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Frank Miller's 300

There's been a stigma about comics since their inception, and it's that comics are juvenile and hold no redeeming value, save for their pretty pictures.

For those of us who have been reading comics for years, starting when we were children and maturing along with our comic books, it's been an uphill battle to garner credibility for the literary medium we love.

There have been attempts at it (Alan Moore's Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus for example), and while these works have gained some respect for comics in general, the credibility is usually laid upon the writers and artists themselves, rather than the medium. One book that has taken a significant step in demonstrating the ability of comic books to tell historical fiction, bringing with it the credibility that accompanies such a genre, is Frank Miller's 300.

300 is the tale of the Battle of Thermopylai during the beginning engagements of the Greco-Persian War in 480 B.C. It was here, at a narrow mountain pass called The Hot Gates, that a force of seven thousand Greeks, three hundred Spartan soldiers at the forefront, managed to hold off the hordes of the Persian god-King Xerxes, a force that dwarfed the small army of the Greeks.

The Greeks held the pass for three days, and it seemed they would be able to endure the assault until a collaborator betrayed their position. Persian soldiers took a small band of Greeks who were holding a strategically indispensable position by surprise, slaughtering them. When watchmen brought word of this to the bulk of the army, most of the forces deserted, save for a few brave volunteers, and all three hundred of the Spartans. They met the forces of Persia and bloodied their spears before succumbing to the vast numbers they faced. While the battle was lost, this battle quickly fell into legend and helped to inspire the rest of the Greek city-states to raise arms and push the Persians back across the sea.

The story is as historically accurate as any other piece of historical fiction, with Miller taking only a few artistic liberties here and there. (An example is found during a panel depicting the approaching Persian hordes, some riding elephants, which the Persians did not employ.)

In an interesting twist, the story is told through the thoughts of King Leonidas of Sparta (an actual historical character rather than one crafted specifically for the sake of the story), the commander of the Spartan forces. In telling the story through Leonidas, Miller gives the reader an ancient Grecian cultural education as the King encounters the demands of Spartan law, butting heads with the corrupt priests of his community, the Ephors, who will not allow him to raise a true army of Spartans to counter the Persians. Also, the reader gets a glimpse of the role and demeanor of women in ancient Sparta during a brief encounter with Leonidas's wife, who tells Leonidas to "Come back with your shield or on it."

But besides all these smaller instances of historical accuracy, the overall feel of the book conveys a deeply begrudging respect for the Spartans. The Spartans themselves were warriors born and bred. From the age of seven, Spartan boys began their training in war and were enrolled into the army at twenty. They lived in the barracks until they turned thirty, when they were allowed to live at home with their wives. Those lucky few that made it to sixty were permitted to retire, where they could then join the paella, the legislative portion of their government. The Spartans lived harsh lives and Miller truly captures the feel for this in his treatment of the history.

Miller also handles the art duties with his usual panache and flair. While not as dark as most of his other work, Miller proves that he is still the master of negative space, crafting very detailed lines and dark and lingering shadows. The battle scenes are appropriately bloody, and the reader doesn't miss a single spear-thrusting second thanks to Lynn Varley's expert coloring. Miller and Varley have been working together for years and they blend their abilities seamlessly on paper. Miller's battle scenes are a mass of action and Varley colors as such; casting deep, cool colors around at times when the action is slower, and fading to a gritty gray tinged with blood spatter when depicting scenes of massive confrontation. Expertly done on all accounts.

This can be a hard book to find at times. When Dark Horse Comics put out the original issues, they had a low print run and the comic itself is printed sideways (the book is wider rather than longer), which made displaying it hard for comic sellers. The collected edition is an oversized hardcover and it runs pretty expensive at $30.00, but, should you not be a big fan of capitalism (you rotten commies) and you don't plan to buy it, 300 can be found at your local library: residing there as a part of the recent trend wherein libraries are starting to stock comic books. So grab your wallet, make sure your library card is still in there, and find yourself a copy to read.

Though, should you find yourself reaching for the platinum card instead of the library card, make sure you purchase through the Fanboy Planet link provided so we can stay alive and continue providing you, the readers, with free and fun opinions about the things that matter most: comics, movies, and the false god we all pray to, television.

300 (30% off at Amazon)

Robert Sparling

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