This is Sparta like you’ve never seen it before — a Sparta defeated. With the glory of the 300’s last stand at Thermopylae fading, writer Kieron Gillen sets the story of Three. Helots, the slave class of Sparta, serve as the protagonists, and Spartans are now the bloodthirsty hounds that hunt them. But Gillen’s historical narrative isn’t easily divided into good guys and bad guys; it’s more complicated, as history often is.
Labeling Three as “historical fiction” is easy, but the term also describes Gillen’s creative process: history first, fiction second. Gillen teamed with professor Stephen Hodkinson at the University of Nottingham to capture an academically-accurate Sparta and recruited artist Ryan Kelly (Local, Northlanders, Saucer Country) to convey the story’s humanity on paper. The resulting project produced five exceptional issues of stripped-down prose meticulously crafted for accuracy, with panels that channel a vivid ferocity and primal aesthetic. Now, with the collected volume shipped to both comic stores and bookstores, Gillen talks about his upcoming Image series, The Wicked + The Divine, relives his time with Three and explains what an extinct culture can tell us about ourselves.
Paste: In Three, we see Sparta in a death spiral, a once proud warrior society in decline. What drew you to historical fiction and this topic in particular?
Kieron Gillen: It’s a weird one, isn’t it? If you look at my work from the last few years, you see bits of historical fiction bubbling up. This is just the first time I’ve done a long-form historical fiction piece. Last year, Young Avengers was the only book that wasn’t a period piece, really. Origin II was kind of like a period piece that involved some research. Iron Man was set in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even the more fantastical stuff I do has more history than most people. There’s definitely something I find appealing about that sort of stuff. I think some of it comes from the journalist part of me. I like the exploration of the past to understand the present. I think generally, using the ridiculously old maxim, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
The original idea of this story was counter-punching. Let’s be honest — that’s another trend of my work, always trying to be a critic in response to other works. Obviously, this is a story told many times. I remember reading [Frank Miller’s graphic novel that inspired the Zack Synder movie] 300 and having a very visceral response to it. It’s a book I like, but I had a response to certain aspects of it. The structure of Three came to me as three slaves on the run, representing the three parts of society. I used that device to interrogate Sparta and what Sparta meant, because it’s a lot wider than Thermopylae and 300 and that type of stuff. As the Spartans were still around, they were used to talk about ideas and what is a utopia and all that kind of shit.
Paste: It was great to see Ryan Kelly pencil a sword-and-shield historical book again, in the same vein as his great work on Northlanders. How did you two meet up to collaborate on this book, and what did you want to accomplish?
Gillen: I loved his work on Local, and I’ve admired Ryan for years. Then a mutual friend introduced us. When I was thinking about Three, I was specifically thinking about Northlanders. That’s an obviously strong influence on Three. It might be Ryan’s strongest work, overall. It’s so unlike what he was doing at the time.
We just sat in a bar at New York Comic Con. This was a few years ago actually, because it took awhile with scheduling. That’s just the business of comics. We just hit it off, and it was just like a “yeah, I want to do it” kind of statement. We’re definitely in a writer-dominant period of the medium. I think what Ryan did on Northlanders was kind of subsumed into what (writer) Brian [Wood] did. I wanted to showcase what Ryan could do. If you look at Saucer Country, he’s trying to tame his inking a little, and in Three he’s a little wilder, which is deliberate. I wanted that fun endeavor.
Paste: What was your reaction when you started seeing Ryan’s first few pages of Three?
Gillen: Getting pages back is the addictive part of comic book writing. You get a chance to see your ideas recreated, and in a sense, they’re yours and not yours. That’s the really cool thing about it. That’s what’s different from writing a novel — the book just kind of sits there. You can never be part of the audience unless you wait 30 years and try rereading it then. That collaborative aspect (in comics) is really appealing. With Three, the humanity of it really came through. When Jordie [Bellaire] added colors, that was just a completely different aspect. Jordie had a really strong design sense of how the book should look. The very bold choices on the cover pretty much came from Jordie. It brings the idea of Grecian urns and that sort of stuff, so that strong visual sense came from Jordie — just really, really smart colors. She’s an ideas-based colorist, which I really like.
There was also a historical consultant, professor Stephen Hodkinson; there was a lot of back and forth at the pencils stage and the script stage as well. It was a very complicated book. Next week, I’m actually speaking at the classical conference, which is in Nottingham this year, so me and Stephen are actually going on stage to talk about the process and things like that. The response has been positive from people in the academic field. It’s been heartening. People really appreciated what we tried to do with the book. The accuracy was more about me than a point in the endeavor. If I’m going to do a historical book like this in this mode, then I’m going to take the minimal amount of cheats. Part of me as a writer likes the feeling that I’ve done all this research, and I’m excited about it all, and I just need to talk to somebody about it.
Paste: At points in this book, it feels like you are reading history with a slight leniency toward fiction. You’ve researched everything from Spartan sexual appetites to the importance of facial hair, and all these elements make an appearance. What was it like researching an ancient culture where many mysteries still remain even now?
Gillen: Stephen was incredibly generous with his time and his thoughts. I wanted to have a Sparta that was at least not contradictory to the current, generally accepted idea of what Sparta is. The main thrust of debate, a big part of what Stephen does, is that Sparta isn’t quite as unusual as they would like to think, or we would like to think of them. Spartans never wrote about themselves. Most of it is written by their enemies. It’s written by enemies who were sympathetic to Sparta, who had kind of a hard on for that culture. It’s like watching Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and thinking of it a serious examination of working-class Britain.
The traditional thought about Helots, they’ll say something like “they’re slaves owned by the state in Sparta.” Of course, academics don’t know if that’s true. They were probably owned by individuals, but the state has some claim to them so people can borrow them freely. They’re not, strictly-speaking, owned by the state in the current academic thought, so we said something like “slaves are owned by men. The Helots also bear the state’s fetters,” which doesn’t contradict anything you know about Helots. It doesn’t conflict with where academia is at now.
Paste: Did anything surprise you when you were doing your research?
Gillen: I was more surprised at the errors I made. When a writer reads history, especially (a writer) who is as slapdash as I am, you jump further than what the actual text is saying. You think “that means that,” and they say “you’re kind of reaching here, Kieron.” My favorite was when I was having the first scene with Tyrtaios and Kleomenes, they were just talking about who’s badder than bad basically. Well, strictly speaking, as far as we know, the women’s role during a sexual encounter between men in Sparta would be taken by the younger man. Because Tyrtaios is older, Kleomenes would be in the woman’s role. It was the specifics of the sexual positions. I was like, “Oh great. So now I know more about that.”
Paste: Spartan culture is often reflected in other contemporary situations: Spartans and Nazism have been linked before, and there are other examples. Is there something about Sparta that’s fundamental about humanity?
Gillen: With any historical figure, we can read what we want from it. We look at these myths and we choose what is useful for us. I’m a fairly left-leaning guy, so my reading of Sparta is fairly left-leaning, so I’m using it as essentially the bad guy. Adolf Hitler used Sparta as a model of his racialist state. To be fair to the Spartans, they didn’t really believe they were a different race, so Hitler completely over read it.
If you read the first issue of Three, you might think that the Spartans are the bad guys and I’m just butchering the myth. When you get to the end, I hope people realize that’s not what I was doing at all. I’m doing a story about how everybody is trapped in this system. The Helots are trapped, Arimnestos is trapped in his own way, even the King has no power really due to the chains of history.
Paste: There’s definitely a predator/prey scenario playing out between Spartans and Helots, but throughout the story, we see this random violence is just an element of the Spartan system you’re talking about. How did you try to convey that through the comic?
Gillen: It’s tricky. The title Three is obviously a reference to three slaves on the run and the 300 of Thermopylae. The other part is the narrative structure, and the narrative structure is the Helots, Arimnestos being the Trembler and the slaves being pursued by Kleomenes. Three is the structure of the book.
When I write a story, I don’t intend to write them as anyone’s “story.” That’s why I tend to do better at team books, I think, as a writer. The story is the story, and the story uses everybody as evidence toward a larger statement. While the different parts may be contradictory, the larger statement is told through irony. That’s the main mode I write. I used irony specifically that way as two things being true at once. When you look at what the story is about, you can’t take out any one part of it. What I say about the Helots is supposed to be seen in (the same structure as what I say) about the Spartans. If you’re born into a society like that, you’re trapped by that society in some ways.
The story is anti-climax. We set up for the major battle, then Kleomenes steps outside the Spartan system and he does something, frankly, in the Persian mode. The whole final bit is like Thermopylae. The Spartans lose by being surround, and they decide to die. That’s what happens here, but the other way around. Even the bad guys succeed to step outside the macho bullshit of it all. Agesilaos is the weird shadow of the entire book who got everyone in this fucking mess, but he was the one viewed as the figure of Spartan virility. Kleomenes, who is this historical blank, kept Sparta around for another 30 years, even more, and didn’t wage many wars. This was a bit of a reach, but since he was such a reach, my story was about how Kleomenes had learned to not fight everybody because he knows it’s better than the alternative. Meanwhile, Damar lives and she raises her kids, and life goes on. If there’s a choice, choose life. The alternative is that we end with Terpander and Nestos lying side-by-side, and they can’t tell them apart. We’re all fundamentally the same in death.