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—choose 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!
(This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on February 28, 2007)