A Graphic Novel, story and art by Frank Miller (coloring
by Lynn Varley), in five volumes (pub. May-Sept. 1998); Dark Horse
Comics, Milwaukie, Oregon. $2.95/$3.95 per issue.
300 is only one of a tiny, tiny handful of illustrated treatments
of the Thermopylae epic of 480 B.C., when the stand of King Leonidas
and his bodyguard of 300 picked Spartans inspired all Greece and
succeeding generations of freedom lovers. (The comic book adaptation
of the movie The 300 Spartans, published as Lion of Sparta
in 1963, is the only other full-length comic I know of, and it is
uninspired hackwork.) One wants to see it succeed, if only to encourage
more historically based comics in a field dominated by supermen
and mutants and space opera. But 300 is a mixed bag, and I expect
reactions will vary, even within comics fandom (where Miller, creator
of the "Batman: The Dark Knight" concept and other innovative
works, is something akin to a demigod).
This new adult comic book tale seems to draw inspiration from several
contemporary sources. There are echoes of Louis Glanzman's vigorous
and graphic paintings on ancient battles (including Thermopylae)
for National Geographic magazine. Other pictorial references indicate
that Miller has studied John Warry's Warfare in the Classical World,
even if he felt no obligation to conform to historical combat dress.
And most of all, The 300 Spartans, which Miller himself cites
as a major influence, has been mined for many of this comic's most
Art: Miller's layouts are bold and fluid, and as an artist he is
an original in a medium that caters to "house styles"
and imitators. The series has movement and verve and has not been
shaped by corporate concerns, mainstream blandness, or licensing
tie-ins. The graphic design overall is strong yet spare, as befits
the topic. Leonidas looks like he was based on Sean Connery.
Miller has one of history's most dramatic and decisive conflicts
to work with, the clash of the comparatively free Greek city-states
against the autocracy of the Persian Empire. The battle of Thermopylae,
the Alamo of Greece, is inherently gripping, and Miller has tried
to convey the desperate nature of the fighting and the heroism and
self-sacrifice of Leonidas and his warriors.
Some attention has been paid to "getting it right." The
Spartans are distinguished by their red cloaks and long hair (even
to the point of being shown brushing it out before battle, as described
by the historian Herodotus, bringing to mind Housman's poem about
how "the Spartans, on the sea-wet rock / sat, and combed their
hair"). Some of the Persian army is depicted in accurate campaign
dress. The Spartan characters are rather laconic in speech (as opposed
to the usual superhero bombast), and many of the famous Spartan
aphorisms are worked into the dialogue.
Now, the Bad:
Art: Miller's style will not appeal to everyone. It lacks the
clean preciseness of a Hal Foster or John Severin, to name only
two comic artists known for their historical work. It is deliberately
crude and unpolished in some respects, the coloring often drab and
dark. As with most "adult-oriented" graphic novels, 300
is full of gruesome, even sadistic violence (which is always disturbing
to those of us brought up on Archie, the Flash, Jimmy Olsen, and
sanitized war comics).
Miller does not provide a completely adequate background for the
events of the series. Granted this is not an educational comic;
but I feel some readers will be thoroughly confused as to who's
fighting who, why, and where. The end of it all, on the field of
Plataea a year after Thermopylae, may be unclear to many, and seems
unnecessarily abrupt. Also, Miller's fictionalized episodes are
not convincing (for example, a running gag between an awkward Spartan
nicknamed "Stumblios" is tedious and the pun (pidgin Greek?)
couldn't really work. And there are scenes that are cartoonishly
over-the-top, even in a field not known for subtlety. (Leonidas'
battle with a wolf, his death struggle with the Persian horde, his
showdown with the ephors, and the Spartans' reception of the Persian
Again, this isn't something designed to be used in school, but
with so much done right, it's a shame an equal number of things
are done so poorly, either for artistic license or some other reason.
The Spartan hoplites are depicted in either the "heroic nude"
or wearing something very much like thong underpants, which is laughable.
Why do their helmets (except Leonidas') lack crests? Did they forget
them at home, with their body armor and tunics? The ephors are shown
like a band of evil Emperors from STAR WARS, leprous and perverted.
Their absolute corruption and malevolence must be designed to make
Leonidas shine all the brighter. The traitor Ephialtes, the Judas
of Thermopylae, has been rewritten into a diseased, hunchbacked,
half-breed in whom rejection by Leonidas instills a crazed desire
for vengeance. (This scene doesn't hold water: the king turns Ephialtes
away because he isn't able to hold a shield in the phalanx, but
there's no reason this Ephialtes couldn't have served capably as
a skirmisher, armor-bearer, messenger, waterboy, hair stylist (ha),
or whatever.) The Immortals, Great King Xerxes' crack troops, are
drawn heavily stylized, with pitch black cowls, black shields, and
armored facemasks, more like Halloween goblins than the Persian
elite. The Persian host did NOT include elephants, alas, despite
what is shown in volume five. Xerxes himself is perhaps the greatest
departure from reality. Rather than an arrogant Achaemenid prince,
he is drawn as a towering, body-pierced, Nubian smooth-talker. Most
To Sum Up:
The series seems to be popular. A local comic/game specialty shop
constantly reorders backissues to keep up with demand. You just
can't keep a good story about last stands and bloody come-uppances
down. Judging by readers' comments in the letters column, 300 is
reaching many people who have never read about the Spartans or Thermopylae
before. Like the film The 300 Spartans, these comics may
fire imaginations for a new generation of Philakones. This can only
be a Good Thing. Kudos to Frank Miller and company for daring to
"reach the stars with their spears."