"1 SAY 'HOME'? 1 KNOW 0."
We3 is a three-issue limited series comic book published in 2004 by Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics. It was written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely - a double act who have also done universally acclaimed work on All-Star Superman, JLA: Earth 2, The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and New X-Men, and are now pretty effectively sealed as the single most powerful creative team in comics.
The story follows the journey of Animal Weapon 3, a team of heavily armed cyborg animals:
We3 were originally ordinary pets, named Bandit, Tinker and Pirate respectively. They were abducted from a nearby city before being installed and wired into their eggshell-like armour. They also have voice implants... though, being limited by animal intellect, they barely know 50 words between them.
Following a successful assassination mission, We3 are slated to be euthanised to make the way for new animals specially bred for the job. Their trainer raises objections. Overruled, she allows them to escape. Pursued by soldiers, helicopters and other animal weapons controlled by increasingly desperate scientists, We3 proceed to carve a swathe of destruction across countryside, as 1 tries to lead the others "Home".
Pitched like this, it sounds a lot like Homeward Bound. I think there are other talking-animal-based road movies too. The concept's familiar, then. Except these animals aren't voiced in plain English by Hollywood superstars. They talk and react in blunt, terse terms like real animals.
And, when attacked, they kill people. Violently.
The story is distilled, swift and uncluttered in the telling - every single panel and word balloon has definite purpose. Quitely's artwork, particularly the animal cyborg armour designs and the panel layout during high-speed action sequences, is more or less revolutionary - he describes it as "Western manga". Nothing like it has been seen before or since.
Morrison's characterisation of the animals, meanwhile, is worth much deeper study. If you know anything about Grant Morrison you'll know he's very positive on animal rights. But I don't see this as an animal rights parable; the messages are scenery rather than plot-driving. Is it cruel to stick animals into robot shells and give them heavy weaponry and vocal capability? In the story, We3 are barely aware that they should be anything other than cyborgs. They're obedient and loyal and for the most part fairly treated. Is it cruel to euthanise helpless creatures, or to turn them on each other? Yes, but we knew that. Is it dangerous to train a creature of instinct in the use of machine guns, razor blades and high explosives? Sure: but it's not like that would ever happen.
No, We3, more than anything, is simply about giving the animals voices. They are uncomplicated creatures with uncomplicated thoughts, but thoughts and personalities (and even very brief character arcs) they do have. The dog is protective of his teammates and seeks approval ("IS GUD DOG?") from humans. The cat enjoys being able to hunt more efficiently and hates authority ("ST!NK BOSS!"). The rabbit is even less articulate than the other two ("NO. GRASS. EAT. NOW. EAT.") and operates almost entirely defensively in combat situations. All three react violently and instinctively to hostile actions - exactly as they would in the wild. The only difference is that their armour and weaponry and capability for speech amplify these reactions massively, so that we can see. Thus, Morrison creates sympathy for the animals' situation.
So much of this is stuff never seen before or since in comics, or ANYWHERE, and it is executed so flawlessly, that I doubt I even need to cover the critical acclaim the series received. You must read this.
We3 is currently available as a trade paperback. It's a very brief volume and I found it to be relatively expensive for its size. There may be a feature film, but you didn't hear that from me.
http://www.newsarama.com/pages/DC/We3.htm - Interview with Grant Morrison
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We3 - Wikipedia article includes much more detailed plot summary