Does Frank Miller’s Xerxes # 1 Live Up To The Anticipation?

by Koom Kankesan

Frank Miller‘s Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander #1 is out this week from Dark Horse. Hailed as a sequel to 300 (the first issue is actually a prequel as it’s set in 490 B.C., ten years prior to the Battle of Thermopylae) and a return to comics for Miller, there’s been a lot of anticipation.

The comic uses the same landscape format dimensions as 300 and like 300, uses this format for dramatic effect. A great number of wide shots and splashes are thrown at the reader. While 300 celebrated the Spartans, Miller’s new comic seems to be focused on the Athenians – which you may remember were held in low esteem by the Spartans as effete and indulgent during Miller’s last go-around. That last go-around was between May and September, 1998, so it’s been almost twenty years to the day since 300 that Xerxes comes out.

A lot of things have changed in those twenty years, not least of all Miller himself. 9/11 happened. Miller and his long time collaborator/partner Lynn Varley split up. Miller got involved in making movies, though it wasn’t his first foray into Hollywood. Miller took a very patriotic and jingoistic (not to mention controversial and alienating) stance against the Occupy Movement and those opposed to America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then Miller seemed to fall away from the comic scene. He dropped out of sight altogether and when he emerged, nobody could recognize him.

So there’s been a lot of anticipation surrounding Xerxes, and the issue of whether Miller can return to his former prodigious profligacy and power (Paul Chadwick referred to him once as a ‘volcano of creativity’) seems to hang upon it. Not an easy burden for anyone to bear. The first question is – is this book truly a sequel to 300? In some ways, yes. It deliberately uses the same pictorial format, and the voice that the story is told through – belonging to an unidentified soldier on the Athenian side – mimics 300‘s choice to build its narrative around a unit rather than a single protagonist. There are characters that stand out: Themistokles their captain (sort of an analogue of Leonidas from 300), star fighter Aeskylos, and Athenian citizen Miltiades. These characters are not really built up – they’re more cameos than players, types rather than characters.

The first issue of the series is based around a conflict between the Athenians and the Persians – what becomes the Battle of Marathon. Whereas in 300, Miller took time to build up nice little touches and flourishes of character (remember Leonidas kicking the messenger into that well?) which increased suspense leading to the final battle, the entire issue in this case is filled up with battle. We get moments from the fighting rather than structured dramatic scenes.

There are some nice poetic lines (“five hundred strands of catgut pull tight, complaining”) that evoke Miller’s past glories, but by and large, this is a book composed of fight panels rather than the careful staging of a dramatic story. Miller still possesses the ability to design arresting layouts. He structures certain panels compositionally in a way that brings breathtaking kineticism to the page. They hint at what Miller is capable of. However, there are just as many that exhibit easy silhouettes or contain the barest of breakdowns. My problem is not so much with the art (a person who’s worked as hard as Miller has earned the right to simplify his style and line) as the storytelling. Miller used to be a master of time and form and all of that brilliance has ebbed in his later work.

Don’t get me wrong: I remain a huge Miller fan. Because the impact his 80’s work made on my teenagehood, I cannot ever stop truly being a Miller fan. The debate over how to reckon Miller’s post-9/11 work with his earlier complex, nuanced stuff is long over for me. My own (and very unpopular) opinion is that his last great work (writing-wise) was Give Me Liberty. After that, the writing and construction becomes increasingly obtuse and blunt. Even Sin City (which hammered down Miller’s latter visual style) was deeply problematic for me. There are still touches of that deeply expressionistic style, the jagged line, the raw and heavy contrast, the flickering shadow full of nervous life in Xerxes #1 but it’s an echo. Alex Sinclair‘s digital colours are a rough approximation of Lynn Varley’s painted ones, but there was a depth, and weight, and texture to Varley’s paint (Miller described her as applying flesh to his bones) that no one can replace.

The second question to ask is where Miller’s Xerxes is coming from? 300 was pre-9/11 but Xerxes (like Holy Terror) is very much a post-9/11 book. Though the book is named Xerxes, it’s (so far) very much rooted in the Greek point of view. Though modern Americans will have very little in common with Ancient Greeks, and modern Islamic states will have very little in common with the ancient Persian Empire, these are the kinds of lines being drawn. The narration in Xerxes (from the Greek side of things) makes that clear: “An idea. An experiment we call democracy. Could it be worth all this? It has to be worth it.”

I never minded the tender masculinity and mythmaking of Miller’s 80’s works (because he was intelligent enough to stand outside of the myth and reflect upon it, and it contained the contradictions of a rich genre, like a good Western) but this is pure jingoism. People with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Athenian democracy will know that, though it was direct, Athenian democracy certainly did not include all people. The Greek city states were very insular, closed-off entities and if that’s the connection Miller wants to draw to Trump’s America, it would be apt. But it isn’t.

He wants us to see the Persian hordes as monstrous (they’re referred to as ‘barbarians’), angry warlords that must be quelled. He wants us to partake in the buffet of cartoonish violence (outlandish as that in Holy Terror) which only falls flat because it has long lost its power. He wants us to feel the fire of victory in our mouths without earning those victories through the tightly plotted dramatic arcs, well-timed scenes, and character construction & writing that once elevated his genre comics into poetry – things he seemed readily capable of and willing to do when young.

Though Miller was never known for his anatomical rendering (the forms in Xerxes are very blocky), he compensated with a sense of design and style that electrically telegraphed force and emotion. Some of that is still on display. Those who loved his Lone Wolf and Cub covers will see a sense of design employed in the fabrics of the Persians and on the whole, I enjoyed looking at the Persian soldiers with their turbans and beards. Sometimes the forms of his renderings are so simplified, though, as to be almost mosaic or tapestry – still, the sense of design is powerful.

Even some of Miller’s old tenderness shows through (briefly) when he writes of the Persians: “And they are men just like us. They have wives and sons and daughters. Just like us. And King Darius offers generous terms for our submission to Persian rule.” I had foolishly thought that because the series was called Xerxes, it might take the opposite vantage point as 300, but Miller is only doubling down on his political aesthetics. Darius is an abstract figure rendered in one panel at the beginning of the book. We haven’t yet met his son Xerxes. I gather that the rest of the series will cover the entirety of the Persian wars and there should be much material there for Miller to delve into complexity, history, feathering and texture, while holding onto his love for epic tragedy in the fortissimo vein.

So far, he’s reduced all that potential down to the scale of a wrestling grudge match. However, there are still opportunities and spaces to do different things in future issues. Like I say, I can’t forget the impact of those 80’s works on me, or the collective comics landscape. All one can do is keep reading and hope.

Xerxes #1 arrives in shops today, April 4th, 2018 from Dark Horse Comics.