Sunday, March 16, 2014

I Reads You Review: 300 #1

300 #1
DARK HORSE COMICS – @DarkHorseComics

STORY/ART: Frank Miller
COLORS: Lynn Varley
EDITOR: Diana Shutz
32pp, Color, $2.95 U.S., $4.15 CAN (May 1998)

Chapter One: Honor

With the recent release of the new film, 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to the worldwide smash hit film, 300.  I decided to re-read the comic book upon which 300 is based.  That would be 300, a 1998 five-issue, full-color comic book written and illustrated by Frank Miller with painted colors by Lynn Varley.  300 was initially published as a monthly comic book, cover dated from May 1998 to September 1998.

Historically inspired, 300 is Frank Miller’s fictional retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae and the events leading up to it.  Miller tells the story from the perspective of Leonidas of Sparta, but a fictional version of this king.

300 #1 (Chapter One: “Honor”) opens in 480 B.C. in the middle of a march by a group of Spartans.  We learn that King Leonidas of Sparta gathered 300 of his best men and marched them towards what is likely a suicide mission.  King Xerxes leads a Persian invasion towards tiny Greece, and Leonidas may have provoked Xerxes.  Now, Leonidas and his 300 march towards the “Hot Gates.”

300 was controversial upon its release and seems to remain so.  It was criticized for being historically inaccurate (by Alan Moore, among others), racist, and homophobic, to name a few.  I found it chauvinistic and a bit xenophobic, and perhaps a little racist.  However, I think the 2007 film adaptation is shamefully and gleefully racist, and it makes a sham of history simply to be racist.  I have decided to reread the comic book series, but to put some space between reading each issue – perhaps a month or two.  The reason is that I want to see how I feel about and what I think of each issue individually.

If anything, I think 300 is more about personal expression of ideas and of art than it is a political, ideological, and social statement, although I think that the series does all three to one extent or another.  Miller has apparently said that the 1962 film The 300 Spartans inspired 300, which he saw as a young boy.  I cannot help but wonder to what extent did it affect and shape his ideas and also his relationship to the world as a cartoonist, artist, and a creator in a medium that the wider American public views as children’s entertainment.  That was true even more so when Miller became a professional comic book artist in the late 1970s.

I think back to the early to mid-1980s.  Frank and few daring (or at least they think they’re daring) creators take a low brow, outsider art form viewed as pabulum for children.  They bring in ideas from other low brow or outsider genres (crime fiction) and creators (Mickey Spillane).  They introduce concepts from movies, television, and comics produced outside of America (samurai films, manga).  They take on the style and storytelling structure and arrangements of classic comic book creators (Will Eisner, Steve Ditko).  Suddenly, Frank Miller is producing the kind of comic books that have not been seen in the states, and his new comics are more explicitly violent, with stylish and striking graphics and visuals.

Suddenly, the big bad system, the media, and those concerned people, parents, citizens, etc. are against complaining about Miller’s work.  So I wonder if 300 is also about Frank Miller the artist and free speech advocate (absolutist?) versus all the people that want popular culture and, in Miller’s case, comics to stay the same.  Hmmm?

Anyway, 300 had some of the most beautiful art seen in comic books at the time of its initial release, and that art remains impressive 16 years later.  Until I read it at Wikipedia, I did not realize that every page of 300 is composed as a two-page spread.  Frank Miller’s graphic style in 300 is similar to what he used in his 1990s series of comic book miniseries, Sin City.  However, this two-page spread format really shows off Lynn Varley’s lush and sumptuous colors.  I don’t know how she did muted and opulent at the same time, but she does.  Honestly, Varley’s colors are what really bring this story to life with a sense of passion, turning Miller’s personal/ideological/historical screed into a story that resonates.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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