Gillen & Kelly's THREE Reveals Literal Spartan Class War

Cover for Three #1
Credit: Image Comics

Kieron Gillen may seem busy with his Marvel Comics projects. After all he’s writing the ongoing series Iron Man and Young Avengers, and this fall tackling the next chapter of Logan’s story in Wolverine: Origin II. But that hasn’t slowed down his creator-owned work, or at least it hasn’t slowed it down much.

While recently chatting about all that Marvel work, the conversation swerved for some status updates on what he’s doing for himself, starting with the much-anticipated other teamup with artist Jamie McKelvie, the third volume of Phonogram, and following-up on his newest series, 3, that turns the myth of Sparta on its head. He was even so kind as to bring some unfinished Ryan Kelly art from Three to show off before it’s colored and lettered for the final release in October.

Newsarama: Kieron, I can’t have you on the line and not ask what the status of Phonogram is. When the heck are we getting more Phonogram, man?

Kieron Gillen: Good question… um, next year? I’ll say, all the scripts are written. Maybe July or August next year. This time next year is my best guess for issue 1 coming out. Jamie and I kind of thought we could do it at the same time as Young Avengers but it hasn’t worked out that way, we had a few other things going on, which is embarrassing for us.

But yeah, this time next year, it’s frustrating and we apologize for all the fans.

Nrama: And talk to me about Three a little here. The first issue is solicited for October, right?

Cover for Three #1
Cover for Three #1
Credit: Image Comics

Gillen: Yeah, the week before New York Comic Con, which I’m over for, so I’m looking forward to it.

It’s me, Jordie Bellaire, Ryan Kelly, and Clayton Cowles on letters. Three is basically a story about the Spartan slave hunts and everything in Sparta. It’s set about a hundred, hundred and twenty years after Thermopylae. It’s basically right after Sparta has fallen. For the last hundred years Sparta has basically ruled Greece, and this is just after Thebes has crushed them and the paranoid regime is trying to hold on.

It’s everything about Sparta that gets written out of the popular myths currently. The story is about three Helot slaves. The Helots were the slave race of Sparta; there were ten of them for every Spartan, which is why they could train so much to be fighters, because they had ten people to keep them that way! You know, the Spartans were kind of bullsh*t!

The thing that made me angry enough to write this – the Spartans, they declare a war ceremony on the Helots once a year. They had people hunt and kill them. The preyed on the strongest looking Helots to keep them from rising up. This is the random terror police.

So our story has three Helots who accidentally kill a Spartan and they send the “300” the elite, after these three. So it’s three slaves against the greatest warriors who have ever lived.

It’s a heroic story about people who never got heroic stories written about them. That’s how Three works. It’s obviously quite political. It’s about class and power and structure. It’s an analysis of what Sparta really means – at least my take on what it really means. People have done this idea of Sparta as defenders of Western liberty, or people like Hitler who thought that Sparta were the first Racialist state. People read into Sparta what they choose.

So I did a lot of research. I talked to the Classics department at Nottingham University and Professor Stephen Hodkinsons, which has been the historic advisor on the piece.

Nrama: Yeah, I found it interesting that he was credited in the solicitation.

Ryan Kelly's uncolored, unlettered art for Three #1
Ryan Kelly's uncolored, unlettered art for Three #1
Credit: Image Comics

Gillen: It was important for me to do that. The dialogue we’ve had has been really important in terms of the Helots. People didn’t write about slaves. So the actual research I’ve got to go to, to get this has been quite cutting edge. Some theories are too wild for me to include in the book. It would not be a Sparta that people would be able to get into. The concept of the Spartan mirage is one of these things that exists in literature, so I had to play to parts of Spartan mirage and then deconstruct a little.

I plan to do a lot of notes on it, either in the trade or the issues, and I’ll go through and talk about various theories, do an interview with Stephen talking about some of these things.

I’m using this setting as the setting of the story, but bringing out the story that seemed interesting from the research material. It’s not really a history lesson. Basically, it’s an inverted Thermopylae story. Instead of 300 versus a million, it’s these 3 versus a similar 300.

When you tell the story of Thermopylae and these 300 facing this infinite Persian army, each one of those Spartans had these slaves with them. Those Helots died for a freedom they never possessed. They were as dead as those 300 quote-unquote heroes. For me, if we’re going to celebrate those incredible warriors, you have to look at the system that allowed them to be like that.

So that’s what Three is, it’s a folky Billy Bragg pop song about these Helot slaves on the road, trying to get freedom.

Nrama: (laughs) You managed to bring pop music into a story about slaves of ancient Sparta…

Gillen: It’s true! It feels quite Billy Bradley.

Ryan Kelly's uncolored, unlettered art for Three #1
Ryan Kelly's uncolored, unlettered art for Three #1
Credit: Image Comics

Part of me wanted to make it like a British film about the working class: very dour, sad. But I decided, no, I wanted to make it heroic. Because these people were heroic. They were living under the yoke of a system and how they survived amazes. It’s only become more politically apposite since I conceived Three, in terms of the interest of power, who has it, who does it and such.

Nrama: Did you see any parallels with more modern-day slavery when you researched the slavery of ancient Sparta?

Gillen: It’s tricky. I’m not writing this as an analogue or a metaphor of today’s society, or even of another period. I’m trying very much to be faithful to this period and allow us to extrapolate our own readings from that.

The quality of slave treatment is something I read around, as far as how the ruling class treated the slave class.

The most obvious direct parallel I think people will come to, and I didn’t write for this, is the Occupy stuff. The majority of society exists to keep the ruling class of society in the ways they want to be kept. That’s the most obvious parallel I think people will read from it. It’s not deliberate, but it’s a justifiable reading of it. 3 is about how society works. And I’m not demonizing the Spartans. Yes, they’re antagonists, but in many ways they found themselves hurt by the system they were in. Not as much as the Helots, but you will see Spartans rubbing against their society.

Ryan Kelly's uncolored, unlettered art for Three #1
Ryan Kelly's uncolored, unlettered art for Three #1
Credit: Image Comics

Sparta was one of the first described Utopias. It was an Utopian idea to describe how the societies’ rules would be made. And this is where it got them. The reason I set it when it is, 363 BC, I think, this is the end of the hundred years when they were dominant in Greece, and how their society fell, how their rules and their roles became untenable.

Circa Thermopylae, you had about 10,000 Spartans – males who were able, ready to go to war. At this time there were about a thousand, there was a ten fold fall in a hundred years when they had been dominant. It wasn’t just them being killed – people could no longer afford to “be a Spartan” due to the way the economic system worked. It’s what being a Spartan meant and where it got them.

Nrama: Image Comics seems to be in something of a renaissance right now, and as somebody that has been working with Image for quite awhile, and now has this new series coming from them, what is important about Image to the landscape of modern comics to you?

Gillen: Obviously, you skim down the October solicits, and it’s incredibly inspiring. Renaissance, that you used that word, that’s a good word. It’s flourishing with creativity. There’s a variety of minds. It’s very exciting, it’s like what the hell are you going to do now.

I don’t think anyone who was following Image’s press conferences at the last couple of conventions wasn’t excited by it. My twitter stream just became this string of retweets.

Yeah, it’s exciting to have the chance to do this work, and to have it sell. The work is good, and there’s an audience for the work. It’s enormously good for the comics industry. You’ve seen a lot going on the last couple of years about the growth of the comics industry, and it’s great. It’s a very exciting time to be in comics. It makes me think what am I gonna do next?

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