Previously best known for his reinventive Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and his ultra noir-ish Sin City, Frank Miller again surprised audiences 20 years ago with 300, his historical account of the Spartan armies of Greece. Miller had since returned to those other franchises, but now finally revisits ancient Greece in Dark Horse Comics' Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander #1.
The five-issue series isn't exactly a sequel to 300, and in fact takes place several years earlier. Instead, it's been described by the publisher as a companion to Miller's original series, referencing the Spartans but featuring an altogether different Greek army facing off Persian invaders. Miller's follow-up, though, contains a similar array of soldiers, colorfully characterized in the course of a script rich in visual verbiage that makes for a compelling introduction to his long-awaited next chapter.
Miller's cast contrasts the glorious efficiency of the Spartans with the more diverse but no less valiant army of soldiers going into battle against Persian forces. The narration describes this band of soldiers as everyday men simply defending their homes -- but their actual demeanor is far deadlier. Miller's description of his characters belies their actions; each of the soldiers who are given their moment are decidedly unique, and dangerous. Whereas the Spartans' strength was in their unity, this Athenian army finds strength in its diversity.
Warrior Aeskylos, for example, is quick to break formation, but literally cuts through his enemies with ninja-like precision. The squadron's captain is forced to improvise, but inspires those under his command as he does so. And the army's general carries a curious sense of majesty that's more befitting of a throne than a battlefield. With the first issue, Miller establishes a bond with readers through his characters, by way of their individuality more so than their cohesiveness as a single entity like the Spartans.
Miller's narration is lush with visual imagery that describe the scene with equal, if not more, detail than his actual art. "Poseidon is in a mood," for example, is a fittingly simple description of the rough and stormy seas faced by the invading armada. These verbal descriptions ironically convey a mental image often stronger than that evoked visually by Miller. But such descriptions make the more verbose parts of Miller's script -- as verbose as Miller's scripts get, anyway -- a more inviting experience than those communicated solely with his art.
That's not to say Miller's layouts aren't strong, as always. Ever the masterful storyteller, few can convey the enormity of warring armies like Miller, and with almost methodical precision. The horizontal page dimensions help convert Miller's layouts into a cinematic, almost larger-than-life appearance. Alex Sinclair's colors help embellish that atmosphere, using a largely textured palette, by also settling for mostly solid backgrounds where appropriate.
Miller's actual linework, though, remains an acquired taste for those not already fully enamored with his work. His finishes often look deliberately crude, a style that has long defined his work, but also one that at times tend to undermine the otherwise attractive composition of his pages. It's also a style that's arguably fitting to the ancient, warring feel of the story, but those looking for something a little crisper won't find it here.
But, both fans and detractors of Miller know what to expect, and with Xerxes #1, both get it. Those who found themselves less than thrilled with 300, or any of Miller's past work, won't have their minds changed here. Those who are already established fans, though, will find themselves enjoying the latest entry in Miller's increasingly diverse array of offerings.