Revisiting Morrison & Quitely's WE3: 'Disney with Fangs'

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Editor's Note: It's been 15 years since Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's We3 was published by DC's Vertigo imprint. On the occasion, we've dusted off a classic Q&A with Morrison and then-Newsarama editor Matt Brady just after the first issue was released. This story originally ran on Newsarama September 1, 2004.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Last week’s release of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3 has once again shown that its never safe to guess what will next spring from Morrison’s mind. The story about three cybernetic animals (a dog, cat, and rabbit) used by the government to assassinate enemies and eliminate targets is as different from Morrison’s last, Seaguy, as Seaguy was from New X-Men.

The quick jist of issue #1 – well, three cybernetic animals trained as weapons are to be decommissioned, but instead, they escape, and are now on the run. The first issue of the three issue limited series (#2 in October, and #3 in January) struck more than one reader as being perhaps the most touching of Morrison’s works in years. Sure, the mad, wild ideas were still there in force, but aided in part by Quitely’s dead-on expressions on the faces of the animals, the story was more prone to bring a lump to the throat, rather than a question of “Huh?”

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

With the first issue out, we spoke with Morrison about his inspirations for the story, as well as his approach to its look and feel, as well as his thoughts about animal rights.

Newsarama: As always, my favorite first question for your work – what was the spark, the impetus for We3? Was it a particular image that struck you? News about the future of animal testing and exploitation?

Grant Morrison: The basic idea actually dates back to an image from some art samples Shelly Roeberg [now Bond] sent to me back in 1999 or so. The pages showed three assassins in suits and featureless helmets performing a hit.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Although the assassins in the sample pages were people, for some reason I was struck by a powerful image of the killers taking off their helmets to reveal three nervous, worried looking little animals underneath. I have no idea where this came from or why I found it so affecting and compelling that I kept coming back to it, but that was the genesis of the story and the echoes of that original scene are there in the first 13 pages of issue #1.

The title, We3, came at the same time and suggested strange, tender friendships and some weird kind of trembling, doomed nostalgia. Whatever. These things often come into my head in the form of odd, dreamlike sequences and unusual resurgent feelings or memories from childhood and early life.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

So I kept knocking this one around in the back of my head but I had no structure or story or and no idea where it might go next. In 2002, when I was writing the angry, prosthetically-augmented animals who appear in The Filth, I had a kind of epiphany in Mao's restaurant - Kristan and I were tucking into nasi goreng or something when this image of three desperate little cyborg animals running for their poor, misunderstood lives broke into my head and broke my heart. I instantly wrote down the plot for We3 in my notebook and then began to work on the first script, without knowing who'd be drawing it.

Nrama: Then it must have been around the time you were working on this that there was news about research being done with remote controlled rats and their possible military/rescue possibilities. Was that in any way an influence on the story, or just a weird coincidence?

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Morrison: It was a coincidence but it fed straight into the We3 plot. These kind of predictive things happen to me all the time; The Invisibles and The Filth were full of made-up, weird science stuff which later turned up for real as articles in the pages of New Scientist or Scientific American.

Nrama: Along the line of influence you mentioned, some have suggested that We3 is a nod/update of The Incredible Journey - the Disney films with two dogs and a cat trying to find their way home, made in 1963 and again in ’93. Did you see the original movie as a kid?

Morrison: Oh yeah, I love that one. The bit at the end where old Bodger comes limping over the hill after all hope has gone... The remake wasn't as good - I don't like all that stuff with Hollywood stars doing animal voices - the jaws moving and gnawing in this unconvincing way while Mathew Broderick argues with Michael J. Fox and Whoopi Goldberg over a bone.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

But yeah, things like that and The Plague Dogs, Watership Down, The Rats of NIMH, Chicken Run or whatever. Anything to do with innocent, misunderstood animals on the run from vicious human bastards. Animals getting their own back. The events played out in We3 are very different and far more shockingly violent than the adventures of Thomas O'Malley and the Duchess in The Aristocats, for example, but the basic idea of the animal odyssey across country in search of some seemingly hopeless safe haven is a very resonant and appealing theme which no-one has really played much with recently...certainly not in comics.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

I've always wanted to do one of those classic animal stories that make people cry, so this is like that... Disney with fangs. We3 is probably one of the first of these kind of stories to treat the animal heroes as animals and not as anthropomorphized representations with human emotions and speech patterns.

So basically, we gave the popular old 'animal quest' idea a sci-fi coat of paint, spliced it with Takashi Miike uber-violence, and created a vehicle to demonstrate the 'Western Manga' storytelling style Frank and I are trying to develop.

Nrama: Going back to the comment about science catching up with your story, in your view, how plausible, or even, how far away is the world of We3?

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Morrison: About five minutes.

Nrama: You’ve said before, you feel very passionately about animals, and animal rights. How did that affect or even instruct this story?

Morrison: It's there in the background and between the lines. I've tried hard not to sentimentalize the animals, or the humans, in any way. This is a story from a kind of animal perspective - it's not about animal rights or sex discrimination or dirty deals politics, although they all come into it. It's about meat and motion, hunger and fear and survival.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Nrama: That said though, what are your feelings on animal rights? Are you a strict PETA-ist, more moderate, what?

Morrison: It's a very compex issue involving all kinds of entangled fears, assumptions and misunderstandings so I don't want to be strident.

I'm not strict about anything, I just record and process experience and what I see around me. I can't honestly find any proof that a human child's life is, by its very nature, more valuable than a rat's, except in the sense that I can sympathize with the quite understandable human-centrism that declares it so. If it was my kid or a rat, I'd probably choose to save my kid but that's more to do with selfishness and protection of my genetic inheritance, than it has to do with morality or 'evolutionary superiority'. Luckily for me, I have neither kids nor rats so the value of their lives can be a philosophical problem rather than a practical one.

Humans tend to place a very high value on human life, in some cases, and very little value on human life in some other cases, so our imagined special position in nature, like our morality, is suspect, inconsistent and open to constant revision depending on how we feel on any given day.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

As I said in Animal Man, at least rats don't foul their environment or build weapons of mass destruction, then make excuses about why they did it. Does shitting in our own nest really make humankind superior to other animals?

Basically, we hurt, abuse and torture some animals because we can get away with it, in typical bully style. We tend to think our very human-ness confers upon us some special distinction from the animals but it does that no more so than does the 'orangutan-ness' of an orang gives her special distinction. Our 'dominion' of the Earth is a result of our command of lethal technology and our childlike enthusiasm for wanton destruction, not a God-given mandate. I think.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto explains in his book So You Think Youre Human? even the very idea of human-ness is a recent invention. 150 years ago, many 'black' people, for instance were considered inhuman...and not just by 'whites' but, in many cases, by other 'black' people. 'Humanity' is a vague and shifting concept not very easily defined or defended, to be honest.

As for the animal rights 'movement', I can fully understand why sensitive people might get angry at the sight of what goes on in the laboratories of the experimenting class. The very idea of blinding, freezing, vivisecting, irradiating and bludgeoning living sensible creatures in the name of scientific advance - or often in the name of no more than casual curiosity, conjures images of Nazi sadist doctors in our minds. It makes us think of hidden rooms smelling of anesthetic and shit, where people are allowed to act out their most inhumane, unempathic drives on living flesh. The aura of secrecy and denial which surrounds so many of these awful testing grounds naturally creates fear and suspicion.

That kind of horror image of the torture lab and the desensitized scientist would scare the living crap out of anyone so it's hardly surprising that some people over-react and simply cannot allow themselves to sit back while these atrocities against restrained and defenseless creatures goes on. The idea that somewhere, a dog just like your dog is right now being force fed toothpaste until he dies, or infected with Ebola so that it goes down puking up its entire blood supply, would turn almost anyone into an animal rights activist if they had to actually watch. We're told to look out for cruelty to animals as one of the first indications of a sociopathic or psychopathic personality, so the scientists who perform this work then go all wide-eyed and refuse to recognize how they might be coming across to right-thinking folks, are either very naive or in denial.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Anyone who gets even a hint of what goes on in some of these ghastly laboratories is likely to feel rage and shock and anger. In fact, anyone who doesn't feel that way would have to be emotionally disconnected to quite a frightening degree. Whether some of it can be justified or not, people really only accept this stuff because it's generally out of sight, out of mind. So, again, I can understand the basic human decency which drives activists to violence. In another age they might be called freedom fighters. Unfortunately, wrapped around their core of shocked compassion can be other feelings of revenge, anger, fear or misplaced desires to play James Bond-style bullshit spy games. I was raised non-violent so I can't get behind the use of terror to fight terror in any circumstance. I don't know if that answers you’re question and I'm not sure I even have an answer that wouldn't take up another 500 pages.

The bottom line is that we've been horrible to animals. really horrible in so many ways that we deserve to be ashamed of. We should know better. When the We3 creatures start causing some real painful damage in issue #2 I'm sure there will more than a few furtive cheers.

Nrama: Yeah, that about covered the question. Given your feelings about animal rights, was creating and writing convincing characters who were in charge of the We3 program in any way difficult, or were they, in your view, pretty cold hearted and fairly flat - aside from Roseanne the technician, of course - in the first place?

Morrison: Again, I've tried to give as objective a view as I can. The detached nature of human interactions in the research lab - we only see parts of faces and bodies, the only moment of warmth is conveyed by a CCTV voiceover etc., is a deliberate distancing device. The technology is what dehumanizes the human beings, not their own passions or emotions.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

The most sympathetic and human character for me is Doctor Trendle, the Project Director - In the collection he'll have a Japanese name - I wrote the character as Caucasian only to realize later that Frank had based his appearance on Hayao Miyazaki, genius of Japanese animation. He is also the most cold and inhumane in many ways. Go figure.

Nrama: One interview, yet so many side eddies of discussion…keeping it on We3, if the story had a subtitle, what would it be?

Morrison: 'Run, You Filthy Buggers! Run!'

Nrama: You’ve worked with Frank before, but he wasn’t a part of this project from the beginning? After seeing #1, I can’t imagine many others who would’ve been able to put that much emotion on Bandit’s face, for example….

Morrison: I knew he was the only artist who could make this convincing. He did 60 pages of design sketches just to get those suits right. He's a genius. No photo refs, no computers, he doesn't even use a ruler most of the time. It all comes out of his imagination onto the page. That's what it looks like inside Frank Quitely's head. He astonishes me more and more every time I see a new page. This is drawing as a special effect in itself. You just have to just look and look and look. It's like fractals. The closer you go in the more detail and brilliance you see.

I want this to come out as a French graphic novel size book so that people can really study the work Frank has put into this. The fight scenes in the second issue have panel layouts and storytelling devices which have never been seen before in a comic book... and the mega-violence is cranked up way past 11.

Nrama: Speaking of Frank and what’s inside his head, how much direction did you give him on the art in terms of the animals?

Morrison: My original design sketches had the animals in biped-style suits, more like robots with little animal heads. They looked crap and I knew I needed Frank's design brilliance to create suits which were based on animal anatomy and not suits of armor. I described the kind of thing I was looking for and after weeks of intense design work, he came up with the incredible finished versions that we used in the comic. He based everything on real materials and used Japanese moped design as a starting point. Imagine the toys, though! A hard, heavily -armed robot shell on the outside, a soft and fluffy pet within! Japan, here we come!

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Nrama: We can only hope Georg Brewer of DC Direct catches this… Okay – back to the animals, can you explain the relationship between the three – how independent are they? Are they networked? Do they even like each other?

Morrison: The animals have been trained to work together and were also sedated and remote-controlled during previous missions. The remote doesn't work on aroused animal brains, so now that they're free, their Air Force handlers can no longer use that method to control them. As the story progresses, our heroes come to realize that they are pretty independent of each other. Internal fighting start to break out in issue #2 when the cat demands autonomy.

Nrama: The tech that’s embedded in them – did you research that at all, or is it your creation based on current tech/research?

Morrison: The tech is based on current military ordnance - the animals use, mines, poison gas, rapid fire bullets, ground to air missiles and flechettes. The notion of teaching animals to talk is inspired by the results of research from various animal communication experiments done over the last thirty years - the experiments were with primates and cetaceans but I took some species liberties, given that this is a science fiction story after all. I've tried to keep this one very real. I wanted to do to funny animal comics what Alan Moore did to superhero comics in Miracleman.

Nrama: The language that the three use – can you explain how they communicate a little? From their speech, or looks like they use as many verbal shortcuts as they can, to express fairly linear thought – is that accurate?

Morrison: Pretty much. Dogs are 'better' at communicating in ways humans understand than cats or rabbits, so the dog is the one most obviously trying to wrestle with human concepts and express them in simple language. The cat is interested only in her own worldview which has her at the center of the universe and is generally trying to express only one simple idea - 'Outta my face!', as Stephen Budiansky puts it in The Character of Cats.

I read up on human attempts to communicate with animals, i.e. teach animals English, which in most cases, come across up as brave attempts by animals to communicate with humans - chimps and dolphins will bend themselves backwards trying to approximate an understanding of English, while humans generally refuse to think like animals or to make any effort to learn and use animal languages as animals use them. The mistake is to imagine that animal sounds and signals 'translate' into human words. They don't. Anyone who's spent a long time in the company of animals will know that animal communication is just what it is. The sound or signal can always be directly connected to some external event.

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Nrama: That said, the three seem to differentiate themselves by the words they use as well. I that similar to what you said about humans not understanding how animals thinks - that these are not only totally different brains, but three variations of totally different brains due to them being different species?

Morrison: Yes. I wrote some sample dialogue to get the characters down - the dog loyal, needy, driven; the cat selfish, aloof, vicious; the rabbit distracted. Then, while Frank was drawing the first issue, I read up as much as I could on the psychology, habits and behavior of dogs, cats and rabbits. In all cases, I'd pretty much got it right on the first pass but Stephen Budiansky's The Character of Cats and The Truth About Dogs were indispensable aids as were Catwatching and Dogwatching by Desmond Morris, What Is My Cat Thinking? by Gwen Bailey and the ever-reliable The Private Life of the Rabbit by R.M. Lockley.

And of course, once I saw Frank's incredible drawings, it really helped me nail the characters down. His artwork conveys so much emotion and nuance that there's really no need for any but the most essential words

Nrama: Also in terms of their communication, given the fonts of their “speech,” it’s clear they “sound” different as well – can you describe the sound of their voices using real-world sounds? Are they like Stephen Hawking’s synthesizer, or something different?

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Morrison: A bit like Stephen Hawking but much creepier even than physics' freakiest fillozzifer. Imagine the words mangled and wrestled into electronic life by little brains and humming processors.

Nrama: Moving into issue #1’s mechanics, specifically, the layout of the breakout scene. Six pages of eighteen panels each. Frank’s good, but did he even start to sweat when you suggested it?

Morrison: Frank was fine with it - my original script only had 12 CCTV screens per page or something like that. So he actually broke down the action ever more. The double page spread, with its Toy Story coloring was meant to suggest space, freedom and release, yes - the surveillance camera grids allowed us to build up an almost intolerable claustrophobia in the moments leading up to the animals escape...and then comes the huge opening out of the escape. A lot of the credit for the effectiveness of that scene has to go to Jamie Grant, whose amazing coloring adds so much to the storytelling.

Frank has accepted all my mad ideas with good grace and discrimination. He makes everything better than I imagined it - for this sequence he created 18 separate CCTV screens with 108 views showing different parts of the same base - it's a 4-dimensional scene, a Cubist, multi-perspective viewpoint look at a single event. When we were up at his house over Christmas, Frank had 108 of these color-coded, square little drawings in a cigarette packet at one point, and he kept rearranging them in different ways.

Nrama: But with that freedom though – Roseanne knew their limitations, that they need their meds. Wasn’t releasing them as she did just conscribing them to a longer, more painful death?

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Morrison: Roseanne Berry has a lot of problems of her own which lie between the lines. She's not a heroine by any means. Freeing the animals was an act of suicidal madness on her part, the final destructive urge of a woman driven to the very end of her tether. She fully expects the animals will just tear right through her and is just going through the motions of that fateful walk from the lab. She's really hoping the animals will kill her and spare her the horror of taking responsibility for what she's done but the We3 animals only attack people who threaten them, so she survives their escape from the base.

Nrama: And the use of the “Save” computer command? There seemed to be a couple of ways that could go, in regards to its meaning…

Morrison: Some people seemed a little confused by the 'Save' sequence on the computer screen. God help them, I know, but hopefully I can clear it up - what we're seeing is simply the command to execute the security locks on the animal harnesses. The animals are unharnessed to eat, Roseanne is supposed to lock them down for their impending euthanasia. But she doesn't press the SAVE button and so we know the harnesses remain unlocked, allowing We3 to react and escape the minute they're threatened by the doctors with syringes. The cursor flashes on 'SAVE' to show us that Roseanne hasn't executed the command, to build tension - and also because 'SAVE' has a nice double meaning in the circumstances.

Nrama:: Once free, what’s driving the three animals? Are they looking for their old homes, or just “home” as a concept of someplace safe?

Morrison: Nothing is driving them except the Dog's absolute, insane conviction that something called 'Home' lies out there somewhere, and that they must get to it.

Nrama: I assume the fact that the cat, Tinker, who’d until now been fed from a bowl in the lab, shot down and ate a bird is fairly significant in regards to them shrugging off, or rather merging their programming with their natural born instincts – a solid hint at the danger to come?

Morrison: We're to imagine that the animals started out as stolen pets, so their newfound freedom is intoxicating in many ways . Also, consider Stephen Budiansky talking about "the specialized wiring of the cat's brain' for hunting...'the fact that there is such a specialized, hard-wired pathway for hunting in the brain of the cat helps to explain why cats will often hunt and kill prey regardless of how hungry they are. In most cats, the stimulus of seeing a prey animal triggers a predatory response that verges on the automatic and uncontrollable..."

Credit: Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant/Todd Klein (DC/Vertigo)

Nrama: Obviously, I’m not going to ask you to spoil this, but there’s a big fight coming. You and Frank are seemingly at the fork in the road here at the end of issue #1 – this could be the saddest story ever, or an optimistic, happy one. If I shake the Magic 8 Ball, what’s the answer I’d get if I asked if things would end on a happy or sad note?

Morrison: The outrageous fighting begins in the opening scene of issue #2 to come and of course, Animal Weapon 4, mentioned by the general in the first issue has yet to play its awful part.

As to how it'll cry, you'll cheer, you'll cry again....

Nrama: Confession time here Grant - you wrote a story about three animals looking for home. You’re just a big softie aren’t you? Animal Man, The Invisibles, The Filth, New X-Men, and everything else with mad, wild ideas was just to get you to a point where you could write touching stories about dogs, cats and rabbits, right?

Morrison: Yuh got me, Brady…you got me.

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