Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Three, Volume 1 Review (Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly)


This book feels like a massive fuck you to Frank Miller – but more on that later!

Set in the years following the Battle of Thermopylae when 300 Spartans held the Hot Gates against the massive Persian army, Sparta has become a much less glorious land of “true warriors”. It no longer has the fearsome reputation it once had as Spartans now flee the battlefield and its vastly incompetent and cowardly king. 

The Helots were Sparta’s slaves who economically supported Sparta with agricultural work. They bore the brunt of Sparta’s cruel culture and were often humiliated and murdered – a ritual held every autumn called the Crypteia allowed Spartans to freely kill Helots for sport without punishment. 

During Crypteia, some Spartans appear at a Helot hovel and things get out of hand. But rather than take the punishment once again, three Helots stand up to the Spartans and kill them all – save one who manages to escape. The solitary Spartan makes it back and alerts his king of the three Helots’ behaviour and the king raises 300 warriors and heads off to punish the Helots. 

Three is an interesting inversion of 300’s story where the Spartans have gone from being the heroic underdogs to villainous oppressors and the Helots have taken the narrative place of the original 300. It’s like Kieron Gillen wants to show everyone who enjoyed 300 (myself included) that, by the way, the Spartans were psychos, not heroes, and that it’s a damn good thing their culture failed to endure. 

The finale becomes even more 300-esque when the three Helots – Klaros, Damar and Terpander – are tricked into a dead end by a turncoat (a space “no more than a goat-herder’s path” – sound familiar?) but manage to hold off the Spartans (wearing the classic Leonides armour) thanks to the cave’s narrow entrance, like a miniature version of the Hot Gates themselves. 

I might be reading too much into it but because Three feels so very heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s 300, I wondered if the final scene of the book is a commentary on Miller himself – in the same way Sparta becomes a mere shadow of its once glorious self, that a once great artist has fallen so hard and become the same.

Yet for all its similarities to 300, it’s a far more compassionate with characters who seem more real and human than Miller’s unstoppable warriors. Gillen critiques the society the Spartans were fighting to preserve from the Persians in the first place by focusing on the injustice and cruelty practiced by the Spartans on the human beings they treated like animals, whose already desperate lives were ruined by sadistic thugs with twisted values. And yet it’s the same story of a small group of people who stand up to overwhelming numbers of oppressors and say “we will not submit – we will fight!”. 

Three is a sobering and thoughtful coda to the story of Sparta, a story that has been represented in recent popular culture as all chest-beating macho bravado and glory and yet which ended so weakly in real life. A compelling and fascinating comic with great writing and art, Three is an excellent comic that’s well worth reading.

Three, Vol. 1

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