Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Brave New World-themes must be played out by now, right? Wrong -- at least if Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, comic-book creators extraordinaire, have something to do about it. We3, another great collaboration between writer Morrison and artist Quitely, must be one of the most disturbing and relentlessly sad comic books I have ever read, a vivid illustration of Heidegger's observation that animals are "poor in world."

The three animals of the comic's title are former pets, a dog, cat, and rabbit who have been abducted by the U.S. Airforce and experimented upon as part of a top-secret bio-weapons program. The program's objective is the creation of armies of living weapons, hyper-violent syntheses between animals and machines, to serve as soldiers of the future. But when a Senator visits the experimental facility to see how the program is getting along, he is shocked to find out that one scientist has engineered the animals to speak -- and they don't seem like happy campers. Realizing that talking, malcontented animal soldiers would be very bad publicity indeed, the government decides to "decommission" (i.e. kill) the three animal-androids, and to make sure future "soldiers" are appropriately mute. Unfortunately for the powers-that-be, Dr. Roseann has gotten a bit too attached to her animals, and would rather see them free -- and indulging their combat instincts -- than dead. So free the animals are, leaving a trail of carnage in their wake and the U.S. military in hot pursuit, all the while trying -- and failing -- to make sense of the world around them.

Few things in recent memory have moved me quite as much as these three animals "speaking" -- that is to say, the broken sentences and stray words these animals can mouth communicate nothing so much as their vulnerability and alienation, not only from the world around them but even from their own bodies, hardly recognizable to them beneath the layers of weapons and bio-engineering. "Home" remains a powerful call (at least for the dog; the cat is, well, stereotypically cat-like, offering up most of the few moments of comedy in We3), and is defined as a place where the three animals won't need to run anymore.

It is hard not to see the specter of the great Emmanuel Levinas in all of this, specifically of his notion of ethics that is beyond the human, that is, an ethics that is not reducible to humanism: the animals are purely other, by definition other-than-human, yet present a call to us the urgency of which cannot be denied. For Levinas, as in We3, it is not the ontological status of the "other" -- human "like me" -- that determines one's ethical engagement, but his or her need -- the vulnerability that is presented to one's sight as the other's very face -- that does so. That is to say, the provision of home precisely for the homeless. Morrison and Quitely stress the unconditional nature of the ethics that must help the other, represented in We3 by a homeless good Samaritan who simply accepts the animals as they are, and is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help them. That is to say, in stark contrast to the nation-state, which thinks in terms of borders, citizens, and enemies, and is rather obviously the "villain" of We3, Morrison and Quitely end with the provision of home by the homeless, and, by the end, a community that is neither reducible to a group nor a dwelling. Poor in world, but not unwanted.

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