Friday, March 11, 2005


Is there any point in heaping further laurels on the team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely? Everyone and their proverbial mother has already spoken at length about the exquisite formalistic synthesis on display in We3, and I find it hard to disagree with the consensus that they have both found their ideal collaborator in the other. There are so many complicated and elaborate ideas on display over the course of these three issues that is almost amazing to think that two discrete individual minds were able to achieve such a remarkable clarity in the execution of such an ambitious set-piece.

The problem is that, aside from the realm of pure craft and formalism, the story has a nasty tendency to crumble the closer you look at it. Sometimes ambitious writers overreach - it's a fact of life.

All art is manipulation of a kind. Different artists and different mediums allow for varying degrees of complicity with their audience: sometimes it's appropriate to let the audience see the strings, sometimes it isn't. The problem is when, in overreaching, the audience becomes aware of the author's presence despite the author's best intentions toward transparency. This type of tonal shift is known in layman's parlance as "screwing up".

The fact is, anyone with any familiarity with Morrison's work can see his fingerprints all over We3. From Animal Man straight on through to The Filth, the relationship of animals to man, and vice-versa, has been at the very forefront of his thematic preoccupations. The moment I saw the first preview art for this series, I instantly knew that this was a distinctly "Grant Morrison" series, something that would betray a close allegiance to the author's own moral prerogatives simply by nature of their intimate kinship with the subject matter. You can pretty much see the same type of thing with Garth Ennis' War Stories books, or Warren Ellis' hard sci-fi: these books and subjects are close to their hearts because they most explicitly explore issues and ideas that consistently recur in the subtext of everything else they do.

But the problem with intimacy is that it can lead to bad judgment. Because of Morrison and Quitely's privileged collaboration, We3 had the potential to be truly magnificent, but it also had the potential to be a shambling mess. I am not going to say that it falls wholly towards the latter side of the spectrum, but it comes awfully close.

The moment anyone decides to use cute animals as protagonists in any sort of narrative, the reader's emotional investment is almost always amplified. It doesn't matter who you are: if you have grown to maturity in an industrialized Western country, you will have a natural sympathy for pictures of doe-eyed kittens and scruffy puppy dogs. It can be a powerful tool in the hands of any storyteller (just look at the enduring success of Watership Down or Bambi), but it isn't used very often outside of the realms of children's literature because of the fact that it can so easily backfire.

Let's be blunt: there is no reasonable way that any of the animals in We3 should have survived issue three, based on what had been previously established. The set-up was underway for a massively depressing third issue, an apocalyptically sad finale with Bandit, Tinker and the unfortunate bunny (who I don't recall being named) either getting blown up, ripped to shreds, or dying slowly without their medication. The only way for Morrison to save his cuddly protagonists was basically to lie to us, by saying that the story's previously accepted perimeters were null and void. It was a grating moment of blatant manipulation on the part of a writer who damn well should have known better. It's one thing to change the rules as you go (which, as Dave Fiore accurately points out, is pretty much what Dave Sim did for the entirety of Cerebus), another entirely to insert a blatant deus ex machina simply because you have written yourself into a corner.

(Of course, if he had finished the series in the logical way, it would probably be considered the most unremittingly grim book published in many a year: its a fact of life that grown men and women who sit stolidly through the likes of Schindler's List or The Killing Fields can weep like small children when Bambi's mother is shot or Charlotte dies for her children. I for one still maintain that Milo & Otis is one of the greatest films ever made, simply by virtue of the fact that it is probably the greatest animal adventure ever recorded - and I invariably tear up when they head back to the farm at the end!)

First, it's established that the three animals will die without their medication, which evokes the common knowledge that most medical transplants require strict regimens of anti-rejection medications to prevent the body from rejecting foreign organs/objects. Therefore, we are led to believe that the three animals have become inextricably bound to their cyborg parts, much like Darth Vader, and because of the surgical enhancements made to them in the process they would die without them.

Second, this thesis is supported by the fact that it is deemed necessary to kill the three of them in order to bring their part of the project to a conclusion. Obviously, if the animals' armor and cybernetic enhancements could merely be taken off, there would be no plot. The doctors would merely have freed the animals from their cybernetic encumbrances and the We3 would have spent the rest of their natural lives as pampered guests of the research facility, being the subjects of continued observation on the basis of their having survived a very unique and quite experimental research program. Usually when animal subjects are used in tests it is with an idea of gaining the absolute maximum amount of data necessary, and if the animals could survive the procedure that turned them into super-soldiers, it is most logical to assume that the researchers would be most interested in studying the aftereffects of the procedure on live animals, as opposed to corpses.

But that's essentially surmise: the basic fact is that if the animal's armor could be taken off with the apparent ease that my dog can slip out of the cone we put around his neck after a visit to the vet (which is essentially what Bandit and Tinker do in the final pages of the third book), there is no conceivable way that the plot hangs together. If the doctor who freed them from the lab knew that the animals could be liberated from their metal armor in just a few moments, and that their cybernetic enhancements were no more involved than something a homeless man with no obvious medical training could harmlessly remove, than even if you accept that the Powers That Be wanted the animals dead (which is a dicey proposition considering the nature of the science involved), if she had been so set on ensuring the animals survived despite her bosses' wishes, she could simply have absconded with the three of them - sans armor - and taken them home in her car.

Morrison wanted so very badly to touch us with this story, but the effect was much more calculated - and for me at least, quite alienating - than he probably desired. Throughout the story I found myself unconsciously fighting the soporific effect of Morrison's intended emotional manipulation. The effect, even without the galling inconsistencies, was somewhat akin to that of a nagging grain of sand caught in a delicate mucous membrane.

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