The king is dead…long live the king. Forces clash and battle is met in Issus and the impetus of the Persian army hits a stalling point.
XERXES: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF DARIUS AND THE RISE OF ALEXANDER #4
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Frank Miller
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Additional Illustration: Bill Sienkiewicz
Publisher: Dark Horse
What You Need to Know:
Xerxes thirsts for revenge against the Ionian and Athenian Greeks, who delivered a humiliating defeat to his father at Athens, but himself becomes assassinated by his own commander, Artabanus.
What You’ll Find Out:
Opening with the death of Xerxes we learn it is now 336 B.C. and his son Darius III has succeeded him to the throne and vowing to unite the Persian Empire he holds the fate of Persepolis in his hands.
Learning from the fate of his father he will brook no treachery and so makes example of his own slave to instill the full might of his reign in the minds of his people. In quick succession over two years, the coming of the news of Alexander rings from Asia Minor to Sparta as the battle rages on and Darius and Alexander’s opposing armies clash.
Though lesser in numbers the forces of Alexander are superior and despite the best efforts of Darius, cut a swathe through the enemy and they casually discuss their civilian lives while dispatching the enemy in a brutal and merciless fashion.
In their victorious savagery, they are about to dispatch Darius’s family but are stopped and instructed to hold them as they will be worth more as prisoners.
What Just Happened?:
Art: In previous issues, the writing has balanced extremely well with the art and covered any vague inconsistencies with it. Compared to issue one and the battle of Marathon, however, here Miller relies on the same double spread page of the last issue where we learned the story of Xerxes and Esther. Whereas last issue there was so much more narrative, here there is far less and after a while this proves unsatisfying. With limited dialogue or characterisation, it relies on the art alone and it comes up a little short for me. While the double page spreads are bright and bold and Alex Sinclair does a great job of making the art shine, it all just comes off as a succession of splash pages and at points even confuses as to who is involved at all. From 336 B.C. it jumps to 334 B.C. with mention of news of Alexander marching on and then 333 B.C. it looks as though the Spartans are discussing what to do but doesn’t specify who, if anyone, they would support. History does not show them siding with Alexander or even being involved in the coming battle. In fact, having already won against the Persians they sold out the Greeks in Asia Minor to the Persians and so were mistrusted by the rest of Greece and became rivals to Philip and went on to subvert and undermine Alexander. But that is not made clear here, perhaps that will be cleared up in the finale.
The art also shows little of the visceral imagery and bloody pain of battle we are used to from the battle of Marathon in the first issue, in which Miller clearly excelled. With two panels or less to a page and several full-page pin-up style layouts it doesn’t seem visually satisfying enough to warrant the lack of accompanying dialogue. The eye tends to skim from panel to panel and before you know it you’re three or four pages in and no wiser as to what is actually going on or of any dramatic effect of the plot. A few visually pleasing scenes, which could make for some stunning pin-ups, are followed by lesser satisfying pages which are screamingly inconsistent. After declaring that the year is 333 B.C. eleven whole pages go by, seven of which are full on splash pages showing the battle of Issus and the meeting between Alexander’s forces and the Persians, two even showing all too similarly repetitive imagery.
In all of these pages of art, the few that stood out as being moving and dramatic were the rise of Darius III at the start and also later, its depiction of war as the men come into view over the horizon with the sun at their backs. The vitality of this scene is then diluted as we move to a single panel stating that “the earth shudders with their every step” and then some exclamations of “whoof” and “aar” as though this is some cartoon battle. At which point I fully expected Asterix and Obelix to join in, or anvils to come crashing from the sky. In light of previous battle scenes in this series and also 300 these were not comparable in a positive way.
The sheer lampoonery continues as Alexander’s men casually chat about nagging wives while dispatching the enemy and complain to the begging Persians that they aren’t making things easy while looming above them and preparing to impale them. Though this is meant to convey the superiority and savagery of Alexander’s forces to the supposedly invincible Persians, all it does is dispatch the losing army in an offhand manner, without actually allowing any drama into the battle setting. I have thoroughly enjoyed the past installments of this saga, however, I found this issue a letdown. The saving grace here is the addition of a bonus illustration from the amazing Bill Sienkiewicz.
Writing: With dizzying speed Xerxes has been dispatched and replaced by Darius III with barely an introduction to the new king and pharaoh of Egypt, almost bringing us back to the same narrative as the first issue and the fall of the previous Darius. Given the long exposition of the rise of Xerxes and the marriage to Esther last issue, this short introduction of one of the main characters who are so vital to the finale is somewhat baffling. We then have so much art and no narrative to explain the battle at Issus or inform the brutality of war, barely a mention of the capture of Darius mother, wife and children that you may imagine you have missed an issue.
The setting is switched from prequel to 300 to sequel with hardly a nod to the jumpy switch. The lack of dialogue and profusion of art does nothing to quell any confusion. Images of Alexander’s armed forces spearing the opposition so casually overpowers the narrative and makes it very hard to follow with barely a sight or mention of either leader in the battle or talk of method or war planning. Images of fighting are of course integral to the story, but so is an actual plot. And there is a severe lack of this in the whole issue and in comparison to previous instalments, this is a glaring omission.
Characters: When Xerxes was so central to the story before, having him removed has left a void that neither his successor or even the protagonist supposedly so integral as the other titular character can fill. Which brings us to Alexander himself, remember the man who shares the title of the comic? Finally, he makes an entrance and given that his name is in the title you’d be forgiven for thinking he should have been seen sooner. The previous three issues have relied heavily on incidents that have until now been exposition and flashing back and forth in time in dizzying format, avoiding the actual crux of the story. This is slightly worrying, especially with the story being light on actual development this issue and implies it’s all going to happen in the finale, which to all intents and purposes does nothing for pacing. Like having several minor bouts before the big fight, the impatient among us have been hankering for the main feature and now it feels like we’ve been teased and what we really hunger for is going to come up short. Either the final issue is going to be an explosion of action that indeed delivers but makes the rest look pale in comparison, or it goes out with a whimper and leaves us wondering why we tuned in in the first place. It is safe to assume, for those with a slight knowledge of history and legend, that the finale will be the Battle of Arbela (AKA the battle of Gaugamela) and the rout of Darius and the Achaemenid Empire, this will have to be some epic recovery for both Miller and Alexander to have any sense of satisfaction for readers.
Overall: Given that Miller is actually writing and drawing this series, which of late is somewhat uncommon in comics, the effort needs to be recognized and applauded and previous issues have been stand out and stunning in this regard. However, the problem with this is that it is finally now beginning to show. After the previous three fairly consistent issues balancing art and narrative, this is a severe drop in Miller’s usual standard and isn’t quite as detailed as we are used to and the impression we are left with is one of being rushed to get to get to the grand finale. The dialogue is so sparse here with only the art holding it all together and the narrative is reserved for the final few pages and it all relies too heavily on the visuals. Yes it’s a comic and that is an important part of the delivery, but the two are meant to complement each other not trample one another into obscurity. And when the art takes center stage it also needs to be substantially better. In this issue, it is all in a mosaic style with no actual depth or substance. Just pretty snapshots taken on a Polaroid camera rather than the rich cinematic quality of Technicolor needed to depict the penultimate act in the story. I know Frank can do far better.
Final Thought: If this were being made into a movie this would be the part where you’d take a comfort break. Next up Darius III v Alexander…finally!
Xerxes: The Fall Of The House Of Darius And the Rise Of Alexander #5 On Sale 1st August 2018!
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