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Three Three

Three back

Kieron Gillen & Ryan Kelly, Jordie Bellaire


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Ancient Greece, 364 B.C. and Sparta is in trouble.

It has lost battles, it has lost empire, but it is determined not to concede its sense of self: what it means to be Spartan. What it has retained in abundance is pride.

This book is riddled with pride.

Eastern Lakonia, and the land is being worked by Helots, slaves owned not just by individual masters and mistresses but who are also in service to the state, shared when deemed necessary.

Now, lords and masters inviting themselves to supper unannounced isn’t something unique to the Spartans. The British monarchy were doing it right up to Queen Victoria’s time, but at least most of them had the decency to phone ahead. Not so here, as Ephor (civic official) Eurytos and his bullish son Arimnestos plus their heavily armed entourage set foot in an unsupervised, communal Helot household late at night demanding hospitality.

You can tell Nestos is a particularly officious dick because he’s wearing a Corinthian helmet which really wasn’t the thing anymore unless you were intent of impressing on everyone around you how rich and important and powerful you are.

So it is that, not content with food, drink and shelter, an evening’s entertainment is contrived, humiliating the Helots by plying them with unwatered wine and making them dance drunkenly round the fire naked. It’s then that Nestos cannot resist upping the ante and things grow swiftly squalid until Helot Terpander – who can never resist sticking his oar in while sober – goads the proud Nestos with a history lesson involving, oh, I don’t know, lost battles and lost empire.

Unsurprisingly all hell breaks loose as Eurytos demands every last Helot be slaughtered. What does surprise is that taciturn Klaros is far from the maimed slave he’s claimed to be, and the tide of battle is turned leaving only Nestos to run with his tail between his legs.

It’s here that things for me grew particularly fascinating as the story switches to Sparta and more of its traditions are explored we meet one of its two kings, Kleomedes II, and his right-hand man and former lover Tyrtaios. Kleomedes isn’t particularly well respected on account of his father’s failure at Leuktra (lost battle, lost empire), so when that brat Nestos staggers into town with news of Eurytos’ death, Eurytos’ fellow Ephors – the true rulers of Sparta – command King Kleomedes to track down the three surviving slaves – Terpander, Klaros and Damar – and kill them. You might think that a waste of a perfectly good king (Kleomedes does) but I did warn you the Spartans were proud. There must be no signs of weakness… like running from a battle with your tail between your legs.

Such cowards were called Tremblers and when Nestos is sent home, humiliated by having half his fledgling beard shaved off, he is roundly rejected by his mother.

“It would even have been better if we had a daughter. At least then it would have been less likely she would disgrace the line.”
“You speak as if I were one of your horses.”
“These will soon be bound for Olympia. They will race. And, if I am any judge, this year they will win. They are the finest in Greece. You are most unlike my horses.”


“I had a son. I loved him. I wish he had come home.”

So it is that we follow three parties: the Helots fleeing west to Messene, Kleomedes and Tyrtaios in pursuit and Nestos… well, his pride isn’t going to take any of this lying down, is it?

This is Gillen’s direct reaction to having re-read Frank Miller & Lynn Varley’s 300 after a late-night booze bash. It’s a lot less formal and far more personal, revelling in its research with the help of Nottingham University’s Classics Department (Professor Stephen Hodgkinson, Lynn Fotheringham et al) and delighting in lacing every conversation and confrontation in the book with its results.

Gillen’s conversation with the professor exploring Spartan and Helot traditions and the very latest findings are reprinted in the back, along with a new notes section supplied by Kieron on what is currently considered to be historical fact (it’s an ongoing endeavour) and which aspects are informed supposition and literary flourishes. I was, for example, completely unaware of the Helots’ curious reaction to wine but have now added that biological predisposition to my knowledge box where it will continue to rattle round virtually friendless.

Helot Terpander’s storytelling (via PHONOGRAM’s Kieron Gillen, obviously) is particularly impressive, its sentence structure in places reflecting that of the classics. There are a great many stories told here – the Greek’s were quite keen! – and exchanges are rammed with reasoning or loaded with guile depending on the speaker’s intentions.

You can tell when a creative team is really relishing what they’re doing and, like any great oratory, this commands one’s attention.

Even the skies are transfixing: some of the colours chosen are far from obvious but throughout you get a true sense of each time of day which is vital when you’re in a race. The golden armour glows under torchlight and the uphill battle climaxes are injected with so much adrenaline that I lost several pounds then slumped over exhausted.

Ryan Kelly you may know from Brian Wood’s magnificent LOCAL, THE NEW YORK FOUR and THE NEW YORK FIVE, all highly recommended pieces of contemporary comicbook fiction starring women. Yet Ryan’s eye for history, combat and outright frenzy is as impressive as it is for contemporary North American architecture and, combined with some startling work by colourist Jordie Bellaire, you will know by page five the true meaning of bloodlust.
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