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Miller Makes History

(This  Stripped column originally appeared in the June 18-24, 1998 Long Island Voice.Click on the artwork for a larger image.)

by Beth Hannan Rimmels


"The fools. The dear young fools. They actually think we have a chance."

— King Leonidas in 300

You know, conventional wisdom is pretty stupid. Conventional wisdom said that today's readers would never go for a straight Western comic, but John Ostrander's The Kents proved them wrong (OK, it had a Superman tie-in but no superpowers, time travel or magic). Conventional wisdom said that with the current industry slump and lack of interest in projects by women creators, a woman self-publishing a fantasy comic was the height of folly. Yet Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, barely a year old, is doing very nicely, thank you. Its sales aren't in the Bone range yet, but Bone didn't start out as a huge seller either.

Conventional wisdom also says that historical comics never work. At best, they're a well-meant attempt to drag kids into reading. Luckily, writer/artist Frank Miller doesn't give a damn about conventional wisdom.

His five-part miniseries, 300 (Dark Horse, $2.95), tells the story of the Persian invasion of Greece and how Xerxes' "force of men...so massive it shakes the earth with its march, its numbers so great it drinks rivers dry" was held off by a small company of Spartans (300-strong, if you hadn't guessed). The Spartans are aided by volunteers from other Greek city-states, but as they were potters, farmers, smiths and the like rather than trained warriors, the volunteers are mainly the proverbial cannon fodder.

 B&W preview sample

I've always been a history buff, particularly about ancient Greece and Egypt. But you don't need to know anything about the subject to enjoy 300. Miller lays out not only the political and historical situation with an urgency an epic deserves, but the culture, beliefs and the political rivalries. For instance, when Xerxes' ambassador arrives demanding an offering of earth and water to symbolize Sparta's submission to the god-king's will, King Leonidas replies, "That's a bit of a problem. Rumor has it the Athenians have already turned you down. And if those boy-lovers found that kind of nerve...after all, we Spartans have our reputation to consider."

That sounds simple, but simplicity is the difference between an average writer and a good writer. An average writer would have had Leonidas launch into a lengthy exposition to explain the rivalry between Athens and Sparta, how the Spartans saw the Athenians as decadent and weak, etc. Instead, Miller covered all that with three sentences in a totally conversational manner.

I particularly like how Miller doesn't bow to the idea of creating sympathy for characters. You feel for the desperation of the situation — and Leonidas' realization that his arrogance precipitated the war, even though his honor would never allow any other action. Leonidas' walk with Ephialtes, the hunchback who desperately wants to claim his Spartan heritage, would have gone very differently in another writer's hands, but then it wouldn't have been true to Spartan philosophy.

Miller's art style, which varies according the project, really works here. He keeps it simple. But even the uncolored previews are not quite as high contrast as his Sin City work. Seeing the final pages in comparison to the previews is an education in what a colorist like Lynn Varley can add to a book, particularly since she's using a gold and earth-toned palette to reinforce the hot, dry, unforgiving weather. The images gain a texture you can almost feel.

I was also pleasantly surprised with how Miller matter-of-factly deals with accuracy in the details. The Spartans tended to wear minimal clothing, in contrast to the ornately dressed and bejeweled Persians. So Miller draws their men clad only in their cloaks and sandals. He is not so coy as to pose them at angles or with their cloaks closed. There is full-frontal nudity, folks, but at a bit of a distance. By keeping all of his line drawings simple, there is no reason for anatomical exactitude. Everything's there without belaboring the point.

Media Connection: On 'Nuff Said this week, hosts Ken Gale and Ed Menje deal with an interesting, and still timely, controversy. In June 30 years ago, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. That week, a sequence of Dick Tracy had a shoot-out with the villain with a speech caption "Violence is golden, when used against evil." That sequence got a lot of letters, including one from Chester Gould in rebuttal, defending the use of violence. Several newspapers canceled the strip. We'll be discussing that with Jeffrey Lindenblatt, who reprinted the entire sequence in "The Missing Years" #22 along with an article on the controversy. Ken and Ed will also take listener phone calls, too. 'Nuff Said airs from midnight June 21 to 1 a.m. June 22 on WBAI-FM (99.5).


Column 1998 Long Island Voice. 300 artwork 1998 Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.