An emperor amasses an army of hundreds of thousands, drawn from two continents, to invade a third continent and conquer a tiny, divided nation. Only a few hundred warriors stand against them. Yet the tiny nation is saved. It sounds like the plot of a preposterous fantasy novel. It is historical fact. In 481-480 B.C., King Xerxes of Persia raised forces in Asia and Africa and invaded Greece with an army so huge that it "drank rivers dry." Then they entered the mountain pass of Thermopylae and encountered 300 determined soldiers from Sparta....
Writer-artist Frank Miller and colorist Lynn Varley retell the battle of Thermopylae in the exciting and moving graphic novel 300. They focus on King Leonidas, the young foot soldier Stelios, and the storyteller Dilios to highlight the Spartans' awe-inspiring toughness and valor. Miller and Varley's art is terrific, as always; the combat scenes are especially powerful. And Miller's writing is his best in years. Read it.
Do not, however, read 300 expecting a strictly accurate history. The Phocians did not "scatter," as Miller describes. His Spartans are mildly homophobic, which is goofy in such a gay society. Miller doesn't say how many Greeks remained for the climactic battle--you'd think 300 Spartans and maybe a dozen others, when there were between 700 and 1,100 Greeks. Herodotus's Histories does not identify the traitor Ephialtes as ugly and hunchbacked, or even as Spartan. 300 establishes a believable connection between Ephialtes's affliction and behavior, but his monstrous appearance, King Xerxes's effeminacy, and the Persians' inexplicable pierced-GenX-African looks make for an eyebrow-raising choice of villain imagery. Nonetheless, 300 is a brilliant dramatization.
For the full story of the failed invasion, read Herodotus's Histories or, for a concise, graphic-novel retelling, Larry Gonick's great Cartoon History of the Universe: Volumes 1-7, From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great. For a lighthearted look at post-invasion Athens and a very young Alexander the Great, check out William Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth's witty and gorgeous graphic novels, Epicurus the Sage Vol. I and Vol. II. --Cynthia Ward
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