Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Ryan Kelly, Jordie Bellaire
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: October 9, 2013
Classics majors of the world rejoice: Three is here to keep you from tearing your hair out every time someone asks you if you liked the movie 300. Kieron Gillen did his homework – the professor is even credited at the front of the book – and the payoff is something authentic, beautiful and bold.
This is the story of three helots – basically slaves only worse off – living in Sparta at its peak. Sparta has a pop culture reputation as a mighty, noble warrior state that fought for its fellow Greeks when the Persians came sailing in. While they were the fiercest fighters, the Spartans were never democrats, did not value freedom for all men, and had a fair amount of contempt for the rest of the Hellenic city-states. The country was led by two kings, who shared power with an annually elected group of five men called ephors. The definition of citizen in Sparta was very narrow. Foreigners were not welcome, and the helots were slaves to the state itself. Therefore, their treatment very much depended upon who was in front of them at any given moment. They also outnumbered the Spartan citizenry by a large degree, so they did all sorts of horrible things to them to keep them in line and scared. Helots still existed in Sparta well until after the Romans conquered it.
With this story, Gillen makes all that boring stuff I just wrote feel like it happened yesterday, as opposed to a millennia ago. The overt themes of social and political class are hard to miss, but they aren’t cloying or distracting. The story is a sophisticated metaphor, and the dialogue reads like an excellent translation text, giving it an authentic feeling. The journey from the krypteia – one of those horrible things I mentioned above – to the night of the ephor’s visit shows how little control our three helots – Klaros, Damar, and Terpander – have over their own lives. The depictions of subhuman treatment are painful. At the same time, the three are not a monolith. They have personalities and petty feuds and prejudices. Their spirits are not quite broken. Well, actually, they might be, after that last page (which came too abruptly for me).
The art is rustic and dramatic, conveying setting and mood together in a way that draws you in and envelops the reader. When lighting crashed, I paused waiting to hear thunder. Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire combine rich colors and deep shadows to make Lakonia a living nightmare for most of its inhabitants. The cover alone is one of the most gorgeous I’ve seen this year. Rather than evoking the uber-macho heroism of 300, Three is a picture of hopelessness and helplessness.
Anyone who likes historical fiction needs to pick up Three. In one issue, Gillen has already reminded us why western civilization took most of its philosophical cues from the Athenians rather than the Spartans. In the remaining four, I expect to see a sharp picture of a great society reliant on a permanent underclass, contrasted against the real suffering and desires of individual people. Ancient civilizations are more than their great battles and surviving monuments, and it’s worth digging into the ugly parts to find a more complete story.