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The Violence Museum: Aesthetic Wounds from Popeye to We3

By Jonathan Gaboury

I. The Secret

Frederic Wertham’s campaign against comic books occupies a niche literary genre, which we might call “don’t run with scissors” conservative writing. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, is an argument against the secrets and potential energies of a degraded medium: comic books give children the tools necessary to become criminal. The comic book as a medium combines stories with advertisements and, according to Wertham, “while the ads supply the knives, the stories describe their use for skilled violence” (215); he nearly repeats this formulation a few pages later, claiming that “[t]he stories display the wounds; the advertisements supply the knives” (217). Wertham believes that comic book publishers secretly hope that young readers can complete an act of closure within the medium itself: if a child can connect the weapon in the ad with the depicted act in the story, then the mental work of closure in the comic book will inevitably lead to a physical act of violence in the real world. Wertham is worried about children-armed-with-weapons-armed-with-stories, and, however tenuously, he links this potential for violence with highly selective reports of real world delinquency. This is not even to mention his attack on conspicuous violence in the majority of American comic books!

My purpose in this paper is not to discuss the factual validity of Wertham’s sweeping case.1 I will argue that the inquest into violence is molecular to comics itself after Wertham and the taboo of the Comics Code, and that this inquest’s success hinges on confronting a problem of wounded iconicity: just what does a comic depict when a body has been subjected to violence? When Wertham writes that “the stories display the wounds,” we need to consider the quality of wounds rather than to say that wounds are blueprints of here’s-how-to-wound. Violence in comics should be judged on the basis of how it engages the problem of wounded iconicity in terms of symbolism and style, or more broadly with aesthetics. By formally reading isolated and temporally diverse panel sequences from E.C. Segar, Nicholas Gurewitch, and Art Spiegelman, I will interrogate how the symbolic or stylistic icon attempts to overcome or overthrow the wounded icon. I will then move onto a more sustained consideration of We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (serialized by Vertigo in 2004), which is a contemporary example of aesthetic violence that destabilizes gratuitousness by meticulously hybridizing its violent agents, its hapless victims, and its page layouts.

The Comics Code of 1954 reflects Wertham’s attention to both overt and secret states of violence. Item seven of General Standards Part A engages the overt: “Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated”; whereas item five engages the secret: “Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation” (qtd in Nyberg 166, my emphasis).[2] Excessiveness by virtue of being excessive is assumed to spill over the pages of the comic book into emulated action and aggression. In a review of David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, Louis Menand claims that “the natural tendency of the comic book is toward the outré. Exaggeration—studlier heroes, bloodier killings, pointier breasts—is in the nature of the medium” (124), and thereby distinguishes between types of comics excess: Wertham’s fear of spillover transcends the medium of comics, but Menand is characterizing the legacy and credo of the medium itself. Excess and its various forms of exaggeration exist on an overt plane within the medium (typical representations such as caricatures, the grotesque, sadistic violence, gore, etc.) and on a secret plane within the medium (the tendency for creators to up the ante and depict more and more).

Intra-medium excess can also be thought of as artistic emulation. In 1999, comic writer Gail Simone started a website called Women in Refrigerators3 wherein she catalogued the violent treatment and marginalization of female characters in comic books.4 Simone’s website is critical of artistic emulation: instead of the violent act in the comic being re-enacted in reality, it is the violent act in the comic that repeats and intensifies in another comic. In Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham notes that romance comics “[move] from the realm of physical violence against women to psychological violence in which the main female character is often humiliated or shown to be inadequate in some way” (95), and Simone’s record of overt violence against women affirms Wertham’s conclusions forty-five years later by calling attention to the persistence of psychological violence in mainstream superhero comics. Wertham is surely onto something here with respect to the lingering secret violence behind the overt.

I offer the following visual alternative to my prose:

Kinetic energy of weapons / Potential energy of weapons = Overt violence / Secret psychological violence

My fractions can be read vertically (numerator and denominator, or top and bottom) and horizontally (numerator to numerator, denominator to denominator). The fraction on the left represents Wertham’s view of weapons: a toy can be turned into a weapon. The fraction on the right represents two basic types of violence. The numerators of both fractions reformulate Hannah Arendt’s claim that violence “always needs implements” (4). The denominators bring together the less immediately manifested forms of violence: on the left, the intimation of violence from an unused weapon, and on the right, the insidious cumulative violence against gender, sexuality, and race.

There is a startling array of weapons to gawk at in the museum of comics. Each weapon or type of weapon could be used again in either the real world or in the drawn-again world of comics. Only the hypothetical existence of the denominator can invest the numerator with history or futurity. (The secret denominator is an assumption of Wertham’s, based on partial evidence, and so I use “hypothetical” to invoke his influence.) My theory of aestheticization inverts these fractions insofar as the project of rendering violence aesthetic transfers the hypothetical nature of the denominator into the numerator: overt depictions of comic book violence are now either sublime happenings or next-to-impossible happenings (I will provide examples of both), and are therefore no longer capable of being emulated. Intra-medium excess is granted futurity because creators will still be spurred on to up the ante, and yet the possibility of extra-medium excess is denied because no one, much less a child, could replicate in real life such a depicted act of aesthetic violence.

Wertham’s indictment of comic books is mathematical (as I have attempted to be): high violence correlates with low aesthetic value. Following Wertham’s equation for aesthetics and Menand’s observation about excess, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that comics have always made it a point to showcase violence, or to say that a slanted stigma of this attachment has yet to go away. Just as the conjunction of comics and superheroes will never be broken, neither will the conjunction of comics and violence. To go one step further and refashion the stigma, I will say that comics as a medium is impressively and ambivalently suited to the task of carrying the full historical weight of violence: its tools for satirizing violence and disarming naïve beliefs about physical or cultural violence are often the same tools that relish in visible and invisible violence. My argument resembles in type Margaret Ervin Bruder’s analysis of mainstream film violence in “Aestheticizing Violence, or How to Do Things with Style.” Bruder notes that aesthetic violence occurs when “standard realist modes of editing and cinematography are violated in order to spectacularize the action being played out on the screen. This formal reflexivity …[calls] attention to the possibilities available only to the cinematic mechanism.” The very “violation of the invisible style” is pleasurable (Bruder); however, with comics, pleasure arises from the violation of the visible by the invisible, the intangible, and the secret.

II. The Wound

Aesthetisizing violence counters Wertham’s good-taste equation, but aestheticization also winds up being countered. These involutions are not new; just take a look at E.C. Segar’s Popeye. “Popeye’s sort of violence,” writes Donald Phelps, “dat[es] back to his days as a weather-warped enfant terrible: the kind of violence, I mean, which is involved in getting out from under, in making, and assuring, space for one’s self” (63). Segar draws variations of the love triangle—usually between Popeye, Olive Oyl, and one of x number of Olive’s suitors—reminiscent of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, but with less regularity. And rather than the predictable brick, Segar wants his sailor to strike with style in order to alter the opponent and the environment. The three corners of the love triangle collapse because Popeye quits winning the affections of Olive to win the affections of the suitor.

We can see the triangle collapse along with Phelps’ idea of space-making in a Sunday strip from October 26, 1930. Popeye has promised not to sock anyone, but Harold refuses to shake hands with him: “So ya won’t take me hand, eh? / Then take a smash on the mum!!” (165).5 Popeye translates shaking hands into an act of declaring one’s presence with fists, and we have to translate the violence we see into Popeye’s corrupted literalism. Panel ten (the second panel of overt violence in the strip) is flagrantly sound-effect-less. Harold’s tie warps when hit and two squiggles appear in the sky—birds, perhaps, that were absent in panels seven to nine and that by appearing when Harold is hit appear as warped as his recoiling tie (see figure 1). Popeye’s punch alters the man (he also bleeds stars), makes him elegant, and alters the world around him (the violence ripples outward). In the next panel, number eleven, we see Popeye standing upright and not saying a word (also done flagrantly). His inner state and his motivations are opaque to us, but he is prominently foregrounded and isolated from Harold and Olive; he has visibly cleared out for a space for himself. The senselessness of cartoon violence is replaced with a lambent existential purpose.

Figure 1: Segar, Popeye, page 165.

Segar’s characters and strip are defined by the after-effects of violence even before violence erupts: by the scars and wounds that are records of past violence. Phelps asks, “Have maimed people ever featured more prominently, or recurrently, in a comic strip” (40)? Popeye engages the historical weight of violence by detailing its persistence on the body. Phelps argues that style is endemic to life for Segar, and that “style reveals itself and enriches its subject only through its changes—the protean movements, the abrasions and lacerations which it undergoes in the world” (43). Segar, therefore, wounds his characters because the wounded are the blessed creations of comics: “he visits [cruelty] upon his actors’ anatomies, going in for grotesquely manipulative sport, which he uses both the skin of physical probability, and the core of abstraction” (39-40). The wounded character graphically wavers between probability and abstraction, between the near-real and the unreal. This wavering dramatizes the aesthetic interaction I have observed between secret, potential energies and overt, kinetic ones: it is more than probable over the course of a Popeye comic that Popeye’s fighting spirit will erupt, but when it does it is quite a sight to see. In other words, the kinetic violence that manifests itself is as idiosyncratic as Popeye himself, while the consistent translation of Popeye’s potential energy into kinetic energy is the very underbelly and impetus of Segar’s daily comic strip. Thus, the secret controls and necessitates the overt, but the overt resists that control through Segar’s creative depictions of violence—that is, until Segar runs out of ideas.

Tactically inverting Wertham goes so far as to limit probability. The potential energy of replication or emulation no longer influences the kinetic: a child may be moved to strike, but he or she will hardly be Popeye-like, and I doubt that teenagers anywhere took Popeye as their rebel icon. Rather, the kinetic mitigates or obstructs the potential. The process of inversion begins with the problem of the wounded icon, which I can best describe with a somewhat extreme example from The Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch called “Game System” (see figure 2). Violence is first produced in the video game and is then re-produced on the body in the real world. The second and third panels could be happening simultaneously, but Gurewitch’s decision to place them side by side indicates that violence is expected in the game, but unexpected on the body (hence the surprise in panel three). The accumulation of wounds and bruises in the fourth panel covers the simple iconic face and effectively closes down the identification that comes from the simplicity of the icon.

Figure 2: Gurewitch, “Game System.”

In Understanding Comics (1993), Scott McCloud theorizes that an icon (basic and cartoony like a smiley face) works according to a principle of “amplification through simplification” (30). “Icons demand our participation to make them work” (59), McCloud writes, because they are unspecific and in a sense empty, and so by “filling up” the icon (37) we add to the typically subtractive and invisible art of comics. We create space for ourselves in the icon because the stripped-down nature of the image gives us no reason not to see ourselves; sympathy develops and meanings flourish. Popeye, too, created a space for himself with his purposeful fists, and I want to think of sympathy in comics, under McCloud, as an act of narcissistic violence: elbow the icon aside and plant yourself in its place.

The representation of violence on the body, then, prevents or at least limits our violent sympathies by particularizing the face: by making it a face with bruises and scars. The victim of violence becomes off-limits to us because the spectre of pain behind the wounded face, according to Elaine Scarry, signifies its “unsharability” (4). The presence or possibility of pain establishes an asymmetry of certainty: “it is easy to remain wholly unaware” or “remain in doubt” of another’s self-evident pain (4). The fact that the kid is clearly enjoying himself works in my favour: the goofiness of Gurewitch’s comic adds to the distance between me and the game-playing kid.

The beautiful touch in Gurewitch’s is that once the iconic face is wounded and bruised, there just so happens to be another iconic face, this one fresh and unblemished, to which we can attach. The strip’s gag arises from the fact that Face #2 is going to end up in a similar condition to Face #1. This surrogacy of the second face replacing the first could last forever, which would upset a notion of stable sympathy, because if these faces are fully interchangeable and easily replaceable, then what was it about the first face in the first place that elicited sympathy? If it boils down to simple iconicity as the conduit for sympathy, then why should I care about or spend time with a disposable nobody? Why is the spark for identification reductively geometric, merely a shape?

To render the joke distinctly academic and therefore unfunny, “Game System” is about how mimesis gets lost in a dizzying array of media and simulation: the “real” event of violence is unlocatable because it is so easily transferable. Aesthetic violence is a kind of thwarted mimesis—held out as possibility, but kept at bay by style or symbolism. The dance of probability and abstraction that Phelps identified in Popeye is the primary structure of comics’ relationship with the wound.

III. The Symbol

I will now turn to Art Spiegelman’s Maus in order to demonstrate the transmission of the overt and kinetic into the realm of the secret and potential. Spiegelman builds off the problem of surrogacy I see in Gurewitch and connects it to symbolism. In his history of comic books, Roger Sabin remarks that Spiegelman’s approach to the historical violence of the Holocaust confidently “recasts events in ‘funny animal’ form, with the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Poles as pigs. Of course, the history being related was far from funny, and Spiegelman’s intentions were as serious as George Orwell’s was in Animal Farm” (182). That Maus is a stylistic centaur—the head of rational history meets the hooves of animalistic comix—is crucial for understanding its inquest into violence, and later we will see how We3 attempts to carry on in this double-bodied mode.

In the first volume of Maus, and before the declaration of war, Art’s father Vladek registers his shock at witnessing a small town in Czechoslovakia now occupied by the Nazis. The moment is significant for Vladek because “[h]ere was the first time I saw, with my own eyes, the swastika” (34). These two pages are formally significant because the swastika is never shown in full: on page thirty-four the open window bisects the flag and the flag itself is bent internally from hanging off the flagpole, and on the next page the symbol is consistently obstructed by the nameless figures in the foreground. Vladek’s parenthetical statement, “with my own eyes,” emphasizes the imperfection of vision: even the “objective” artist of the panel who depicts Vladek peering at the flag through the train window cannot fully register the symbol.

On page thirty-five, the swastika hovers over and haunts panels two to six: it is an implacable symbol, fixed at the same point in each of the four panels, but never naked on its own. This inaccessible closeness bespeaks a power that has naturalized itself and turned elemental like a moon in the sky: the threat of violence is disseminated through the symbol. Such control without presence is a form of tyranny. Only panel four on page thirty-five approaches a moment of physical violence, but what we see instead is the suspenseful suspension of physical violence (see figure 3). The violence is suggestive and stylized, and it requires the work of closure within the panel itself to gain motion and make contact. Spiegelman conveys the gravity and immensity of Nazi violence transmitted through the fixed and unflinching symbol—and without really depicting anything. Maus avoids the problem of particularizing the victim and blocking identification by redirecting sympathy through various forms of incompleteness: the bent flag, hindered symbol, and floating tableau.

Figure 3: Spiegelman, Maus, 35.

I have shown how the partial or incomplete symbol is both a diffuse weapon and that which begs for identification, and how the weapon is a site of both kinetic and potential energies. Where Wertham is anxious about the potential transformation of the toy gun into the real gun, Morrison and Quitely’s We3 is an anxious story about “real” and really powerful weapons reversing back into a state of potential, or into a state of original and natural violence where a cat merely eats a mouse for survival (see 3.28).

Bandit the dog, Tinker the cat, and Pirate the rabbit were once pets and are now cyborgs. They are government superweapons that have been decommissioned. Before the government can “put them out of their misery” (2.19), they escape, and set out in search of a nebulous “home”: Bandit explains to Tinker, “HOME. / ? / IS RUN NO MORE” (2.23). The speech balloons of the dog, cat, and rabbit are collectively rendered in a distinctly non-human typeface, and each animal has its own speech patterns, to give the impression that animal-ese is not fully translatable into English (a comics tradition that at least goes back to Krazy Kat).6 We3‘s second trajectory is that of human-esque animals reversing back to animal; yet, that animal state has already been tainted by cybernetics, and so it would be more accurate to say that they reverse from the human-esque to the animal-esque.

Douglas R. Bruce’s essay about violence in Road Runner cartoons has convinced me that We3’s genre and kineticism are thematically indebted to Warner Brothers’ animation. Bruce writes, “Although Wile E. Coyote, as a predator, has the techne to capture prey—speed, intelligence, experience—he specifically foreswears his natural techne in favor of human technology” (199). For Morrison, the forced augmentation of the pets connotes precision, terror, and velocity, and this very successfulness is what We3 literally dismantles. Conversely, in the Road Runner cartoons, Bruce argues that “[w]e have a depiction of what should be a ‘natural’ violent behavior (predator captures prey) which never comes to pass; instead we see an artificially generated violence of technologies gone bad” (199). The coyote’s Sisyphean failure articulates a (in my opinion, weak) “critique of 20th Century American culture on technological and social grounds” (Bruce 200). Now, I am not going to argue that We3 is a rousing critique of contemporary military technologies and demonstrations of American might, but by linking Morrison and Quitely’s comic to Wile E. Coyote’s hybridity and to Spiegelman’s centaur-like study of historical violence, I am interested in what We3’s blend of both influences can say about the reality of violence’s multiple forms and its multiple objects: towards animals there is technological violence, towards criminals there is the violence of law and fate, and towards readerly sympathy there is the aesthetic violence of obstruction.

IV. The Centaur

WE3 is fascinated with and by ultraviolence. The first set-piece of formally experimental violence occurs on pages six to seven in the first issue when the animals assassinate a warlord named Guerrara. Literally riddled with tens of bullets, Guerrara is still standing, and is therefore both dead and strangely alive. The time conveyed on these two pages is brief yet full. The borderless double-page spread represents an instant of time that is also the end-point of multiple trajectories of lives and bullets; it is the weird fulfillment of fate.

Walter Benjamin, in his “Critique of Violence” (1921), reveals how the self-possession of violence, or the declaration of oneself as a weapon, is met by the law with an extinguishing display of its fate-like omnipresence. According to Martin Blumenthal-Barby, Benjamin proposes that “law assumes its authority very much as a result of an ever-present latent threat, the threat of physical violence” (729). The realms of secret and overt violence are in its purview. Law, for Benjamin, operates according to “the representation and preservation of an order imposed by fate” (285), and thus Guerrara’s infringements and subsequent killing are inescapable. The individual weapon clashes with the institution of fate.

Despite his brief comic life, Guerrara is a wholly-revered figure who is calculatedly put a stop to by the American government; he is revered precisely because of how zealously he is dispatched. Guerrara is a threat because his self-possession of violence carries a “law-destroying” (297), and therefore violence-destroying, potential. Benjamin notes that

…one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public. This cannot result from his deed, but only from the violence to which it bears witness. In this case, therefore, the violence of which present-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deprive the individual appears really threatening, and arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against law. (281)

The alternative to the violence of law, glimpsed transiently in Guerrara’s majestic death, is divine violence, which, according to Blumenthal-Barby, “is different in that it also posits itself, but then immediately withdraws; it posits and does not insist, does not adhere to any ends, does not institutionalize itself, it posits and withdraws” (729). Benjamin’s formulation of an alternative to law is a reaction to the scale and overextension of violence that is concomitant with modernity: the reach and consequences of war are phenomenal. We3, I believe, visually shares Benjamin’s concern with scale and reach.

How, then, can we classify the violence in We3 once the three animals have escaped and are no longer committed to manifesting fate for the government? Their ultraviolence is not exactly the divine violence put forward in Benjamin’s critique because it does not act on behalf of God. It comes in and out of focus, yes, it posits and withdraws, but the blood they spill does not “vanquish the latent threat of violence.” Morrison and Quitely’s is a reinstated primitive violence or a liminal violence that is perpetrated by hybrid actors. Much like the visibly scarred Popeye, the animals are visibly extra and excessive, and the addition of exoskeletons to pets recalls the virtual-reality suit donned by Face #1 in Gurewitch’s “Game System.” The wounds in We3 accumulate over time (we lose Pirate the rabbit) and the promise of surrogacy is the very reason behind the three’s decommissioning: these pets are too particular, not “bred for the job” (1.19), and will soon be replaced by an infinite chain of mass-produced, anonymous surrogates. The goofiness of “Game System” turns nightmarish in this hyper-fable. Against the threat of surrogacy, sympathy arises from the ability of vitally-wounded animals to still be as destructive as they once were.

If the story-arc of We3 moves from kinetic to potential, then pages ten and eleven in the second issue gracefully perform the kineticism. Moments before the kinetic attack, a flustered Doctor Trendle warns the hunters about the potential energies of the three: “Even their senses are different from ours. / They’re much faster than any human. They experience time and motion differently” (2.4). The cat and the soldiers are shown to occupy different dimensions. Tinker is outside and above the shard-like panels. The soldiers live in a single panel underneath the flat red cat world, but the shard-like windows into their world are raised up beyond the red due to the three-dimensional nature of the shards. Red also represents the streak of blood or the swath of violence that erupts in the soldier’s world. The shards indicate that the cat can only be glimpsed by the soldiers; Tinker can cross between dimensions only in flashes and every cross-over is an act of violence.

Pages six and seven of the second issue offer a panoramic example of how comics have investigated the history and production of violence (see figure 4 for a detail). The upper panel’s micro-panels are linear like the bullet’s path, but the lower panel is home to a flurry of smaller panels, some which obey the law of gravity or approach simultaneity or both.7 The anonymous victims of the dog and the cat are puzzle pieces without recourse to a whole; the soldiers are only ever the wounded (and the wounded, remember, are the blessed of comics). Although Quitely draws the minute details of violence, his schematic dissection does not deconstruct violence: it edges violence closer and closer to verisimilitude. This is as close to this event happening as could ever happen. Real world replication, therefore, is the asymptote which Quitely’s images approach but never reach.8 The overt and kinetic event supplants Wertham’s fear of emulation (secret and potential), but Phelps’ theory of the wound ensures that the event will dance undecidedly between probability and abstraction. One’s awareness of the totality of the two pages nullifies the minutia of the attack and counters its probability—that is, until we focus in again on the micro-panels. Since incompleteness is the prerequisite for icons and symbols (they are simple or empty), which is a prerequisite for readerly participation, We3 is avant-garde because it requires us to read everything in halves and to supply the other half. Morrison and Quitely’s bifurcated pages and hybridized characters are the virtual equivalent of Spiegelman’s suggestive symbols.

Figure 4: Morrison and Quitely, WE3, 2.7.

With respect to sympathy in these tech porn pages, you do not even care about Tinker the cat or Bandit the dog anymore, because the cat has ceased to be a subject of narration: she has nothing of the idiosyncrasy or guessable motivation of Popeye. The cat represents litheness and viciousness in the abstract, and is perhaps the feline personification of Nemesis herself—manifesting her own version of fate. Wertham’s good-taste equation has been overwhelmed by aestheticization (the tension between the micro-panels and the totalized style of the two pages) and aestheticization in turn is overwhelmed by abstraction or allegory: our animal-esque protagonists become eradicated during this extravaganza of wounding. And killing’s abstract element is certainly the scariest part of We3: there are no actors, no subjects, because cat, dog, and rabbit are always in-between and on-the-run, blending and corrupting their instinct with technology.

Violence in the Road Runner cartoons, according to Bruce, serves as “an audio-visual punctuation mark” and is “an announcement of futility” (200). In We3, the breakout violence of the second issue puts sympathy on hiatus. But since this violence is charged with the struggle between animal versus machine and animal versus mechanical men, sympathy becomes newly energized and can emerge, after the second issue’s violent set-pieces are over, on the sick and wounded faces of the animals slowly breaking free from their shells. As the third issue opens, the stubborn particularity of their three faces—dripping, bleeding, animal—becomes the portal through which sympathy can be accessed. Cat, dog, and rabbit are no longer icons to be narcissistically usurped. Just as Maus marshals a funny animal simplicity to dissect the perversion and tyranny of Nazi iconicity, so We3 inducts the symbols of domesticity—a trinity of pets—into arenas of ambivalent and enveloping violence.

The controlling influence of the potential or secret state in Seduction of the Innocent is literally inverted in We3: for the bulk of the three issues, there’s no secret realm anymore, no stored-up potential energies, only the frenzy of overt activity by always-kinetic animal-weapons, painstakingly rendered and unflaggingly mobile. The complete narrative arc of We3 eventually shucks all of this chaos and attempts to reclaim the forgotten universe of potential energy, and in doing so reverses the inversion by reverting our mech-animals back into scrappy survivalists—back to a cat, back to a dog. After passing through the sieve of ultraviolence, Morrison and Quitely return to Wertham’s paranoid world of the secret, but their recalibrated potential energies are no longer equivalent to nefarious, psychological influences. In the end, we are teasingly left with two scrawny animals. You can easily find these kinds of animals in any number of normal, suburban households. These perfect referents will only bite you if you deserve it.


[1] Amy Kiste Nyberg in Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code wonderfully moves beyond Wertham’s allergy to science and fact in order to redeem the principles of Wertham the crime psychiatrist. Over the course of his psychiatric career, Wertham “believed that civilization could progress to a point where crime and violence would be eliminated” and “reject[ed] arguments made by other psychiatrists that comic books had a cathartic function, allowing children to release their hostilities in harmless fantasy. He felt comic books created a callousness to violence” (Nyberg 92).

[2] Ramona Caponegro notes that the “excessive panic about juvenile delinquency in the 1950s” has as its target emulation: “Even when teenagers did not literally follow the examples of their delinquent icons, however, adults, particularly parents, worried about the excitement and enthusiasm that these characters inspired in the young” (314). The desire for a rebel icon allows one to worship, imitate, and perpetuate uprooted values. The outward-reaching teenagers are curbed by an excess of “surveillance” (317).


[4] The title of the site refers to Green Lantern #54 where Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt is murdered and her body is stuffed into a fridge

[5] I am quoting comics like I would poetry and drama: a / indicates a word balloon break and (3.28) means third issue, page twenty-eight.

[6] In an interview with Newsarama, Morrison boasts that “We3 is probably one of the first of these kind of stories to treat the animal heroes as animals and not as anthropomorphized representations with human emotions and speech patterns.”

[7] In the same interview, Morrison praises Quitely’s artwork: “This is drawing as a special effect in itself. You just have to just look and look and look. It’s like fractals. The closer you go in the more detail and brilliance you see.”

[8] Susan Sontag makes a deceptively simple point about how drawings differ from photographs when they depict empirical violence. Speaking about Goya’s series of etchings The Disasters of War, she writes that, unlike the isolated veracity of photographs, “Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened” (47). The potential energy of the represented event exceeds the blatant reality.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.

Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken, 1978. 277-300. Print.

Blumenthal-Barby, Martin. “Pernicious Bastardizations: Benjamin’s Ethics of Pure Violence.” MLN 124 (2009): 728-751.

Brady, Matt. “‘Disney with Fangs’: Morrison on We3.” Newsarama. 2004. 20 November 2010. <>

Bruce, Douglas R. “Violence in Children’s Cartoons: The Road Runner as Mythical Discourse.” Critical Readings: Violence and the Media. Eds. C. Kay Weaver and Cynthia Carter. Maidenhead: Open UP, 2006. 196-209.

Bruder, Margaret Ervin. “Aestheticizing Violence, or How to Do Things with Style.” PostModern Perspectives—Papers 1998. 2001. 7 May 2010. Web. <>.

Caponegro, Ramona. “Where the ‘Bad’ Girls Are (Contained): Representations of the 1950s Female Juvenile Delinquent in Children’s Literature and Ladies’ Home Journal.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34 (2009): 312-329.

Gurewitch, Nicholas. “Game System.” The Perry Bible Fellowship. 20 Nov 2010. Web. <>.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

Menand, Louis. “The Horror.” The New Yorker 31 March 2008: 124-128. Print.

Morrison, Grant and Frank Quitely. We3. New York: Vertigo, 2005. Print.

Nysberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1998. Print.

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