three-04 THREE #1-#5 (Image Comics) by Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire

Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly and Jordie Bellaire’s THREE is a political comic on every level. The level on which it got most of its publicity was a right-to-reply in a conversation conducted between comics – Three is an a riposte to Frank Miller’s Thermopylae epic 300, almost an unauthorised sequel. Stressing this may have enhanced its impact – comics fans like sequels – but might also have held it back, downplaying the extent to which Three works for someone (like me) who has never actually read 300, and how much further it goes than the simple “your fave is problematic” style callout its early press positioned it as.

That’s not to say such a callout wasn’t necessary. Everything I know about 300’s framing of Sparta, and Thermopylae, suggests that a reply was needed. In pursuit of the epic – the charge sheet runs – Miller’s 300 erased Sparta’s reality as a terror state. The point wasn’t just that Sparta kept slaves – everyone kept slaves – but how they were kept: with an atrocious, cynical contempt for life which Three calmly builds its story on.

Now, I can’t speak to how Miller deals with that idea. But what I have experienced is how 300 and the film made of it have reintroduced the idea of Sparta into pop life, as a meme for iron-willed badassery in a culture with no shortage of such. Even if Miller’s work erased nothing, its subsequent life created – or recreated – a particular image of Sparta as an unflinching incarnation of national will: the state as spear and shield. This alone suggests that Three had to be written.

As a reply to another comic, Three is necessarily replying across multiple fields – plot, ethos, look, tone. Sometimes this means accepting the terms 300 sets down. 300 was an action movie before it became an action movie – so Three has to be a better one. I don’t know if it achieves that, but it is the best adventure comic I’ve seen Gillen write. Each issue is more exciting than the one before, and fans of Gillen’s Marvel work more used to seeing him dance cleverly around the action may be shocked to see how focused Three is: every confrontation you expect to see, you see in full, and its consequences pay over to the next one.

In other ways, the reply needs to show things 300 doesn’t. The magnificent, bristling action sequences of 300 – easily accessible via Google search – are symphonies of military tech: shock-and-awe renditions of the unitary power of the Spartan state projected through muscle and bronze. Ryan Kelly’s response to this is to stress the soft, human lines underneath the armour – everyone, Spartans and Helots alike, looks drawn, tired, grubby, fleshy and vulnerable (Jordie Bellaire’s clay-and-blood palette enhances the effect). Violence is a frequent intervention in this world, but always catastrophic, and all faces are marked by the strain of living under a state that takes this catastrophe as a natural organising force.

That state is a lead character in Three – another example of it accepting the terms on which 300 used Sparta, while rejecting utterly any attempt to glorify it. Describing how Sparta worked, obviously, is part of Three’s educational purpose, but it gets this out of the way in its first issue or two. “Sparta is a terror state” isn’t a revelation here – how could it be? The power of Three as an answer comic is in demonstrating that effort and stylisation is required to mask this truth, not to show it: any modern, open, truthful portrayal of Sparta has to start with its monstrosity.

By getting that monstrosity out of the way early, Three can focus on the elements of Sparta that are less well-understood even than the terror. The secret of Sparta isn’t that it was founded on terror – that was well-known in Greece, and Gillen puts a contemporary quote (“In Sparta are found those who are most enslaved and those who are most free”) on the back of each issue of Three, underlining that this was a basic fact about the state.

No, the secret is somewhere else. Roberto Calasso, in his retelling of and commentary on Greek myth, The Marriage Of Cadmus and Harmony, has a digression on Sparta, and identifies it. “It is a grim irony of history that Sparta continues to be identified with the idea of virtue, in its most rigid and hateful form… the truth is that the Spartans had come up with a very different and far more effective way of doing things. They created the image of a virtuous, law-abiding society as a powerful propaganda weapon for external consumption, while the reality inside Sparta was that they cared less about such things than anyone else. They left eloquence to the Athenians, and with a smirk on their faces too, because they knew that that eloquent, indeed talkative nation would be the first to feel nostalgia for the sober virtue of the Spartans.”

Sparta, in other words, was not just a terror state: it was a memetic state, designed to sustain itself and project itself on the back of a set of ideas – virtue, strength, hardness, and in fact terror – which both sustained colossal inequalities as an implacable order and defined Sparta in immaterial terms. Sparta’s enemies would themselves become carriers for these ideas: Thucydides – an Athenian, and one of those enemies – in his History of the Pelopponesian War, has a famous passage pointing out that nothing material of Sparta will endure compared to the splendour of Athens. But what endures instead is Sparta as a concept, a flinty, terrible option lurking in the psyche of every state that follows it, waiting to be polished up and revived by useful idiots like Frank Miller.

In Three, as the story continues, we see the memetic state in crisis: desperately trying to sustain itself within and without after military defeats. The pursuit of three helot slaves by a King of Sparta – the central incident of the story – is a PR move. A memetic state whose central idea is challenged by the spectacular – invincible Spartans defeated by their slaves – must also react with spectacle. The gap between idea-Sparta and the shabby, rickety polis it is propping up is sharply widening: but as a devastating monologue by one of the helots in the final issue demonstrates, the gap is not new. All that is new is the inability of the state to cover it up by force of will.

Loosing the Sparta meme into a nation’s discourse is to identify that nation with or against Sparta. 300 was published before the War On Terror, but by the time its film came out the “clash of civilisations” undercurrent was inescapable. But the nature of metaphor is that it can be seized on and used, judo-like, against its original framing: if Sparta is, to some extent, the West in 300, then so it must also be in Three.

And Three is recognisably a comic of its specific political moment. A memetic state, projecting an image of virtue, dependent on inequality, unsure of its position in the world, and bringing its power to bear on individuals who are as much whistleblowers and secret-bearers as rebels. From the literal horse-trading to the cynical use of air power (well, of a sort) to resolve a situation, Sparta is corrupt and exhausted. Whether this is actually Kieron Gillen’s view of the West in the 2010s isn’t really the point – it’s more that it’s a view that the unleashing of Sparta as metaphor demands be expressed in response. Three is angry, resonant and thrilling, and one of the best things Image has published.