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‘Thirty’: a graphic novel on the crisis of democracy

Written by Matteo Zaccarini |

Matteo Zaccarini writes about the graphic novel ‘Thirty’ for which he received an ICS Public Engagement grant

Revolutions are a bloody business.
(Xenophon, Hellenica 2.3.32)

As a researcher in ancient Greek history and a fan of comics, I’ve always had quite a bunch of stuff to choose from when I wanted to combine hobby and work. The idea for Thirty goes back a long way, but above all I must acknowledge the influence of two graphic novels.

The first is Frank Miller’s 300 (1998), a fictional tale of the famous battle of the Thermopylae, depicting the Spartans as indefatigably heroic, dutiful, stern hyper-machos fighting for freedom against literally monstruous Persians. When I read it, during my undergraduate studies, I was not aware that 300 embodies what scholars commonly refer to as the ‘Spartan mirage’, i.e. a gross jumble of ancient and modern stereotypes and ideological myths view which widely (wildly) departs from Spartan society as it can be historically reconstructed. This, in principle, is fine: nobody should expect source-criticism from a work of art.

Problems arise, however, as one starts to realize that the controversial 300 and its 2006 box-office hit Hollywood adaptation (here and here; cfr. Miller’s statements; the spin off, and movie sequel) provide what many perceive as an insulting, polarized, and ultimately racist view of the East vs West confrontation. 300’s over-the-top views have been easily parodied (here and here), for example by L. Ortolani’s brilliant 299+1 (see also Zerocalcare’s 300-inspired treatment of a not-so-unrelated topic). Much more concerningly, however, well before 300 the mirage was heavily (ab)used, among many, by the Nazi regime, and today remains favoured by extreme-right movements: to give just one most recent and prominent example, ‘Spartan’-related mottos, imagery, and props were spotted at the 2021 storming of the US Capitol. While scholars, such as S. Hodkinson and A. Powell (see this talk), have done much to dispel the mirage, it remains extremely persistent especially outside of academia.

This last issue has produced what I consider my second and main source of inspiration: in 2014 we welcomed Three, the result of a collaboration between comic artists (K. Gillen, R. Kelly, J. Bellaire, C. Cowles), and the University of Nottingham (S. Hodkinson and L. Fotheringham). Three tells the fictional story of a small group of helots on the run from the crippled and bitter state that was left of Sparta after 371: accurately grounded in historical and iconographical terms, Threeprovides an authoritative reply to mirage-based views.

 

 

As obvious as it may seem, between 300 and Three, ‘thirty’ was the missing figure. Very conveniently, it happens to evoke one of the most critical moments in Greek history, the oligarchic regime of the Thirty ‘constituents’ (more familiarly known as ‘tyrants’) who, led by Critias, ruled Athens for a few months in 404/3 BCE. Arithmetically, the fit is perfect. Thematically, the focus of this story is on Athens, but the Thirty were imposed by Sparta after Athens’ defeat by the brilliant Spartan general Lysander.

The Athens of Thirty is not the democratic dream (mis-)represented by Pericles’ funeral speech in Thucydides, but a broken community, exhausted and humiliated. Thirty shows a brutal civil war between the grudge-bearing supporters or the oligarchy and their former fellow citizens who aim to restore democracy. But the story will show that sides are not so clear-cut: a modest poet can become a vicious despot, and self-declared patriots can be driven by more than high ideals; hidden plots might bring some closer than they appear, and crawling envies might destroy fragile alliances. Though short-lived, the regime of the Thirty brought to light the contradictions and fragility of the democracy, changed it at the core, and left deep scars in its social fabric. This seemed to me perfectly suited for a story on the past narrated in our time, as our own ideas of democracy come under attack from many sides.

As a major literary source, first-person witness, and terrific narrator, Xenophon seemed obvious as the main protagonist. Other big names, such as Socrates and Plato, will play a part, contributing to make Thirty appealing to a wide audience. With no reliable ancient portraits of the main villains(?) LysanderTheramenes, and Critias, we toyed with some ideas to give them a face. Other important roles will be written for both invented and real characters (e.g. Aspasia, Pericles’ former mistress, and Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife), balancing the dramatis personae in terms of age, gender, and social class.

 

 

Thirty aims to follow the steps set by Three: fiction, but as historically grounded and plausible as it can be. I envisage it to further show how academia can contribute to a product of entertainment that can convey scholarly validated contents while remaining accessible and enjoyable to a wide public. But of course, I could not do all of this alone: I received help from other members of the Honour in Classical Greece project at the University of Edinburgh, and joined forces with independent artist Andrea Chiappino, the author of the stunning artwork you can preview here. The financial support of the ICS kickstarted our work, and further aid from Edinburgh allowed us to complete a whole scene: Lysander’s entrance in Athens, immediately before the inception of the Thirty.

So where are we now? Other commitments and the pandemic slowed us down dramatically, but we are working on the second scene, which will feature Critias, and on a flash-back in which several of the main characters discuss the ‘problems’ of democracy with Socrates. We are seeking additional creative and financial support with the aim of contacting a professional comics publisher. In the meanwhile, thanks to help from Rodopis: Experience Ancient History, Andrea managed to produce a short, partially animated teaser trailer, which will soon be published online.

 

 

For now, the story ends here, possibly leaving you with more questions than answers: what’s next? How did we employ sources? When is the final product due? And, where the heck is Lysander’s conspicuous beard mentioned by Plutarch? Get in touch, follow us on Facebook, and you might find out. And please, let us know your thoughts!

 

 

Links: Thirty graphic novel Facebook page

Andrea Chiappino (ac.kenap) on Instagram

Honour in Classical Greece ERC project

Rodopis: Experience Ancient History