I know, two posts within hours of each other? What did you do to deserve such a bounty?
Anyway, I’ve just finished reading Three #1, written by Kieron Gillen, art by Ryan Kelly, colours by Jordie Bellaire, lettering by Clayton Cowles, published by Image Comics.
Spoilers ahead! Also trigger warnings for violence, blood and ableism!
Three is a comic exploring Spartan society and some of its lesser known members – the helots, a class of slave. Gillen says that he wants to explore Sparta and its culture, first from a helot POV and later from the Spartan’s side of things – and he doesn’t want to just redo 300, he wants something that can at least pretend it’s read a history book. Speaking as someone who’s never read 300 and whose education has focussed on Athens rather than Sparta, I have no idea how well Gillen is fulfilling those aims, but I will say – I think his research shows through: life as a slave in the Classical period was hard, and there is nothing easy for the helots in Three.
Although the story opens with the Spartans attacking the helots this acts more as a world-building prologue than an introduction to the plot of Three. It actually works fairly well for me, it sets the scene well and makes clear the divisions in power between the Spartans and the helot slaves. It also ends with a truly scary splash page by Ryan Kelly, which really highlights the position of the Spartans in this story (i.e. violent and TERRIFYING).
The story so far seems to revolve around Klaros, a helot with a disfigured leg, Damar, a widow with a sharp tongue and some brilliant reaction faces, and Terpander, a story teller who is an immense dick. Early in the introduction to these three, we get a brilliant summation of their status (TW for ableism):
As we move on, the Spartans make their second appearance and we meet Eurytos the Ephor (a political position in Sparta) and Arimnestos, a Spartan with a temper and lacklustre beard. As characters, they seem pretty one note right now, but there’s hardly enough time to truly flesh out their characters much. As villains of the piece, they work well, although Gillen hasn’t really made them sympathetic enough yet for us to care about their POV, I think we’re all in the helots side of things at this point in the story.
(yes, they do just reek friendliness and beneficence, don’t they?)
One of the things I really enjoyed in Three is the story-telling as part of the plot – Terpander tells myths (history, although how accurate is questionable, hence my calling them myths), and of course these act as exposition and further world-building, but they feel very true – the Greeks did tell stories all the time, history was passed down this way, Terpander seems like the kind of show-boater to stand before his masters and elaborately insult them with tales from the past. I was a big fan of the layout used for these historical interludes, as well as the colouring and the change in Terpander’s speech. Maybe they aren’t for everyone, but personally I felt they helped make the comic stand out as more than just sandals and swords, and showed the kind of background knowledge you want a writer to have of the setting he’s creating (TW for violence, blood):
Plus, the sentence “He who designed to crush Greece… Arimnestos in turn crushed.” may be my favourite in the comic – it feels like the kind of slightly odd, stilted sentence you get when you’re translating from Greek (or Latin!) into English.
Something else that stood out to me about Three is the approach to violence – the kind of violence we’re shown on page.
I’m not always a fan of violent media, especially those that use the excuse of a military presence or historical context to justify horrific violence and humiliation. Often it feels like a writer or artist is simply taking an opportunity to exercise their torture porn fetish, without thought for context – either as provided by the story or the intended audience. When you think of a ruling class attacking and humiliating their slaves, it’s not unreasonable to expect violence and scenes that make you cringe – and certainly Three provides that – but it carefully avoids descending into a gratuitous dominance fantasy. Despite the fact that many helots are women (and women had even LESS place than men), there’s been no rape or hint of sexual assault which is surprising, but also incredibly pleasing. I was nervous reading the opening of the book – it shows the Spartans purifying themselves by spilling the blood of helots, and controlling their population by despatching the most outspoken – because I was sure I had wasted my money on yet another book that was going to use rape as acceptable violence against women. And it didn’t happen.
Later in the book, the Spartans force the helots to drink too much wine for their entertainment (and the helots’ humiliation), and again I thought, here’s the assault against women, this is where it’ll happen. And again it didn’t.
It shouldn’t be so surprising, from what I can tell of Kieron Gillen’s writing, he isn’t the kind of person to throw around unnecessary sexual violence for the shock factor. To some, that might not matter but to me, it means that Three is a book I can carry on reading. I don’t necessarily like how much violence there is, but it’s not gratuitous or unnecessarily upsetting either.
I think one of my only criticisms of Three #1 is that it does feel like the story is taking some time to get going, but on the other hand, the sacrifice of plot for world building does mean I have a pretty solid grounding of the where Three is taking place – useful, as none of us live in Ancient Greece and too much action without any indication of where or why something is happening can leave me feeling lost and confused. Hopefully in #2 we’ll see more story and more of the characters.
Overall, I really enjoyed Three #1! The writing is very good, Ryan Kelly’s art is dynamic and fits the story really well and Jordie Bellaire makes some very clever colouring choices. This is something I’d definitely recommend you check out when given the chance!
If you’re the kind of person who likes #/10, I’d give this a solid 8/10.
ETA oh shoot, I forgot to add, one of the great things about Kieron Gillen is his author notes that go onto his blog, they really add a new aspect to rereads (or read alongs, I suppose). The ones for Three are really interesting and give some great background info!
Some content warnings for the comic: blood (LOTS OF IT), violence, slavery, sexism, humiliation, vomitting, ableism. If you’re unsure about any of those and want me to elaborate further, I’d be happy to!