By Frank Miller & Lynn Varley (Dark Horse)
Generally I reserve these graphic novel reviews for less successful affairs since I figure that most people have probably checked out something which has garnered as much press attention outside the comics industry as this chronicle has; but when I was joining my local library at the weekend this sturdy landscape-format hardback literally leapt off the shelf at me (almost killing the small child reaching stubby, stained fingers up to it). I took it as an omen from the gods to proceed.
Fear not, I didn’t steal it from that clumsy urchin either: his mother took one look at the thing and (ignoring the excessively graphic violence lovingly, almost poetically rendered by Miller and painted by Lynn Varley) dropped it like a burning brick when she saw that some of the warriors had no pants on.
Storming off to complain that the cartoon men had their willies out she left the tome in my bemused hands…
300 is not a history book.
This visually arresting drama retelling the Battle of Thermopylae is not a way to crib on your exams but rather a potent hymn to the ancient manly virtues of courage, honour, duty, patriotism and sacrifice, told mostly through the words and attitudes of an aging king (in the ancient world anyone who reached their fifth decade was truly remarkable) who decided that his code of conduct was more important than his life and even those of the men who loved and trusted him.
A picture book for adults, this fable is pared down to a rhythmic, economical asperity as austere as the legendary code of the Spartans it eulogises, with only the rich primal colours of passion – deep blues, blood reds, warm golds – to lift the spirits. The narrative is delivered in short choppy cadences that evoke the no-nonsense, terse lifestyle of the warrior king.
Originally released as a five issue miniseries, drawn as double page spreads for a truly epic scope, the five chapters Honor, Duty, Glory, Combat and Victory tell of the voracious Persian emperor Xerxes, whose armies were incomprehensibly vast and who determined to add the squabbling collection of states known as Greece to his dominions. It tells of the harsh, Darwinian life of Sparta and the unbending pride and courage of their king Leonidas.
In 480BC, unable to muster Sparta’s army to resist the Persian invasion due to the corrupt intervention of his own priests, Leonidas and 300 friends went “for a walk” to the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae, where with the dubious aid of a few thousand lesser Greeks they fought an incredible holding action until betrayed by one of their own. Finally surrounded, with no hope of escape, the Spartans all went to their gods with heads and spears held high, their example as much as their actions inspiring Greece to finally destroy the mad ambitions of Xerxes…
If you’ve seen the film based on this book, you still haven’t experienced the raw power and untrammeled tension of Miller’s original interpretation. Here there’s no padding: no perfumed council debates, no farewell lovemaking, no treacherous Dominic West (Theron to you) to dilute the polemical energy of the tale. The equation is pure simplicity: Homeland Endangered + Way Of Life Imperiled = Resistance At All Costs.
Now in its tenth printing – and still going strong – this is a book that perfectly displays everything comics can do that is unique to our art-form. If you still haven’t read 300, waste no more time: this tale was made for you…
© 1998, 1999, 2006 Frank Miller. All rights reserved.