Three #1: “The Spartans never carried their shields”
(This review includes some spoilers for characters and art appearing in issue #1 of Three)
In a return to the days of the Spartan empire, Three #1 begins a story about the same society the produced one of the most epic battles of the ancient world: 300 Spartans against a horde of Persian warriors. Delving into their history and society, this comic brings to to light the secret struggle of slaves trapped under the Spartan warriors. The Helots carried the Spartan’s shields into battle, but as slaves, they were were not remembered, and their efforts were left (mostly) unrecorded.
The Spartan helm well known from the film 300 makes an appearance on the cover. Closer inspection reveals three orange silhouettes: the identity of the orange wanderers on the cover will make complete sense after reading the comic. Combining black with warm orange and cool red colours, in addition to the bright yellow of the helmet, makes for a skillful outer package for the comic, which stands out on a shelf.
Interior colour choices show additional skill. The Helots are introduced in dull yellow and dungy grey tunics and robes. The flat, tilled farm landscape around theme mimics these colours. Instantly, the slave class of Sparta, the Helots, are associated with earth and dirt – under a higher class foot.
Sympathy for the Helots is also generated by a page early in the comic. five Spartan warriors called “Krypteia” attack and kill a Helot slave. The panel is positioned such that the reader is seeing the attack from the Helot’s perspective, looking up as savage men with swords relentlessly strike. It’s a violent and brutal image tinted in red.
Trees that should be green are grey or blacked out. Black is used to introduce a set of Spartan warriors – they emerge under a black, lightening streaked sky in the night across five panels. The third panel is not black and grey, but illuminated by white lightening. This single lit panel in the centre of black panels makes the page striking to look at, and associates the Spartans with storms, dread, and danger. Landscape is used to build character rather than dialog, and it’s an effective choice for Three #1.
The numbered title of the comic refers to three protagonists: Klaros, Damar, and Terpander. The first characters readers are introduced to at the beginning of the comic, however, are the sons of the Spartan warriors. Young men living in the provinces around Sparta in 364B.C. would be trained by a team of Helot slaves. Control of the the slaves also meant that the Spartan warriors in-training would scour the lands for strong Helots with the potential to resist, and hunt them. In these opening moments, and explicitly in the summary written at the end of the comic (by Kieron Gillen), we see the complete Spartan system – one warrior supported by ten slaves. People used for practice.
Under this system, Klaros, Damar, and Terpander are Helots struggling to stay alive when Spartan behave like predators. It’s a step away from the powerful, invincible, warriors in their long red cloaks and intimidating helmets visible throughout popular culture. Klaros is a former Helot soldier – most likely a trainer for young Spartan warriors – now left unable to walk without a crutch. Since this is the first issue of the comic, Damar’s occupation is not clear yet. She admires Klaros’ strength, and laments the condition of the enslaved Helots. Terpander is a trickster character, with a sharp wit. He openly provokes a Arimnestos, a Spartan warrior, inciting a massacre.
Themes, Ethics, Values.
The values of the comic are described in the final pages by the author. This is a story about the complete Spartan system – about the Helots, who had no heroic myths, or stunning and shining history recording their stories. Since this is a comic about slavery, themes of oppression and class systems are the foundation of the comic.
The comic is not anti-Spartan, however. The goal of Three appears to be the telling of a larger scale tale of Spartan warriors. Their complete society, including their savage slavery system, will be explored in Three. The comic weaves together broad Spartan history with a story of rebellion, without praising or burying Sparta. In Terpander, Damar, and Klaros, we might see an unlikely story of heroes overcoming oppression. Maybe even escaping the Spartan system.
With a theme of slavery as a foundation, and a story based in history, the clear ethics that follow are to contrast Spartan society with our current society. How much of our current society relies on class divides? The comic demonstrates that the Spartans used the Helots to cement their powerful self-image. Do we still do this today, albeit in a less openly violent way? Comparing ourselves to others to feel stronger?
A bit more on Three #1
With a historical setting, the comic may not have a broad appeal. In addition, the comic ties itself to the real world, without any fantasy elements. There are no Greek gods or Greek mythology walking the fields – only humans. Despite the impression the the comic makes the villains of the Spartans, they are not harshly judged in the comic. The warriors are not painted as villains. Three #1 is a mature comic with graphic violence, however, which is definitely not suitable for younger readers. Fans looking for historical flair in comics will find a story, art, and characters of value here.