COMIC BOOK REVIEW: Xerxes: The Fall Of The House Of Darius And the Rise Of Alexander #2 (The Return to Athens)

After his defeat at the battle of Marathon Persian King Darius thirsts for vengeance, deploying his armada to cut a swathe through the city of Athens. In preparation the citizens and soldiers of Athens stage a daring ruse to thwart the invasion.

Story: Frank Miller
Artist: Frank Miller
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Additional Illustration: Walter Simonson
Publisher: Dark Horse

What You Need to Know:

490 B. C. and Darius the Persian king swears retribution for the uprising of the Ionian and Athenian Greeks. But in the preliminary battle, the Greeks have decimated the Persian warriors. Though this is but a small battalion left to distract them, while he takes his main contingent on to Athens to deliver a killing blow to the heart of Greece. Now Themistokles and his men have no time to mourn or even bury their dead. They must forge on and race to defend their homes before the Persian fleet arrives at its shores.

What You’ll Find Out:

Counting the cost of the losses to their ranks and taking comfort in the fact that the enemy has suffered ten times more, the Athenians and Plateans vow to return to bury their dead. But first, they know they must make the long trek home to stave off the invasion of the Persians. The men they have already faced were but a taster of the trials ahead, Darius has far larger forces bearing down on the city of Athens. Themistokles leads his men on the journey supporting one of the injured, Davos, and telling him to stay strong and inwardly prays to Athena to ensure Athens is still there when they finally make it back.


The citizens of Athens are blissfully unaware of the impending doom as they go about the day to day hustle and bustle, until a messenger arrives having already trekked some twenty-six miles ahead of the soldiers to deliver the news of victory, before falling dead. The onlooker’s celebration is cut short, however, first by the sight of the armada they spy coming over the horizon, then also by the returning soldiers, led by Miltiades, who declares they may not be enough to save them all.


Believing the failure to be his alone he begs someone to take his sword and deliver his punishment, but Themistokles has other ideas.


As he mounts Miltiades horse, technically appointing himself leader, he instructs the slaves to tend only to the able-bodied soldiers, leave the injured to bleed and focus on ensuring the armor is battle ready. He then conscripts every citizen into service to ensure Darius sees only warriors in shining bronze. As the ships approach, swollen with the elite guard known as the Immortals, he continues to tell Aeskylos to utilize the javelins he has gathered from the field of battle. Aeskylos asks for a distraction and is told Darius himself will provide it. The plan is set in motion, but as Darius and Xerxes witness the spectacle they suspect trickery.


The ocean lies placid as the soldiers and civilians line the shore awaiting the start of the battle. Even as one dies from wounds inflicted by the previous battle the two either side hold him and his shield up as to further the illusion set out by Themistokles. Meanwhile, Darius instructs three barges to test those on land and Themistokles launches arrows imbued with the napalm of the ancient world, Greek Fire, dousing the ships in flame which will only be further fed by water. Aeskylos chooses this moment to launch a barrage of javelins on the fleet from his vantage point high in the rock face and mortally wounds Darius. As Xerxes looks on in shock, his fathers dying wish is for him to abandon the battle and return him home to be buried. But Xerxes refuses, knowing only mute servants bore witness to his words and so his own will can it be contradicted.


As Themistokles watches the retreating ships he is filled with foreboding, despite Aeskylos telling him he will be declared Arkon. He saw the look in Xerxes’s eyes and predicts doom. As if to confirm his fears Xerxes later returns to the village of Najd, with the dying words of his father ringing in his ears. He is met by a mysterious man swathed in bandages who declares that, with his self-imposed journey across the wasteland, Xerxes has been reborn a god and he offers to help in his quest for revenge.


What Just Happened?:

The art is again the overall star here and is truly breathtaking. From the stunning image of the owl flying through the azure sky over the statue at the heart of Athens with the city reflected in its eyes, to the silhouette of Themistokles astride the horse, both when taking control to devise his plan and standing rampant on the shoreline backlit by lightning strike, we see a city proudly stand behind its leader. And also as a vengeful Xerxes departs Athens with nothing but hate in his eyes he transforms to become the resolute god-king striding out of the desert bent on revenge for the murder of his father, this second installment in the tale is full of even more epic imagery than last issue. Coupled once again by a stunning illustration, this time by the legendary Walt Simonson, it’s the crown on the regal head of what is promising to become another dramatic chapter in the saga of this Greco-Persian conflict.


That’s not to say however that the narrative is outdone or overshadowed by the art. The death of Darius is the turning point in the drama that leads to 300 and is of vital importance to the whole saga. The story was so hotly anticipated they even made the film 300: Rise of an Empire, five years before this was published. Also, the refusal of Xerxes to obey his father’s wishes is similarly the crux of the story and the impetus that drives his quest for vengeance. As such we can look forward to the retaliation ahead and the transformation of Xerxes from man, to god. And though the battle here is perfectly in keeping with the story of 300 in its grand, epic scale, there is one glaring error in the use of Greek Fire.


Also known as Sea Fire, Roman Fire or War Fire, this napalm of ancient times was actually created much later by the Byzantines. A secret formula purportedly said to have been invented by a Christian Greek named Kallinikos, a refugee from Heliopolis. As such it wasn’t developed till around 672 A.D. to defend Constantinople from Arab forces and would therefore not have been used in 490 B.C. However, we can overlook this as simple creative license, as the dramatic effect is vital to the plot and the events of the narrative here, including Xerxes retreat and his later return to deliver his righteous vengeance. Also noteworthy was the inspired nod to the legendary messenger, Pheidippes. The  Greek soldier who ran twenty-six some miles with news of the victory at Marathon before dying, thus becoming the inspiration for the distance set in real-world marathons to this day.

Rating: 8.5/10

Final Thought: We now know the reason for Xerxes thirst for vengeance and death and his ire of the Grecian warriors. All that is needed now is the rise of a champion to stave off the bloody battle he brings to the shores of Greece.

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