Leaping Toward Alexander The Great In Frank Miller’s Xerxes #4

by Koom Kankesan

With Xerxes #4, now beyond the halfway point in Frank Miller’s saga about the Peloponnesian Wars, it’s become clear that Miller is painting in very broad strokes. Issue #4 continues to move broadly over epochs rather than devote time to characters or plot development.

The issue begins by proclaiming the death of Xerxes – this event was awkwardly inserted in the middle of the previous issue and we were told it happened in 465 B.C. – and then immediately skips generations to 336 B.C. when the ruler who takes the name Darius III has come into power. There is the briefest mention of the building of Persepolis (the city – as unrealistic and fantastic a depiction as anything else in this series) and then we immediately transition into a scene where Darius III’s vizier Bagoas is forced to drink the poison he would have killed the ruler with.

Perhaps Miller’s intent is to force us to research history and thereby reinvigorate the study – because his series provides no context, or establishment, or defined scenes whatsoever. I certainly had to resort to Wikipedia to read up on Bagoas, not to mention Darius III and his short lived rule over an unstable empire, in order to understand what was going on.

Like the episode with Esther in the previous issue, the actual legend/historical story is more interesting than what Miller provides. It’s as if he can’t be bothered to work on laying out the historical material he’s chosen to invest himself in. Darius III is defined even less well in terms of character than Xerxes in the previous issue. The threads holding the ‘chapters’ together, if you can call them that, are even more threadbare and fleeting.

The briefest of pages/panels announces that Alexander the Great’s empire is growing in 334 B.C. Then we jump to the battle of Issus, a year later. The next eighteen pages are devoted to marches and carnage centred around this battle. As with the previous issue, there are some very striking double page compositions. Miller seems most involved when he’s delineating these double page spreads as they allow him to work in the fortissimo vein he’s most comfortable in. They show that he still has an eye for dramatic layouts and brute power and the colours certainly help – there’s comics magic here – but the transitions between spreads are clunky.

The deft plotting of vignettes in a masterpiece like Batman: Year One is taken to such an indulgent and out of control extreme that there is no centre in the issue, within the series, or even within a chapter or scene, when Miller attempts to write one. Furthermore, whenever he has to draw figures in natural poses (as opposed to designed deployment) or is simply required to draw convincing features on faces, feet, etc., his art fails. Faces are abstracted to basic round shapes and eyes pop out, almost as if we’re looking at characters from the Looney Tunes. I was reminded of the Moebius influenced Ronin in the last issue. This one makes me think of the Mutants from The Dark Knight Returns with the herd mentality, broad machismo, and neon bits that serve as attachments on the body.

The silent eighteen page run is broken by the Greeks making small talk as they mop up. They discuss the fact that Darius III has fled. One Greek asks another “So how’s the wife?” as he spears an unfortunate Persian. His fellow Greek, also spearing an unfortunate soul, replies “You know, nagging, always nagging…” I guess this is supposed to serve as comedic counterpoint and maybe when I was a teenager, it might have made me chuckle. Now it just serves to undercut the power of the previous pages. It underscores the tone deaf inability to balance the different elements of craft.

Alexander has conquered Persia by the end of issue #4, and we haven’t met him yet, so presumably we’re moving into his domain in the upcoming issue. It’s hard to feel anything like eager anticipation at this point.

Xerxes #4 is currently available from Dark Horse Comics.