The new issue of Frank Miller’s Xerxes series looks at the aftermath of the Battle of Marathon, depicted in issue #1. The surviving Greeks, victorious under Themistokles and Militiades, limp back to Athens to defend it. Darius has set sail, accompanied by his son Xerxes, with the rest of his Persian fleet to vanquish the city state of Athens.
And this is where the book really begins to diverge from reality, even beyond the egregious errors in the first issue. Jess Nevins has undertaken detailed annotations on his website, covering the historical inaccuracies and anomalies in issues one and two of the series, and others have decried Miller’s myth-making, so there isn’t a whole lot of value in me echoing their frustrations. As hobbled as Miller’s writing is at this point, it’s clear that he’s not interested in recreating a historically faithful saga of the Persian Wars.
So what is he after? This saga of his is closer to Game of Thrones; with the amount of fantasy and sleek sexiness on exhibit, it’s obvious that this world is designed to suck you in for escapist purposes rather than take you back through time. The first time I saw Miller’s statue of Athena on the Acropolis (a naked featureless bodacious babe), my brain had difficulty processing what it actually was. Miller’s Acropolis is so amped up on visual amphetamines that it makes you wonder why he didn’t set this story on another planet. By the end of the episode, as Xerxes wanders the desert in bandages, looking like a forlorn mummy, courting the powers of deities, and djinn that exist there, so that he can have revenge upon the Greeks, we’re purely in the realm of fantasy, and there’s no hope in pretending this is even attempting to mimic reality.
In terms of the writing and storytelling, my feelings are very similar to my impressions of the first issue. The landscape format is used for thrilling montage and design style effects. There aren’t really concrete scenes so much as moments. These moments are very broad and heavy-handed. If Miller was able to craft writing and character, and language similarly to when he was younger, these dramatic moments would be key riveting turning points, couched in structure and feeling. Now, they fall flat. The issue is shorter than the first one and so makes one wonder if future episodes might be shorter still – the question of ‘will Miller be able to complete this project on the terms that he’s set out for himself and thus redeem his artistic integrity?’ becomes more engaging than whether the Greeks trump the Persians in his made-up-world or vice versa. The writing does not live up to the scale of Homeric epic poetry he’s set out for himself.
[Pin up by Walter Simonson and Alex Sinclair]
I’m supposed to announce any spoiler warnings I might divulge, but there aren’t many events to spoil. The characters aren’t really developed any further than they were in issue #1. Militiades is still as ridiculous as ever. Themistocles is the bare-bones archetype of a Miller leader character. Aeskylos (or Aeschylus) is like a Greek ninja, if that makes any sense. Besides drawing on his fascination for ninjas, Miller also has some of the (very brief) appearances of female characters resembling the women of his Sin City series. Like a collapsing star, Miller is not able to generate anything new – he only draws things back into the crushed singularity of his unique and limited palette: impossible theatrics, ninjas and hookers, broad pronouncements devoid of nuance and complexity.
When Miller moved to Dark Horse back in the nineties, it seemed an interesting shift. It pushed him away from the mainstream heroes his popularity had been forged upon (Daredevil, Batman) and gambled upon a then somewhat new indie publisher. With Give Me Liberty and the first Sin City, Miller pushed in new directions and extended his capacity for creativity and rigorous innovation. Besides getting to own his creations, it seemed like he was saying ‘I see myself as more of an independent creative force rather than a mainstream stalwart. Despite my immense success, I’m willing to try something new.’ It echoed Miller’s move from Marvel to DC when DC published Ronin, really breaking the mould of what he’d been doing at Marvel, and giving us a key to the expansive and adult directions the graphic medium was moving towards. Dark Horse was an interesting choice for the second move in his career because they published a mix of commercial properties (Godzilla, Predator, etc.) and some very obscure and new talents that had singular visions. Miller’s work for them was cutting edge, whether it was extreme like Hard Boiled or innocent fun like Rusty and The Big Guy.
A really good question would be where Dark Horse sees Miller in their line-up now. Are they publishing Miller: the creative iconoclast, or Miller: the big property? It might be the latter at this point. It seems like a whole new raft of projects is being pushed out on Miller’s name, from ongoing Batman and Superman projects at DC, to young adult prose works that involve the Arthurian Lady of the Lake. Rather than this being a period of development and grounding that most Miller fans are hoping for, I’m worried that this might be a last push for Miller and his associates to cash in before it’s too late. Miller has recently (in an interview) recanted some of his earlier political statements, but if one’s art and work is a reflection of one’s soul, I sadly don’t see much change there.
That being said, I don’t think he’s completely lost it as an artist. He still has an eye for design and possesses power, however waning. In this, he comes from the Kirby school of art and some of his panels are quite arresting. A panel in which we glimpse the Immortals on Darius’ ship is a good example of a Kirby-type composition, and an extreme close-up of an owl’s face might be my favourite panel in the book. As to whether his writing and storytelling can recover, I think a lot of that depends upon Miller himself.
Xerxes #2 is currently available from Dark Horse Comics.