In ancient Greece, a small Athenian army tries to sleep the night before a battle against Prince Xerxes and his massive Persian hordes. They are unable to sleep, so one soldier begins to tell a story—a story of courage, of battle, and the price of freedom.

Now, in Frank Miller’s original graphic novel 300, the soldier also talks about mostly naked masculinity fetishists who throw sub-par babies off cliffs, of ugly (and therefore treacherous) mutants, and monstrous foreign hordes. But in the new graphic novel Democracy, the soldier Leander discuss watching the birth of democracy in ancient Athens, a creation that wasn’t born merely out of good intentions, but also oppression, violence, politics, chance and more. And despite the lack of topless prophetesses and hyperviolence, Democracy is by far the superior epic.

Illustrators Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna helped create the rightly acclaimed Logicomix, which blended the foundation of modern mathematics with the personal lives of the people searching for it; here, they do they same (along with writer Abraham Kawa), but for the anguished beginnings of the noblest idea of government. Here, young Leander watches the Athenian people struggle under tyranny, then fight their way out… only to fall prey to a new tyrant in the process. As Athens struggles towards democracy, Leander discovers the irony that for the people to take charge, individuals must take charge first—and that in order for things to get better, sometimes they have to get, much, much worse.

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I’ve never read anything that so astutely, so perfectly encapsulates this paradox of human desire—the need to be free and yet to be secure—and how what should be the most obvious and noble of ideas often requires cunning, courage, and even bloodshed to accomplish. But for all that Democracy wrestles with history and politics and these weighty matters, the story is accessible, entertaining and personal, and full of gods, action, romance and more. It’s fun, it’s heartbreaking, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s tragic—and it’s absolutely one of the greatest graphic novels I expect to read all year.

Papadatos, Kawa and Di Donna’s Democracy is out today.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.