Tomorrow Happens

...trends slamming at us from the dark

David Brin

David Brin
San Diego, California, USA
October 06
Bio David Brin’s novels have been translated into more than twenty languages, including New York Times Best-sellers that won Hugo and Nebula awards. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed cyberwarfare, the World Wide Web, global warming and Gulf Coast flooding. A 1998 Kevin Costner film was loosely adapted from his post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. ............................................ Brin is a noted scientist, futurist and speaker who appears frequently on television (Life After People, The Universe), discussing trends in the near and far future, on subjects such as surveillance, technology, astronomy, and SETI. His non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, deals with issues of openness and security in the wired-age. ............................................. David Brin web site: Twitter: Facbook:


NOVEMBER 13, 2011 3:57PM

Move over, Frank Miller: On Occupy Wall Street and the "300"

Rate: 9 Flag

A few days ago, the famous comic book writer and illustrator Frank Miller issued a howl of hatred toward the young people in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Well, all right, that's a bowdlerization. After reading even one randomly-chosen paragraph, I'm sure you'll agree that  "howl" understates the red-hot fury and scatalogical spew of Miller's lavishly expressed hate: “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America."

In fact, I need do nothing more -- in order to reduce that individual's public esteem -- than simply point you all to his bile-drenched missive.  Please. If you must choose between reading that or my detailed, cogently-argued response (below), by all means let his words suffice!  I cede the floor. Let him express the maturity and thoughtfulness of his side.

Well, well. I've been fuming silently at Frank Miller for a years. The time's come, so get ready for steam!  Because the screech that you just read - Miller's attack on young citizens, clumsily feeling their way ahead toward saving their country - is only the latest example of Frank's astonishing agenda. One that really needs exposure to light.

I'll do it by dissecting - calmly and devastatingly - his most famous and lucrative piece of modern propaganda.  The comic book and movie tale about Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae.

A tale called - "300."

== Leni Riefenstahl would be proud==

Though I'm not best-known for graphic novels*, I've done a few. I've been sketching out a script about one of the greatest heroes of western civilization - Themistocles - the man who actually defeated Xerxes. the Persian emperor, during his brutal invasion of Greece, after the Spartans failed so miserably at Thermopylae.  In part, this would be an answer to Frank Miller's "300"... a book and film that I find both visually stunning and morally disturbing.

For one thing, "300" gave all credit to the Spartans, extolling them as role models and peerless examples of manhood. Adorably macho defenders of freedom.

Uh, right.  Freedom. Sorry, but the word bears a heavy burden of irony when shouted by Spartans, who maintained one of the worst slave-states ever, treating the vast majority of their people as cattle, routinely quenching their swords in the bodies of poor, brutalized helots... who are never mentioned, even glimpsed, in the romanticized book or movie. Indeed, the very same queen who Frank Miller portrayed as so-earthy, so-kind, was said to be quite brutal with a whip, in real life.

Miller's Spartan warriors honestly and openly conveyed the contempt for civilians that was felt across the ages by all feudal warrior castes. An attitude in sharp contrast to American sympathies, which always used to be about Minuteman farmers and shopkeepers - citizen soldiers - the kind who bravely pick up arms to aid their country, adapting and training under fire. Alas, Frank Miller's book and movie "300" ridiculed that kind of soldier...

...even though the first invasion by Persia, ten years earlier - under Xerxes's father - had been defeated by just such a militia army... from Athens... made up of farmers, clerks, tradesmen, artists and mathematicians. A rabble of ill-disciplined "brawlers" who, after waiting in vain for promised help from Sparta, finally decided to handle the problem alone.  On that fateful day that citizen militia leveled their spears and their thin blue line attacked a professional Persian force many times their number, slaughtering them to the last man on the legendary beach of Marathon.

== The inconvenient truth of Marathon

Think about that for a moment. Can you picture it? Damn. Please pause here and Wiki "Marathon." Even better, watch it computer dramatized. Prepare to be amazed there were once such men.  Go on... I'll wait!

Frank Miller rails against effete, pansy-boy militias of amateur, citizen soldiers. But funny thing, none of his Spartan characters ever mentions those events, just a decade earlier! How bakers, potters and poets from Athens - after vanquishing one giant invading army, then ran 26 miles in full armor to face down a second Persian horde and sent it packing, a feat of endurance that gave its name to the modern marathon race. A feat that goes unmatched today. Especially by Spartans.

That Athenian triumph deserves a movie! And believe me, it weighed heavily on the real life Leonidas, ten years later. "300" author Frank Miller portrays the Spartans' preening arrogance in the best possible light, as a kind of endearing tribal machismo. Miller never hints at the underlying reason for Leonidas's rant, a deep current of smoldering shame over how Sparta sat out Marathon, leaving it to Athenian amateurs, like the playwright Aeschelus, to save all of Greece. The "shopkeepers" whom Leonidas outrageously and ungratefully despises in the film.

With that shame over Marathon fresh in memory, Leonidas was eager to prove Spartan mettle when Persia invaded a second time, even though he could find just three hundred volunteers.  That much, "300" gets right.  Alas, truth is rare in that book and film. Like the notion that Xerxes cared a whit about rustic Sparta in the first place.  Athens was always his chief target. It was the heart of the West.

Even when it comes to the Battle of Thermopylae itself, "300" tells outright lies.  For example, 1,000 Artemesians refused to leave their comrades at the end. They stayed in the pass and died next to Leonidas's 300 Spartans.  More shopkeepers. Their valor was inconvenient to Miller's narrative, So he just wrote them out. Worse, he slandered them, depicting them running away.

Oh, remember those helots? As slavemasters, Spartans made the later Romans seem positively goody-two-shoes, by comparison. In his book and movie "300" Frank Miller never shows the two thousand helot luggage-bearers who Leonidas's gang of bullies whipped before them into the pass at Thermopylae, carrying their masters' gear and food and wine and shields.

Where were those slaves during the battle? Why, in the front line! Handed spears but no armor, they slowed down the Persians with their bodies, then made the ground conveniently slippery with their blood. Huh, funny how that got left out! I'm sure it was just an oversight.

== Thermopylae: what was going on in plain view

But the worst slander of all is one of glaring, outrageous omission and tunnel vision. It is what "300" might have shown happening just offstage, simply by turning the camera! Indeed, Leonidas could see it with his own eyes, in plain view throughout the fight, if only he chose to swivel his head.  (Alas, Frank Miller doesn't let him turn, in the comic and film.)

The Athenian navy, hard-pressed and outnumbered, guarding his flank in the nearby Artemisium Straits.  Again, a citizen militia of fishermen, merchants, blacksmiths and philosophers, they too were at Thermopylae! A few miles out to sea, they battled odds no less desperate than Leonidas faced, without the convenient cliff and wall, against vastly superior Persian forces.  Only with this one important difference.

Where Leonidas failed to hold for more that a day or so, the Athenians kept firm!  They only retreated when the Spartans let them down!

The commander of that brave flotilla, Themistocles, is a hero far more in keeping with American traditions.  A Washington-like commander who makes good use of volunteers - plus new technology and brains - to stave off hordes of arrogant, professional conquerors. Less interested in pompous bragging and macho preening, he cared about his men, striving to achieve both victory and survival. He despised "bold gestures." What mattered were results.  Saving his country. His civilization. His men.

Forced to give way when Leonidas failed to hold a narrow pass, the Athenians kept up a fighting retreat, survived the burning of their city, (where their courageous women handled a skillful evacuation)... till Themistocles finally drew the vast Persian navy into a trap at a little island called Salamis... glorious Salamis...

...where outnumbered Athenians utterly crushed their Persian foe, sending Xerxes fleeing for his life.  THAT was what saved Greece, not futile boasting and choreographed prancing on the bluffs of Thermopylae.  (And again, what a movie someone might make out of the true story!)

As for the later land battle at Platea - glorified by the book and film "300" - it was mopping-up, slaughtering a demoralized and starving Persian force that Xerxes had already abandoned. And even at Platea, there were more Athenians than Spartans!

Oh, one more thing. The very same day as Platea, Themistocles and his volunteers were also finishing off the rest of the Persian navy, at Mycale.

Do the Spartans at least get credit for commanding Greek armies ashore?  A couple of years after Platea, repelled by Spartan arrogance and brutality, the Greek cities dumped Sparta from any further leadership role as they spent the next thirty years pushing Persia ever further back, expelling them entirely from Europe and liberating enslaved populations. Led by the democratic rabble from Athens.

In other words.  History wasn't at all like the book, or the movie "300." It was much, much better!

== Artistic license? Or goddam evil-batshit lying?

Look, artists get a lot of leeway. At least in this society of freedom they do. (They sure didn't get any slack in feudal times, dominated by warrior-caste bullies.) Miller and the makers of the 300 flick were entitled to emphasize the Spartans and their martial spirit, even though their brave "sacrifice" at Thermopylae accomplished absolutely nothing, except to make a fine tale of futile bravado. A one-day delay? We're supposed to be impressed by a one-day delaying action?

(I'll admit, it certainly offered a great excuse for ninety minutes of homoerotic prancing!  In fact, 300 gets full marks as a lavishly choreographed dance number. And for terrific painted-on abs.)

But there comes a point when artistic emphasis turns into deliberate, malicious omission.  And then omission becomes blatant, outright-evil lying propaganda. "300" not only crosses that line, it forges into territory that we haven't seen since the propaganda machine of 1930s Germany. White is black.  Black is white. Good is defined by the triumph of will.

I might have just sat and glowered, if they simply omitted the Athenians.  But to sneer at them and call them effeminate cowards? After Athens' citizen soldiers accomplished epic triumphs the Spartans never imagined and that they would never, ever come remotely close to equaling? At battles whose names still roll off our tongues today? Achieved by the same kind of "cincinnatus" militias that propelled both Republican Rome and the United States to unparalleled heights, during their time of vigor?

The kind of soldiers who make up our U.S. military today! Citizens-first, despite their vaunted professionalism.

No, this is not just artistic license. "300" idolizes the same arrogant contempt for citizenship that eventually ruined classical Greece and Republican Rome, and that might bring the same fate to America.

My own graphic novel "The Life Eaters" never sold as well as Miller's. Heck, that's not my expertise. With gorgeous art by Scott Hampton, "The Life Eaters" tells a vivid story of rebellion and resistance to a very Spartan-like oppression.

What I do suggest is this: use your own imagination! Picture an answer to "300," told from the point of view of an escaped Spartan helot-slave serving aboard one of Themistocles's ships, staring up at the frenetic death-prancing of his former masters on the cliff of Thermopylae, shaking his head over their futile, macho posturing, then turning to help the amateur fighters of Athens and Miletus and Corinth get on with the real job of saving civilization.

Doing it without boasting -- or painted-on abs -- but with wit, courage, comradeship, skill and the one thing that matters most. Something Leonidas never came close to achieving. The only truly indispensable accomplishment!

Something that is often best won by citizen soldiers -

- victory.


Author tags:

300, sparta, ows, frank miller

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Superb, superb, SUPERB, Mr. Brin! Thank you so much for this counterpoint to Miller's insane iconoclastic ranting. And FYI I loved the Life Eaters, which I purchased.
Great background info. The Greeks were also helped by a storm (I think it was a tidal wave or a hurricane) that greatly diminished the Persian Navy. Also, Xerxes was fighting wars on several front some of which were more important to Persia. He soon lost interest in Greece. R
I'm not familiar with much graphic novels, but I just read that one of Miller's original drawings for The Dark Knight just sold for over $448,000. If there's that much demand for his work, methinks he's not part of the 99%. And judging by your write-up of "300," he didn't need money to put forth disturbing opinions.
Much appreciated, I will be coming back when time permits me to read this and explore your references.

Brilliant rebuttal. Frank Miller is little more than a historical cartoon revisionist, a person who celebrates his own sadistic brand of bigotry, hyperbole and propaganda. Propaganda through Pictures...aimed at an illiterate market that doesn't want to confuse their own bigoted visions with fact or truth.

Thank you Mr Brin.
Yes, testify!

Given the general tone of 300, I can't say I'm too surprised at Miller's recent outburst. While I found the stylish visuals of the movie interesting, the blatant pseudofascism, racism and sexism which permeates Miller's story left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Add to that the historical falsifications, and you get a nasty piece of wingnut propaganda.
There's a scene in an old episode of "Combat!" where Vic Morrow and King Company are captured by Nazis led by Richard Basehart. At one point, Basehart as the cruel commandant belittles the Americans because they are shopkeepers, auto mechanics and farmers instead of professional soldiers like the Germans. In "Combat!", the citizen soldier heeding her country's call only to beat their swords into plowshares again when the fighting is over, was celebrated as a virtue. In "300," Miller replayed the same scene, only this time the good guys, the authoritarian Spartans, were belittling the Thespians for being teachers and craftsmen instead of full time warriors. Thanks Frank for helping to bring America to the side of Nazi prison camp officers. Great analysis and thank you.
Bob... you recall "Combat"??? Wow. Great show.

I liked Band of Brothers. But when the Nazi officer asks Major WInters: "What will we professionals do after the war?" Winters should have said:

"Me? I'll get a nice job and build my country. Like I was doing before a bunch of us amateurs had to put on uniforms and beat the crap out of you professionals. It's what you'll have to do now. My advice. Get a good job. Build."
If you thought "300" was bad you absolutely should under no conditions read "Holy Terror", Miller's latest. I'm a Frank Miller fan from way back -- I remember when his Daredevil comics couldn't be bought at any price. Whatever the faults of "300" at least it was an excellent graphic novel: Beautifully drawn, masterfully colored -- I haven't seen a comic with such great coloring in my life -- well paced, entertaining. It's a real comic.

Not so "Holy Terror", which is visually incoherent, poorly broken down, and just a disaster. On top of that the story is terrible, and worst of all, it's racist, fascist, obnoxious, and stupid.

There's an element of fascism in a lot of superhero comics -- it's mostly about vigilantes, right, achieving justice through violence against villains everyone knows are guilty -- and of course Miller took it to extremes in Dark Knight and Sin City. So I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that he'd go so far over. But for him to have lost sight of his considerable gifts as a comic artist and writer -- that's truly unbelievable. It's as if he suffered from some kind of stroke which left him cranky and incompetent.

It's really sad
funny how the fascists co-opted citizen warrior - state guards are shunned and barly functioning, but the reserves and national guard are flush with money.

In a fascist nation - rabble like OWS must be crushed - much as JFK's head had to be blown apart - for us to be reminded just how powerless we are.
Spiderman is a superhero exception. In EVERY spiderman film, he saves New Yorkers... and then New Yorkers save him. I love that.
That was a wonderful scene in Spider-Man 2. I don't remember the equivalent in 1 or 3, but 2 was one of my favorite superhero movies of all time, and that was a high point in it.
Thank you. After we watched 300, I tried to explain to my son why it was a disgusting, degenerate piece of trash, but I lacked your historical perspective. Believe me, my son will be reading this post, and again, thank you for taking the time and effort to expose this outrage.

As for Frank Miller, where is Will Kane of High Noon when we need him?

"Tho' I am grievin', I won't be leavin'
Until I shoot Frank Miller dead."

Well, you certainly gunned him down with this post -- metaphorically speaking, of course.

It wasn't just the Athenians who got a bad rap in the 300. The Persians were turned into cardboard cutout villains just barely suitable for comic books, but totally beyond the pale for a movie with artistic pretensions. In reality, the Persians were in many ways culturally superior to the Spartans.

But, of course, acknowledging that wouldn't do, given the temper of the times in Amerika. The ugly truth is 300 was propaganda, impure and simple. Like the equally degenreate TV series 24, 300 was clearly intended to serve the purposes of the chickenhawk administration of Bush the Lesser, a man bent on proving his manhood by sacrificing other men. But unlike Leonidas, who actually put his life on the line, Bush's contribution was to claim to give up golf for the cause, but he failed to follow thru even on that "sacrifice".

Nor is it a coincidence that an administration filled with chickenhawks turned to torture to prove their "manhood". Like the Spartans, in their desperate and futile attempt to prove their "manhood", they gave up any claim to humanhood. But thus it ever is with tyrants and tin soldiers.

I fear the ill-temper of those times continues to be very much with us, judging from the content of most of my son's video games. I wonder what rude beast is slouching it's way toward ... well, you know the rest.
nice work dude, I cant follow everything there, & I wonder if anyone other than professional historians can, but sounds pretty balanced/realistic to me.
I never did go see that movie, the marketing gave me the creeps.
however, I think you're selling Sparta a little short. from what I understand of ancient history [which I took back in ancient history].... the spartans were useful to the greek city states against outside attackers because they were so polished and disciplined, they were like the "enforcers". true? so I think what you are describing was a period of civil war between the greek city states. it would be more useful to compare it to the US civil war which was a bloody, costly, divisive affair, setting citizens against citizens.
I have to admit that I loved the movie. And I'm an admirer of some of his other works like Sin City. I've seen documentaries concerning the Spartans. They're the opposite of what the movie had shown. This film was not the first to tell of the Spartans' Last Stand bit. There's another film made back in 1950s. Forgot what's called. Well, only saw bits of it. A pretty forgettable film. Hence the irony. A much bigger irony is this: most people loved the "Last Stand" story. Remember the Alamo? Not to mention Custer's farcical "Last Stand". They're not so much of a last stand until somebody dresses them up in mythological colors. Nevermind the facts. They get in the way. Like I said, loved the movie "300" but they only wear thin in any mythology as with any magic show. You can only go so far. Thanks for the essay, Mr. Brin.
This is bullshit.

I don't like Frank Miller and don't like 300, but the author of this article seems to have an equally bad grasp on Ancient Greek history and a slight need to advertise his own work.

Among the many things wrong with this article, I can point out at least a few. For more, feel free to refer to a good History book.

Athenian society was not, by all means, the beautiful haven of democracy you are making it out to be. Spartan society was terrible, yes - if I recall correctly, killing a helot was even seen as a right of passage. Athens did not fare that well with democracy. They still had slaves. Foreigners (and, often, Athenian-born people with foreign parents) didn't count. Women were not citizens either; the condition of women in Athenian society and how terrible it was is often exaggerated, true, but to be honest Sparta was far better in that regard. Unless you were a free born man, you did not vote or participate in political affairs. Athenian society was far from perfect, and even allowing all the flaws in their democracy, it certainly had less than stellar moments. Anyone who has even read Aristophanes will easily understand this; ironically, Aristophanes himself encoutered at least one instance of judicial trouble for his criticism.

In short, assuming that Athens was a beautiful haven of democratic freedom where everyone was scholarly and intellectual is about as correct as assuming that idyllic poetry accurately portrays the daily life of shepherds.

The Athenians fought bravely and admirably, and they were generally good fighters. It's clear why Aeschylus (not Aeschelus, as the author spells it) would praise them in tragedies such as The Persians. It's also true that the warriors at Thermopylae bought the Greek forces time - very little time, certainly, but precious time. As a side note, it might be worth noting that in other instances Athens made very poor choices, democracy does not render anyone or anything immune to failure (see: the expedition to Sicily).

You also speak of "enslaved population" liberated from the Persians, which is rather ironic, don't you think? Especially considering the way Athens often ran the Delian League. And speaking of enslaved populations and fighting: some slaves abroad Themystocles's ships, if I recall correctly, were promised freedom in exchange for risking their lives. What a great choice! /sarcasm

Finally, I'd like to note that the concept of "citizenship" was very different in Sparta, Athens, Republican Rome, and the USA. If you say "Ancient Greece" and want to split some hairs, then you'll have to take into account several different city states. The first image that comes to mind of an American "citizen" is the regular Joe, one like millions of others. For Athenians, citizens were not a numerical majority, only political and social.

It was also not "contempt for citizenship" (even using our current notions of citizenship) that led to the downfall of Ancient Greece, much less of Republican Rome - are you sure you know what Republican Rome was? The bit before all the endearingly eccentric emperors who did all sorts of crazy stuff, yeah?

I dislike Frank Miller and 300, of course I do. But I also deeply dislike it when people decide to overidealize Ancient Greek history as much as he does... and for the same purpose of selling comics. Nice try, though!

P.S.: I apologise for any typos or mistakes; English is not my first language. If there are any mistakes in this, I also apologise - but please take into account that this man is older than I am, and that with so many years to educate himself he clearly hasn't bothered.