Three Volume 1 TP (Anglais) Broché – 22 avril 2014
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Three by Kieron Gillen and Ryan Kelly
Gillen is one of my favorite comic book writers for Marvel, so I was extremely eager to pick up Three, a new series written by him for Image. Otherwise, I wouldn’t normally find myself picking up a book on Ancient Sparta. I suppose I’ve always been partial to Athens. So, I had mixed feelings going into the book . . . and I have mixed feeling coming out of it as well.
Being the academic that I am, it pleases me to see that Gillen worked with Professor Stephen Hodkinson as an historical consultant, and I like the extensive notes in the back of this trade collection. Both Gillen and professor Hodkinson write these notes, and it’s enjoyable to see how clearly they enjoy discussing the historical material they had to work with and how that often questionable information had to be used to shape, but not fully determine, what is ultimately a fictional story about three people.
As an English professor, I think the story of three people against an historical backdrop is more interesting than the details of the historical backdrop itself. However, the basic historical situation must first be understood before I mention the characters: The Helots have such a harsh life that Gillen states directly in the comic that they are “Beneath slaves.” The sons of the free men, The Krypteia, undergo a “rite of passage” where they purge the strongest looking Helots once a year in order to keep any potential uprisings in check. Ironically, their very attempts at preventing uprisings give the Helots their greatest reasons to engage in rebellion: Revenge.
From the first few pages of the comic, then, we side with the Helots, and it’s no surprise that the THREE of the title are all Helots who have our sympathy before we even get to know them. The three are very different types, which makes their coming together have an interesting dynamic. Without going into much detail about the event that causes their crisis, they must join together, resolve their differences, and fight to stay alive.
Klaros is an attractive, manly butcher who, other than his injured leg, seems strong and self-possessed; Damar is a strong-spirited, beautiful young woman who is dark-haired like Klaros; and Terpander is as unlike Klaros as is possible: Though he has no injuries, he is skinny and looks more weakly than the injured Klaros. He is blonde and fair-skinned, and compared to Karos’s brooding silence, Terpander is a bubbling brook of words and puns that seem to annoy all who hear them.
I give these descriptions because they reveal the question at the heart of the story — How do people of such different temperaments come together and survive together under extreme pressure? Their survival itself touches on another thematic point: How does one’s environment shape character and identity? Gillen offers answers to that question by looking at what happens to three very different people who have in common only a very immediate threat to their lives, but he also asks it when he turns to the leaders of Sparta, one of whom says:
Lycurgus took a hound and a house-dog. He trained the house-dog to hunt and petted the hound. When it came to the test, the house-dog was a better hound than the hound. The point was training is more important than breeding. Our blood is irrelevant. What matters is what we do now.
For me, these thematic concerns make the story more interesting than it would be otherwise, but Three didn’t move me emotionally as much as I had hoped it would. Still, the three main characters and their verbal exchanges are what make me enjoy the book as much as I do. Each has a hidden history, secrets to reveal, and I like seeing them come to terms with one another’s past as well as their own. Finally, I love the art. My feelings are not divided there: Three is an absolutely beautiful book, and even though the book is not 100% historically accurate visually, the notes explain why Gillen and his team made the choices they did.
If you liked the movie 300 and are interested in the history of that time and place, then I can’t help but think you’d enjoy this book.Even if, based on your own knowledge of history, you don’t like all the choices made by Gillen, I think you’d greatly appreciate the trade edition just for the notes in the back that explain all the reasons for those decisions. And if all else fails, you can sit back and enjoy the art.
The Spartans like to travel in packs of 300 so the king takes 300 warriors to kill the three Helots. Even the king recognizes the overkill, but he seizes the opportunity to give one of those inspiring speeches the Spartans love so well. In any event, at 300 against 3 the odds are not good for the brave Helots.
Three is an interesting story, in part because it casts the Spartans in a different light. Instead of glorifying their ability to wage war and praising their nobility in devotion to a hopeless cause, the story depicts the ugly side of Spartan history by exposing their arrogant hypocrisy and vicious thuggery. While the Spartans die hard (not necessarily a sign of intelligence or even virtue), the Helots would prefer not to die. Live Free and Stay Alive would be their license plate motto, but die they must. Three shows us that violent death is more often senseless than it is glorious or noble. In that sense, Three tells a more honest story than "300."
Three is, in the end, a moving story. The writing is strong. The art is at least adequate. There are a bunch of endnotes that students of history might want to devour but this is a work of fiction and I think fiction should speak for itself so, as is my custom, I skipped them. I would give Three 4 1/2 stars if I could.
The Helots were Sparta’s slaves who economically supported Sparta with agricultural work. They bore the brunt of Sparta’s cruel culture and were often humiliated and murdered – a ritual held every autumn called the Crypteia allowed Spartans to freely kill Helots for sport without punishment.
During Crypteia, some Spartans appear at a Helot hovel and things get out of hand. But rather than take the punishment once again, three Helots stand up to the Spartans and kill them all – save one who manages to escape. The solitary Spartan makes it back and alerts his king of the three Helots’ behaviour and the king raises 300 warriors and heads off to punish the Helots.
Three is an interesting inversion of 300’s story where the Spartans have gone from being the heroic underdogs to villainous oppressors and the Helots have taken the narrative place of the original 300. It’s like Kieron Gillen wants to show everyone who enjoyed 300 (myself included) that, by the way, the Spartans were psychos, not heroes, and that it’s a damn good thing their culture failed to endure.
The finale becomes even more 300-esque when the three Helots – Klaros, Damar and Terpander – are tricked into a dead end by a turncoat (a space “no more than a goat-herder’s path” – sound familiar?) but manage to hold off the Spartans (wearing the classic Leonides armour) thanks to the cave’s narrow entrance, like a miniature version of the Hot Gates themselves.
I might be reading too much into it but because Three feels so very heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s 300, I wondered if the final scene of the book is a commentary on Miller himself – in the same way Sparta becomes a mere shadow of its once glorious self, that a once great artist has fallen so hard and become the same.
Yet for all its similarities to 300, it’s a far more compassionate with characters who seem more real and human than Miller’s unstoppable warriors. Gillen critiques the society the Spartans were fighting to preserve from the Persians in the first place by focusing on the injustice and cruelty practiced by the Spartans on the human beings they treated like animals, whose already desperate lives were ruined by sadistic thugs with twisted values. And yet it’s the same story of a small group of people who stand up to overwhelming numbers of oppressors and say “we will not submit – we will fight!”.
Three is a sobering and thoughtful coda to the story of Sparta, a story that has been represented in recent popular culture as all chest-beating macho bravado and glory and yet which ended so weakly in real life. A compelling and fascinating comic with great writing and art, Three is an excellent comic that’s well worth reading.