The ubiquitous image of the Spartan appears in just about every platform of popular culture, from sports team names to the movie screen in features like “300.” With this idea of the Sparta as the ultimate warrior dominating popular perception, Kieron Gillen and Ryan Kelly step back to take a look at the society that built such ruthless soldiers in the debut of their new series by focusing on the titular three members of the Helot slave class. Meticulously researched, “Three” #1 easily orients the reader to this foreign world and builds complex but helplessly likeable characters that resonate beyond the trappings of time.
For those unfamiliar with the workings of ancient Greece, Gillen kicks off the issue with a succinct but foreboding overview of the society in a few simple pages. Readers will have no problem diving into the meat of the story having already taken in his bite-sized portions of fascinating historical fact, aided by Clayton Cowles’ bold lettering and apropos font choices. Gillen’s expository method is simple but not condescending, providing a nice balance for readers of all persuasions. However, while this introduction works effectively in setting up the mood of the story, it feels a little disconnected from the rest of the issue, perhaps because it doesn’t share the same character set and is unclear about when and where the episode takes place. Though this is a minor issue, the overall plot would have been much stronger if the scene had bridged the gap through one character’s personal history.
When our three main protagonists — Klaros, Damar, and Terpander — appear in the story after a masterful transition, Gillen builds diverse, dynamic personalities that are charming despite themselves: Klaros for his gruff Harrison Fordesque demeanor; Damar for her no-nonsense attitude; and Terpander for his quick turns of phrase. Within the span of a few short pages, Gillen crafts complex characters with evident, natural flaws who interact organically with each other, making it all the more impressive just how enjoyable they read. Terpander, in particular, stands out for his dual role of Helot and historian. Through Terpander, Gillen institutes deeper themes into his work, ones about controlling narrative and storytelling in itself, weaving in metafictional motifs in typical Gillen fashion.
Ryan Kelly’s style compliments Gillen’s writing beautifully. The characters’ personalities radiate out of their facial expressions and body language; distinctive traits, like scars and battle wounds, add depth and hint at developed backgrounds. Kelly holds nothing back from the more gruesome facets of the issue, including graphic violence and general human-to-human cruelty, which throws the less glorious aspect of Spartan culture into sharp relief. With the help of colorist Jordie Bellaire, Kelly utilizes some truly spectacular techniques, like the ominous introduction of the Spartans with a flash of lightning and a black-and-white glimpse into the Spartan’s past covered in drops of red blood. Additionally, Bellaire’s sepia-toned introduction provides an excellent contrast between the pastoral scene and the violence to come. Kelly, with Bellaire’s gorgeous color work, absolutely enhances the story with his character work and brilliant devices.
In “Three” #1, history is not written by the victor; rather, it is returned to the Helots with dire consequences. In Gillen and Kelly’s hands, “Three” is a spectacular new series that defies expectation with its astounding depth and rigor. This is definitely a book to keep an eye on.