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 dramatic scenes.
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 ambassador.)
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 disconcerting.
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."