If you type in Kieron Gillen in the search bar on the top right of this very page, you will find thirty separate results. I have discussed at length his works over the last couple of years and thrown many plaudits his way. He continues to surprise me enough that on every occasion I am left with something unique to say that has not been mentioned before. The comic book Three is an example of this and is an Image creator owned five part historical story arc. It depicts the dissention of three Helots from their Sparta homes as they flee certain death. They are pursued by King Kleomenes and three hundred Spartan warriors to a canyon with a bottle neck entrance but no exit. This final issue lays to rest the fates of these gallant slaves and give an insight into Spartan mentality upon the eve of their last days of rule.
The plot begins with an accurate and succinct representation of Sparta/Helot life. Gillen plays it as historically straight as possible, focuses on the relationships between groups but without leaning on the key characters. Even the second issue moves delicately into political circles after the Helot revolt. However it is not until the middle of the book when we truly get to spend time with our three protagonists, the crippled warrior Klaros, the silver tongued poet Terpander and the warm and passionate Damar. As we chart their incursions we slowly learn about their personality and backgrounds. Each plays an important role and their interactions are pitched perfectly given their current predicament. Being pursued by Spartans is a terrifying ordeal and Gillen plays of the fear, anger and courageousness whilst maintaining the sensibilities of each character. Klaros is stoic and naturally takes the lead whilst Terpander is petulant and keen to understand what secrets he buries, and Damar acts as the sensible but firm mediator of the men protecting her. The plot reaches a standoff in this issue and forces the two factions to confront one another and expose themselves for who they truly are. The honest and integrity of our heroes three, against the cowardly and insecure Kleomenes’ three hundred.
The artwork by Ryan Kelly is just nerve-rackingly fantastic. He succeeds on a number of levels and emphasises the magnitude of three versus three hundred. His ability to draw multiple Spartans is impressive and his wide-angle shots really highlight the magnitude of the solitary figure. Kelly needs to mount an offensive both physically and verbally that is not only convincing but damming. This is achieved by the detailed grit and determination of expression and fluid motions of flying swords. Praise goes to the flowing panels of shield and swords, as he captures the clunky fluidity of strike and parry. Klaros and Terpander both posture heroically when the time is needed, and wince in agony when their guard is down. Damar is always concerned and sensitive with a perpetual frown, but her role in the final issues is very much holistically supportive.
Jordie Bellaire’s colouring is once again exemplary because this is a deceptively bleak comic brought to life. If you ignore the Spartan uniform, this final issue is incredibly dark and in the shadows of a dimly lit cavern. Only the latter pages of battle occur at sunrise, as the paler yellow reflects a duller tone to the helmets. Whereas during the heat of battle cries there is a glorious righteous yellow from the fire lit torches that allow the red gowns and golden shields to shine. The cavern scenes are deeper emotionally and the subtlety of shading provides stark contrast to the battle just outside. It provides a tender moment of regret, confession and absolution for our trio. Bellaire and Kelly complement each other fantastically and allow Gillen a full complement of themes to express, and vice versa.
The plot sets itself up as a standard rebellious slave story in the backdrop of Sparta. At first glance it is a confrontation against Frank Miller’s 300, but upon closer inspection that becomes a naïve suggestion. The published interview with Professor Hodkinson is testament to immense amount of research carried out of this time period, and the gaps in our knowledge. Kieron Gillen has thoroughly studied this time period and knows exactly how he intends to portray the era of the story. Instead of focusing on the grander ideologies of the Spartans and Helots and producing a purely historical piece, he develops a situation that allows the participants to react against their position in society. This allows the character exposition to demonstrate the internal struggles and toils of the community at hand. It is an impressive feat of imagination to build an environment so intricately woven and develop compelling characters of that era. This is a particular skill that is available to only a few writers and Three represents a successful piece of niche historical fiction.
Kieron Gillen’s process is readily revealed in his blog posts and comics that you often wonder how he assembles his thoughts and ideas into a contained short story. Whether he has constructed a neo-dictatorship in Uncanny X-Men, a civil war in Journey Into Mystery, a gritty superhuman world war in Über or a Britpop musical homage in Phonogram, you can be certain the man has planned meticulously and done his utmost to be just to the world he writes. It is not only a journey into the past but into the mindset of the people of that time. Three is a beautiful body of work and has no real comparison in recent times with respect to historical realism and empathy. It also has a set of creators with unified goals and impressive skillsets producing a comic that will leave you pining for the meek, while a nation falls.
“Because the most unspartan thing of all? No more Sparta”