Sunday, February 11, 2007

Frank Miller's 300

In the mid-1980s DC turned to a writer-illustrator from rival Marvel Comics in order to revive its flat lining Batman franchise. Frank Miller, who had worked thanklessly on numerous cheesy storylines for Daredevil, took that opportunity and crafted a Batman who was part hero-part vigilante, with a flamboyant streak of cruelty and who scared the daylights out of his opponents. More importantly, it celebrated this character who didn’t mind bending morality as long as the end result was to his satisfaction. The result was The Dark Knight Returns and it captivated the imagination of readers and energized Batman creatively and DC financially. It was hailed as a seminal event in comic book history.

Years later, Miller returned to pen a sequel
DK2 in which he drove his point home by staging the battering of flagship hero Superman by an aging Batman and his super hero friends.

All of this became part of comic book folklore and Miller’s subsequent works became bestselling events. Some of them, like Ronin and Sin City, were made into movies.

What marks Miller’s work is that each panel he illustrates can pack shards of passion, cruelty, tragedy, bravery, triumph - basic human wreckage. His drawings capture emotion by coding it into how his characters carry themselves, how they present their silhouettes, and above all, the look in their eyes. Beyond conveying essential emotion, the drawings are coarse, the lack of detail providing a singular point of focus.

In his ambitious graphic novel,
300, Miller takes us through the essential events of the Battle of Thermopylae. The battle itself was short but the campaign on either side was a lengthy one, resulting in the later repulsion of the Persian forces at the battle of Salamis. This tale is often presented by Western historians as a triumph of democracy over slavery won in the face of overwhelming odds and treachery. It’s not difficult to extrapolate a whole bunch of racist undertones in this.

There are a few problems with this concept. The Greeks themselves in those days were enthusiastic practitioners of slavery, rapine and other forms of barbarism. They had monarchies as well. They had a harsh culture, especially in Sparta, where babies not worthy of becoming soldiers were killed at birth. Persian culture was fairly diverse and rich, although no one is suggesting that it was superior or less bloody and cruel in any way to that existing in Greece and its neighboring states.

Sure, the map of civilization in the western world would have looked very different if Xerxes had expanded his empire by consuming the states of Greece. And the beginning of the slow decline of the vast Persian Empire can be synchronized back in time to their unsuccessful attempt to subjugate Greece. The significance of Thermopylae can be grasped easily but as we all know, the winners get to write history. Or as in this case, the losers get to lionize their own because of better PR.

300 starts with the Spartans, led by their proud and violent king
Leonidas – already a living legend in his country – leading his men up to the pass of Thermopylae. As the group marches, Miller sketches out the events leading up to the present in flashbacks. This opening sequence maps out a tone of heroism amidst impending doom that runs through the rest of the book.

Miller stylizes his key characters, most notably Ephialtes, depicting him as a horribly disfigured hunchback. He also presents Xerxes I as a lean, hairless, ebony king layered in gold chains. As far as Ephialtes goes, Miller’s depiction is conjecture at best and with Xerxes, it’s downright inaccurate. Events are also jiggered quite a bit in a way that will test your patience if you hold history dear. All of this is quite deliberate, an edgy and admirable artistic license that allows Miller to cover vast storytelling ground in such a shortened format.

Heroic profiles and silhouettes are used to depict the pride of the Spartans. Stories abound of how Spartans bred their men to be the ultimate warriors and their women to be mothers and wives to these men. When Leonidas heads out to the battle from which he will not return, his queen evokes an oft used phrase in Sparta – “Come back with your shield or on it” – implying that you either returned victorious or as a corpse. These themes of ancient masculinity also course through the book.

When depicting the devastating force of the battle itself, Miller’s drawings take on a haunting and unkempt look. They are forceful in their effectiveness. 300 is worth reading if you are a fan of comics or history on either the western or eastern side of the world.

It is also being made into a very striking
motion picture by Warner Brothers to be released on March 9 this year.

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