July 9, 2014

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Three Trade Paperback

Written by Kieron Gillen
Line Art by Ryan Kelly
Color Art by Jordie Bellaire
Published by Image Comics

Sparta is no shining beacon on the hill, being built on slavery and propped up by excessive violence. When one of the Spartans decides to push his weight around, some of the Helots fight back, leading to a chase that exposes Sparta's true nature and a small glimmer of hope in this amazing mini-series from Gillen, Kelly, and Bellaire.

When we think of Sparta and comics, the first thing that used to come to mind was Frank Miller's whitewashing epic 300, later turned into a comically bad movie. The Spartans are heroes, and none of their baser natures or the evils of their society are shown. Anyone who challenges them are either weak, evil, or both.

Do you remember slaves in 300? Me either.

Three, by the nature of its title and subject matter, is unabashedly designed to be an anti-300, and Gillen made that pretty clear in interviews. Here's an example, from Paste Magazine:
The original idea of this story was counter-punching. Let’s be honest — that’s another trend of my work, always trying to be a critic in response to other works. Obviously, this is a story told many times. I remember reading [Frank Miller’s graphic novel that inspired the Zack Synder movie] 300 and having a very visceral response to it. It’s a book I like, but I had a response to certain aspects of it. The structure of Three came to me as three slaves on the run, representing the three parts of society. I used that device to interrogate Sparta and what Sparta meant, because it’s a lot wider than Thermopylae and 300 and that type of stuff. As the Spartans were still around, they were used to talk about ideas and what is a utopia and all that kind of shit.
So yeah, this is like the comics equivalent of a response song, and, unsurprisingly, it's a heck of a lot better than the material it's reacting to. Instead of creating thinly-veiled political propaganda designed to to mask Miller's racist, anti-Muslim views,* Gillen not only took the time to do the proper research--he invited a historical consultant to help him make sure he got it right. Professor Stephen Hodkinson was brought in to make sure that Three is as accurate as possible, while still being historical fiction. He's also given credit in both the single issues and the trade, and given a chance to discuss the topic at length.

A class act all around in terms of getting it right. Sure, you want to tell a good story, and if you have to tweak history a bit to make that happen, so be it. But ensuring you understand the dynamics between the Spartans and the other people around them or how the culture might respond to the basic plot (an incredibly small scale slave revolt) are the ways to make readers stand up and take notice, especially if they have any background or interest in archaeology.

I do, and I did. Three immediately captured my attention, not just because a personal favorite artist (Ryan Kelly) was working on it, but because this wasn't just using Sparta as a backdrop to tell a story. This is a tale that can only be told by setting it there. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.

The plot itself is not all that unique--three singular individuals decide that they have no choice but to fight back, and end up doing their best to beat the odds against overwhelming numbers. We have seen that before, after all. But in this case, Gillen weaves that idea into the nature of a society that prides itself on honor but doesn't extend that courtesy to anyone save their elite. It's a society governed strictly, and built upon lies. Seeing what happens when three "inferiors" decide to challenge that status quo--even though they're doomed--is the reason you read Three beyond just gaping at the quality of Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire's art. (More on that in a moment.)

After the brief revolt begins, everything chains into motion and gives Gillen plenty of opportunities for great character moments, such as when the only survivor is castigated for not dying, despite the fact that the revolt would have gone unpunished had he not survived. Even his mother makes it clear he's dead to her, saying that while her horses are fine, he is far from their quality. A King is shown he's merely a pawn as he must bring the entire 300 to bear to grab just three slaves. The slaves themselves all share a determination brought on by their status, and in the end, despite their own disagreements, they bond in a show of defiance. When they are at the end of the road, their refusal to just give up and die is more compelling to me than any military bullshit. These are the oppressed with no hope--and yet they act with a surety and the knowledge that in the end, Sparta, too, will fall, even if they never live to see it.

Gillens's dialogue really drives everything home. He's smart enough not to try and antiquate it, which is important. (No Fakespeare here.) He also does a great job of slipping in details of history without it feeling forced or stopping the action. There's a cutting edge to the speeches of the characters, allowing them all to get to the point, whether Spartan or Helot. We get a sense of menace, purpose, and meaning throughout the book. It's a clinic on how to craft a strong mini-series, especially a historical one.

As good as the dialogue, script, and research is for this story, what really sells the book is the work of Kelly and Bellaire. I've been a fan of Ryan Kelly for a long time, and it was good to see him on a project that I had a strong interest in, since unfortunately Funrama doesn't pay the bills, despite being awesome. Three might be some of his best work ever, showing him at the top of his game. Ryan's always been good at creating expressive characters, and that skill absolutely nails the dialogue given to his drawings by Gillen. When that mother I mentioned above dismisses her son, her eyes are laser-focused on him/the reader, narrowed and with her mouth in a sneer.

Battles scenes are no less detailed. Klaros' crazed looks as he fights for his life show a man for whom violence has been a constantly companion. When he ends by stating he's a butcher, the dead look staring out at the reader drives that home.

Body language is also a weapon Kelly uses to tell the story visually. You could write entire essays discussing the way Kelly positions hands, arms, and legs to convey what's going on without unnecessary captions from Gillen. A perfect example of this is when a tracker is positioned on the ground, his hand extended as he works, while the Spartan leaders look on, hands at the belts, as if such would would be forever beneath them. A lesser artist might have forced Gillen to speak that out, but here readers can capture it instantly.

One last note about Kelly's art here--the general layouts. My God, they're astounding! Whether it's framing on splash pages, such as when the 300 are called to march, or Klaros looming in a doorway, bloody from the kill, these are some amazing layouts. Terpander's dissembling gesture lures the reader--and his intended victim right into a visceral trap. A final good example shows bloody, broken bodies left to stare out while the 300 march on, their uncaring postures telling the reader everything they need to know as each individual spear is illustrated. It's a great sense of timing, and you see it so often in this comic. There is life and action on every page, and even those with extensive speeches have life, thanks to tilting the viewing perspective or showing the restless, angry nature of those talking.

The third part of this trilogy of collaboration is Jordie Bellaire. By far the best colorist working in comics right now (and she has some seriously good competition), her work here brings out the best in Kelly's line work, complementing his style instead of trying to just give the comic a particular feel. (That's part of what makes her so good, by the way--she adjusts her style to the artist's.) The palate used for Three is muted but varied, and if you look carefully, you'll note that the lighting and color tones change depending on the scene. What's important, however, is that even when there is very little light, Bellaire doesn't obscure the details. We can know there's shadow without it being literal. Comics is a visual medium, and while realism is nice--seeing the story is far preferable.

But Bellaire's best coloring touch in Three is when she randomly drips blood stains across the page. They are not synced to any part of Kelly's art. Instead, they serve to remind the reader that Sparta's history is full of blood. I don't know if this was her idea or part of a collaboration, but she is the one who did the implementation, and it's absolutely perfect.

Three is a book that's so good I ended up spending about twice as much time on it as I had originally intended. Anyone who loves good storytelling definitely needs to pick this one up right away. It's an amazing combination of historical research, strong plotting, and some of the best artwork published by Image in 2014. This one gets my highest possible recommendation. Don't let the historical setting scare you away from a really stellar comic that's a good reminder that sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in, no matter the cost, and believe in hope for the future.

*Looking back on 300, Holy Terror really shouldn't have surprised anyone. I guess we were trying to think the best of a man who was once a great comics creator.