THREE #1/ Written by KIERON GILLEN/ Art by RYAN KELLY/ Colors by JORDIE BELLAIRE/ Letters by CLAYTON COWLES/ Historical Consultant PROF. STEPHEN HODKINSON/ Published by IMAGE COMICS
In the publicity leading up to the publication of Three, author Kieron Gillen explicitly stated that this book was meant to be a rebuttal of Frank Miller’s classic graphic novel 300. An action-packed retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae as told from the perspective of the Spartan king Leonidas, 300 went on to win multiple Eisner awards and was later adapted into an incredibly successful film.
So why is such a rebuttal necessary? While 300 is undeniably a rousing adventure story, it has drawn some criticism for its historical inaccuracy – particularly in regards to the Spartan attitudes toward homosexuality and their Athenian neighbors and the make-up of the Persian forces facing the Greeks. Miller has been largely dismissive of such criticism, citing the literary device of the Unreliable Narrator as justification for the giants and ninjas among Xeres’ forces (the entire story being told in flashback by a bard to inspire other Greek soldiers) and his own interest in telling a good story being more important than extensive research.
Gillen apparently disagrees with this approach to writing historical fiction. Why else would he work with Stephen Hodkinson – Professor of Ancient History and Director of the prestigious Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies at the University of Nottingham – in insuring that Three is a historically accurate tale? One that – as Gillen noted in an interview with Comics Alliance – would reveal that the merit-based democracy Miller glamorized in 300 was only possible because of Spartan society being built on the backs of slave labor. Gillen also described the story of Three as “explicitly political” with respect to contemporary life, drawing parallels between the Helots (a specific class of state-owned slaves in Sparta) and the working classes of today.
After a scene in which naked Spartan youths hunt Helots as they work their fields (because how else are we to know that The Spartans are VERY BAD PEOPLE?), we are introduced to the titular Three Helots. Their names are Klaros, Terpander and Damar but for all of the personality they are given, they might as well as be called “Grumpy”, “Dopey” and “Woman”. Klaros is a ex-soldier, now crippled and bitter. Terpander is a perverted poet. And Damar is… a woman.
The action of the issue centers upon The Helots being forced to play host to a group of Spartan soldiers. After enduring such humiliations as being made to drink to excess, strip naked, dance and lick vomit off the ground, a drunken Terpander tells a story that offends the soldiers. This sets up the rest of the series, with our titular Three fleeing the enraged Spartans.
If Kieron Gillen is setting out to refute Frank Miller’s 300, artist Ryan Kelly seems to be emulating him. The cover of Three clearly apes the minimalist style Miller utilized in the drawing of his Greek epic, with rich, powerful colors emphasized and the characters cast in undefined shadows. The interior artwork is more traditional and well-detailed, yet maintains the same strong palette as the cover. Colorist Jordie Bellaire uses rich reds, deep golds and varied shades of grey to further define Kelly’s exquisite pencils.
Alas, such finery fails to disguise what proves to be a most preachy and pretentious narrative. Unfortunately for the readers, Gillen forgot to tell a story worth reading amid all of his political posturing. Indeed, Gillen almost forgets to tell a story at all! There is no plot worth speaking of in the first issue of Three and no higher point to the narrative beyond saying “The Spartans were assholes and you are an asshole if you think there’s anything admirable about them.”