April 24, 2014, by Tara de Cozar

Where comics and classics collide — story telling and Three

Kieron Gillen is kind of a big deal.

The comics writer came to the University last week. He spoke at the Classical Association annual conference, a three-day classics extravaganza that UoN hosted.

If you’re not into comics, you might not get why that’s so exciting. But Kieron wrote Phonogram — of which comics superstar Warren Ellis said: “I’ve just read this thing and I’ve got an ache in my chest and I’m looking for something to hit because the b*****d Gillen has outwritten me.” He’s also worked on a good few Marvel titles — including the current run of Iron Man, Uncanny X-Men, and Young Avengers (one of my favourite comics ever, drawn by the sickeningly-talented Jamie McKelvie, you should read it, it’s amazing).

He also wrote Three, a five-part series published by Image Comics. And that’s why he was speaking at a classics conference. Three tells the story of three Helot slaves going up against the (fading) might of Sparta. It’s thrilling and poignant and terrifying and infuriating and uplifting and many other things, all of them good. You should read this as well.

And our very own Prof Stephen Hodkinson was the historical consultant on Three. Stephen’s an expert on Sparta, and he was put in touch with Kieron by another UoN academic Lynn Fotheringham. Lynn has researched portrayals of the ancient world in popular culture — including Frank Miller’s 300. Lynn is basically the point at which comics and classics collide.

The three of them spoke at a roundtable event as part of the conference programme — Story telling and historical authenticity in a visual medium: the comics series Three. The last time I saw Kieron talk, it was at the Young Avengers after party event at Thought Bubble, where a room full of avid comics fans swore a group pinky swear that they would not reveal spoilers about the final issues to the outside world. It felt like being at a cult meeting. But in a GOOD way. Some of them were dressed as Loki.

No one was dressed as Loki at the roundtable event… (Can we sort that out for next time? Stephen? Lynn?) And the atmosphere was very different, but the discussion was just as compelling. Kieron and Stephen talked about the process of putting together a comic telling a fictional story, but that was as accurate as possible in portraying historical Sparta as we understand it existed — the countryside, the clothes, how people acted and lived. They talked about how everyone involved in the process — artist Ryan Kelly, colourist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Clayton Cowles  — tackled the problems that this created.

The covered a shedload of really interesting stuff — too much for one blog post. So I’ve picked out some highlights, and will post about them over the next few days. I also tweeted from the event — you can see it storified here.

And if you’d like to read any of Kieron’s comics, I recommend heading to Page 45 in Nottingham city centre. Whenever I’ve linked to comics in this post, I’ve linked to their reviews. They stock his work, along with any number of comics and graphic novels — historically accurate or otherwise. And they are always most helpful in helping you to spend a small fortune on comics you didn’t know you needed until that point. You won’t regret your visit. Ever.

One final thing. Kieron went to the conference dinner, and tweeted the following day — “Last night I discovered classicists really like to throw down to Abba”. A mental image to delight us all.

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