Monday, 21 September 2009

5 Days of Death: 300

Note- Apologies for the cropped nature of these scans; 300 is a wide book and so it was hard to fit whole pages on my scanner.

300, written and drawn by Frank Miller and colored by Lynn Varley, is a 5 part graphic novel about the last stand of Leonidas of Sparta at the battle of Thermopylae. This was the first Frank Miller I ever read, having bought it after seeing the film adaptation - an entertainingly stupid testosterone fest. I found the book to be just as entertaining, but slightly less stupid. After the jump I'll detail a few of the scenes I found most entertaining or notable. By the way, there will be spoilers for the book, film and historical event. If you don't want to know what happened to Leonidas and his bodyguard, stop reading now. Pick up a history textbook instead.

The first scene I will have a look at is an account of how Leonidas was tested as a young lad by being thrown into the wild. Starving and freezing, he is attacked by a wolf...

I knew what would happen here when I first read the comic because, like many others, this scene is transplanted almost entirely into the film. It retains it's impact, however, because on every reading of the comic I smile a little here. The foundation of the dramatic impact of the story is based on making Leonidas and his Spartans seem as awesome as possible, and the wolf scene acomplishes this effortlessly.

The most famous moment of the film is, without a doubt, the moment when Leonidas yells 'THIS IS SPARTA' and kicks a messenger down a pit, essentially declaring a war on Persia. This moment is representative of the film in general; violently idiotic. It's also my ringtone. Shush. This moment is, of course, in the novel, but is a lot less over-the-top, retaining an unexpected feel that is sorely lacking in the film. It still doesn't really stand out as one of the best moments, however. A scene I find a lot more entertaining is the less famous 'Profession' scene, taking place as the Spartans go to war...

Again, sorry for the ugly clipping

This a very funny little scene. I especially enjoy Daxos's final comment. We also get a clearer understanding of the Spartan's warlike nature; their whole society is dedicated to the art of warfare. Needless to say, when the Spartans run into Persian scouts as they arrive at the battlefield, they deal with them easily...

There is something grotesquely beautiful about these corpses, and the effect is amplified by the reaction of the Persian slave. The contrast between the free soldiers and the enslaved conscripts is well presented; the two armies are very different. The Spartans are few in number, but are highly trained, well armed and holding a powerful defensive position between the cliffs of Thermopylae, while the Persian army numbers many thousands of slave soldiers with little training, low morale and poor equipment. This is a great set-up.

This is as good a time as any to talk about the accusations of racism leveled to both the book and the film. Both seem to depict proud, strong Caucasian men fighting swarming, pathetic hordes of dark skinned slaves from the east, led by an androgynous, hubristic coward. This criticism carries some merit; but I feel the fantastical way the story is presented here defuses the potential for racism. The Spartans themselves are faintly ridiculous, claiming to be descendants of Herakles (aka Hercules), throwing babies off cliffs and keeping diseased, inbred priests who seem to largely be in control of the country. The comic has only the loosest connection to the actual story of Thermopylae (as told by Herodontus); it is largely a work of historical fantasy and should be treated as such.

Speaking of fantasy...
...That doesn't really look like 300 men to me, based on the numbers of spears. Is it worth adding inconsistency to the novel just to make a good picture? Well, yes, it probably is. Miller is hardly about to alienate any readers that picked up the book in the first place by using a visual form of poetic licence.

Battle is joined, and we come to what is probably the most famous page of art from the book...

What can be said about this page that hasn't been said already? The use of silhouette and a limited pallet combine to create a stark feel that holds the eye well. It's no coincidence that they used the live action version of this shot for one of the posters for the film, because it encapsulates the whole tone of the story perfectly, with the Persian soldiers fearfully, unthinkingly retreating off the cliff rather than face the spears and swords of the 300.

There are many good fight scenes in this book, but they seem to gel together into an unending banquet of destruction. The madness finally ends when a deformed Spartan betrays the army and leads part of the Persian army on a secret path, letting them flank the Spartans. This is fairly well handled, but despite the fact it is roughly what actually happened this betrayal still feels like a macguffin; a way to subvert the Spartan's established dominance and make them lose.

Cue repetition of pose!

Yeah, that looks unfamiliar

This is a bit too similar to the earlier 'Come and get them' pose, but it still works because of the way the outward appearance of the army has changed. Their spears are notched, their cloaks are ragged, their helmets and shields scratched and bent, but the Spartan soldiers still stand firm. Great stuff, but all good things come to an end. After wounding the Persian king Xerxes, Leonidas and his men finally succumb to the thousands of arrows fire upon them, in a heroic last stand...

Truly, a powerful ending. Quick piece of trivia, the last two text boxes come from the inscription on the monument at Thermopylae (though presumably that inscription is in Greek).

There's a small epiloge style end in which Dillios, the only surviving member of the 300, leads an army of Spartans and other allied Greeks to fight the Persians again, in the name of Leonidas. Miller has crafted a skillfully written and well drawn work which suffers a little from it's own ego. It probably isn't his best work, but it is at times amusing, at other times provocative, and at almost all times entertaining. At the least, this is a book worth reading.

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