A feeling’s been gnawing deep inside me for a while. A feeling that maybe Frank Miller’s hypermasculine antiheros and faceless, breast-thrusting women are exactly what they seem, not just sketchy parody. After reading 300, Miller’s 1998 account of the Spartans at Thermopylae, I don’t have any doubt: Miller means it. His aesthetic is fascist.
Fascism isn’t all jackboots and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Sometimes it’s well-hung Spartans toting big spears. In this case, 300 is beautiful with art worthy of a picture book. Lynn Varley’s goauche-like washes and thick spatters of rain, blood and ash are lovely. Some panels look like ukiyo-e woodcuts, and Miller demonstrates a fluid line reminiscent of Will Eisner. In prose worthy of Thea von Harbou, Miller sings of 300 Spartans’ defense of “Reason,” “Justice” and “Law” against “darkness,” “mysticism” and the “stupid” ways of the past:
One hundred nations descend upon us. Snorting, snarling desert beasts. Howling barbarians. The armies of all Asia–pledged to crush the impertinent republics of Greece–to make slaves of the only Free Men the world has ever known. [all emphases Miller’s]
It is beautiful work and pernicious as hell. Yukio Mishima would love this picture book. I’m not sure that would trouble Frank Miller at all. He’s probably spent too much time with Sun and Steel.
Fascist aesthetics don’t only celebrate authoritarianism. They also focus on ideal leaders; the exercise of will over the body and the masses; ecstatic self-abnegation and self-surrender; freedom from weakness; physical perfection; death as transcendence and death as ultimate victory. In her essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag writes that fascist aesthetics “endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.”
And then there is sexuality. Miller keeps bringing homosexuality up and then dismissing it—like someone else brought it up. I sure didn’t. It’s not like sex is necessary in a war story and nothing’s more irritating than Freud when he’s right, but this whole comic is tumescent. And I’m not sure it’s even fair to call the sexuality repressed, what with naked Spartans sleeping spears between their legs and those spears later erupting from the mouths of Persian scouts. And Thermopylae’s English translation, “The Hot Gates,” becomes positively turgid, as if the Spartans were dead sperm blocking the Persians’ entrance into Greece “herself,” or something more man-sex, given Delios the storyteller’s focus on butts.
But the homoeroticism is denied and the Spartans presented, historical sources be damned, not only as not homosexual but as homophobes, spitting insults at “pretty” Athenian “boy-lovers” in an attempt to provide a different context for lines like, “I’m ready for my punishment, Sir.”
The threat gay men pose is no different than the threat women pose. Sexuality and sentiment are weakness. Miller’s ideal manly, manly Spartans aren’t weak. The narrator of 300 reports,
“Goodbye, my love,” [Leonidas] doesn’t say it. There is no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans.
Only the hard.
Only the strong.
Just so everyone understands that Leonidas totally could get some but being so virile, he’s not interested, his wife remarks that his plan to die at Thermopylae explains his “enthusiasm” the night before. Leonidas responds, “Sparta needs sons.” At least Miller drew her with a face.
In 300, it’s not just homosexuality or women that are filthy and degrading. Sex and love are tainted in themselves. Manliness is killing and dying, no kissing. Sontag writes,
sexuality [is] converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a “spiritual” force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic… is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse.
And we are treated to the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. “Joined—fused—a single creature—indivisible, impenetrable, unstoppable—we push.”
300 is the first time I’ve ever read something written in first person plural omniscient. The style reads so well I didn’t notice until, halfway through, I started thinking about fascism. It leads the reader to identify with the Spartans’ identification with Leonidas. “We” narrate the story as Spartans who—unlike Xerxes’ “enslaved” army—chose to lose ourselves in the phalanx, in destroying Asian hordes and in Leonidas, the singular hero who makes us all heroic. How is this freedom? Like Sontag says, it is all “egomania and servitude.”
In the end, fascist aesthetics celebrate the ecstatic and transcendent purity of death. In 300, the Spartan goal is death and that goal is fulfilled in the last chapter, “Victory.” Miller focuses not just on death itself, but on mortification of the flesh. Leonidas has more in common with Mel Gibson’s pizzafied Jesus than Yukio Mishima’s Saint Sebastian or von Harbou’s static Siegfried pieta.
Leonidas’ mortification is victory–not holding off the Persians until the Athenian navy arrives, not even killing Xerxes, in all his pierced, effeminate, dark-skinned glory. Stelios, the sidekick youth, finally becomes a man and Spartan by dying. Death itself is victory.
~~~Carol Borden is definitely going to see the movie. Maybe she’ll even write about it for the Gutter. In the meantime, play the home game with a copy of 300 and Susan Sontag’s essay. Line’em up and win!
a couple of people have privately confessed confusion about this passage:
“’Goodbye, my love,’ [Leonidas] doesn’t say it. There is no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans.
Only the hard.
Only the strong.”
that is an entire single quote. the formatting and emphases are miller’s. i probably should’ve reformatted it. oh well. next time.
“Manliness is killing and dying”… That sentence perfectly captures the essence of Miller’s 300. A celebration of heroics of the narrowest, stupidest, most self-centered kind.
Though I’m going to see the movie too. I mean, have you seen Gerard Butler’s abs?
I really appreciate that you call Miller out on his repudiation of emotion that coexists with his erotic portrayal of martyrdom. In this context it becomes even more fascinating to me that the queerness of the Spartans is totally dismissed in Miller’s retelling. It’s almost as if the point in dealing with the story at all is simply to insist, “They totally were NOT gay!”
Um. I must have read a different comic, because I thought the homoerotic undertones weren’t too subtle. When Miller’s Spartans call other Greeks sissies, I think they mean they are weak and soft and not ready for war: sissies, that is. Which may not be politically correct, but it fits the violent tone of the comic.
I think you are reading too much into it anyway. Until Frank Miller outright says “I don’t like fags and women are objects” (and if you think that could never happen, just look at Dave Sim), I think you must not jump to any conclusions after reading Sin City or 300. Don’t confuse the author with the work.
Calling it fascistic is a bit far-fetched, too.
It’s interesting that you insist that we must not confuse the author with the work, yet insist that we cannot evaluate the aethetics of a piece until we have explicit statements from an author as to her/his political leanings. That is, we must wait for Miller to explicitly tell us that he is homophobic and sexist before we can talk about homophobic and misogynist aspects of his work. The scenario you are advocating, Android, is that we evaluate an author’s intentions, rather than the art that they actually produce, that we evaluate work based on the qualities we project into artists’ souls, rather than their actual art.
That’s my two cents on cultural criticism.
I’d agree with you a piece of art must stand on its own — to a point; I bet none of us can completely divorce art from its author — but I don’t think it was just the comic Carol was commenting on when she said “I don’t have any doubt: Miller means it”, compared him to Mishima and claimed his work “celebrated authoritarianism”.
And even then, saying his aesthetic is fascist seems completely over the top to me. It’s an epic, heroic and shallow macho-man sword an sandal comic, where men are stereotypically tough and don’t tell their wives they love them; I don’t think much more can be read into it.
If I remember correctly, in the comic the Spartans also believe the ugly cannot be great and they don’t allow the deformed guy in their ranks… Will you draw from that the conclusion that the author thinks the deformed are inferior? Or just that his *characters* think so?
Now, if Miller made ten comics and all ten featured the same sort of attitudes by the same kind of characters, then maybe you’d convince me 😉 I’m not claiming *nothing* can be read from art.
Certainly a better comic could have been made. The pictures are gorgeus but the plot extremely shallow.
Well, I didn’t have to look too far to find evidence that Frank Miller objectifies his female characters. (No comment about how he treats women in real life, but perhaps it’s not too far fetched to extrapolate…)
Here is some of his script (written to Jim Lee) for Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder:
1. CLOSER-MEDIUM ANGLE-VICKI continues. She cocks her head, tossing her hair. Detail her BRA. It’ll drive them crazy, Jim.”
“BODY SHOT-THIGH UP-give us an even better angle on the babe. Front on. Walking right at us. She knows what she’s got. Make them drool.”
“OK, Jim, I’m shameless. Let’s go with an ASS SHOT. Panties detailed. Balloons from above. She’s walking, restless as always. We can’t take our eyes off her. Especially since she’s got one fine ass.”
You can check out the art and text at Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed)
hey everyone–thanks for the comments individually and as a group. i hope you don’t mind if i respond in one big post.
chris s.–i’m a little worried that gerard butler is so lean he might tear if he bends over or turns too suddenly.
weed–i do feel like that denial was an important component. it’s like gay men totally ruin the manly arts.
android–i don’t think either the homoeroticism or the homophobia is subtle. i think that the homophobia is part of a strategy to undermine any idea that miller’s spartans or the historical spartans were homosexual.
i do remember the spartans explicitly calling the other greeks soft and “brave amateurs” because while they were greek–and therefore superior to any barbarians–they have professions other than soldiering. they do however specifically deride the athenians as “boy-lovers” and, in a story about the battle of marathon, delios describes the persians first site of “armored men. athenians. with their leather _skirts_ and lovingly sculpted _breastplates_. what a _pretty_ pack they must have been.” (emphases miller’s)
as for frank miller’s beliefs, i don’t know, which is why i am focusing on 300 and fascist aesthetics. that might sound coy, but i am sincere. if i am being unfair to anyone, it is probably thea von harbou and _siegfried_. even when she was a nazi, she and fritz lang made films that mocked hitler. people’s art and opinions don’t always line up. i doubt frank miller identifies as a fascist. he probably identifies as anti-fascist. i do feel comfortable with my argument that _300_ does line up with fascist aesthetics and other fascist art.
I think it’s spot-on. I remember reading “Dark Knight Returns” and being amazed at how fascistic (is that a word?) it all seemed. 300 is perhaps not quite as overt about some of it as his Batman comics, but I found nothing in this essay that conflicts with anything I’d felt about Miller’s writings. Perhaps it clarified the ideas for me, though.
There are at least two ways of understanding cultural product. One entails analyzing a work in conjunction with its contexts, its subtexts, the time and space of its creation, and the particular selected presences and absences within its pages. Seen from this perspective, Frank Miller’s 300 is endlessly fascinating. His insistence on the democracy and rationality of what was in actuality a city-state on a perpetual war footing commanded by an elite-elected tyrant. His hysterical obsession with the dark, dictatorial mysticism of some imagined ‘the East.’ His construction of a hierarchy of disparaged effeminization, within which he celebrates his bodily self-sacrificing and self-abnegating meta-hetero he-man warriors as they gloriously and graphically penetrate from the front and rear their polymorphously perverse foe (this despite the historical record of how same-sex desire and affect was the very lubricant of Spartan esprit de corps). His lionization of a society in which, by his own representation, deformation warrants disinclusion and even euthanization. The resonance of these representations with values loudly touted by regimes in places like Rome and Berlin throughout the second quarter of the last century. And, just to bring things up to date, the repackaging of all this as cinematic spectacle at precisely the moment another imaginary ‘the West’ is entangled in two less-than-triumphal landlocked conflicts bordering upon, and commanded by an admiral in the waters adjacent, what once was Persia. Plus let’s not forget Miller’s recent audio-essay espousing a post-9/11 patriotism formulated straight from the atavistic gut. Certainly there is no singular definitive reading to be drawn from all this. But if it steps like a goose, and it honks from the balcony like a goose, well, it is endlessly fascinating.
Another way of understanding would be to declare a work nothing more nor less than what appears explicitly on the page, and to relegate analyses beyond that page largely to the margins. (Unless, perhaps, supported by a statistically significant sample of any author’s works, in which case we will have to gather thirty-one different Frank Miller comics so as to construct a standard normal distribution before discussion may commence). Such naivety towards cultural production can be both endearing and expedient. It certainly preserves the plain old fun of Frank Miller’s ripping good man-on-man Peloponnesian adventure, while sparing us the mental exertions of having to excavate the times, spaces and ideologies from out of which 300 was distilled. Regrettably, this approach not only renders meaningful, rich interpretation of cultural product impossible, but forecloses the very possibility of cultural studies. It is, in short, the approach favored by those who, upon hearing ‘culture,’ release the safety catches of their Brownings. This, in turn, may go a long way towards explaining why such folk are now so avidly jerking their knees to dismiss critiques of this latest triumph of Miller’s will as far-fetched ‘political correctness.’ Dismissals of cultural analysis, though, do not cultural analysis make. To the contrary, they deny even the possibility of such analysis and so, under cover of reasoned debate, provide no way towards understanding at all.
“It’s an epic, heroic and shallow macho-man sword an sandal comic, where men are stereotypically tough and don’t tell their wives they love them; I don’t think much more can be read into it.”
But it can! Whether you think so or not, here it is. And that’s Carol’s point (and mine, and Chuchmek’s most eloquent and goose-honk-inclusive one).
More specific to your point here, it’s not an issue of not telling your wife you love her. Instead, it’s an issue of having your (male) partner and sexual orientation – the very heart of what made this embattled group such bonded heroes historically – completely erased and ascribed derogatorially to your enemy, because it doesn’t fit a very modern (in the philosophical sense), manly aesthetic in which there is no room for emotion or tenderness. 300 is not “A Fist Full of Dollars,” or “For a Better Tommorow;” it is predicated on a triumphalist, violent masculinity built upon exclusion. As you note, it explicitly excludes physical imperfection, but, as Carol’s essay details (and supports with examples – it’s not out of nowhere, baby!), it also excludes, to the point of paranoia, queerness, femininity, emotion, and difference.
Dude, this is “fascism.” This is what that word is for.
And, no offense, but don’t wink at me while we’re arguing.
“Fascistic” is a valid adjectival form of the word “fascist” (listed in both american dictionaries of the descriptive school as well as prescriptive dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary):
• fascistic, adj : relating to or characteristic of fascism; “fascistic propaganda”
But, honestly, I can’t really see much difference between that and the adjectival form of “fascist”:
• fascist, adj. : of or pertaining to fascism; resembling fascism; as, fascist propaganda.
(definitions snagged from here )
It seems to be a case like “iterate” and “reiterate” (or like “regardless” and “irregardless”) where the the first form did not satisfy standard english speakers’ expectations and so the second form came into usage to strengthen the meaning. In this case, I’d say “fascistic” has a stronger sense of being a descriptive adjective that is more distanced from actual fascism (as compared with something that is not merely similar to, but actually “fascist”.)
Anyway, fascisctic.net lists Fourteen Identifying Characteristics of Fascism, the first five of which are:
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.
2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.
4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.
5. Rampant sexism.
Now, any comic glorifying war and battle may have trouble avoiding numbers 1, 3, 4, and maybe even 2 – at least within the context of the story. And Frank Miller seems to provide ample examples of number 5 in his work, if not specifically in 300 (I must admit I haven’t read 300, but I can think of plenty of examples from Sin City, as well as his work in Daredevil and Elekra – and certainly his more recent work on All Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder.) I have to say, I prefer his work when he focuses on male characters to the exculsion of female characters. (It’s hard to be sexist when there’s no object of sexism present – it’s still possible, but it’s not as easy.)
I think that number 2 may also present itself in the treatment of ennemies, or in the training of Spartan boys alluded to in Carol’s article. It might also be seen in the intolerance expressed by “the ugly cannot be great and they don’t allow the deformed guy in their ranks.”
This attitude also seems to line up with the “fascist aesthetic” that Carol describes and which I find described elsewhere as follows:
“a strongly classical style… Men were depicted as patriotic, heroic and powerful, while women were neat and clean, with muscular legs and full breasts. They were often depicted as Nordic or ‘Aryan’ — generally light blonde and very white-skinned — reflecting myths of Aryan superiority. The most prominent German artists of this style were sculptor Arno Breker and painter Adolf Wissel.”
“the beautification of mindless, masculine physical power is, in fact, highly supportive and perhaps a part of totalitarian ideology”
But I think the real confusion here seems between whether Frank Miller’s 300 is fascist (or fascistic) and whether Frank Miller himself is fascist (or fascistic.) I think that 300 is probably fascistic or has a “fascist aesthetic”, based on the discussion so far. However, in his interviews and public statements, Miller regularly identifies himself as anti-fascist.
Here are some things he recently said in a well-publicized interview on National Public Radio (NPR) on January 24, 2007 :
“Well, I don’t really find myself worrying about the state of the union as I do the state of the home-front. It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants … and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire. Mighty cultures are almost never conquered, they crumble from within.”
“For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genetically [sic] mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.”
“…the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.”
You can read such transcripts at any number of right-wing blogs and you can even listen to a recording of the interview at
Little Green Footballs.
Even here he says he’s against fascism, but I have to admit he also sounds a lot like a right wing bigot.
Maybe we can all agree that Frank Miller is both a very talented comic book artist and also a major league asshole?
To Mr. Dave’s observations of fascism’s defining characteristics, it might be fun to add what Robert O. Paxton terms one of fascism’s primary “mobilizing passions,” specifically: “a passionate nationalism…[allied to]…a conspiratorial and Manichean view of history as a battle between the good and evil camps, between the pure and the corrupt, in which one’s own community or nation has been the victim.”
It might be fun to add this because, on top of all else, it is precisely this passion Miller seems to compulsively mobilize in his attempts to testify as an anti-fascist.
So perhaps it is not we readers who are the ones most confused about which is fascist(ic), the work or its author.
Well, I admit that those quotes from Miller don’t sound too good (I’m not from the US and many Americans would dislike my views on their foreign policy and wars).
And please: I’m not a native English speaker, so cut me some slack with all the talk about “fascist” vs “fascistic” and whatnot. It’s all the same to me. I think you’re all taking this too seriously. It’s actually a pretty shallow comic. I don’t think Frank Miller is trying to portray his Spartans in a good light either, just an “epic” and “heroic” light. But I doubt I’ll convince any of you.
Anyway, I’m outta here. When people start telling me to stop using smileys or calling my opinion “naive”, the debate inevitably starts to go sour. It’s one of those rules of the internet.
Um, Android – I think the whole point at the beginning of my last post was that “fascist” and “fascistic” are both valid words that mean pretty much exactly the same thing?
Anyway, if your point it that you “don’t think much more can be read into it”, that we are “all taking this too seriously”, that we “are reading too much into it anyway”, and that it is wrong to “jump to any conclusions after reading Sin City or 300”, then I would have to say: no, it is very unlikely that you will convince anyone of this who is interested in posting comments on this page. If they agreed with you, they would probably not be interested enough to post comments in the first place!
The fact that Carol was able to write over 800 words about the subject obviously indicates there is a lot that can be read into it. You may not agree with what she reads into it, but certainly her article and all the discussion that has followed must convince you that it is possible to read more into this story than just “a shallow macho-man sword and sandal comic.” Someone thought it was good enough to turn into a movie! And if you really don’t think there is much to say about it, why do you keep posting comments about it? 😉
But maybe we should talk about the art instead? I agree that Frank Miller is a very talented artist, and from what I have seen of 300, the pictures are gorgeous. Much better than the work he did in DK2.
Or maybe your point is that “calling it fascistic is a bit far-fetched” and that “saying his aesthetic is fascist seems completely over the top.” I think this is where the discussion becomes interesting, because I think there may be a difference between something that is “fascist” and something that has a “fascist aesthetic.” For instance, Fritz Lang’s movies may appeal to fascists (they may have a “fascist aesthetic”) but that doesn’t mean that Fritz Lang is a fascist or that he intended them to promote fascism.
Anyway, I’m glad you were here to stir up conversation and to motivate me to look-up lots of interesting information about fascism and Frank Miller and different kinds of aesthetics.
Au revoir, Android!
I totally agree with this article. Miller should’ve done the right thing for this day and age, shown the caring, sharing side of the Spartans. Shown a group of right minded liberals who truly respected the people they fought against, and who only reluctantly went to war when all diplomatic avenues had been explored. That would’ve been more than entertainment, it would’ve sent a good message to the kids.
Won’t somone think of the kids ?
This is why I don’t watch anything on TV except re-runs of ‘Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman’, and would certainly never read one of these ‘funny books’ you all seem to be interested in. Nasty things.
I’ve got to agree with what Mr. Dave said about fascism. I’d like to add that fascism as such is more focused on suppressing people’s personal rights in favor of a strong state that then “takes care” of its people. A good example of fascism was the comment that “At least trains were always on time” during Mussolini’s reign. A recent example of a fascist society is Britain.
What the article’s author probably meant was Nazism, which at its core was communism, but with nationalistic undertones, such as the creation of a fictitious race that was superior to others, and the idea of putting the needs of the “race” before the needs of the individual people.
As far as sexism goes, Mr. Dave is right again. I would just point out that Miller sometimes does it to provoke the Comics Code Authority. In some cases, such as his last Sin City series, he actually spelled it out at the end of every issue.
Finally, on the issue of racism – manly heroes vs. unwashed hordes of barbarians. That would make pretty much every story about the clash of civilizations racist – whether it is an old western movie, Alain Quatermain stories or The Bible. History is always written by the victorious, and they like to portray themselves as strong and manly, while their enemies were always inferior to them.
My only gripe about Miller’s work is that he replaced local herders who showed the Persians the secret path across the mountains with a deformed and discarded Spartan.
every time i think i’ve got something to add, there’s a whole whack of new comments to think about. thanks, it’s great!
that said, i’m feeling a little overwhelmed so i’ll just address two things. the first is the whole “tell my wife i love her” thing.
my problem isn’t that the spartans aren’t mushy. i actually looked forward to reading a miller book w/o female characters. like i said, there’s no reason sex or love need to be in 300, but miller deliberately puts sex, love and women in there. to me that scene’s not only a way of obscuring the 300’s homosexuality, as weed says. it’s: leonidas is heterosexual; leonidas only has sex to make sons; sex and love are weakness. so, no, i’m not mad at leonidas for totally not kissing his girlfriend in front of the guys.
and hi, jozef, thanks for the comment. i was generalizing about fascist art/aesthetics, though i recognize they vary from place to place, not so much about a particular fascist political system. i see your point about nazism, especially since susan sontag was so interested in leni riefenstahl. not that it’s really important in reading my piece, but i was also thinking about yukio mishima and i can see things in common between mishima’s ideal samurai and these spartans. iirc, thermopylae didn’t stop the persians, but, in 300, the spartans win because they die to be free. kinda suicide as sincerity.
anyway, thanks again everyone. i hope my commenting doesn’t derail conversation.
This is kind of amusing.
I haven’t read 300, but I have read other works by Miller, and my partner and I were just discussing Miller’s bleak view of the world, and his tendencies towards monolithic, totalitarian figures, as demonstrated by The Dark Knight Returns. It was all in the context of a course offered at York University that was exploring the graphic novel medium.
So as silly as I feel to give my two cents in the discussion of a book I haven’t read, I do feel like the Frank Miller material I’ve already read seems to support Carol’s conclusions.
Good points all around. Jozef’s pegged it in noting that the Clash of Civilizations idea tends towards a thinly veiled but particularly virulent racism. It’s inherent in the very idea of primordial, essential cultures as some sort of super-organic entities, for a demonstration of this check out the pappy of C o’ C, Samuel P. Huntington’s latest work, _Who We Are_. And Jozef’s also dead-on in suspecting the prevalence of this. Colonial projects of settlement, resource extraction and conquest ultimately resort to racism for salving the conscience, and such projects pepper their stories with the stuff whether old western movies, Alan Quatermain, or even something as seemingly frivolous as Tintin (see, for example, _Tintin au Congo_, for which Hergé himself later apologized).
I have to disagree with Uberman, though. Miller creates selective misrepresentations and gross caricatures of well-documented ancient civilizations. Civilizations that, really, are far more complex and interesting, comics-worthy even, in their pre-Millerized forms. He then uses these to turn democracy and rationality into slogans for mobilizing unthinking, mass self-sublimation to righteous bloodshed. As such, he has created something that is exactly the right thing for this particular day and age. Quite probably without the vaguest conscious of having done so, although I do suspect Miller may have had somebody read him Huntington in Cliff Notes form.
“The most concrete example in the pagan world of a ‘fascist’ system in the modern sense was the Greek city-state of Sparta.”
Hence, for Miller to portray Spartan culture without employing a “fascistic aesthetic” would be an act of spurious revisionism. The reactionary logic that motivates someone to accuse an author of advocating a political philosophy by simple virtue of his having acknowledged its existence and/or represented it accurately could just as easily be used to accuse any member of this thread of harboring a cryptofascist agenda for having disseminated fascist memes in the process (ostensibly) of censuring such implicit extremism.
However, one really should ask themselves – in a time when anomie and alienation are so prevalent, the divorce and suicide rates so high, depression such a ubiquitious “illness”, leadership so extinct, overpopulation and environmental degradation such looming specters of apocalyptic catastrophe, and impotent art criticism considered nevertheless a worthwhile expenditure of one’s energies… should the resurgence of an ideology that enshrines strength, sacrifice, and science surprise anyone? And, for that matter, why fear it? Why struggle against a tide that will only wash the detritus away?
While the Spartans may or may not have embraced a fascist aesthetic, you seem to have conflated the subject of a story with the presentation of a story.
The subject of a story may be militaristic or fascistic or even racist, but the presentation of a story does not need to reflect or promote those values. For instance, Mark Twain represents the racist attitudes prevalent in his era in Huckleberry Finn, but he is not sympathetic to that racism. Similarly, the movie The Killing Fields is about the beginning of the Khmer Rouge’s revolution and genocide in Cambodia, but the movie certainly doesn’t doesn’t endorse any particular nationalistic perspective.
But even your suggestion that Frank Miller is just presenting history is rather disingenuous. An author or an artist always makes decisions in how to present material to best tell the kind of story he or she is interested in putting forward. Frank Miller himself admits that his presentation of the story of the 300 Spartans is not meant to be historically accurate:
“I’m taking an awful lot of liberties with everything, but that’s my job. If you want reality, catch a documentary.”
from this interview
But I can see that you’re kind of yanking the chain here, with your sarcastic endorsement of fascism, so maybe you are just trying to stir up some debate about the historical accuracy of the comic and or new film?
I found this Objectivist’s perspective on the subject to be pretty interesting:
The Danger of the “300”
Actually, this graphic novel/film, and Miller’s post-9/11 quote resonate well together, as in they pave the way for a fascistic response to imperial collapse, , the “betrayal” of the liberal Athenians/Democrats, and the wholesale extermination of “medieval barbarians” undeserving of life.
By portraying the Spartans as the aggrieved party, defending their homeland till death, the odiousness of their societal philosophy is disguised, if not elevated to heroic proportions (thus the only the hard, only the strong motif).
The portrayal of the Persians is also telling, emphasizing the worst forms of Orientalism to whip up hatred and contempt for the Other.
As for the homophobic homoeroticism, well, that’s a pretty well-worn theme in fascist movements, right down to the brown shirts of the SA.
That the 300 film comes out at a crucial time for the War Party in Washington, is quite interesting. However, those who take umbrage from this depiction of the battle of Thermopylae, should realize their efforts may actually parallel those of Crassus in the battle of Carrhae. In the latter, case the Parthians routed a much larger Roman invasion force.
I guess your comments are probably tongue-in-cheek, but you seem to be suggesting that an author has no choice in how he or she portrays the subjects of history – that the story must embrace the historical ethics or values of those subjects. Thus, if one is writing about Spartans, one also has to embrace the Spartan worldview.
Obviously, authors and artists constantly make choices in how they portray their characters. There are plenty of examples of books, films, and even comics that can portray events (even historical events) without adopting the “aesthetics” of the protagonists or antagonists. Movies like Das Boot or The Killing Fields come to mind as examples where identification with historical characters and events is complicated. But even war movies don’t need to be jingoist. The Big Red One (starring Lee Marvin) and Hell In the Pacific (starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune) depicted manly World War II heroism without dehumanizing the ennemy.
But all this is beside the point, because even Frank Miller admits that he is not trying to be historically accurate:
“I’m taking an awful lot of liberties with everything, but that’s my job. If you want reality, catch a documentary.” (quoted from a Q&A posted at IGN.com)
So it seems that Frank Miller is in fact embracing a very particular vision of the Spartans – one that is not necessarily historically accurate. Also, there is clearly something about this story that caught his attention and made him want to write about it in the first place. (He was not commissioned to do this graphic novel – he chose the subject matter as well as the manner of its presentation.) What caught his attention is very much reflected in what he chooses to present as well as what he chooses to omit from his telling of this tale.
A fairly sober analysis of the Battle of Thermopylae as compared to its portrayal in 300 may be found here.
Umm… it looks like something wonky happened to my posts. Sorry for posting twice, but I had orignally posted my first comment over a week ago and, after ceti’s post went up last week, I figured it had gotten lost and I needed to post again.
Anyway, I also notice I somehow failed to attach my name to the second post.
Sorry everyone. But I hadn’t save the links from my first post so I’m glad to see that they were recovered!
There is a Historical fiction novel about the battle of Thermopylae by Scott Pressfield called “The Gates of Fire”, which is interesting because of the way he looks at the intense psychological conditioning of the Spartan army, and also about how he interprets their music and dance, in a society where writing and visual arts were discouraged.
Spartan Society is fascinating. It was obviously a fascistic oligarchy, but it also had vague elements of democracy in it, in that any adult male landowner did have the right to make comments on decisions of government. much like the city-state of Athens (or any any other new democracy, such as early America). Unlike Athens, the government of Sparta also had some hints of a Matriarchy, as the female aristocracy did have a degree of control over domestic policy while the men went off to war.
Unlike Athens, Sparta had more problems with their slave population, and dealt with constant rebellions.
After the battle of Thermopylae, Athens, Sparta, and other Greek Cities ganged up on the invaders and fought back the Persian Army. When they had won, Athens and Sparta then fought for control of Greece, sort of like America and Russia might have fought over the world after defeating the Nazis, which they did not, thankfully.
The struggle went on for decades. Finally, Sparta won, for two reasons: Sparta had better commanders, while the Athenians tended to wage war by committee, which is a bad idea. But also, the Spartans asked the Persians to finance their navy, and to pay off some of the Athenian navy to defect.
Sparta won the Pelopenesinion War, and conquered Athens.
Like many totalitarian societies, Sparta completely collapsed almost one generation after their glorious victory. Human beings will tolerate going along with totalitarianism for a while, but they will eventually get tired of being told what to do all the time.
thanks for your comments, you classicists and/or military historians. i appreciate it and i always like learning more.
the movie 300 is the best in the last years. it glorifies virtues and it attacks decadence and degeneration. it’s a beautiful movie which shows that only with the blood of the heroes and enemies the civilization can be preserve. an educational story.
I just happened upon this post and all of its comments years after it originally appeared, but as there seems to be a lot of curiosity here about the relationship between the work of Frank Miller and Frank Miller himself, I can assure you that, as someone who spent many many hours with Frank Miller for over a dozen years (including the years he was creating the comic book 300), he is every bit as fascistic in real life as he appears to be in his work.
In a sense I am only confirming what other commentators have argued based upon his interviews and that truly appalling & really unbelievable piece of his aired on NPR. But I have been amazed when I’ve heard very intelligent people remark about SIN CITY, for example, that it’s all just for laughs and intended ironically. Believe me, Frank Miller is incapable of irony. His idea of humor–and this was an example of which he was extremely proud–is the line in Robocop II where the cyborg cop blasts the cigarette out of an innocent bystander’s mouth (almost killing him with fear) then says politely, “Thank you for not smoking.” This was the cigarette-smoking Frank’s “incisive” comment on anti-smoking initiatives. Brilliant, huh? This is as deep as it goes with Frank.
Politically, Frank identified as a Liberitarian and was greatly offended when Art Speigelman in the ’90s called his work “illiberal.” In reality, Speigelman was being far too polite. Frank is a very poorly-educated auto-didact. Frequently beaten up and mocked as a boy for being very uncoordinated and developing late, he is a fearful, angry, paranoid guy, and his terror of women is not just put on in homage to James M. Cain or something.
At a certain point I had to laugh when he was quoted in the news lamenting the uncalled for murder of some “innocent” American contractors in Iraq because I knew with absolute certainty that he did not understand these were MILITARY contractors but believed them to be the sort of builders his ex-wife & colorist Lynn Varley was always hiring and re-hiring to renovate the various places they lived in over the years.
That is the Frank Miller I knew. And I’ve left out the worst and most private parts. His work is fascistic, as he is fascistic. And there’s a reason why, after his failure to make in Hollywood in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he was able to triumphantly return to it more recently. In terms of fascist immaturity the culture has finally descended to his level.
Thanks for you comment. I wish I could feel some satisfaction at having my gnawing feeling confirmed. But I can hardly say I’m surprised. For me, Holy Terror is just a balder version of 300.
Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to comment and sharing your experience.
And there we have it folks, confirmation that Miller is indeed a picture-book duce for growing legions of goosestepping dolts the world over. Thanks for clinching the case, “Leonidas”. Oh, and Boo’s observations don’t hurt, either.
The admirable thing about Frank, and I was truly impressed by this, is that he always remained true to his “vision” or original impulses or whatever you want to call them. At least when I knew him in the late ’80s and all through the ’90s, there was generally nothing calculated about his work: he wasn’t a “wind-sniffer” or “sell-out” (to use a v. old-fashioned term) or trying to ape someone else for the sake of success. He did what he loved, as he had loved to do it since he was a kid lying on his belly and drawing comics at home. And he worked very hard.
The problem is that he never matured beyond the frightened pre-pubescent boy he was when he fell in love with the medium. In recent years I suspect some personal issues, always there, have really caught up to him and really started to adversely affect his work. Holy Terror provides a lot of evidence in this regard.
From the outside, it’s always seemed like he remained true to his vision and I would never call him a hypocrite. But it starts to remind me of Ditko, and I have to say that not being a hypocrite isn’t the overarching virtue in itself it once was to me. The world is a messy place and neat solutions are often also terrifyingly destructive ones. Anyway, thanks again for your comments and perspective!