. “POTTY,” “FOOD,” and “DINNER” all did the trick. “BREAKFAST” and “YARD” only made her head move more quizzically. “PIZZA” has entered her vocabulary very recently in response to her new favorite toy, a crinkly simulacrum of a pepperoni slice with a hidden squeaker inside. “DO YOU? … PIZZA!” From questioning to excited, the understanding of language and process of meaning-making is evident in everything she does.
Quitely utilizes the framing of his artwork to further integrate readers into the perspectives of the animal protagonists. Throughout We3 there is a noticeable toggling that occurs between human-oriented scenes and those focused on Bandit and his companions. When no animals are present, standard approaches to Western comics take hold of the storytelling and the work is not very distinct from Quitely’s standard approach to layouts, point of view, and other key elements. However, when an animal, any animal is there to offer a new lens on the world, big changes are made.
We3 makes extensive use of inset panels, especially during its action sequences. These small boxes highlight details from a larger image, simultaneously expanding and abstracting them. When a group of soldiers attack the trio in the wild, the spread disassembles the action at its center in opposite corners of the page. We3’s attack is highlighted with details from their own anatomy. Bandit’s eye and nose are located in their own panels, as are the firing of their guns. These details place reader’s focus on sensory input above all else, expanding upon the purely visual media in which the sequence takes place. The results of this attack do the same with a single trickle of blood, a shattered pair of glasses, and destroyed eyeball all creating figments of sound and smell.
This alteration of normal cause and effect chains creates a new manner of thinking about action. Many violent sequences are broken down into only a few key panels filled with inset panels. The if-then connection of action is severed from an animal’s reaction to defend itself. While we as human readers may want to see a soldier fire a gun, then to have Bandit turn on the noise, then to have the soldier react in fear, and so on… This does not capture the reality of a violent confrontation, especially from the perspective of a dog. It is instant and instinctive, relying much less on visual sensory input than a violent interaction between humans might.
The distancing of visual information is exemplified in a two page sequence wherein Bandit rescues a train conductor who has fallen into a river after his locomotive was derailed. Bandit pulls the man to shore before Tinker points out that the man is dead. Readers see no sign of this until the pair walk away and in the final three panels of the second page it is revealed that the conductor is missing the lower half of his torso and legs. In this moment we realize that the visual information had no bearing on Bandit and Tinker’s understanding of the world. They smelled the man’s death and moved on, not needing the grisly details of his spilled intestines to make sense of what occurred.
To witness a dog in nature is to know that you do not and cannot perceive all of the world. Watching a dog explore your backyard can be a nerve wracking experience. They discover things you never imagined were there and might still not see. A clear path is drawn to the door making a single, late night bark all the more chilling. It’s the squirrel embedded in a tree, silent and out of sight, that will really make you consider how much we miss when looking around. The nerves come in for me because I have seen Tetra pursue this seemingly invisible squirrel and leap a six foot fence, leading to an early morning chase through the neighborhood in only boxers and a bathrobe while it rains. This is how Tetra reminds me everyday that I don’t know everything, how she helps me stay humble and open.
This abstraction of humanity regularly occurs in the sequences focused on We3, specifically with the loss of human faces. Mouths often receive additional emphasis as a source of sound. Limbs, digits, and specific elements of the face are more likely to appear in action sequences. Humans are generally presented in a standard fashion during establishing panels and other fundamental, necessary components of comics storytelling. This presentation of complete forms and faces is much more common with the animal characters of the story. The overall effect is to make human beings a foreign body throughout the narrative (fascinating, complex, but less relatable) while the animals themselves are always filling the reader’s eyes.
Quitely’s approach to storytelling in We3 becomes more apparent and powerful when language is removed altogether. When reading a Japanese edition of the comic, Japanese being a language I cannot read or speak, the emotional resonance is still there. What is left behind are the details of the Senator’s story. We3’s quest and emotions remain just as powerful on the page.
These are the pieces, parts, and tools that transform We3 into an effective empathy-generating machine. They have given the series a reputation as an undeniable tearjerker, and they do so without delivering a story that is maudlin or oversentimental, although it is undoubtedly sentimental. What is truly fascinating about all of this is how the overall effect is delivered while shifting focus away from human stories, human language, and human perception. The effectiveness of creating an animal’s story without transforming them into our own species speaks to our innate empathy for life beyond that with which we share a genetic code.
There are a dozen arguments I could make for improving our treatment of animals, not just in small steps like replacing plastic straws with biodegradable ones, but major ones like an outright prohibition on the consumption of meat. It is a perspective I’ve developed over a lifetime and one built on lots of individual experiences and papers based in logic and research. And all of it pales beside the fundamental moments of empathy. Reading We3. Lifting a piglet. Meeting Tetra.
No matter how many words I write, I will never encompass the experience. Big brown eyes looking at me, a paw pulling my hand down, the long sigh after eating, a lick on the cheek. I am incapable of accurately portraying the life of a dog and its transformative power. We3 comes close; this makes it exceptional.
When I reframe my life in sequential order, instead of the million random panels that compose memories, the final moment came when I met Tetra. She was a dog found starving on the side of the road in Missouri in desperate need of a home, so she came to ours. Over the course of weeks she adapted to our schedule and I came to see the world through her eyes. Her responses to food, affection, and play were all unique to the existence of a dog and all so full of life. She became a member of our family, not like us at all, but beautifully unlike us. When she flopped on the foot of our bed at night after a long walk and chasing squirrels through the backyard, I thought I could hear her, “HOME. ? IS RUN NO MORE.”
Chase Magnett is a writer and academic whose work can be seen most often on ComicBook.com, for which he writes reviews and features. He has also been featured on ComicsBulletin and Your Chicken Enemy, amongst others. You can find him on Twitter here and on his blog here. His dog Tetra is the world’s greatest dog.
We3 issue #1: Bandit
Written by Grant Morrison
Pencilled by Frank Quitely
Inked and Coloured by Jamie Grant
Lettered by Todd Klein
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!