Story by Kieron Gillen
Art by Ryan Kelly
Colours by Jordie Bellaire
Cover by Ryan Kelly
Review by Patrick McAleer
Image Comics new series “Three” is one of those rare beasts, a comic book that not only entertains but simultaneously educates the reader. Writer Kieron Gillen has crafted a tale of suffering, slavery and entrenched class strata in ancient Sparta.
Gillen situates his story not among the legendary ‘heroic’ warrior class of Spartans, but rather among the people whose necks they stood on, the Helots. The Helots were the lowliest of the low, little more than livestock. An agrarian people cowered into submission by the militaristic society of Sparta. Indeed it was a rite of passage for young spartan men whilst members of the Krypteia to stalk and butcher Helots. It is during one of these annual bloodlettings that this first issue opens. In the space of the first two pages we are taken from the peaceful, seemingly idyllic rural vistas of ancient Lakonia to the menacing bloodthirsty stares of the Krypteia stalking their Helot prey. What happens next can only be described as truly gruesome.
As the story progresses we move from that visceral sense of slaughter to an encounter between (I’m assuming) our eponymous ‘Three’ Helot slaves. One we learn is a sycophantic quisling of their slave-owning mistress. Of the other two, one is a widow and the other a stoic yet hobbled former soldier-slave. Gillen presents an interesting dynamic between the three and it will be great see how this develops as the story progresses.
The last half of the book depicts an unnerving and ultimately brutal encounter with some of the Spartan elite seeking shelter from a stormy night. This is where my only query of Gillen arises, as it is in this part where we see the aforementioned quisling Helot purposely insult his Spartan guests. It jars with the earlier depiction of him but as this is just the first issue I’m sure he will account for this.
The team that Gillen has assembled to bring his story to life is chock-full of talent. Artist Ryan Kelly evokes the period perfectly, from the rural landscapes to the sack-clothed slaves. He has a more natural style than others, opting for a more realistic lithe body-form for his characters. Even when we meet full blooded Spartans, whilst more muscular than their Helot underlings, it’s still in a more believably athletic way than we’d get from Hollywood. Kelly’s ability to portray the mood through his characters beautifully expressive faces adds to the overall magnificence of this first issue. His panel layouts are inventive, allowing a fuller expression of the bigger scenes whilst employing the situated smaller panels to drive the unnerving immediacy of the later pages home.
Colourist Jordie Bellaire is another of those rare things – a colourist whose name will encourage me to pick up a book. Here, yet again, she does not disappoint. Through her palette, the ancient and dreary lot of the enslaved Helot is encapsulated perfectly with use of brown hues – from ochre to sepia and bronze – to depict both landscape and life. This contrasts beautifully with the dangerous overtones radiated by the Spartan’s blood coloured cloaks, and the more immediate threat of the young Krypteia being clothed in an altogether more shocking tone of red. The dichotomy of existence between the Helot’s agrarian bound serfdom and the Spartan’s fetishization of military service is hammered home through Bellaire’s choice of colours.
Overall this is an exciting new series, with Gillen’s attention to detail being highlighted by the crediting of a Professor from Nottingham University as ‘Historical Consultant’. We are treated in the final pages to a little essay from Gillen in which he explains how the seed of this story germinated one night whilst reading Frank Miller’s 300. Where Miller mythologized the brutal, tyrannical Spartans, Gillen seeks to memorialize those who suffered under them. This is essential reading for comic fans and history nerds alike, and with a foot in both those camps, I couldn’t be happier.
Patrick is a contributing writer for Drunk On Comics. You can follow him on Twitter at @RepStones.