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The Cutting Edge of Comics: Destructive Technologies in Morrison and Quitely’s We3

Isabelle Licari-Guillaume


In We3, a 2004-5 miniseries published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely dramatize the motif of tearing within a narrative that features extreme violence and the destruction of bodies. This violence is perpetrated through the use of cutting-edge medical and military technologies such as biomechanisation and futuristic weapons, which, by tearing the flesh, also destabilise identities and disrupt the threshold between human and animal, between the organic and the mechanic. This exploration of hybridity develops within a visual narrative where the low-tech process of paper and pencil drawing is subsequently enhanced through computer treatment, foregrounding its high-tech, digital dimension. Moreover, the narrative structure of the book exploits transmedial techniques that question the very nature of the comics medium and, in so doing, suggest its possible hybridity.

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  • 1 Editor’s note: We have done our best to contact the authors of We3 in order to get permission to re (...)
  • 2 The various elements that compose Building Stories are unbound and kept loose in a cardboard box. L (...)

1Mainstream publishers like DC Comics may seem an unlikely home for experimental and innovative projects in the field of graphic narratives1. Indeed, creators working in the mainstream industry are very often bound by commercial imperatives and editorial norms. Within the context of the assembly-line paradigm, each contributor (writer, penciller, inker, colorist, letterer) is assigned a specific task with little control over the finished product. This tends to foster the repetition of formulaic storylines and the reproduction of visual tropes from one creator to the next. Therefore, such radical dismantlements as those performed by Chris Ware in Building Stories (which effectively takes apart the structure of the comic books)2 tend to happen mostly outside the realm of mainstream publishing, in the independent sector of comics where individual creators have traditionally enjoyed broader cultural recognition and thus, greater artistic freedom.

2However, it is not impossible to find literal examples of ripping and tearing in DC comic books, where the use of collage and mixed-media techniques was particularly prominent from the 1990s onwards. This innovation was made possible by the general improvement of comics printing in the late 1980s. Thus, well before the advent of digital image treatment software, British artist Dave McKean developed an idiosyncratic style that combined drawing, photography and ready-made objects. His strikingly poetic images often served to define the identity of a particular comic book (his ground-breaking work on The Sandman, for example, contributed in no small part to the series’ success). Collage can also be found in Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic, which features painted art by Paul Johnson. Books of Magic’s final issue narrates a set of events taking place at the end of all times. There, many panels appear to have been literally torn off from the artist’s drawing page and pasted onto another background, so that the ragged edge of the panel becomes a signifier of the temporal disruption at work, thus creating an equivalence between the juxtaposition of different spaces and that of different times.

Technological Tearing

  • 3 For the purpose of this study, all references are to the “deluxe” edition released in 2011.

3Beyond these literal examples of tearing, the mainstream also abounds in metaphorical “rippings of the page”. This is the case for We3, a creator-owned miniseries published in 2004-2005 by Vertigo / DC Comics and reprinted in trade paperback later that same year.3 Contrary to The Sandman or Books of Magic, We3 is a pure product of the Photoshop era, written by Grant Morrison and pencilled by Frank Quitely, with digital inks and colours by Jamie Grant. The notion of “digital inking” may refer to a variety of techniques, depending on the artists involved, but in the case of We3, Frank Quitely describes the process as follows:

[Y]ou do very finished pencils, then you scan them at a high resolution, put it into Photoshop or something similar and then you clean it up and contrast it. [...] I just wanted to keep some of the freshness of the pencils, which is something that I would often lose, even if I was inking myself. So, I did We3 [] with just very, very finished pencils and then making them print-ready.
(Seb 2009, 73)

4This innovative technique indeed produces a striking result: rich and nuanced colours are applied over modified pencils that still allow for subtleties, many of which would have been lost in the process of traditional inking (especially if done by someone other than Quitely himself). As a result, in We3, the images have a distinctly “digital” feeling, reinforced by the use of specific effects such as motion blurring, which can only be achieved through computer technology. This is particularly relevant to my main concern insofar as I would like, in this article, to ask whether technological improvements in the digital age change the way we approach comics and the materiality of the comics page.


5We3 tells the story of three domestic animals – Bandit the dog, Tinker the cat, and Pirate the rabbit – who were kidnapped from their homes and turned into lethal cyborgs by the American army, in order to be used as expendable living weapons in stealth killing operations. Having undergone various technological and bio-mechanical enhancements, they have gained the ability to talk through a voice synthesiser, although their English is rudimentary and their discourse often limited to the expression of immediate needs or basic emotions. After successfully carrying out a couple of interventions, the animals are deemed obsolete by the members of the funding committee who fear public outrage and decide to schedule them for euthanasia. At the very last minute, nonetheless, the three animals are saved by Roseanne, the leading scientist of the project who cannot bring herself to accept her superiors’ orders. The three animals escape the laboratory, killing all those that stand in their way except for Roseanne herself; and after various bloody encounters with the military, during which the rabbit dies, the two remaining animals manage to shed their robotic coats, and return to being “normal” pets as they are eventually adopted by a homeless man.

6To quote from Jonathan Gaboury’s remarkable article about violence in comics, We3 is “a contemporary example of aesthetic violence that destabilizes gratuitousness by meticulously hybridizing its violent agents, its hapless victims, and its page layouts” (Gaboury §2). Precisely, the notion of violence and destruction being linked to destabilization of the medium’s conventions is one to which I will turn over the course of this article.

The Cutting Edge of Comics

7This storyline is purposefully straightforward: in the additional interview included in the Deluxe edition of We3, Morrison states that “the simplicity of the story freed [him] to make the page layouts somewhat experimental”. (Morrison 2011, n.p.) Indeed, We3 may be seen as a rather striking departure from Vertigo’s typical 1990s production, which, in the wake of Alan Moore’s ground-breaking success with Watchmen and Swamp Thing, favoured intricate narratives and textual complexity (as seen for example in Gaiman’s Sandman). In comparison with these comics, We3 has little dialogue: the first twelve pages are entirely silent, and the book avoids thought balloons and caption boxes altogether. The narrative thrives instead on spectacular and unapologetic depictions of extreme violence, as the reader witnesses many variations on the themes of death and body dismemberment.

8Beyond this display of bionic violence, We3 also contains boldly experimental visual storytelling. As we shall see, the narrative largely relies on fragmented panels, disrupted images, and an innovative use of the page surface, or hyperframe (“hypercadre”, Groensteen 38). In other words, the dramatisation of violence is echoed by the disruption of established codes of reading, which questions the possibilities of the medium itself, and throws the reader’s expectations off balance.

9Technology in We3 is therefore central, not only in terms of diegesis, as many characters are torn to pieces by medical and military forms of cutting-edge technology, but also on aesthetic grounds, since the digital processing of Quitely’s pencils is essential to the book’s visual experimentation. For all these reasons, I am interested in seeing We3 as a “cutting edge” comic. This adjective has been consistently applied to Vertigo productions, especially in a promotional volume compiled by Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney, Vertigo Visions, which is subtitled “artwork from the cutting edge of comics”. The term is significant insofar as it can designate both a sharp blade – used, perhaps, for medical or military purposes – and a leading, trailblazing innovation. To explore the notion of the cutting-edge in We3, I shall begin with the treatment of cybernetics as a source of hybridity; I will then ask to what extent We3 borrows from the traditions and practices of other new media. Finally, I will assess the aesthetic impact of the use of digital images.

Cybernetics and the Shattering of Identity

10In the near future described in We3, bio-engineering and cybernetic research have blurred the line between the living and the mechanized, leading to the creation of grotesque figures – “grotesque” being understood here in the original sense of the word, which is linked to hybridity. Roseanne’s research aims at enhancing the existing qualities of the animals in order to use their specific skills in a military context: for example, the cat’s innate stealth and silence are complemented with lethal darts, while the dog’s natural sense of loyalty makes him fit to carry heavy defence equipment. Their armours and weapons are not to be seen merely as tools; they are extensions of their bodies, digging deep into their skins. In a way, the weapons can be seen as grafts, as hybridizations of metal and flesh, resulting from a careful dismemberment and subsequent reconstruction of the animals’ bodies.

11This is even more striking in the first issue of the series, which begins with the introduction of bio-mechanical rats, a prototype developed by the team of scientists responsible for the We3 project. These creatures have undergone extreme modifications – some rats, for example, have had their heads replaced with drills and pliers (25). The depiction of these headless rats suggests even further transgression of the natural order: not even the head, which is instinctively considered as the seat of conscience and feeling, remains. And although such elements may seem dystopian to the uninformed reader, there has been real-life research going in that direction, to the point that remote-controlled rats were actually engineered shortly before We3’s publication (see Talwar et. al.). In other words, the horrific visions depicted by Morrison and Quitely are not a warning for the future of research so much as sharp criticism of our current treatment of animals, thinly veiled in science-fiction.

Transferred Sympathy

12Morrison began advocating animal welfare in his first DC series, Animal Man, which featured a vegetarian superhero. In We3, his moral stance is again clearly asserted through the questioning of physical and ethical boundaries. Several verbal clues serve to emphasize the condemnation of mankind’s treatment of animals, and thus create sympathy for these creatures, even though it is made very clear that they are not merely innocent victims in the sense that they, too, do not hesitate to kill whenever they feel threatened.

13For example, one cannot help but notice the visual/verbal pun of page 22, when the double doors to the research facility open, shortening the expression “experimental area” into “mental area” – “mental” in this case being, of course, synonymous with “mad” or “insane”. Similarly, on that very same page, the truck which carries the three animals back to the lab after their stealth intervention is ironically labelled “pet supplies”. Although the expression normally means “supplies for pets”, thanks to the semantic fluidity of compound nouns in English, it could equally well be understood as “pets used as supplies”, thus reflecting the exploitation undergone by the three animals.

14Such darkly ironical puns allow Morrison to comment on a ruthless and inhumane humanity. This notion is also emphasized through the disturbingly recurrent use of visual synecdoche at the beginning of the tale. In the four-page sequence where the reader gets to actually meet the animals (Morrison 2011, 24-27), human faces are always partially off-panel. All that remains visible is a series of controlling hands and, more frequently, distorted mouths that grin in a predatory manner, signifying cruelty enhanced by technological control at the hands of the scientists.


15While humans are, on the whole, rather dehumanized, animals throughout the narrative possess many human traits. Although it is true that they are drawn in a painstakingly realistic style, the body language they use is still distinctively human, probably in order to foster empathy and make the narrative more legible. A good example would be the cat’s face as she aims her darts at the soldiers below her (Morrison 2001, 56), sticking out her tongue and closing one eye, signifying intense concentration in a typically human manner. The rabbit’s gesture on page 59 (as he tries to pacify his quarrelling comrades) is another blatant case of anthropomorphism: rabbits do not have opposable thumbs or high foreleg mobility, so that the movement Pirate makes is in fact physically impossible for lagomorphs. It is his mechanical suit which, by modifying the conformation of his paws and feet, allows the rabbit to tread the fine line between human and animal.

16In other words, technology allows the animals to navigate a double form of hybridity: they are living creatures who are also robots, and they are animals who possess many human traits. Yet the most important element in terms of humanization is undeniably the fact that the animals are endowed with language.

17“We3” originally stands for the codename of the project, “Animal Weapon 3”, but it is also the collective name the creatures have adopted for themselves. It is remarkable that, although they struggle to use the first person singular (there is only one occurrence of “I”, at the beginning of the book), the animals should conceive of a collective “we”. This peculiarity sets off the “teamwork” aspect of their relationship since, within a limited ability to express their own identity, the collective takes precedence over the individual. This becomes a crucial point by the end of the narrative, when, after the rabbit has been killed, the cat and the dog are forced to cooperate in order to survive.

18Although their vocabulary is extremely limited, the dog (who is consistently depicted as possessing the nimblest intellect) wrestles with ethics and abstract conceptualizations, longing for a confirmation that he is, indeed, a good dog, as opposed to the ruthless and unethical humans he and the others are pitted against. He takes “good” in an absolute sense, endowing language with profound meaning – the exact opposite of what we do when we talk, in everyday speech, of a “good dog”. Singer (62) also remarks that Animal Weapon 4, a giant, mindless mastiff designed to be far more dangerous than Bandit, cannot talk at all: although he does have speech bubbles, they are always black and empty (Morrison 2001, 101), showing that the dog is deprived of any language tools. This opposition between the two dogs therefore emphasizes the role of language as the instrument of freedom and morals.

19At one point in the narrative, Dr. Roseanne teaches the dog to refer to himself not with a number (the “1” which was assigned to him in the lab), but with the name he was given by his original owners, before the experiment, Bandit. From then on, he begins to discriminate between what “is Bandit” (that is, his own body or self), and what is “not Bandit”: the robotic armour or “coat” (105). As a very young child does, he progressively learns to draw a line between the “me” and the “not-me”. This fundamental process ends up with Bandit literally tearing off his armour, and that of Tinker the cat. In other words, language allows Bandit to recover meaning, and to stabilise to his own sense of identity; as soon as identity is reasserted, technological hybridity comes to an end, and the “coat” that is “not Bandit” can be shed once and for all.

20At the end of the story, technology is abandoned, and the cat and dog resume their “normal pet” lives. This reassuring return to the status quo would seem to suggest a rejection of technology as monstrous and nightmarish, even as on another level, the representation of violence is still meant to appear thrilling and exciting, and much space is devoted to the lavish representation of technological weapons and their dismantling effects on the body. Indeed, as we will see, the digital aesthetics of the book allows creators to design a novel approach to narration, suggesting that technology and computerization, though morally problematic, are not intrinsically nefarious, and may even prove valuable tools for creation.

Computerization and Intermediality

21Indeed, because of the use of computerized inks and colours with high brightness on smooth and glossy paper, the comics page may be seen as resembling a screen. Therefore, We3 as a whole can be read as an intermedial narrative.

22The most important intermedial influence that needs to be addressed regarding We3 is that of cinema and animation. When interviewed about his primary influences (Brady n.p.), Morrison did not mention books or comics, but rather cinematic works such as Walt Disney’s animation movies (because of the talking animals) and Japanese director Takashi Miike (for the sheer violence that he stages). As an insider’s joke, one of the characters, Dr. Trendle, is meant to resemble Hayao Miyazaki (Singer 55), the famous director of Japanese animation films. I would argue that this wealth of references to films and animation is, in itself, symptomatic of the shift that took place around 2000 in Vertigo’s output, from an interest in literature to a narrower focus on films.

23Indeed, early Vertigo productions like Gaiman’s Sandman were famous for their emphasis on ample narration, poetic prose and a heavy reliance on intertextuality. Morrison himself followed that same trend in early works such as Doom Patrol or the first volume of The Invisibles (not to mention lesser-known works like Sebastian O.), although he has since then shifted his focus more resolutely towards pop aesthetics and a visual narration that has its roots in cinema rather than literature. Significantly, he is considered to be one of the initiators of what is commonly termed “widescreen comics,” a brand of comics whose panels tend to adopt panoramic horizontal shapes, therefore mimicking the shape of a movie screen.

24In We3, the omnipresent black gutters and background might be seen as evoking the darkness of a movie theatre. What is more, several passages in the narrative seem to tap directly into the reader’s film-viewing skills and habits. A striking example of this would be the sequence on page 57, where Dr. Trendle informs Roseanne that her superiors expect her to risk her life by trying to talk the animals into surrendering. In the first panel, her eyes are closed; but they suddenly open as she realizes what “doing the talking” really implies for her own safety. The third panel abruptly changes setting to depict a moving train. In this sequence, the notion of “closure” (McCloud 63) famously popularized by Scott McCloud is put into question because the transition does not really rely on anything that the panel actually contains (if we were to qualify it according to McCloud’s categorizations of transition types, it would be difficult to assess whether they belong to the “scene-to-scenes” or the “non-sequiturs” [McCloud 74]). My contention is that the transition used between panels relies on implied noise. If this scene was to be shot as a film sequence, sound effects might be used to suggest Roseanne’s tension, culminating to a harsh sound symbolizing her alarm (at the point when she opens her eyes); then this extra-diegetic sound effect would in fact be revealed to be the intra-diegetic noise of the moving train which becomes visible in the following scene. The fact that it moves towards the left, in a Western left-to-right reading context, also creates the impression that the train may encounter an obstacle, and therefore it emphasizes danger. In this precise case, the notion of closure alone is no longer sufficient to make sense of the transition that takes place in the black gap between panels; on the contrary, the reader needs to resort to her film-viewing skills, transferring them to an intermedial context by imagining the implicit sound that links the images together.

25Therefore, I would suggest that We3 is intermedial in two different ways. Let us refer to the definition given by Rippl and Etter:

[A]ccording to semiotic approaches, graphic narratives are representational codes based on two media, word and picture; according to cultural, material, and technical approaches, the graphic narrative’s semiotic types, words and picture, are based on the medium of the printed book.

26We3, like any other comics, is by nature an intermedial blending of words and pictures; but it also subverts our use of the cultural medium of the comic book by encouraging us to envision the page as a screen, either through references to cinema or, as we shall see now, to computers.

New Technologies

27More than just films and animation, We3 contains references to new technologies in general, which are used to destabilize identity. This is particularly blatant if we consider the way the animals’ words are transcribed in the speech balloons. The font used by letterer Todd Klein evokes computer typeset and is meant to remind us of digital displays; thus, it emphasizes the part played by technology in the animals’ ability to talk – indeed, without their biomechanical enhancements, they are incapable of speech, as demonstrated at the end of the narrative.

  • 4 Leetspeak is not a language but a specific written code, coined by Internet bulletin board users. I (...)

28Their language is conspicuously cast as “other”, through the use of agrammatical sentences, but most importantly through irregular spelling that brings to mind both text messaging (e.g. “R. U. GUD. 2?” [Morrison 2011, 26]) and Internet leetspeak4 (e.g. “MMMEN ST!NK!” [Morrison 2011, 28]). Speech in We3 does not express “an animal’s experience of the world […] in human language” (Mahmutovic et al, n.p.), for there are no animal voices, only the synthetic sounds of machines. This was confirmed by Morrison, who imagined the animals sounding “like a child speaking through Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer” (Brown 83).

29In other words, in We3, the written features borrowed from technological language are meant to convey unrelated oral traits; it is our own common knowledge as Internet and mobile devices users which allows us to deduce that the animals’ voices probably sound disembodied, synthetic and unfamiliar, with the choppy recitation characteristic of pre-recorded messages (especially since proper nouns which are not yet familiar to the animals have to be chopped up into syllables, as in “MR. WAH-SHING-TON WD LIKE 2 MEET U,” Morrison 2011, 26). This is, of course, consistent with the intrinsic limitations of the medium, which does not allow for the direct reproduction of sound – but the method used by Morrison and Quitely stands out insofar as it appeals neither to onomatopoeia nor to synesthetic perception (as letterers do when they use bold letters to convey loudness). Instead, it utilizes the reader’s familiarity with other media and brings it into play in a sophisticated yet immediately understandable manner.

30These considerations are consistent with the thesis upheld by Hiroki Azuma, who claims that postmodern technology has deeply impacted the way we produce and read fiction:

As we have all noticed over the last few years, all modes of expression tend to get inspiration from the Internet, and experience extraordinary metamorphosis inspired by computers. Web logic, which, technically, has no link with most of these other media, has nonetheless begun to infiltrate it, broadly and deeply.
(Azuma 164, my translation)

31Beyond the references to cell phones and message boards, one can find a number of references to yet another “new” medium: videogames. Indeed, the remote-controlled rats are steered by the scientists through a specific device that bears more than passing resemblance to a console controller, and more precisely the Xbox 360’s. Singer also suggests that “video games shape […] the linear plot structure – the animals proceed through escalating combats [...] before confronting a single, intimidating ‘boss’ figure.” (Singer 52) In any case, the use made of those controllers owes much to science-fiction, and to the transposition of a gamer’s experience into the real world, where he or she would influence a live creature rather than a virtual avatar. The technology described in We3 is completely beyond the reach of real-world neurosciences. It is also dubious whether videogame controllers would be an efficient device for remote-control, given the amount of skill required of the person in charge.

32Instead, the use of a controller brings us back to the dramatization of violence, and most of all to the fact that the bio-engineers involved in the project experience violence only vicariously, through the use of remote-control devices. It also questions the possibility of a mediatic affinity between video games and the expression of physical violence.

33Incidentally, one should bear in mind that suspicions of a particular relationship linking violence to a given medium are also frequently expressed for comic books themselves: they are, in this regard, similar to videogames. In other words, there might be a mediatic affinity or médiagénie between the narrative of We3 and its comics form:

La médiagénie est [...] l’évaluation d’une amplitude : celle de la réaction manifestant la fusion plus ou moins réussie d’une narration avec sa médiatisation, et ce dans le contexte – interagissant lui aussi – des horizons d’attente d’un genre donné.
(Marion 86)

34Although I do not believe that comics as a whole convey violence more efficiently than other media, it can nonetheless be argued that in the case of We3, the use of fragmentation between panels and the power of fascination of hyper-realistic drawings allow the authors to create a strong interaction between form and subject matter, and that the notion that scientists control their creatures as in a video game emphasizes both their lack of humanity and the objectification of the animals.

Comics without borders: hybridizing national traditions

35Indeed, although We3 has close intermedial links with cinema, animation, and new visual media in general, I do not mean to suggest that We3 is, in itself, a hybrid between a comic and some other medium. It is extremely clear that the layouts used throughout the comics could have no equivalent in film, and that on the contrary, Morrison and Quitely are intent on pushing the possibilities of the medium, not tearing it apart completely. Interestingly, Morrison has consistently referred to We3 a “western manga” (Brady, n.p.), even though it is quite obvious that Quitely’s graphic style has little in common with that of Japanese artists. “Western manga” seems to suggest that Morrison sees We3 not as a mediatic hybrid, but as a cross-breed, or graft, between different cultural traditions.

  • 5 Decompression used to be seen as one of the main differences between comics and manga. See for exam (...)

36This comparison might rest on the fact that violent fights are sometimes assumed to be essential features of Japanese productions. Morrison may also be thinking more specifically of the mecha genre, which features robots or cyborgs. Narrative decompression5 (the fact of depicting a short moment through many panels) is another resemblance, although the tendency has been gaining ground in the comics industry in general since the 1980s and 1990s, for example with Frank Miller’s Rônin (which is also influenced heavily by manga) or Warren Ellis’s The Authority.

37More pointedly, maybe the scarcity of dialogue and absence of captions in We3 evoke a stereotypical vision of manga as relying on hyper-expressive depictions rather than on verbal descriptions of thoughts and feelings. Christopher Hart’s explanation that manga relies on “showing rather than telling” (Hart 2001, 116, my translation) would be emblematic of this stereotypical vision. For example, he contends that while Western pencillers, if asked to depict a character on the verge of defeat, would have him state that his power is fading, manga authors would rely instead on a silent close-up of the face of the character with gritted teeth and sweat running down his face.

38Finally, manga in the US is culturally associated with youth culture, which might have been another motivation behind Morrison’s use of the label. As he explains:

I wanted [We3] to come out as 96-page Manga-size books but DC wouldn’t listen to me. [...] I like the Manga size because I’d prefer the new material to reach a younger audience and that’s what they seem to be picking up. The traditional comic store market is growing increasingly older and more conservative which can make it hard to launch new characters or stories in that arena.
(Epstein, 2005, n.p.)

  • 6 Quitely confirmed that he had “no intention of trying to bend [his] natural style of drawing toward (...)

39Beyond that, I would argue that the reader’s experience of We3 is in fact diametrically opposed to that of manga: onomatopoeia, which are endemic in Japanese productions, hardly ever occur in We3, and even then they are strictly limited to giseigo, the sounds produced by living things (see for example page 89). The sounds of inanimate objects (gitaigo) or more abstract sounds like emotions (giongo) are entirely absent (which is hardly surprising since many of those do not even exist in Western cultures). More crucially, We3 distinguishes itself from manga through its hyper-realistic drawing style6, its quality paper, its relatively large format (19 x 28.5 cm), and its sophisticated use of colour.

40Certain thematic elements also point towards a more Western, and specifically American way of seeing the world. The animals’ sudden release into hostile nature and their wanderings in the open in search of a “home,” as well as their need to resort to violence against dehumanized enemies, might be read as a reversed, ironical take on the Frontier experience. Richard Slotkin, in Regeneration Through Violence, defines the earliest version of this trope as “a mythology in which the hero was the captive or victim of devilish American savages and in which his (or her) heroic quest was for religious conversion and salvation.” (Slotkin 21) In We3, the roles are re-attributed: the heroes are clearly the animals, while humans are cast as “savages.” In any case, the reader’s sympathy lies with the animals: their use of violence feels legitimate, and so does their “salvation” at the end of the story, when they finally find a “home.”

41To complicate things further, Morrison also stated in a pre-release interview that he “want[ed] this to come out as a French graphic novel size book” (Brady n.p.), which is certainly more consistent with the look of the finished work, and would suggest an even slightly larger format, that of the album. This clearly contradicts the notion of We3 as manga, associating it instead with the respectability often granted to European bande dessinée and with the problematic term “graphic novel”. In other words, it seems rather clear that We3 was intended by its scriptwriter as an exercise in cultural hybridity. And this, as we shall see, is achieved through the use of cutting-edge technology, both as a motif and as a mediatic feature.

The page as Screen: Reassessing Sequence

42We have seen that We3 invites the reader to resort to a number of cognitive processes that must be learnt through other media; indeed, to make sense of the story, one must in fact think of the page not as a flat piece of paper but as a multimodal screen. These new modes of reading allow the authors to update the language of comics in order to question the traditions of the medium, as well as its limitations. In order to support this view, I shall now look at the way Morrison and Quitely reassess the notion of sequentiality. Quitely himself stated that:

With We3, that was a project that Grant had approached me about because of the way I go about my storytelling anyway – he had some ideas about storytelling that he felt was relatively new, he knew that I was already borderline-obsessed with storytelling, and together we sat down to see how we could do things differently, and what boundaries we could push at slightly.
(Seb n.p.)

43As many critics have pointed out, fragmentation is a fundamental aspect of the comics medium. This is made especially clear by the French word découpage, which literally refers to the process of cutting up and separating the contents in order to form a sequence. McCloud contends that sequence is what defines the medium itself (hence his use of the term “sequential art”). Thierry Groensteen, for his part, talks of “iconic solidarity,” famously defined as the notion that, in comics, images are separate but derive additional meaning from their sequential coexistence (“solidarité iconique”, Groensteen 21).

44These definitions are meant to emphasize what is at the core of the medium’s definition; yet We3 proves that new modes of narration can be invented, precisely by questioning the limits of such definitions and by re-envisioning the page as screen.

45In certain passages, separating one panel from the next may prove difficult or even impossible, because the use of black gutter spaces means that inter-iconic separations blend into foregrounded dark elements. A striking example of this is on page 59: the second strip in the page depicts the characters moving along a metal bridge, but segments of this very bridge play the part of gutters, which means that the foreground becomes one large meta-panel showing the architectural structure of the bridge, while the background is divided into four different “standard panels” that depict sequential events. Of course, the idea of a foreground is itself a construction, based on the supposition that we perceive the page as an implied three-dimensional space (even though, contrary to a photograph, a drawing is not based on any pre-existing reality and therefore does not have to be conceived of as a 3D space).

46This notion of the 3-D page is further exploited in a double-page spread, which might well be We3’s most famous passage, and definitely qualifies as a bravura moment. It takes place during a confrontation between the animals and a squad of soldiers sent out to capture them. The scene is meant to emphasize the point of view of the animals (and specifically that of the cat).

47In the narrative, Dr. Trendle provides the key to our understanding of the sequence, as he explains that: “Even their senses are different from ours. They’re much faster than any human. They experience time and motion differently.” (Morrison 2011, 48) On pages 54-55, the reader views ‘cat time’ as a continuum (the whole panel) while human characters experience the same interval as discrete units or microseconds (the ‘flipped’ panels inside). The conundrum is as follows: in our usual experience of comics reading, the content of the panels (the visual equivalent of the fabula) is conceived of as being 3-dimensional, but the page itself remains bidimensional; the panels are signs, not pictures, and as such they can have no implied depth. Here, on the contrary, the panels are rotated on a “virtual 3-D space,” (Morrison 2011, n.p.) even though obviously there is no real 3D because, again, the page can, and should, be read as screen.

48Astonishingly, such an intricate layout remains quite intelligible, and yet we are at as a loss as to what terms to use in order to describe its structure. Groensteen’s Système de la Bande Dessinée (1999), which focuses only on traditional layouts, is of no use in this case. Even Barbara Postema’s more recent book, Narrative Structure in Comics (2013), which in the author’s own words aimed to discuss “layouts that do not fit the traditional BD framework” (Postema 31) provides little help.

Arrested Sequence and the Panopticon

49As we have seen, some pages are used by Quitely and Morrison as a virtual 3D space, but in other instances they literally show a screen. At the beginning of the story, when the animals escape the lab because Dr. Roseanne has neglected to enter the computer password designed to restrain them for the night, the whole sequence is shown exclusively through CCTV camera images (Morrison 2011, 30-36). Here again, technology is linked to vision, and presented as a way to enhance sight, since all our visual perceptions are mediated by the lens of this (imaginary) camera. I would even argue that technology here becomes a means to achieve panoptical vision; that is, seeing everything at once. I am, of course, borrowing this term from Foucault, who, in Discipline and Punish, was himself elaborating on the architectural project conceived by Bentham as a means of perfect control of a population. The way Foucault talks of the spatial organisation underlying this concept is, in a way, strangely reminiscent of Morrison and Quitely’s perfectly regular CCTV sequence:

It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space […]. Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere. (195) […] They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.

  • 7 Despite all these guiding strategies, Morrison and Quitely report that a substantial number of read (...)

50In We3, the all-seeing power afforded by the panoptical grid cannot be more than an illusion, since, of course, the sequence is in fact carefully organized in order to guide the reader’s gaze through the sequence of events, through colour-coded panels and close-ups on important elements.7 Had we been in the situation of an actual camera surveillance guard in front of a dozen screens, our understanding of the events would have been radically different.

51Still, the illusion of an all-seeing, technologically-enhanced eye taps into the reader / viewer’s scopic drive (or scopophilia), that is, her desire to see – and in this case, to stand witness to the perpetration of technological violence, even as she condemns such actions from a purely moral point of view; see for example pages 50-51 (“super-cool feline ultra-violence”, as Morrison wrote in the original script [Morrison 2011, n.p.]). In these instances of visual jouissance, images literally explode into a multitude of possible angles, forming a fictional panopticon where everything is visible at once, and exposed to the hungry gaze of the comics reader; every small detail, every minute event in the macro-narrative of the killing is depicted in decompressed time.

52Obviously, such dissemination of the different panels echoes and reinforces the ripping apart of the soldiers’ bodies by the animals. But more importantly, this dissemination destroys the reader’s sense of sequence: all the panels that coexist on the surface of the page may or may not be taking place at the exact same time, and it is virtually impossible to decide in which order our eyes should move from one panel to the next. In his Visual Language of Comics, Neil Cohn claims to have elaborated a “theory that addresses this issue of navigating through the potentially complex external compositional structure (ECS) of printed visual language” (91) and defined “ECS Preference Rules” (ECSPR) [which] state the series of operations that occur when a reader is at one panel and looking to move to a subsequent panel” (96). While Cohn’s valiant attempts to theorize what is often perceived as an innate ability may be convincing for comics that adhere to “classical” layouts, it is dubious whether “ECSPR” really applies to this page.

  • 8 Such conceptions can be traced back, notably, to Lessing's analysis of time and space in Laocoon.

53Through dissemination, the reader experiences time in an extremely decompressed way, which in fact corresponds to the way the cat and dog perceive it, to the extent that time seems almost arrested in a narrative pause. However, the point of view adopted in the image does not correspond to that of the animals. This is linked to a specificity of the comics medium; because the point of view is not tied to a camera or to any actual focal object, all angles on all scenes are available in potentia. The attraction of sequential drawings may well rest on their ability to satisfy the reader’s scopophilia – or at the very least, on the promise that they might do so. I would indeed argue that on pages 50 and 51, Quitely actually comes very close to achieving a real panoptical view of the event, as it occurs in the space of a split-second. In this frozen moment in time, the reader is free to contemplate all aspects of the scene in any given order, moving from detail to detail in order to decipher a new form of spatial organization which does not involve sequence, that is to say a temporal organization of events creating the illusion of time, but rather returns us to a classical view of the image as unfolding in space.8

54Of course, not every single page in We3 features such extreme experiments – if it did, the book would stand very little chance of being readable (let alone of being published by DC Comics, even under Vertigo’s creator-friendly imprint). However, during those successful passages in which narration is suspended, sequentiality gives way to the arrested time of contemplation. In other words, Morrison and Quitely explore the tension between “reading the comic” and “viewing the comic”, and in this sense, it seems legitimate to question the very notion of a “reader” of comics, bearing in mind the fact that the first twelve pages of the narrative are entirely silent.

Coda: dissemination in Morrison and Quitely’s works

  • 9 The present article is derived from a presentation given in early 2015. In September of that same y (...)

55We can think of pages 50-51 as the culmination of an aesthetics of fragmentation9 developed by Morrison and Quitely over the course of their several collaborations on various series, some of which can be considered quite experimental. As early as The Invisibles (vol.3 #1 p. 20), the notion of all time happening at once is expressed visually through the co-presence of all past, present and future positions of a given character, making said character look slightly like a centipede. It could be argued that this attempt to depict an altered version of space-time is not entirely successful insofar as the image’s meaning depends entirely on contextual explanations.

56Conversely, in Flex Mentallo, the fragmentation of one image into a series of miniatures is used as cover art; it conveys the dialogue between past and present versions of the character, and the uncertainty over his ontological status between fact and fiction. However, since this illustration is a cover, it is not part of sequential storytelling. In that sense, We3 constitutes an improvement over Morrison and Quitely’s previous experiments, as it allows for a legibility of fragments both for themselves, and as parts of the global economy of a narrative in which they constitute a momentary pause.


57We3 can therefore be read as a particularly experimental work, which derives from earlier attempts by Morrison and Quitely to explore fragmentation as a narratively and aesthetically productive notion. However, as I have shown, this notion of fragmentation must be considered through the prism of technology, which is essential for the diegesis, but is also part and parcel of the visual style of the book. On both levels, technology fosters techniques of graft and hybridization. The book displays half-animal, half-robot creatures, and its pages can be read as screens; thus, the reader’s familiarity with cutting-edge devices enable her to move beyond the traditional bidimensionality of the page.

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1 Editor’s note: We have done our best to contact the authors of We3 in order to get permission to reproduce images from the comics. In spite of our efforts, we were unable to obtain a response from them.

2 The various elements that compose Building Stories are unbound and kept loose in a cardboard box. Like B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Building Stories can be read in any order or sequence.

3 For the purpose of this study, all references are to the “deluxe” edition released in 2011.

4 Leetspeak is not a language but a specific written code, coined by Internet bulletin board users. It consists in replacing letters with other ASCII characters that have comparable shapes. There are no precise rules to this and various levels of complexity can apply. For example, the word “comics” could be transcribed as “C0M1C5” or as “(0|v|!($”. Leetspeak was initially meant to be understandable only to a selected few (hence the name “élite speak”). Nowadays, however, a simplified version of it is commonly used by the mainstream (see for example the TV series Numb3rs).

5 Decompression used to be seen as one of the main differences between comics and manga. See for example Nash's description: “Le rythme des mangas est complètement différent de celui des bandes dessinées américaines : des événements relativement brefs[...] s'é-t-e-n-d-e-n-t [sic] sur plusieurs planches et pages pour rendre l'émotion et la tension plus palpables à chaque étape. Il s'agit là de décompression narrative : les séquences rapides sont analysées pour tous les petits moments qui les composent, et non racontées sous une forme condensée, plus expéditive.” (Nash 283-4)

6 Quitely confirmed that he had “no intention of trying to bend [his] natural style of drawing towards something that people would consider to be manga” (Licari-Guillaume n.p.). He did, however, draw inspiration from the speed lines used by Katsuhiro Otomo in Akira and Dômu, which he borrowed to texture certain cast shadows in We3.

7 Despite all these guiding strategies, Morrison and Quitely report that a substantial number of readers did not understand the precise events taking place in the sequence, which perhaps points to the need to pursue experiments in the field of alternative modes of narration.

8 Such conceptions can be traced back, notably, to Lessing's analysis of time and space in Laocoon.

9 The present article is derived from a presentation given in early 2015. In September of that same year, Clare Pitkethly published an article about fragmentation in Morrison's work. Her work attempts to account for Morrison's entire oeuvre, and can be read as a counterpart to my own narrower focus in this article.

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Electronic reference

Isabelle Licari-Guillaume, « The Cutting Edge of Comics: Destructive Technologies in Morrison and Quitely’s We3 »Sillages critiques [Online], 28 | 2020, Online since 01 May 2020, connection on 20 October 2020. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Isabelle Licari-Guillaume

Université de Nice Côte d’Azur (Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Récits Cultures Et Sociétés LIRCES)
Isabelle Licari-Guillaume est maîtresse de conférences en civilisation britannique à l’Université de Nice Côte d’Azur. Sa thèse, soutenue en 2017, porte sur les circulations transnationales dans le contexte de l’Invasion Britannique chez Vertigo. Elle a publié plusieurs articles à ce sujet (notamment « Transatlantic Exchanges and Cultural Constructs », International Journal of Comic Art, 2018). Au sein des comics studies, elle s’intéresse par ailleurs aux identités nationales, à la représentation graphique du genre, et aux questions de traductologie. Elle a dirigé avec Véronique Béghain l’ouvrage collectif Traducteurs de bande dessinée / Translators of Comics (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2019).
Isabelle Licari-Guillaume is a lecturer in British civilisation at the University of Nice Côte d’Azur. Her Ph.D. dissertation, which she completed in 2017, is devoted to transnational cultural dynamics in the context of Vertigo’s British Invasion. She has published several articles on the subject, notably “Transatlantic Exchanges and Cultural Constructs” in International Journal of Comic Art, 2018). Within comics studies, she also focuses on national identities, on graphic representations of gender, and on translation issues. She is co-editor of the collective volume Traducteurs de bande dessinée / Translators of Comics (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2019).

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