Funny? Animals? The Problem of We3 by Alex Link

30 May

There can be no doubt as to the importance of the representation of the animal body in comics history. This, of course, is not to say that comics, with talking dogs that walk on two legs and the like, have traditionally aspired to realism. Rather, the anthropomorphized animal pervades comics, and typically, in the history of “funny animal” comics, “the ‘animalness’ of the characters becomes vestigial or drops away entirely.” [1] Even so, “comics and graphic novels are a virtually untapped source of insight into cultural paradigms about animals” [2] when the comics animal is considered qua animal. Recent comics such as Pride of Baghdad (2006), Duncan the Wonder Dog (2010), and others have returned to this legacy of the funny animal with a critical gaze, doing so at a time that coincides with the development of critical animal studies.

Critical animal studies takes as one of its aims the exploration of the manner in which “ ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’ . . . must be continuously reimagined and reconstituted” [3] and We3 (2004-5), by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, seems to do precisely that. Wanting “‘to do to funny animal comics what Alan Moore did to superhero comics,’” Morrison—who ended his time writing Animal Man (1990) with an explicit call for animal rights—and Quitely invite a reappraisal of the comics animal. [4] While it is true that Art Spiegelman’s Maus famously takes caricatural anthropomorphism beyond humour, it leaves intact the role of comics animals as proxy humans, and/or as metaphors for qualities based on “understandings of animal behavior that circulate . . . in . . . culture” [5]. These practices have always ultimately “celebrate[d] and naturalize[d] the superiority of the human,” [6] and elided animal alterity. Rosi Braidotti calls for the direct examination of animal alterity in narrative, by asking that we approach the animal as animal, or “neoliterally.” [7] Perhaps surprisingly, when one approaches We3 with this “neoliteral” recognition of the animal in mind, one quickly encounters the difficulty with which the animal might clearly be separated from additional cultural categories that serve as others to the always-contested definition of the “human.”

In We3, a trio of experimental weaponized pets—a dog a cat and a rabbit—learn that they are to be euphemistically “decommissioned.” Roseanne, their handler, sets them free, and a bloody pursuit ensues costing both the rabbit and Roseanne their lives. Guilt-ridden by the carnage his enhancements make possible, Bandit the dog realizes in a moment of epiphany that he can shed the mechanized “coat” that makes him so dangerous. Abandoning their hardware, the surviving cat and dog take up with a homeless man, and fade into everyday life as unremarkable homeless strays. [8]

I must acknowledge that We3 certainly invites a reader to regard the animal perspectives as human-by-proxy. It is easy to read their suffering as a commentary on the objectification of disposable military personnel. The frequent appearance of dog tags (52), the juxtaposition of a soldier’s severed foot with a lucky rabbit’s foot (51), not to mention the vagrant’s noticeable military boots (113), encourage us to do so. Thus, without a critical shift in a reader’s perspective, We3 might simply be another example of animal suffering used to illustrate human suffering at one remove, or to indulge readerly sentimentality, as has so often been the case in animal stories [9].

However, when approached with an eye to the use of comics animals as a means of stabilizing the ever-shifting parameters of “the human,” We3 turns out to be more complex than it would at first seem. Through these animals, We3 explores the manner in which “the human” is in fact a negative definition deeply marked by power relations in the narrative’s conflation of the “non-human,” in the form of animals and machines, with the “less-than-fully-human” in the form of its most sympathetic human characters. From this perspective, the mechanized animals in We3 are a site through which we might examine the discursive construction of the human, and the rights and powers to which the self-declared human lays claim, reserving for itself the privilege of bequeathing limited rights and powers on others it deems not or “not quite” human.

We3 are a properly uncanny amalgamation of humanity’s several disquietingly familiar others. For example, the creatures expose the inconsistent standard by which one animal might be treated as a family member, while another is slaughtered or experimented upon without qualm, by being both at once. Justifying his decision to euthanize the animals, the We3 program’s military overseer asks, exasperatedly, “what kind of lunatic would teach a killing machine to talk?” (29): the difficulty, precisely, is that they are quasi-human family members, mechanized scientific and military objects, and generic animals in one body, underscoring the arbitrariness of such instrumental divisions. While it is true that pets typically occupy a “social place as a member of the family” which also allows for their treatment “as objects or possessions” [10], it is easier to think of pet ownership as a benign domination in that animal welfare is typically protected by law. In the We3 program these family members are explicit “slaves” (24), “disposable bodies traded in a global market of posthuman exploitation” like most animals in the context of “advanced capitalism” [11]. The self-serving inconsistencies in understandings of the non-human animal are uncomfortably juxtaposed here, rather than the typical elision of violence done to animals and the contrasting ubiquity of pets. One need look no further than We3’s multiple names to see their conflation of categories normally kept separate. Each has three names, which are technologically mediated, generic, and overtly—even criminally—itinerant and individualistic respectively: 1/Dog/Bandit; 2/Cat/Tinker; and 3/Rabbit/Pirate. Their names alone, in other words, expose the inconsistency with which animals are treated, and expose the fluid nature of the status of something presumed to be “obvious” and stable: the animal.

As their names imply, We3 are never simply animal. David Herman has argued that We3 tries to imagine phenomenal “nonhuman experiences” that, drawing on the language of animal studies pioneer Jakob von Uexküll, he terms “umwelt exploration” [12]. However, it is not at all clear whether the innovative and dynamic perspectives the narrative gives us actually gesture toward an animal’s “radically different perceptions of both time and space” [13]. Both Herman and Marc Singer are especially interested in the half-page on which we see Bandit destroy a military vehicle as evidence of this perspective. We see a single background image of fluid motion—Bandit at split second intervals as he ravages the soldiers in the vehicle—while little squares of fragmented slow motion float atop it, showing details that a reader needs to piece together in order to puzzle out what happens inside the vehicle: a tooth, a blood drop, a bullet exiting the back of a helmet, a snout, and so on (50-1). It is true that Doctor Trendle, who manages the We3 program, warns that the animals will be formidable because they experience “time and motion differently” (48). However, we are never told how or why their experience is different. That is, the narrative is unclear as to whether this perspective is different because they are animals, because they are computer-enhanced, or both. After all, this is animal experience through a machinic filter, and the depiction of this battle resembles nothing so much as what we have already seen during We3’s escape: six pages of fragmented, non-linear surveillance camera footage (30-35). In other words, the perspective gestures toward the other-than-human more broadly, which is to say an alterity that may be the perspective of a machine, a different species, or their interface. In doing so, the narrative does not so much raise the question of the liminal relationship between human and non-human animal so much as that between the provisional definitions of the human and its traditional array of others, among which the machine and the animal have always figured.

Even here, there are distinctions of value to be made among “animals,” too easily concealed by this sweeping term that lumps so many creatures together. The sympathetic Bandit is quite different from We3’s hordes of indistinguishable slaughtered rats, a value judgment one is wont to make based on animals’ perceived “similarity to humans” [14]. Even finer distinctions obtain, though. For example the nameless 4/mastiff that is sent to destroy We3 and kills Pirate, while also a dog, is shut off from easy reader empathy by its unspeaking, deindividualized expressionlessness, underscored by its single black blank speech balloon (101). Pirate the rabbit, inarticulate and inexpressive, is less easy to empathize with than Bandit, but easier to empathize with than the deindividualized group of rabbits mowed down in a hail of bullets all around him (45-7).

Not only are there distinctions among We3’s animals, but its human characters, too, are arrayed along a spectrum placing them closer to or further from traditional conceptions of the non-human animal. Some humans have more in common with We3 than with human society, which again might be overlooked if one takes the dynamic panels of animal action only as an attempt to capture the animal phenomenal world. Another innovative page, showing Tinker easily killing soldiers as she glides through panels tilted on edge, as if the cat were effortlessly flowing through them and “unconstrained by . . . the boundaries of the page,” her reality transcending “the physical limits of the comic,” might also be taken for a pure representation of animal perception, as Singer suggests. [15] However, we see panels seemingly tilted on edge, to imply a three-dimensional space, on two other occasions: when the vagrant is tempted to betray We3 to the authorities (83) and, in the Deluxe Edition, when Bandit frees Tinker of her “bad coat” (108). In other words, what might look at first to gesture toward the representation of an animal mode of perception, is again part of a more complex sequence: Tinker’s literal combat with authority, the similarly marginalized homeless man’s comparable ideological conflict with authority, and the reverse of these tensions as Bandit, in a gesture mistaken for an attack, rescues Tinker from her “coat.” This arrangement implies the relationship between the vagrant and the animals is parallel, rather than proxy. Indeed, like most animals, the homeless man is a category, having no name.

It is worth noting, then, that this story’s most sympathetic humans are Roseanne, a dark-skinned woman who sacrifices her life for Bandit; and the impoverished vagrant who is as itinerant as We3: subjectivities often rhetorically animalized, whether it be in discourses of bigotry or attempts to recuperate and valorize historically marginalized subject positions in the form of, for example, cultural feminism. Both characters are avatars of the poststructural debates around identity that ultimately gave rise to critical animal studies and advocacy for the animal as a minoritarian subject position.

At first glance the moral polarization along identity lines is clear, but We3 undermines any easy distinction between, put simply, a good animal nature and a bad human techno-culture. For example, the narrative’s own technology deliberately manages reader emotional investment through its mechanisms of representation: apart from Roseanne and the homeless man, we almost never see a human face in We3 that is not covered, cropped out, shaded, or averted, while feral and menacing human teeth are grotesquely foregrounded. Frequently, a technological device interposes itself between the reader’s gaze and the depicted human face, mechanizing it in a manner more familiar and therefore more easily overlooked than the wired non-human animal bodies, while placing these mechanical enhancements along a continuum. The narrative gives us both human-machine coextension in bodily enhancements ranging from sophisticated military hardware to simple eyeglasses, and human-animal coextension in a simple group of panels that shows us, left-to-right, the upper half of a man, his opened abdomen, and then the birds and insects feeding upon it as meat (67). That is, just as we have more-or-less animalistic and machinic people, we have more-or-less anthropomorphic and machinic animals, and more-or-less animalistic machines in, say, the juxtaposition of helicopters and birds on a splash page and rendered equivalent by scale (42), rather than a conveniently clean divide.

Unlike most of the human faces, the expressive animal faces are a constant presence, while their limited capacity for crude language, bequeathed by science fiction rather than comics narrative technology, provokes deep unease around them and triggers their decommissioning. We3 do not speak so much as underscore their inability to make themselves heard clearly, in their pitiably limited language. Their halting English demonstrates how difficult it is for the animal-object to be recognized as an agentive speaking subject, partly because their already extant capacity for communication goes unrecognized. Marc Singer argues that “giving the animals the power of language . . . give[s] them the tools to develop new selves and new ethical codes independent from their instincts . . . and their training” in contrast to which the speechless mastiff is “truly . . . amoral.” [16] This reading of the power of language is problematic in that it threatens once again to anthropomorphize the “neoliteral” animal, and to discount out of hand the possibility of animal ethics by subjecting We3 to strictly human terms.

That is, to make spoken language a precondition of animal subjectivity is to dismiss the possibility that a non-human animal might be anything more than a passive bundle of instincts and training. It presupposes the non-existence of animal subjectivity, and that animals without access to “our” language are without access to any language. Our introduction to Roseanne in We3’s Deluxe Edition makes plain this uncertainty about animal subjectivity and language beyond the spoken word. Here, we see Charlie, a parrot, repeat Roseanne’s words, but only after she has left, frustrated by the bird’s silence. Perhaps Charlie is simply slow in repeating the sounds that construct “Charlie’s a good boy” to ears that comprehend English. Then again, perhaps Charlie delays on purpose, out of a sense of irony; perhaps he recognizes the power dynamic inherent in Roseanne’s demands that he speak, even if he does not comprehend the words. We have no way of knowing (19). In short, this precondition of recognizable, authorized language destroys animals no less than their death in battle, given that while inversions of each other, both anthropomorphism and animal sacrifice, as acts of substitution, are “technologies for making and enlarging ‘humanity’ by effacing (writing over, killing) animality” [17]. The former requires the animal to abjure its alterity and be recognizably human, to be other than its “neoliteral” self, in this case by having it speak English, before it might be granted subjectivity. Rather than consider that the animal already speaks, the animal must be turned it into a reflection of its master and is negated, a process literalized in the sacrifice of animals in the laboratory and on the battlefield. It is easy to mistake “language” purely for the spoken and written word, full stop. However, Western history is rife with challenges to whether or not women or colonized peoples or the poor can “authentically” speak according to the terms set by power, a precondition of which is that it speak the language of the master to be heard. [18] Regarding the relationship of We3 to language in this manner again underscores the roots of animal studies in the history of poststructural identity politics. Indeed, by making the animals’ access to human language the product of scientific innovation, their speech illustrates the manner in which language itself might not be “naturally human” at all, but a technology. [19]

The climactic moment when Bandit sheds his enhancements, realizing he is not a “bad dog” but that there is a difference between himself and what he judges is his “bad coat,” is typically taken at face value [20]. However, this event actually puts the final touch on We3’s many contradictions, asking us where, in this combination of humanity’s two others—the natural animal and the technological prosthesis—we might securely locate “the human.” It is true that their technological enhancements render the animals strange to themselves: Bandit is baffled and guilt-ridden by the carnage that results from his reflexive responses when they are magnified by his coat. But in its overt manipulation of reader sympathy through computer illustration and the technology of narrative, We3’s relationship to a reader’s habits of identification is very like the armour’s relationship to the animals—it anticipates and exploits (instinctual? programmed?) reader response. Book is to reader as armour is to animal, and it is easier to extricate oneself from a coat than from the narrative of culture one inhabits.

The difference between Bandit and his coat is not as obvious as he takes it to be. After all, just as Descartes made no distinction between animals and machines [21] the animals are called the “hardware” of their system—wholly machine, since the very reason for their creation is to be able to wage war in which “no one has to die,” (53) and machines do not die. But conversely, they are also called, in a jarring redundancy, “biorgs” not cyborgs (24), which is to say wholly animal. The relationship between Bandit and coat is as complex as the space where this shedding takes place, his former house which, now empty and under construction, is no longer a home but perhaps the dismantled coat of the family unit that once lived there, and of which he once both was and was not a member (104). Bandit’s disavowal of his technological enhancements in the name of an essential animality is impossible, in that the categories of human, animal, and machine are more imprecise than the dividing lines between 1’s Bad Coat, Bandit’s home, and the Dog’s body.

To accept the easy solution that Bandit, without his coat, is somehow “purely” animal, and not just a happier, more flattering reflection of the human reader, is to risk reducing We3 to a ritual of nostalgic liberal humanism, an exercise in self-congratulatory pity that does little more than allow readers to feel deeply, and to feel good that they can. One can read We3 and deplore the cruel exploitation of animals, while briefly forgetting that every reader enjoys the benefits of that largely out-of-sight exploitation, and that getting out of one’s own cultural coat may not be so easy. The temptation to empathize with Bandit against a vaguely defined humanity might, in the end, be the desire to avoid Rosi Braidotti’s call that human animals take “full accountability for the science and technology we have collectively invented” [22]. Put simply, We3 asks: When you remove all that is animal and all that is machinic from the “human,” what, if anything, is left, and what are the ethical consequences of the results? To recall an early panel from the narrative, We3 confronts us with the image of a human face reflected in the visor of a mechanical suit with an animal, perhaps, inside (23) [23].


Benston, Kimberly W., 2009. “Experimenting at the Threshold: Sacrifice, Anthropomorphism, and the Aims of (Critical) Animal Studies” in PMLA 124.2, pp. 548-555.

Braidotti, Rosi, 2009. “Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others” in PMLA 124.2, pp. 526-532.

Brown, Lisa, 2012. “The Speaking Animal: Non-Human Voices in Comics,” in DeMello, Margo ed., Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing. London: Routledge, pp. 73-77.

Chaney, Michael A., 2011. “Animal subjects of the graphic novel” in College Literature 38.3, pp. 129-149.

Donovan, Josephine, 2011. “Aestheticizing Animal Cruelty” in College Literature 38.4, pp. 202-217.

Heise, Ursula K., 2009. “The Android and the Animal” in PMLA 124.2, pp. 503-510.

Fox, Rebekah, 2006. “Animal behaviours, post-human lives: everyday negotiations of the animal-human divide in pet-keeping” in Social & Cultural Geography 7.4, pp. 525-537.

Herman, David.

—2011. “Storyworld/Umwelt: Nonhuman Experiences in Graphic Narratives” in SubStance 40.1, pp.156-181.

—2012. “Toward a Zoonarratology: Storytelling and Species Difference in Animal Comics,” in Lehtimäki, Markku, Laura Karttunen and Maria Mäkelä, eds., Narrative, Interrupted: The Plotless, the Disturbing, and the Trivial in Literature. Boston: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 93-119.

Kant, Immanuel, 1960. Of the Beautiful and Sublime. 1764. Trans. John T. Goldthwait.

Berkeley: UP California, 1960.

Morrison, Grant, Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant (colors and inks), and Todd Klein (letters), 2011. We3: The Deluxe Edition. New York: DC Comics.

Morrison, Grant, Chas Truog (pencils), Mark Farmer (inks), John Costanza (letters), Tatjana Wood (colors), 2003. “Animal Man #26: Deus Ex Machina” in Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina. New York: DC Comics, pp. 205-229.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn, 2008. “Emotional Infectivity: Cyborg Affect and the Limits of the Human” in Lunning, Frechy, ed. Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human. Minneapolis, Minnesota UP, pp. 150-172.

Roberts, Mark S., 2008. The Mark of the Beast. Indiana: Purdue UP.

Robinson, William H. and Philip M. Richards, 2006. “Phillis Wheatley 1753-1784” in Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature Volume A: Colonial Period to 1800 5th Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 1238-1240.

Singer, Marc, 2012. Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. Jackson: UP of Mississippi.

Vint, Sherryl, 2010. Animal Alterity. Liverpool: Liverpool UP.

Witek, Joseph, 1989. Comic Books as History. Jackson: UP of Mississippi.

[1] Witek, 110.

[2] Brown, 76.

[3] Benston, 551.

[4] Morrison, qtd. in Singer, 210. “A child with leukemia has no more intrinsic right to life than does a white lab rat.” Morrison, 218.

[5] Herman, 2012, 94-95.

[6] Chaney, 132.

[7] Braidotti, 528.

[8] While it is true the ending, with the cat and dog having been “reconverted into contented pets by a homeless man” might be unsatisfying to some (Heise, 508), I argue here that the narrative first does considerable work to establish them more closely as equals.

[9] Donovan, 206.

[10] Fox, 526-527.

[11] Braidotti, 529.

[12] Herman, 2011, 166.

[13] Singer, 214. See also Herman, 2011, 168.

[14] Fox, 527.

[15] Singer, 216.

[16] Singer, 217-219.

[17] Benston, 551.

[18] History abounds with illustrations of the reluctance to validate the speech of the other, revealing how the cliché that “language makes us human” is in fact politically charged by eliding questions of whose language, on whose terms, to say what, and in what way. Think, for example, of the eighteenth-century African-American slave Phillis Wheatley, whose first book of poetry required testimonials to its authenticity as having been written “‘by a Negro’” (anonymous, qtd. in Robinson and Richards, 1239); or Samuel Johnson’s famous and particularly apt remark that a “woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs;” or Immanuel Kant’s conclusion, in Of the Beautiful and Sublime, that the fact that a man’s dark skin is itself “clear proof that what he [says is] stupid” and therefore inauthentic (113).

[19] Indeed, in thinking through the place of the human in relation to the animal and the machine as it pertains to his animated film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Oshii Mamoru suggests language is a technology that estranges the human from itself (Orbaugh, 159).

[20] Vint, 4.

[21] Roberts, 175.

[22] Braidotti, 529, my emphasis.

[23] My thanks to the University of Chicago Animal Studies Workshop, and the PCA/ACA National Convention, also in Chicago, for giving me the opportunity to present early drafts of this work in April 2014.

Alex Link teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design. He is the author of several articles, as well as the co-creator, with Riley Rossmo, of Rebel Blood and Drumhellar available through Image Comics.

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Posted by on 2015/05/30 in Guest Writers


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