A review of We3 #3, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant, and Todd Klein. Spoilers follow.
"I just showed you a soul being born."
-T.O. Morrow, JLA #5, May 1997
A number of souls are born in the final issue of We3 as the characters make ethical decisions and develop independent selves. What's surprising, given the prior issues of this series, is not that the trio of rogue animal weapons are able to form such selves but that so many humans finally, belatedly decide to join them.
The injured 3 confronts Animal Weapon 4 alone; Roseanne Berry gives 1 his name back; 2 finally commits to the disintegrating team and to a fragile but self-willed attempt at a home; a homeless man turns down a reward; and Trendle and the General both compromise their operation to do what they know is right. Almost every character develops a functioning ethical self in the finale, except for Weapon 4, and there's a good reason for that, too.
The final issue is punctuated with moral triumphs both large and small, not what I was expecting from this series. The first issue promised a story that could only end in tragedy, with We3 doomed to die without their medication and racing toward a home they didn't know they had been made completely unsuitable for. The final act continues along that trajectory, subjecting the animals to a degeneration that's uncomfortable to watch, before veering off into a happier ending that's dependent on a convenient plot twist (and a beneficient amnesia as concerns the meds). The heightened emotionalism has served this comic well, but I wonder if Morrison loves these characters too much to subject them to what should by all rights have been their fates. I would have thought there was only one way 1 could ever reach the place of "RUN NO MORE"; that was what lent the earlier issues so much of their tragic power.
Fortunately, We3 #3 still packs all the formal punch of its predecessors thanks to Mr. Frank Quitely (aided and abetted by Morrison's visually-conscious scripts, no doubt). This issue isn't quite as relentlessly innovative as the last two, but Quitely sprinkles the battle scenes with little gems: the drop through a brick wall and onto the next page (something that seems lifted from the bodiless but mechanically linear "ghost cameras" of video games - We3 as the first comic written on the Half-Life engine?), the tiny panels offering exploded details of chaotic and high-speed fights (including a miniscule dog that seems to represent how 1 views himself after a whiff of 4's combat pheromones), the panels that descend like a flight of steps or a bomb countdown simultaneously. These maneuvers never seem like motiveless stunts, but rather perfect formal expressions of plot points, character perceptions, or the spatial movement of the characters through the setting. This is a comic that moves, making it exhilarating to read quite independently of its story.
And yet it's also still a Wolverine comic, a cinematic shoot-em-up in which even characters barely capable of speech get action-hero send-off lines. The cat (who's been set up as the Wolverine of this group, the sullen rebel and amoral killer) gets her moment of fury in a pin-up splash page - complete with vintage Dark Knight Returns lightning bolt arcing in the background. Like all of Morrison's best work, We3 pivots on the edges of experimentalism and accessibility, using tried-and-true story formulas (action movies, The Incredible Journey) to deliver dazzling formal displays and theories about ethics, subjectivity, and language as a technology of control.
"'Freedom'? The word isn't even present in her vocabulary. I should know: I left it out."
-T.O. Morrow, JLA #5, May 1997
"!1! The name on your collar was 'Bandit.' U. R. BANDIT."
-Dr. Roseanne Berry, We3 #3, March 2005
I don't mean to denigrate We3 by comparing it to a Wolverine comic, or to Morrison's previous work on the trend-settingly mainstream JLA. These comparisons should only demonstrate how appropriately Morrison chooses genre material to accomodate his signal themes, or how flexible those genres are in being so readily adapted.
(By the way, speaking of language as a technology of control, you have no idea how difficult it was to write that last sentence without resorting to some dead and debased animal metaphor: pet themes, hobby horses, betes noires. I'd guess Morrison is well aware of our tendency to metaphorize animals until the metaphor is lost and all that remains is a dehumanizing association: why else, in this of all series, would he use the phrase "fascist pig"? And note what happens to the only actual pig glimpsed in this series, and what happens to Weapon 4.)
My favorite moment in the final issue is, beyond any doubt, the scene where Dr. Berry restores Bandit's name. Knowing and accepting the consequences this time, she gives a loyal, unfortunate dog something he desperately needs - telling him where "1" stops and he begins. It's the only way he can live a life that isn't filled with violence and death, and as such it's far more kind and important than her first, disastrous gift of life and freedom that starts the series.
Without this new act of mercy that life won't be long at all, and a danger to other lives. 1 will briefly think of becoming a "BAD DOG" after the tragedies that befall his team, but once he runs into the real thing the difference between them is clear. He returns to helping his teammates and protecting civilians - successfully this time, unlike the harrowing rescue scene in issue #2 - finally becoming a "GUD DOG" only after learning that he has an identity independent of his erstwhile status as a government killing machine. Language and a name will ultimately set him free, unlike Weapon 4, who can make speech balloons but can only fill them with the solid blacks of rage. No souls will be born there.
Despite the surprisingly, disappointingly happy ending, We3 is still far and away the most exciting comic I read in 2004 - and quite possibly in 2005, as well. I can't wait until the collected edition comes out.