Frank Miller’s 300 was something of a revelation when it first came out in 1998. Based in equal parts on the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus and the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, it told the tale of The Battle of Thermopylae from the perspective of King Leonidas of Sparta. Though Leonidas and the Greek forces were defeated by the invading Persian army, their stand helped inspire the various Greek city-states to unite as one in a larger force. This would lead to the war that ultimately halted Persia’s attempts to conquer Greece. For that reason, The Battle of Thermopylae is held alongside The Alamo as one of the greatest last stands in military history.
300 is widely considered to be Frank Miller’s greatest work. It won the 1999 Eisner Award for Best Limited Series, with Miller being honored as Best Writer & Artist and colorist Lynn Varley winning Best Colorist. The book was later successfully adapted into a 2006 film directed by Zack Snyder, fueling his rise to fame.
Despite being a critical and commercial success, 300 did not go uncriticized. Many took Miller to task for the story being historically inaccurate in certain respects, such as depicting The Spartans as homophobic or going into battle essentially naked. Writer David Brin specifically criticized Miller’s ignoring the greater historical context of Thermopylae and how The Spartan’s involvement in the battle was driven by their shame at having sat-out The Battle of Marathon a decade earlier, due to it occurring during the holy festival of Carnea, in which martial combat was forbidden.
This bears consideration when one reads this first chapter of Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander – the five-issue follow-up to 300. The title and cover are a bit misleading, with Xerxes – the villain of 300 – not making any appearance in this book apart from being seen on the cover. Rather than focusing on a single battle, Miller is now exploring the long history of Persian/Greek conflicts, starting with the first attempts of Darius (father of Xerxes) to invade Greece and ending, eventually, with the rise of Alexander The Great.
This first chapter is devoted to The Battle of Marathon and seems to have been written purely in rebuttal to Brin’s criticism in specific and complaints of Miller’s failure to profile the contributions of the Greek city-states besides Sparta in general. The focus here is on the Athenians, as they lead the charge against The Persian Army, driving them back to their ships.
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Those who enjoyed 300 will find more of the same intense action here. All issues of historical accuracy aside, Miller can block a fight sequence better than most and the battles here are as gloriously over the top as you would expect. The fact that our heroes are now the playwright Aeskylos and a young Themistokles, years before he would go on to become a great Athenian general and politician does not stop them from unleashing Hades upon the Persians, Unfortunately, Miller’s tendency towards unnecessary homophobic remarks continues, though it may be more historically accurate for The Athenians to be making jokes about how The Spartans can’t join the battle because of a fertility festival, because that is the only time Spartan men share beds with women.
A larger problem is that Miller’s glory days as an artist are behind him and it is clear now why his most recent efforts have seen him focusing on writing with other artists illustrating his stories. While Miller’s work here is far stronger than his most recent works at DC Comics, it’s a far cry from the level of quality we saw in 300, with Miller’s tendency toward cartoonish exaggeration not serving the story well. The colors by Alex Sinclair don’t help matters, putting a vibrant coat on artwork that was always at its best when kept half in shadow. One wonders if age is starting to make the old master’s hand falter but he’s too proud to admit it.
Ultimately, there’s little reason to pick up Xerxes #1 unless you’re a fan of Frank Miller and the original 300 looking for more of the same. There’s nothing new here, beyond Miller showing that The Athenians were more than capable of winning a war without The Spartans’ assistance. It’s good for what it is but it’s ultimately an unnecessary prequel.
Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander #1 releases April 4, 2018.
Written by The Critic The Internet Deserves, but not the one it needs right now…. Matt Morrison. He’s a smart-ass guardian. A sarcastic protector. A Snark Knight.