Every day this month, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to a single artist. This week: Frank Miller! Today’s page is from 300 #5, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated September 1998. Enjoy!
300 is a masterpiece, perhaps the last time Miller skirted the line between brilliance and insanity that he seems to have tipped over in the last decade, and his decision to do the entire book in double-page spreads is genius, giving the grand epic of Spartans fighting Persians a sense of vastness that it deserves and might have lacked otherwise. The final issue begins with the Persian attack breaking against the massed Spartans, and Miller gives us this tremendous page that shows his progression as an artist. He is still a technical master, but he has moved beyond showing us details and gives us silhouettes that are still more intricate than many artists’ designs. He moves our eyes in an oval effortlessly, with the whip and scimitar pointing the way to the right and instead of us going back to the left, we go straight down to the Spartan dominating the bottom panel, pointing back to the left with his spear. This tension is reflected in the writing – “Those behind cry, ‘Forward!’ Those in front cry, ‘Back!'” – as Miller pushes and pulls us where he wants us to go, making us feel the ebb and flow of battle. The Spartan in the foreground is lit, the only character on the page not in silhouette (although his face is), yet we see the armored Persians, the shape of their shields, even the frizzy hair of the Greeks, and we don’t miss the details in the least. Miller pushes the Persians forward in the first panel and then, like they’re on a string, yanks them back when they crash into the Spartan line in the second panel.
Lynn Varley’s paints are beautiful, too, as they are throughout the book. She does this quite a bit in the book – when we see sky, it’s often pale, pink, wispy with clouds, and nostalgically evocative. It’s not a war sky, but it does speak of the doom descending on the Spartans, and we feel strangely sentimental when we see her skies. She obviously doesn’t have much to do with the actual characters on this page, but the dull gold of the Spartans’ bronze armor and the dark red of their cloaks help create a feeling of blunt brutality – this is not a shiny, joyous war, but a bitter struggle for survival. The Greeks are always colored thus, while Xerxes’ gaudy ambassadors and silver-masked Immortals are meant to imply a lack of seriousness about the business of war.
300 is an artistic masterpiece, and the highlight of Miller’s later career. He was still combining simple shapes with intricate details in a heady mixture. As we’ll see tomorrow, he soon began to lose the intricacy and go even more basic. Would that be a mistake? Only you can judge! Bone up on your judging skills by perusing the archives!