Frank Miller returns to ancient Greece.
This book has been a long time coming. Dark Horse published Frank Miller’s original 300 miniseries way back in 1998. Since then, we’ve seen a film adaptation and a prequel, but only now has Miller finally wrapped work on his own continuation of the 300 saga. The title of this series implies a much larger sense of scope, tracing the downfall of the Persian Empire and the rise of Alexander the Great in the century after the events of 300. Unfortunately, little of that scope is evident in this first issue. Xerxes #1 spins a yarn that will be very familiar to readers of the original series.
When it first first announced nearly a decade ago, Xerxes was expected to serve as the basis for what eventually became 300: Rise of an Empire. That connective tissue is still evident here. Xerxes #1 offers comparatively straightforward account of the Battle of Marathon. We see an invading army of Persians clashing with Athenian general Miltiades and his ragtag army. There’s the familiar narration and emphasis on a heroic few confronting a larger, superior force. It’s all very reminiscent of the original 300 in tone, presentation and the way it romanticizes this particular conflict. And as much as that approach retains a raw, visceral appeal, it’s not exactly enough to justify revisiting this universe after so long.
At some point the question has to be asked – why name this series after Xerxes if it’s not actually going to feature the title character, much less explore these events from the Persian point of view? Perhaps the focus will widen in future issues, but Miller seems in no hurry to get to that point or expand the scope of this saga beyond the borders of Greece. There’s too much about this issue that feels familiar and comfortable, and those are two adjectives that should never be associated with a creator like Miller. Worse, there’s no one protagonist that particularly stands out in issue #1, which diminishes the emotional impetus of the story. Themistokles is present, but he’s hardly the central player he was in 300: Rise of an Empire.
At best, Xerxes manages to subvert the 300 formula in a few small ways. Miller seems cognizant of the criticisms of 300 in regard to its portrayal of the Spartans as flawless, slavery-hating superheroes. It’s all a matter of perspective, and this issue makes it clear that the Athenians don’t exactly hold the Spartans in as high a regard as Captain Dilios did in his retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. Even the hyper-masculinity of the original series is toned down a bit. These protagonists are a more motley bunch. Themistokles is depicted as old and haggard, while Aeskylos and Miltiades are rendered as very androgynous warriors.
The original 300 was groundbreaking for its use of an unconventional widescreen format. If that approach is slightly less novel nowadays, it’s no less effective. Miller makes full use of his page real estate as he renders Persian soldiers crashing into tightly structured Greek phalanxes or Persian ships sailing across the vast expanse of the Aegean Sea. Miller’s line-work isn’t quite was it used to be, with his figures looking a bit looser and less boldly defined than they were in the original. However, the general quality is a marked improvement over his art in the various Dark Knight Universe mini-comics from The Dark Knight III. Slowly but surely, Miller seems to be recapturing the intensity of his earlier work.
There is one significant area where Xerxes falls well short of the original in terms of visuals, however. Alex Sinclair’s digital colors really don’t mesh well with Miller’s black and white art. Miller doesn’t devote as much attention to his backgrounds and environments as he once did, leaving Sinclair to fill in those gaps. The garish colors create a sense of unreality. Figures and objects don’t interact with their environments so much as they appear to be pasted on top of them. The more naturalistic approach used by Lynn Varley in the original series is sorely missed here. Between this series and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, color has become a major sticking point with Miller’s more recent work.