If Frank Miller can immortalize Spartans, why can’t Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari immortalize Athenians?
Marathon is exactly what it sounds like: an account of the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., brought to us by filmmaker Boaz Yakin (I don’t know why he wrote a comic; his most recent movie was the Jason Statham vehicle Safe, and he doesn’t appear to have an ancient Greek movie in the pipeline) and artist Joe Infurnari. The comic is published by First Second and costs $16.99.
There’s not much to say about the way Yakin writes Marathon. It’s a very straight-forward account of the battle and of Eucles, the legendary Athenian runner who supposedly ran all over Greece before and after the battle (he’s an invention of ancient historians – Herodotus, for instandce – but a pretty cool one).
Early on, we get flashbacks to Eucles as a boy, winning a race and impressing the Athenian tyrant, Hippias, who kills his own son for finishing second to a lowly slave (Hippias is not a nice guy). Eucles becomes his personal messenger, but with one condition: If he fails, his parents will be killed. So of course he does fail – once – because the other boys, including Hippias’ son Philon and Philon’s best friend, Antigonos, are jealous of his rise and beat him up. Later, Hippias is defeated by the Spartans and driven into exile – Eucles begs the Spartan king to have him killed – but years later, he returns as part of the Persian army under their king, Darius. He has been promised Athens as a client kingdom if he helps retake it. And so the stage is set!
If you have any knowledge of Greek history, you know the rest of the story – Eucles runs the 150 miles from Athens to Sparta to ask for help from their king (the same king who exiled Hippias rather than kill him), and, when the king refuses because it’s during a religious festival and the Spartans won’t fight, he runs back to Marathon and joins the fight. The Athenians win a great battle, but the Persians reach their ships and decide to sail around to Athens, 26 miles away, and attack the undefended city. The Athenian army can’t get back in time, so Eucles and some other runners race ahead to tell the citizens that the Persians have been defeated and that they should stand strong until the army returns. Eucles is the only one who reaches the city, and he is able to warn the citizens. The Athenians pretend to be soldiers (they wear old armor and helmets and display captured Spartan battle flags to make it appear Sparta has arrived to give aid) and the Persians are fooled into thinking the army returned and his ready to fight. And, of course, Eucles drops dead from all the running and the fact that he has an infected wound. Such is life.
Yakin doesn’t do much with the timeline or with storytelling devices, preferring instead to tell Eucles’ story as simply as possible. That’s probably a good decision; this is an epic tale, and doesn’t need much embellishment.
He doesn’t go too overboard with the speeches about the freedom of Athens and how the Greeks are the bulwark of civilization – there’s a bit of that, but it’s mostly what you would expect from people trying to drum up support for a defense of their home – some the Athenians are perfectly happy to submit to Darius, but they’re not as happy to welcome back Hippias, while Yakin makes a good point about the Greeks not really being a united people – each city made its own decisions about their fate. It’s almost impossible not to compare this to 300, due to the similar subject matter (Thermopylae occurred 10 years after Marathon and Leonidas even has a cameo in this book), but Miller’s book is much more mythical (even though Yakin bases this book on a myth) – perhaps because of Miller’s artwork. Yakin tries to set this much more in the “real world,” so he’s more interested in the messy politics of the time. Plus, Miller’s characters are more archetypes than people, while Yakin makes the people in his book more accessible. Eucles is a good man but he also holds grudges far too long – in the end, he and Antigonos make it the closest to Athens, yet only at the end does Eucles give up his childhood anger at Antigonos, who has grown into an honorable soldier. Yakin also points out that Persia was somewhat of a cultural mecca – Miltiades, the Athenian general, served in the Persian army in his youth and learned warfare from his adversary on the field of Marathon. So despite the antagonism between the two sides, it’s not as if the Greeks and the Persians were unfamiliar with each other. In subsequent centuries, with the benefit of hindsight, Marathon is seen as a watershed even in the development of Western civilization, but Yakin does a good job portraying it simply as a small city trying to stay free from an invader. He concentrates more on the people, especially Eucles and his superhuman feat, and that’s what makes the narrative stronger.
Yakin’s story is greatly helped by Infurnari, whose art is fantastic. He uses a rough, brutal line, expressing the horrors of battle and the gritty land in which the battle occurs. Greece is a harsh land of mountains and dusty plains, and Infurnari’s art shows that well. Impressively in a static medium, he manages to infuse the running scenes (and there are many of them) with a kinetic ferocity that heightens the drama of the overall narrative. The book is 180 pages long, but it reads fast because Infurnari doesn’t let the reader slow down. The battle scenes are magnificent – Infurnari gives us a wonderful sense of the size of both armies (the Persians vastly outnumbered the Athenians) as well as the bloody brutality of the close-in fighting. There’s one scene that doesn’t make sense – the Persian general says that they’re caught in a vise, but Infurnari doesn’t do a good job of showing said vise – but otherwise, it’s marvelous.
Then Eucles and his cohorts start running to Athens, and Infurnari shines there, as well. As the messengers run along the coast, one Persian ship tracks them, and Philon, who’s on the ship, orders it to crash into the beach so he and his men can head the runners off. It’s an impressive scene, and Infurnari manages to make a ship chasing a group of men exciting. Once in the mountains, the “marathon” becomes a cat-and-mouse game, with the Athenians gradually losing men as one and then another gets wounded and stays behind to fend off the Persians for as long as he can. Infurnari not only does a wonderful job with the runners trying to keep going, but the small battles between the individual Athenians and the pursuing Persians are amazing in their choreography and meanness – the fights may be smaller, but they’re no less ugly. Of course Antigonos needs to meet Philon on the field, as they were once friends who have taken opposite paths, and Infurnari makes sure to show that as noble as the Athenians might be, the individual battles are still horrifying. Obviously, the only problem with the art is that almost everyone is a bearded white guy, so while we can easily distinguish the Persians and Greeks (who wear different uniforms) and the main characters (Eucles, for instance, might have a beard, but he rarely wears a helmet, so he’s easy to pick out), when the messengers start running for Athens, it becomes more difficult to figure out who’s who. It’s a minor problem, but there it is. Otherwise, the art is stunning.
I realize this is very much a male-oriented story – Eucles’ wife, Nia, plays a small part, but it’s honestly only to show that Eucles has something to fight for besides Athens – but it’s still an excellent male-oriented story. Obviously, it’s not going to appeal to everyone, but if you’re in the mood to read a very good war story, this fits the bill. It’s nice that Yakin celebrates running as much as he celebrates fighting, because Eucles is as much or more of a hero as Miltiades or anyone else who fought at Marathon. It’s an exciting comic made even better by the tremendous artwork, and for that reason, I Strongly Recommend Marathon. Well, at least I do if you’re interested in this kind of subject. Obviously, that’s not everyone. But that’s why we have free will!