It’s almost impossible not to compare Three—the newly collected miniseries by writer Kieron Gillen, artist Ryan Kelly, and colorist Jordie Bellaire—to Frank Miller’s 300, but that’s pretty much the point. Thanks in large part to director Zack Snyder’s highly successful film adaptation, it’s safe to say that 300 has become a cultural touchstone beyond the limited reach of the comics-reading community. Thanks to Miller’s 1998 graphic novel, most culturally literate adults are now at least somewhat familiar with the tale of the 300 Spartans that gave their lives in an epic battle against Persian invaders. But for all of its showcasing of Miller’s artistic talents, 300 is, at its core, a rather one-dimensional story, a hyper-masculine bloodbath about manly men with chiseled abs winning their country’s freedom by displaying more bravery and brutality than the other guys. We have been lead to believe that that made the Spartans heroes. Three turns that notion on its head. Is it good?
Three (Image Comics)
One of the biggest differences between 300 and Three is that the latter is clearly more thoroughly researched, as Gillen consulted with Professor Stephen Hodkinson throughout the scripting process. But this also suggests comparison between the two works is a bit of an apples-to-oranges affair. 300 is, for all its faults, rather poetic in its execution, so while Three certainly isn’t boring, it intends to inform as whereas 300 simply entertains.
From the very beginning, Gillen emphasizes the essential hypocrisy of the Spartan philosophy, that for all their talk of freedom, they had a massive slave class in the Helots, a once proud people now forced to obey Spartans at their every whim. We are even told that for each Spartan in the famous battle of Thermopolae, there was a Helot at his side, so the lack of historical gratitude only adds salt to the wound of slavery.
Three begins years after the events of that war, as we are introduced to the three protagonists: Klaros, a crippled butcher, Damar, a strong willed widow, and Terpander, a garrulous storyteller. When a humiliating “party” thrown by the Spartans turns into a slaughter after a drunken Terpander speaks out of line, Klaros kills most of the Spartans in the party before escaping with Damar and Terpander. It’s a bit like a Tarantino revenge film.
Three is undeniably interesting in conception, but in execution it’s a bit disappointing. The comic makes its point sufficiently in the first issue, and while there’s plenty of story left after that point, Gillen struggles to find more to say thematically. And while I don’t think anyone was expecting Ryan Kelly to be on par with Frank Miller, Kelly’s art is still only slightly better than the average contemporary superhero artist, despite some neat narrative tricks and panel layouts. Luckily, Jordie Bellaire elevates the visuals with her colors with an effectively grimy color palette dominated by reds, yellows, and grays.
It should be noted, especially for those that may have already read Three on an issue-to-issue basis, that this collected edition includes historical footnotes by Gillen and a conversation with Professor Stephen Hodkinson, with are both well worth reading. As far as history lessons go, you can do a lot worse.
Is It Good?
Three leaves a bit to be desired as a story, but it’s a fascinating look at one of the less-talked-about parts of history.