The Puzzling Fever Dream Of Frank Miller’s Xerxes #3

by Koom Kankesan

I really have no idea what to make of Frank Miller‘s Xerxes #3. I spent my reviews of issues #1 and #2 talking about Miller’s abilities to render, write, and storytell, and whether Miller could try and approach his former ability and craft. Now there is no storytelling at all to speak of, no characters, no story at all.

The issue picks up where issue two left off with Xerxes in the desert, communing with gods and spirits. A stunning double page spread has him emerging out of a cave’s mouth to a camel waiting against the rocks in the foreground. He then inexplicably rides this camel like it’s a horse through the blistering desert accompanied by the text “As I am a horseman, I am the greatest horseman. As I am a marksman, I am the greatest marksman” – apropos of nothing. Xerxes is still dressed in a kind of seventies sci-fi glam getup of chains and glinting links covering his body. History and accuracy have been dispensed with long ago.

The use of double page spreads is the leading design element in this issue. Some of the images and spreads are breathtaking, mostly because they are unusual, unpredictable. After the few pages of Xerxes’ time in the desert, the issue moves inexplicably to his death at 465 B.C. Different theories are briefly touched upon regarding his death and each is accompanied by a brutal double page spread: assassination by a dozen daggers, being struck down in combat, poisoned at court. We see a double page spread of his body on the pyre and then Miller’s narration asks whether a god can actually die. There are some musings that he wanders still, nobody ‘giving a damn’, and then once again, inexplicably, this section elides into another.

Without any justification or discernible connection, we are moved to 479 B.C. where Xerxes begins looking for a wife and marries Esther. This section seems to be heavily based on the story of Esther from the Bible which is a legend at best. The double page spreads gloss over the legend of Esther saving the Jews from annihilation by appealing to Xerxes and the birth of the festival of Purim. Except, even my brief description in the previous sentence gives more information than Miller’s narration does.

I invite people to read Miller’s writing for themselves to see if it makes any sense. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t mind Miller constructing or dealing with myth, but if he’s going to do this, he should not pretend he’s addressing history or culture. Also, the actual Biblical legend of Esther, involving Vashti, Mordecai, Hamman, and Xerxes’ protracted search for a third wife, is fairly interesting. Miller doesn’t bother with all this.

Instead, he has double page spreads of figures (once again in glam sci-fi wear – to make them look sexy or cool?) leaping around against a backdrop of fireworks. Supposedly representing Jews celebrating, these look like figures leaping across buildings, Miller style, in The Dark Knight Returns. The images of Xerxes in the anachronistic ‘death’ chapter make him look monstrous and terrifying like the demon Agat from Ronin.

                

Is this issue further evidence that Miller can no longer write? Are the double page spreads stand-ins for narrative storytelling and page breakdowns? Or is this a psychedelic fugue that Miller has moved into where the book becomes more of a visual essay or feverish dream rather than traditional story? Alex Sinclair’s colour work must carry equal credit if this is the case.

Was much of the first issue drawn years ago and is Miller now compensating any way he can in order to get the series finished? From an art perspective, it’s interesting and bold, though one must throw aside any expectations when it comes to gesture and figure drawing. I only wish the writing and storytelling could match up.

Xerxes #3 is currently available from Dark Horse Comics.