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Comic Book / Three

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In Sparta are to be found those who are the most enslaved and those who are the most free.
— Kritias of Athens

Three is a graphic novel by Kieron Gillen and Ryan Kelly, which began as a deliberate Spiritual Antithesis to the glorification of ancient Sparta in 300 but then became more complex in its approach. It tells the story of three helots (the serf class in Sparta), Klaros, Damar, and Terpander, who are pursued by 300 Spartiates after killing a group of Spartiates who massacred their community.

Tropes featured in this work:

  • The Atoner: Nestos considers himself this, as he pursues the Three alone after being condemned as a coward for running away from them at their initial rebellion. Also Klaros, for his role in an atrocity during the Messenian war.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Klaros and Terpander are both killed by Kleomenes and his men, who return scot-free to Spartan society to continue its brutal and oppressive culture. But Damar survives and escapes to Messene, where she gives birth to Klaros' twin sons, names them after him and Terpander, and raises them in a free, peaceful life from then on.
  • Camp Straight: Terpander acts effeminate and wimpy, especially in comparison to the more grizzled Klaros, but boasts in the beginning about how his tongue has "performed" before many high-class women. In Greece at the time the story is set, performing oral sex on a woman was seen as more effeminate than homosexuality.
  • Costume Evolution: Spartan hoplite armor comes in two types - the older full-faced (Corinthian) helmet with a bronze muscle cuirass, and the newer open-faced conical (pilos) helmet with a laminated linen cuirass (linothorax). The older armor was the type Leonidas wore. The 300 Spartiates are equipped with the newer type, while Nestos steals a set of the older type which belonged to his grandfather.
  • Death from Above: Kleomenes has Klaros killed by having his men drop a huge boulder on him from the top of the gully. His fellow Spartans call it a dishonorable way to kill a man, but Kleomenes retorts that such notions of honor will doom them in the long run.
  • Defiant to the End: The Three, who make the trained Spartans pay for every inch when they are cornered.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When Terpander makes a drunken joke about a group of Spartan soldiers who were killed in a Helot uprising, the Ephor responds by ordering his men to kill every Helot in the room.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Terpander starts the entire plot by bragging to Arimnestos and his men about how a helot uprising slaughtered Arimnestos' namesake and his unit, which Nestos reacts to about as well as you'd expect.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Everyone. Deliberately, in the end the Three live the Spartan ideal more than the Spartiates attacking them.
  • Faking the Dead: Damar survives by hiding and letting the Spartiates assume that Nestos's corpse is that of one of the three helots, realising that they don't know that one of the escapees was a woman.
  • Foreshadowing: Damar's speech early on to the two guys about how just surviving is the best rebellion.
  • Genre Savvy: The reason Terpander sacrificed himself. He realized that their story was ending and wanted a more heroic ending than simply being the one who started all their trouble.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Terpander makes a suicidal attack on Nestos to give Klaros the chance to kill him. He explicitly invokes We Have Reserves on himself.
  • Hypocrite: Spartan society in general, and a central theme of the novel. King Kleomenes comments that the tale of the two hounds taught to young Spartan boys, in which breeding is said to be as important as training, is different from the one taught to him as a child, in which training was emphasised as being more important than breeding. The altered tale reflects Sparta's military and political decline and how the education system tries to compensate by emphasising Spartan blood. The Ephors disparage Kleomenes and his late father Kleombrotus, the Spartan king who commanded the Spartan-Peloponnesian army at Leuctra and fell in the battle, while praising Agesilaos, who essentially used a loophole in Spartan law in order to prevent the numerous survivors of the battle from being branded outcasts, which would have had a disastrous effect on Spartan manpower. Kleomenes calls out the Ephors on their hypocrisy and also points out the mistake that Agesilaos made in waging punishment wars against Thebes for 30 years, thereby inadvertently strengthening Thebes, leading to the disaster at Leuctra. Nestos also points out his parents' hypocrisy in having only one son in order to avoid having to split their large estate, even though parents in Sparta were specifically expected to have many sons in order for there to be sufficient manpower for the army.
  • Hypocrisy Nod: Kleomenes acknowledges that killing Klaros with a huge boulder dropped from above was dishonorable, but he also points out that with Sparta being in dire straits, they no longer have the luxury to entertain unrealistic notions of honor - which are already being blatantly violated in any case, the prime example being Agesilaos' effective pardon of all the survivors of the Battle of Leuctra, even though by Spartan law they should have been denounced as 'Tremblers' and rendered into outcasts.
  • I Have No Son!: When Nestos returns home after he's denounced as a 'Trembler' (an outcast of Spartan society who showed cowardice) for failing to kill the Helots who killed his father, his widowed mother declares that her son never returned home and considers the man standing in front of her lower than her racing horses.
  • In Vino Veritas: The plot kicks off when an Ephor and his escort force a group of helots to drink wine. When they don't like what the drunken Terpander has to say...
  • Just the Introduction to the Opposites: A major part of the later section of the comic focuses on, essentially, an inverted Thermopylae. It gets particularly clear in #5, which opens with Klaros making a doomed last stand against three hundred Spartans and using exactly the same methods that the Spartans used in Thermopylae—that is to say, guarding a narrow chokepoint and forcing the more vulnerable enemy to come to him.
  • Lover and Beloved: Kleomenes and Tyrtaios talk about how they had this kind of homosexual relationship in their backstory, fitting with Ancient Greek societal mores.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Nestos's attempt to hunt down the helots personally ends up giving Klaros the military armour and weapons he needs to battle the main group of Spartiates, and provides the extra corpse that allows Damar to get away at the end.
  • No Woman's Land: Averted, as the novel points out that despite its grotesquely brutal caste system, Sparta was one of the most egalitarian classical Greek states in its treatment of women—at least, the rich and upper-class women. Helot women, who made up the majority of the female population, were treated as badly as female slaves were everywhere else.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Klaros fakes lameness at the beginning to avoid drawing dangerous attention to himself for his fighting skills and also as atonement for the atrocity he committed.
  • Pre-Climax Climax: Klaros and Damar sleep together on their last night in the gully before the Spartiates attack. She survives and bears twin boys that she names after the other two.
  • Proud Warrior Race: A deliberate deconstruction, in that it doesn't merely condemn the grotesque abuse of the helots that underpinned classical Spartan society, but also demonstrates how the impracticality and rigidity of the martial ideal led to Sparta's military and political decline in the fourth century BC.
  • The Purge: The novel begins with a dramatisation of the Krypteia, the annual massacre of the strongest helots by the Spartiates as a demonstration and reinforcement of their power. It is also revealed that this happened to the helots who fought most effectively in the Theban War.
  • The Reveal: Of a sort. Throughout the series, what little description from the Spartans seems to paint Agesilaos, who's currently in Egypt as a mercenary, as the ideal Spartan king who would have run Sparta much better than Kleomenes. In the epilogue, however, it's revealed that Agesilaos is now a broken and weak old man, who died before he even returned from Egypt.
  • Shown Their Work: Kieron Gillen did a lot of research into Spartan society to get the details right according to the most recent academic literature on the topic. The notes even contain an extended discussion between Gillen and a professor of history who specializes in that particular period.
  • Sole Survivor: Damar is the only one of the Three to get away alive.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Damar ends up with twins by Klaros, and names them after him and Terpander.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To 300. Its initial conception was to expose the actual brutality and injustice of ancient Spartan culture, and point out how self-destructive its martial ideals were in the end. In Gillen's own telling, he came home one night drunk and started reading 300, before:
    Gillen: [I read] one of the speeches about ‘The only free men the world has ever known,’ and literally had a moment of incandescent rage and shouted at the book, ‘You hunted slaves!’
    • Near the end of the story, Terpander directly references the "tonight we dine in hell" line, taunting the 300 Spartans hunting them by saying that helots, who have been living in hell all their lives, would show them the way.
  • Stern Chase: The basic plot of the novel.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Klaros is very good at this. In the notes, Gillen tries to justify it by pointing out that in classical Greece, both the spear and the sword were primarily hand-held stabbing weapons, and that the sword was actually more practical to throw.
  • Vestigial Empire: Sparta is in the process of developing into this at the time of the novel, seven years after the disastrous Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, which helps explain why there is such an extreme reaction to the Three's revolt.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Eurytos sparks all the trouble at the beginning by forcing the helots to get drunk to demonstrate the evils of drinking to his followers, and then having all the helots massacred when Terpander drunkenly mouths off to him about the catastrophe at Messene.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Supposedly Sparta's attitude to helots who prove themselves to be a bit too good at fighting in war. In the notes Gillen points out that the actual evidence for this is ambiguous, but suspects that the helots themselves probably believed it.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: Klaros's one-man 300 act at the entrance to the gully.