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Frank Miller on 'Xerxes,' the Challenges of Telling a Generational War Epic, and The Future of the '300' World

By Russ Burlingame - February 28, 2019

Last year, comics legend Frank Miller's long-promised sequel to 300, centered on that story's antagonist and titled Xerxes: the Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander, was serialized in comic shops from Dark Horse Comics.

This month, the comic was collected for the first time (and, like 300 before it, got a pretty major structural overhaul in the collection process, taking on a more "widescreen" aspect ratio).

The story begins with Xerxes' father, and continues through the reign of Xerxes himself and then his son, before introducing Alexander the Great, who would eventually conquer the empire that the House of Darius had established.

Miller joined ComicBook.com to discuss the hardcover collected edition of Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander, out in comic stores now and available in bookstores next week.

If you want to hear more talk about indie comics craft, you can listen to my recent conversation with Strangers in Paradise creator Terry Moore, as well.

Can you tell me a little bit about constructing a book where the art has to function in both the traditional comic book format and also as a widescreen coffee table book?

Well, the wider format was something I came up with because the main action in the stories is land battles, which by their nature are horizontal, and best portrayed in horizontal shapes.

Originally, when I did 300, it came out in the standard format, because that was really about the only thing anybody was willing to take at the [comic] shops. So I decided to trick it a bit, and I talked to Dark Horse. I said I wanted to do it so that it would come out serialized, looking like a comic book. And then, everybody would be surprised when the collection came out and it was revealed what the true shape of the book was. That worked out really well, so we decided to do the same thing this time.

Whereas 300 was very restricted to an intimate group and period in time, this is more like a generational epic.

Yes.

Was it challenging to kind of tell the story that you wanted to tell and still have it feel like it was of a piece with what came before?

Immensely challenging. Xerxes, like you said, it's a much broader, wider story. If you look at it, it actually covers an era, whereas 300 covers three days.

300 represented a single, pivotal event that arguably changed the course of history -- but Xerxes actually shows history changing course over a broad period of time.

How do you go about pacing a book that is this broad? How much time did you spend breaking that layout to make sure that you touched on everything you needed to, and still got to the points you needed to get to?

I'd love to give you a real smug answer to that, but a lot of it is, you feel your way along. You know to give space to something that's extremely important. And when it starts to feel boring in your hands, you start cutting.

As you were dipping in and out of these different events, was there any place you said, "I feel like I could spend some more time here?"

There's so many places that I could have just dove in and spent forever. What leaps to mind is the story of Esther, which is where the story of Xerxes actually crosses over with the Hebrew Bible. There is this Book of Esther in the Bible.

And all of these things, the convergence of historical forces, and cultures, it just gets more and more potent, and you realize how much of what we understand about the world, and indeed the world that we live in, was forged during times like that.

One of the things that you've been great at in your career is world-building. Now that you are doing so many follow-ups and sequels to your prior work, do you ever find yourself itching to totally do something crazy and new?

Yeah. It's just a matter of...to actually launch something that's really from scratch, that's a lot of preparation. That's the sort of thing I'll get back to you on when it's worth talking about.

When nobody is throwing money at you to do Dark Knight sequels?

You've got to pry it out of their cold, dead fingers. They don't throw it at you.

Talking of preparation, how much research did you do for Xerxes? 300 and the world it inhabits is a very heightened reality, and it's not in some cases literally "true." But obviously you still have to have an understanding of what was going on at that time.

There's a lot of research also involved, and I get a lot of help. I mean, people have provided a lot.

Luckily, whoever knows anything about this stuff is eager to talk about it. I've got a wonderful friend in California on particular who is an expert at the stuff. It's great. But you're talking about something where, in my case, I started thinking about this whole 300 thing back when I was somewhere around seven years old. So it's like, my whole lifetime has been leading up to this project and where it's taking me.

When you were doing 300, did you always know that it was Xerxes that would be your next entry point into this world?

I started Xerxes a long time ago. When I was doing 300, no, I didn't know it was going to be Xerxes that pulled me back in. I was thinking at that time I might just do other prominent Greek battles. But this is a much more compelling storyline to me.

Since so much of what you've done has been adapted to other media over the years, does that impact the way that you think about the page at all?

You've got to just set out to do the best comic book you can, because I can't imagine what kind of movie Zack Snyder is going to make, and I don't know what he does. He's got so much knowledge.

You've got to think about the medium you're working in, while you're working on it, otherwise you get lost.

Going in, did you know that Xerxes and Alexander, who are the people in the title, would only appear in bits and pieces of the book?

Yeah. I mean, Alexander is basically rolled out. He's introduced. But he's more like a force of nature in a lot of ways. And Xerxes is like a force of nature. His character is often defined by those around him.

They really do, both of them, feel like they begin as an unstoppable force when they enter the story. Do you see that as how military might reshapes history -- that it's just that flash point moment of total, overwhelming force?

I think that was the way it was in these cases, because these were times in history where the world was much smaller, and where a force, particularly one like Alexander's, because he was the most powerful of all of them, who could change the course of history. It's a much bigger, wider world now.

Is it safe to assume that we probably haven't seen the last of Frank Miller's Alexander the Great?

It's safe.

I'm fascinated by the way that Xerxes kind of reflects your Dark Knight, in the sense that each time you've gone back to that world, you haven't picked up where the last one left off, you just went to another point in its history that feels like there's story to tell. It's very different from, say, the compact way Sin City feels like one big story.

Well, they're different in the sense that Sin City is just a completely mythological world where they're pretty intimate stories that these characters go through.

Whereas in the case of the ancient world, I have to adhere to some historical truths. In fact, that's where most of the good material comes from, so I'd be a fool not to. And it's a matter of mainly looking at places that haven't been explored to death. And luckily, this really hasn't been.

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Frank Miller on 'Xerxes,' the Challenges of Telling a Generational War Epic, and The Future of the '300' World


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