Frank Miller’s work in comics has been nothing short of phenomenal: he made his name in superhero comics in the 80s, created Sin City in the 90s, and has successfully transferred his skills to movies in the last few years. One of his crowning glories slotted amongst the superheroes and the noir of Sin City though, in the form of 300.
In this beautifully illustrated book Miller retells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, fought in 480 BC, when a relative handful of Spartans held off a vastly superior invading force of Persians using superior tactics, knowledge of local geography and an incredible reserve of bravery and strength.
Miller builds an stunning vision of the ancient world and the larger-than-life characters who made it their own. Leonidas, king of the Spartans, is depicted as a truly heroic figure, who Miller distils with an outlook on the world that is millennia ahead of his time. Xerxes, king and self-proclaimed god of the Persians, is a towering tyrant, interested in nothing more than his expansionist regime, struggling to fathom how anyone could stand in his path or turn down his generous and forcibly applied offers of servitude.
Leonidas’s army is made from young men, barely more than boys, but the Spartans spend their childhoods training to nobly sacrifice themselves in battle, ready for a life of war. At least, those do that haven’t already been cast out for being too weak. Alongside them stand a scraggy collection of part-timers, drawn together from neighbouring kingdoms. Xerxes’s soldiers are professional too but are coerced and beaten onto the battlefield, leaving the Greeks with ample opportunity to give them a good going over before their inevitable over-whelming.
Although the battle is the focus of the book, the fighting plays second fiddle to the characters. When fighting is depicted, Miller doesn’t hold back in terms of showing us the full horror of what’s happening, but he captures fragments of time, preferring epic, chaotic dioramas to multiple panels. It’s an almost classical approach, rendering sequence obsolete by somehow capturing the entirety of a skirmish in a single borderless page. If you’ve seen Zack Snyder’s bone-crunching movie adaptation before reading the book you’ll be surprised at the subtlety of Miller’s depiction of the violence.
Pulling elements from his superhero work and mixing them with the heroics of the ancients is a masterstroke, and results in a furiously entertaining read. Anyone seriously into their history might struggle with the words Miller puts into the mouths of his characters – though it’s clearly well researched, it shouldn’t be taken as anything more serious than an epic dramatisation. But suspend your critical analysis for a moment or two and take 300 for what it is – an amazing classic story, retold by a master of the craft in his own inimitable way. Inimitable that is unless you’re Zack Snyder, whose movie adaptation manages to mix homage, style and add further substance, while successfully turning Miller’s dynamic visuals into stunning moving images.