The Striking Power And Misgivings Of Frank Miller’s Xerxes # 5

by Koom Kankesan

Issue #5 (the final issue) of Frank Miller’s Xerxes begins, like the others in the series, without much context. Time has skipped forward since the end of issue four. Alexander the Great is in battle against Darius III (although Miller only refers to him as ‘Darius’) and we are somewhere towards the end of their battles. Alexander is with whom I assume is Darius’ daughter, although it could be Darius’ wife. Whomever it is professes love to Alexander and does not want to return to Persia, thus sanitizing Alexander’s character. I had, once again, to resort to Wikipedia as so little contextual or structural information is provided by Miller to understand the ‘story’. After the battle of Issus in 333 B.C., Alexander defeated the Persians and took Darius’ mother, wife, and two daughters hostage.

Much of the final issue is concerned with the battle of Gaugamela, two years later. Once again, there’s really no context in terms of geography or history and – as I’ve said when discussing previous issues in the series – no real scenes, dramatic arcs, or character building. What we’re left with are some scattered scenes and moments. Visually, it can be quite stunning, while also alienating. The splash style is dynamic and bold, and displays Miller’s eye for design. It strikes power into the hearts of his readers. Unlike the first issue, wherein some of the pages were completed years ago, Miller’s mostly been relying on double page spreads and bold images to move him through the series. As visuals alone, especially with gorgeous colours by Alex Sinclair, these will make a very nice landscape-oriented coffee table book to be admired when collected, but people will feel that the writing and story are severely lacking.

What made Miller a master of the craft in the earlier part of his career was that he excelled in comic pacing, the integration of word and picture. His layouts with Klaus Janson on the Daredevil run optimized use of the twenty-two page comic format, and even though he wasn’t always the prettiest penciller, his storytelling leapt forward in gifted bounds. Later, as his fame and reputation became untopple-able, he developed his own visual style and artistic line, largely augmented by innovation and experimentation, in terms of design. He has now retained the sense of design but cannot work with faces or details on anything smaller than the epic scale. Worse, his writing, though it bears a poetic twinge of its earlier glory on the level of individual sentences, does not vary in rhythm or build human moments like it once could. The planning and structure that would go into a scene, make moments tender and heartbreaking, that would evoke pathos for its characters, is absent. The few captions that are strewn about are more like the descriptions of colour plate illustrations that would be inserted into old storybooks. They don’t interact with the pictures in the way comics magic can.

The comic (and series) end up with Alexander taking Babylon. It reaffirms the value of west triumphing over east, but our protagonist is little more than a conceptual stick figure. Generations of his enemies are demonized and worse, made outlandish through bizarre clothing and sci-fi looking props. It is hard to care. Darius is betrayed by his satrap and Alexander mourns the passing of his rival. There is almost a tender moment that evokes Miller’s old writing chops where Alexander mourns the passing of his arch-nemesis and reflects that the rest of the world cannot understand what drives men like them. But then it quickly moves to Alexander’s thrust to dominate the whole world. The old Miller would have found some tragedy or poetry in the ending. After all, despite Alexander’s accomplishments, he too ultimately died at a young age, and had reached what some historians feel was a state of paranoia and self-delusion about his grandeur.

After finishing the whole series, we are left with many of the same questions we started out with. Why did Miller choose this story as his comeback? Why has he taken this rather blunt-edged look at the characters with little regard to history, the crafting of scenes, or character? Why draw everything in splashes and fortissimo mode if he wants to wrestle with history or politics? I was glad to see Miller attempt a comeback after the troubles reported in the news, but as someone for whom Miller’s eighties work was so moving and important, I can no longer say that I still have hope Miller will be able to reach some of those heights of craft, and more importantly, depths of character and storytelling.
It is tempting to see Miller’s prodigious and brilliant run in the eighties like that of Alexander the Great himself, moving very quickly and mightily over huge swathes of comics territory, only to be extinguished by the period in which he moved to Hollywood. But Miller then (a young man in the nineteen eighties) was not really like Alexander. He was a thoughtful, nervy, informed, hard working young man, humble and buzzing, excited with the possibilities of what comics could be, what he could do next to push the medium. He fought for creators’ rights and broadening the range of material you could portray on the comics page. I miss him.
Xerxes #5 is currently available from Dark Horse Comics.

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