What’s the difference between “Three” and “300?” If you answered 297, you’re only partially right — the former is Kieron Gillen’s latest creator owned book from Image Comics. It not only takes a look at the Spartans made famous by Frank Miller’s tale of Thermopylae, but also comes at the famous warriors from a different angle, painting the historically important group in a more realistic setting.
In Miller’s “300” a group of Spartan warriors led by Leonidas defend Greece against Xerxes and the Persians at a strategically significant location called Thermopylae. Gillen, who enjoys Miller’s tale, read through it one drunken night only to remember a significant historical fact: the Spartans hunted slaves. Looking to shine light on some of Sparta’s darker corners, Gillen got to work on “Three” which takes place a century after the battle Miller made famous.
Backed by artist Ryan Kelly (“Saucer County,” “Local”), colorist Jordie Bellaire (“Avengers Assemble,””The Wake”) and historical consultant Prof. Stephen Hodkinson, Gillen tells the tale of a trio of slaves on the run from the supposedly heroic Spartans. Now under the gun, Terpander, Damar and Klaros have to rely on their wits and skills to stay ahead of the brutal warriors.
CBR News spoke with the “Iron Man,” “Uber” and “Young Avengers” writer about putting “Three’s” creative team together, the historical context of the story and how a drunken reading experience helped spawn a five issue miniseries. Plus, exclusive art!
CBR News: Between the subject matter and the title, “Three” seems historically related to Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s “300.” Is that accurate or are you just a fellow fan of that era of history?
Kieron Gillen: I’ve been interested in Spartans since I was a kid. The mythologized populist version of Thermopylae is one of those things that just makes your jaw drop to think about. 300 against a million? Heroic stand to the death? That captures the imagination like few things in history. Of course, you also learn it wasn’t like that, which is neither here nor there. The actual story is still astounding.
I enjoy Miller/Varley’s “300.” It comes with its slant, but historical fiction is always about choosing what part of the story you’re actually going to tell, and what you’re trying to say. I know how fiction works. Thermopylae as shield of the west isn’t exactly new.
However, one day, I came home from the pub drunk, crashed down on the sofa and grabbed a book off the shelf. As fate would have it, it was “300.” I was flicking through it and after hitting another of the lengthy monologues about these free men dying for the right of men to be freely free, I just went incandescent and pretty much snarled at the book, “Oh, fuck off. You people hunted slaves.”
And then there was a rare, magical thing and an entire story downloaded in my mind. Its primary cast, its inciting incident, setting, denouement and its title. Basically, a story about everything relating to Sparta which is left out of pro-Spartan descriptions. You know, all the things which made Hitler think of Sparta as his model of a racialist state.
It’s an equal and opposite response to the view of Sparta presented by “300.” The story is an inversion of the Thermopylae myth, so rather than this 300 versus an army, this is the 300 trying to hunt down three slaves. This is how the Spartan system chewed up people. It’s a heroic story about the sort of people who rarely got their stories written down in history.
So is “Three” an attempt at setting the record straight to some extent?
I don’t really think of it in those terms, but I suspect other people will frame it as that. I just want to put out another myth about Spartans and what they mean in the public eye. It’s another way of looking at this period, seen through a different set of eyes.
What can you say about the three slaves who star in the book and what drives them to stay alive during this deadly scenario?
Our “Three” are Terpander, Damar and Klaros. They’re all helots — which is basically Spartan slaves. Helots have traditionally been considered a slave class who, rather than being owned by private citizens, are actually owned by the state itself. That’s not quite true, at least to current Academic beliefs, but there still seems to be some State-influence that isn’t in a Chattel slave.
Anyway, the three are radically different people. Klaros is a butcher who carries a physical disability. Damar is a young widow. Terpander is a city helot put in hiding in an isolated homestead by his Spartan admirers, and is about as mouthy as the rest of the cast put together.
What drives them to stay alive is not to be torn limb from limb by the 300 Spartans pursuing them.
How does the member of the Spartan ruling class mentioned in the solicit text play into the story?
He’s an Ephor — one of the council of five — and his appearance swiftly leads to the disaster that precipitates sending the 300 after these three. You may think that’s overkill, but there’s symbolic, practical and propaganda reasons for this. We’re set in 364 BC, over 100 years after Thermopylae, and for a good chunk of that century Sparta was Greece’s predominant power. A few years previously, Sparta fell as the classic nation of shopkeepers Thebes beat them. In other words, this story is set at the point where we see where Spartan law got the Spartans, and what they’re willing to do to try and keep their Utopia from ticking over.
How did you put together the “Three” art team of Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire? What is it about their work that made them right for this book?
I’ve loved Ryan since “Local” and thought his issues in Brian Wood’s “Northlanders” were feral and romantic — which is exactly what I was looking for. I was introduced by a mutual friend, floated the idea and he was up for it. He’s leaning into the more sensuous, wild inking side of his work — rather than the more restrained approach of something like “Saucer County” — and that’s really appropriate for “Three.”
Jordie is one of the most brilliant and prolific colorists currently working. I didn’t actually ask her whether she’d be up for coloring it, as I could see how many books she’s currently doing. I was chatting to her about recommendations for other colorists, and after suggesting a bunch, she somewhat coyly confessed that she’d be totally up for it and was a big Classical fan. I said “yes” before she had the sense to change her mind. She has the most important trait for a colorist in 2013, which is incredibly good taste and ideas. She knows what to do and has a knack for reinventing and transforming the drawn image.
Prof. Stephen Hodkinson is credited as a historical consultant on this comic — what was that working process like? Did he consult Ryan and/or Jordie as well?
I’d been digging through the research myself and mentioned it to my friend Lynn Fotheringham, also of the University of Nottingham Classics department. She introduced me to Stephen and he kindly offered to consult on “Three.”
The consulting process has been a real back and forth — I was already in a position where I’d had the whole series in a draft state, so I showed him my work, he commented and we went back and forth. Some of it was purely factual, where I’d dropped the ball and misinterpreted something. Other areas were larger and more conceptual, with him bringing something from his original work which added to what I was already exploring.
There’s a section about a particularly rich Spartan mother in the third issue which was distinctly aided from that. There were visual suggestions, but some of it was more focused on how people move — how sword-fights worked, how armor worked, how a sword could be thrown better than a spear and so on. It was certainly more than a fact-check — it was a discussion of the element, the intent and finding the best way to be accurate while also serving the story. Discussing what would be a fair extrapolation of something that is far from historically clear was an interesting example.
I visited Nottingham University’s Department and Classics and sat with a group of very kind Sparta-specialist academics and talked through all this material. It’s been a fascinating experience, to say the least.
I’ve talked to writers working on stories set in the past and some of them have to stop themselves from doing too much research and actually write. Was that a problem for you? Did Prof. Hodkinson help alleviate some of that?
I think I’m as guilty of that as anyone. As I said, part of me is aware this is a story and what serves the story has to be to the forefront. However, I had the desperate urge to make sure it squared as much as I humanly could. It’s something that seems to be across a lot of my work — it’s all over “Uber” at Avatar, for example. I half suspect it comes from my background in Journalism, though maybe not, as as a pop culture journo, I was sloppy as hell.
The best thing was the limitation that there’s just not enough about Helots. When I was getting down to the level of cereal crop types, I realized I had reached the floor level. I also find that, as a writer, you reach a point where you feel you have to write. You immerse yourself in the world to a point, and then are basically pregnant with it.
The Professor helped enormously in many ways, certainly in that area. One of the things was basically showing me the way out of a hole where I’d got lost in a mass of research, interpreting something in an off way. That’s the thing with research — it’s one thing reading something, and it’s another really understandingÂ it.
When you build a story like “Three,” do you put all the pieces together in an outline form before scripting?
I’m a structural writer. There’s a synopsis of the whole thing before I start writing, though the map and the route taken don’t always have an enormous amount to do with one another. When you’re actually writing, you discover things about the characters and areas where you want to explore. There’s a lot of moving scenes between issues, depending how that went. There’s removing of other elements, and invention of other characters — there’s a key one who appears in issue #3, who wasn’t really in the original synopsis at all. And even with the written synopsis, not everything is in there. I leave room to work out specific execution on key elements, just to make sure the process is writing rather than typing. If it’s the latter, the resultant story is pretty damn dead.
You kicked off your comic book career at Image with “Phonogram” and then moved on to Marvel for several years. What’s it like for you getting back into the realm of creator-owned comics?
It’s a delight. I’d planned for “Three” to come out earlier, but the universe conspired a little against us. Even so, it’s still the most recent, newly written my-idea work that’s being released. “Uber” over at Avatar was started back in 2008, for example. To do a story with friends, without having anything to worry about bar trying to make it as excellent as we can is a joy. With the third “Phonogram” planned for next year, a second project coming out at Avatar and hopefully something else, I’m happy to have a bunch of my own stuff out into the world again. It’s an amazing time for new comics, and I’m trying to be a part of it.
Were there any specific tricks or methods you learned while working at Marvel that you were able to implement while creating “Three?”
That’s an interesting question. I’m trying to write this as a heroic, archetypal narrative. I wanted its core story to be as pure and inspiring as the Thermopylae myth itself. While there’s a sociologic and economic portrait of Sparta behind everything, this is as much an action story as anything I’ve written over at Marvel. All these years of writing action certainly come into play, and learning to leave space for an artist to create work. In a real way, the biggest thing I’m bringing back into my indie comics is experience. I’ve written a whole lot more. That allows me to do things I simply didn’t know how to do then.
I’d say the key things about “Three” are unique to “Three” itself. It’s unlike anything else I’ve written. This is me writing in a slightly different style in many places, working out the techniques that actually make this historical story work. Just because it’s a heroic narrative doesn’t mean it works in the same way as a superhero comic, at least in a 1:1 way.
Without getting into spoilers, what are some differences between “Three” and a superhero comic?
It’s a purer story. There’s less need for deconstruction or playing with genre conception. There have been so many superhero stories, you have to move away from the pure archplot to make it work. Hell, in a shared universe, that also changes everything. There’s a lot of other pressures, in terms of what’s been done before and everything else, and what feels fresh.
There’s been very few stories about Helot slaves on the run. I can move closer to the rhythms of legend, myth and historical fiction. Being me, it’s a more complicated structure, but in terms of minimum of moving parts and a classical elegance, this is a world away from my Marvel work.
Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire’s “Three” #1 goes on sale October 9 from Image Comics