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.
Paste: I know in the back matter of Three you mention the writer David Gemmell, whose own career as a journalist-turned-fiction-writer mimics your own. Was there any Gemmell on these pages, or were other influences more prominent?
Gillen: I think Gemmell inspired me as a kid. That was the first time I really got the Spartan myth. I think he was the first person to tell me, in Lion of Macedon, the myth of Thermopylae. It’s a fantasy book, but its set in Greece and all the fantasy stuff is very low key. I wouldn’t say much Gemmell got in. He’s one of the very few pulp fantasy writers that I can stand now. I can’t see any Gemmell though, which is a shame.
It’s strange because I can’t think of many explicit references. I’m normally very aware of who’s mode I’m working in. Journey into Mystery was pop Sandman. With Three, I was trying to write in my fractal storytelling style in the mode of a heroic narrative. Here are the characters, they have their arc, they have a moment of triumph or failure. Even the twist at the end, even when I’m deconstructing it, it basically feels like a Billy Bragg pop song. I wanted to keep it really clean. It’s me writing in a more mainstream comics style than I normally do. I knew there was so much in it, I didn’t want to distract anyone from it. Not very showy — classical. There’s some [Garth] Ennis, because there are a lot of five-panel pages in Three and that five-panel Ennisian beat makes for good historical fiction.
Maybe the biggest influence was not making it look like 300. I’m aware that many people have made the comparison for obvious reasons, but it was something that Frank [Miller] and Lynn [Varley] did. Even if we’re doing similar ends, we have to go through different means. I tried to avoid blood splashes like the plague, and when we did them, we did them very differently. Not that it stopped people from saying that our covers looked like 300’s, which just isn’t true. I genuinely worry about the visual literacy of comic criticism sometimes.
Paste: People aren’t as familiar with Sparta in decline as at the height of its power, as you mention, in 300. Did you have to walk a tightrope between delivering the Sparta people knew and the Sparta that was closer to reality?
Gillen: When you know someone at their power and then you see them in decline, that adds meaning to it. Culturally speaking, some of the heavy lifting has already been done there. Superhero comics is a good example. If I have Dr. Doom show up, everybody knows to be scared of him. If I create my own villain, I have to spend half an issue making him credible and interesting. If you’re working with culturally understood lexicons, it allows you to play slightly different games than you normally do.
I was on a plane flight once, and I saw Richard Kiel, the actor who played Jaws (in James Bond). Obviously, he’s a giant, and as he gets older, giants have problems with their limbs, so he was in a wheelchair being moved around. But seeing such an icon of strength when I was growing up now in his older age having to deal with this, it shook me up. That’s like Sparta. We know Sparta like this in our heads, and now we see Sparta like this. That’s where Sparta has gone.
Paste: You wanted to keep the book as clean as possible, and you mentioned a classical feel. How did you come up with the language in Three’s script? Did you have to strip down your writing?
Gillen: Yeah, a little bit. Terpander is weirdly the closest Kieron Gillen-esque character. He’s the master storyteller who thinks he’s more clever than everyone else. He’s a little more wicked take. He has less of the redeeming characteristics of a character of that type. When you’re writing this, you’re trying to do an otherworldly voice, so you’re always thinking what’s a pretty turn of phrase. On a sentence by sentence basis, what sounds interesting? What sounds pretty? What’s readable but not alienating? The biggest changes from the original drafts to the actual published version was that a lot of the words got stripped in it. I didn’t say “this farmstead.” I used a crap word for farmstead. I used a crap word for the Helot in charge of other Helots. I used a crap word for Trembler, on and on and on and on. They just rendered it impenetrable, and there was little gained in atmosphere for keeping them.
Paste: Are there other historical periods that interest you?
Killen: Well, I told my wife to kill me if I ever decided to do another historical book. I think it’s inevitable that I’ll do something else that’s historical. Even The Wicked + The Divine, the Image book I’m doing with Jamie [McKelvie] next, is about gods who, every 90 years, are reincarnated on Earth then die in two years. That means I sort of know what previous incarnations were. I know the 1920s, 1830, 1740s. That involves at least some historical work. There’s a Spartan woman story; in my head, I’ve had this idea of Downton Abbey in Sparta. I reckon that would work. It’s about class. There’s moral standing. It’s Downton Abbey with occasional fights, and more people have sex with each other. Brilliant. I don’t think it would work as a comic though.
Carthage is probably the big one. I really like something about Carthage. I’m not sure why. I’ve always had a weird love of Hannibal. Just seeing Hannibal as somebody who was immensely frustrated, and he was surrounded by idiots and he can’t get anything to work, and he’s fighting the Romans and not playing by the same rules as everyone else. That’s what I like about Hannibal. I also like the final siege of Carthage, which is a popular era for comics. I also want to do something about the French Revolution and that whole period, but that’s more fantasy than history. I’ve always liked the Khans. Lots of stuff around there I’m interested in. I like to do stories about places I don’t know much about.
Paste: You’re returning with Jamie on The Wicked + The Divine this summer, and you’re also working on Uber at Avatar Press. Are you making a conscious effort to focus on creator-owned work?
Gillen: That’s always been my plan. I’ve wanted to split them equally. I’m somebody who gets bored. The great thing about my novel work is it’s always been varied. I can’t think of anybody in comics who’s writing two books as far apart as Young Avengers and Uber. At least, people working the same genre.
Yes, I want to do more, but it’s correcting itself. Ideally, there’d be four books coming out a month — two from Marvel and two books elsewhere. That’s the situation I see for the next year and a half, or two years.
Paste: So what can you tell us about The Wicked + The Divine?
Gillen: The idea is every 90 years, 12 gods reincarnate as young people on Earth. They basically perform and speak in tongues before crowds and send them into rapture. They’re loved. They’re hated. They perform secretive miracles, and most tellingly, within two years they’re all dead. This story is about the current generation of gods who have incarnated on Earth. The best way to describe it is “gods as pop stars.” While they’re not pop stars, it’s about these incredibly fascinating human beings. Our story follows a girl named Laura. Most people hear that you do this and in two years you die, they say no, but some people — and Laura is one of these people — say yes. She looks at the two years and doesn’t think about the end. In some ways, that’s one of the themes: the indestructibility of youth. It’s about life and death and all those big questions.
It’s the intellectual flip of Phonogram, which was about being consumed with pop culture. It was about music, but I know people who aren’t music fans who look at Phonogram and say that’s how I feel about books, or comics, or whatever. It’s about how people use culture to find themselves, question themselves and limit themselves. The Wicked + The Divine is the flip of that. It’s about being a creator. It’s about what you do to become a creator and those sorts of people. They’re kind of yin and yang.
For Phonogram, our Young Avengers is all about the concept of the new and not letting yourself be defined by legacy — it felt like a betrayal of our own book to go back to an idea I had in 2003, set in 2009 and haven’t written since 2010 or 2011. You know what I mean? The plan is Jamie does the first five issues of The Wicked + The Divine, then he does Phonogram 3, then he comes back for the third arc. Meanwhile, in the second arc, we will get a load of friends to do one issue each, then we’ll keep alternating. Phonogram 3 is all written, at least the first draft anyway. Let’s just say if I died, Jamie could draw it. That’s the weird thing with Phonogram. When I start a new series, I live in fear of dying when I’m doing it. I’m worried about cars swerving off the road and other paranoid fantasies, and then I finish it and I feel ok again. If a plane crashes, I’m ok.