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The Review of Obscure Books: Three
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jducoeur
The Review of Obscure Books is my occasional column on comics that deserve more attention than I've seen them get. Today's pick is Three, Kieran Gillen's recent look at Sparta.

Now mind, ever since Phonogram, I've been a pretty serious Kieron Gillen fanboy -- he's one of a handful of authors whose work I will buy more or less automatically, because it's always good. But much of it is either superheroes (so there's an element of, "Great if you like that sort of thing") or, eg, Uber, his ultraviolent look at what WWII might really have been like if there had been supers in the mix. (Brilliant, but a pretty typical Avatar book -- you need to be willing to cope with prodigious levels of gore.)

Three is closer to what I think of as Gillen's sweet spot, though: a short novel that I recommend unreservedly. It isn't precisely a rebuttal of Frank Miller's 300, but the echoes are powerful.

300 was the Sparta of legend, retelling (and embroidering even further) the tale of Thermopylae. This, OTOH, takes place later, in a Sparta that has been dining out on the Thermopylae myth for centuries and has developed a bit of a beer gut in the process. A series of military reverses have reduced Sparta's fighting force considerably, and the empire has become a bit ossified and scared of change. And into that, we toss The Helot Problem.

The core focus of Three isn't on the usual noble Spartiates, but on the Helot slave class that supported them. Like most great classical Greek states, Sparta was built on the backs of slaves. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't exceptionally cruel to them, but it *was* quite arbitrary. This is the tale of what happens when one of those "arbitrary" moments goes sour, a few of the Helots snap, and the state is forced to make an example of them, hunting them down as they go on the run.

It's a somewhat grim tale, but beautifully honest, with none of the hagiography of 300. The Helots aren't by any means perfect: they're just a few decent people who are trying to find a little freedom and fairness in the world. And the Spartiates aren't consistent nasties -- the story is more an indictment of a broken system and an increasingly-dysfunctional society, rather than of the individuals in it.

Gillen also tackled the story with admirable seriousness. While it is a work of fiction, it is grounded in a lot of research into the period; that is buttressed by the backmatter, which is an interview with a leading historian of Sparta, discussing the story and how it fits into the historical context. In that respect, it comes off more like Age of Bronze than 300 -- the sort of story I can see being used in a classroom setting to teach some history and culture.

I'm focused on the writing here, but the art of Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire complements the story quite well. It isn't "pretty" art, and it shouldn't be: instead, it is expressive and clear, capturing both the emotional subtleties and the passions well, and setting the dark tone of the tale.

There *is* some serious violence, mind, but only in service to the story. This isn't violence pornography, but we're talking about a life-and-death fight in a military society: death plays an important part here.

Of course, since I just finished it, that means that it came out months ago. But I highly recommend seeking it out in collection. It's a tight little novel (5 issues, so under 200 pages total), and a quick read, but well worth savoring. Check it out...
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