Something For The Weekend: Warping Out To Sláine: The Horned God

by Oliver MacNamee

Sláine: The Horned God is undoubtedly a high point in the early years of his appearances in 2000AD and a worthy saga to kick off a partwork collection of some of the best the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic has to offer after 40 years of publication. And, it’s the first time I’ve picked it up again since it was first published back in 1989.

Now, years later (almost 30 years? What?) as an older and wiser reader–with more than a working knowledge of Celtic mythology myself–I find it a far more satisfying read, strangely enough.

Of course, reams and reams has been written about Simon Bisley’s impact on this series, especially as this was the first time Sláine appeared in full colour throughout and fully painted. A highpoint for Sláine, but also a highpoint for 2000AD too. And, it’s a marvel to behold on this thicker, less glossy paper stock than makes Bisley’s fantastical art sing off the page. Part Frank Frazzetta, part Richard Corben, and full-on Heavy Metal aesthetics (both the genre of music and the magazine), Bisley typified the style prevalent in the pages of 2000AD at the time, as I recall, but turned up to 11.

Just as it had been a punk rock looking comic in it’s inception, a decade later it had started reflecting the metal music of the era: bombastic, over-the-top and dressed in muscle shirt and long, permed hair. And, this can be seen throughout this epic, reflecting Bisley’s own love for the genre. It’s certainly a product of its time in that way. But, as Frazetta’s Conan covers can attest, there is also something ageless about his subject matter, too. The thick, textured build up of oil paints, his lighter use of spray paint and the odd sketched panel are stunning. Even then Bisley had a precocious talent that, unsurprisingly, got him noticed by DC Comics. And, something hard to emulate digitally I imagine. Such attention to the art process must have been amazingly time consuming, but it’s a tribute to see this story kick off the Hachette partworks collection.

But, it is Pat Mills script that still stand the test of time too and makes this a classic. This is a story that bristles with Celtic mythology. Mills is informed by Celtic mythology and the many archetypal icons that can be seen in other myths from around the globe. Sláine must reunite the tribes of Tir Nan Og against his archenemy, Slough Feg, the ancient, rotting, impotent walking corpse who has twisted the teachings of the earth Goddess, Danu, to his own devious reading.

In his endeavours, he is accompanied by the wicked Medb, living right under Sláine’s nose, seemingly undetected. What follows is a saga that witnesses Sláine acquire magical, mythical, totemic treasures to fight the Weird Lord, and acquire the title of High King along the way. All the while, heading towards Ireland an, as yet, uninhabited land according to this recount.

Like Tolkien before him, who claimed that Lord of The Rings was his attempt at creating a truly English mythology, Mills and Bisley give life to a new myth, weaving it with pre-existing Celtic myths that Mills plunders only in order to support his story. Never to dominate his vision. He too is creating a modern mythology for Ireland, to add to previous stories and equally mighty heroes like Cú Chulainn.

Indeed, the sinister witch, Medb, is straight out of the Ulster Cycle of Irish legends, herself, as is Sláine’s home, Tir Nan Og, and so many other references. It’s in the knowledges I have acquired for such legends that allows me to re-read this with a completely different take, seeing how Mills’s gargantuan research into this series is weaved together to create a seamless world made up of both the old and the new and creating something timeless. You don’t need to know these references to enjoy this story, but I think it helps. and, with the world wide web, it’s not as laborious as it was for me: seeking out dusty, derelict copies of these myths, legends and fairytales during my time at university and beyond. I’ve even added a few links in this article. What more could you want?

But, I digress.

In spending a great deal of this book learning to become a better diplomat, king and person, Sláine’s final battle feels rushed and, almost non-existent. Yes, there are some big set pieces, but I didn’t get a sense of the scale of this battle. After all, the first two volumes in this three volume story (all included here) make a big thing of the coming final conflict, only for it to be sown up–albeit suitably bloodily–quite quickly, it felt. The payoff wasn’t as epic as I had hoped. This early Bisley painted art can sometimes be frugal on background details and thereby loses a sense of context at important junctures in the telling.

But, this is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.

Having an ageing Ukko (Sláine’s mischievous Dwarf companion)–with some eating by Nest (one of many women in Sláine’s life)–narrate this from a future in which Sláine does not live to see adds to the sense of myth building. Legends have a life of their own and they are constantly being changed by the storyteller and through the generations. As unreliable narrator’s go, Ukko is up there with the best, but he also injects this story with some light-hearted moments that are welcoming. You always need a laugh after a great trauma. Just look at the famous Porter scene in Macbeth, following the harrowing drama of King Duncan’s death and the anxious lead up to it. It’s a release for the audience and it’s a trick writers have used again and again. Ukko is the drunk porter, or even King Lear’s Fool, although he can’t satirise Sláine. He’d have his ears boxed!

Mills set out to create a Conan character who wasn’t as barbaric or as sexist. And, in Sláine, he did just this. A king who worships the Earth Goddess and, in doing so, becomes a proto-feminist within a genre that isn’t known for it’s positive depiction of women. And, with the likes of Niamh, Medb and Nest, and of course Danu herself, this book isn’t short on strong and independent female powerhouses. Years before Disney gave us Meridian (Brave), Rey (The Force Awakens) and the like. In many ways, although this was set in a mythical past, it was ahead of its time in other ways and in that, it embraced the best of the 1980s and the ongoing civil rights struggles that are beginning to gain some ground again. I don’t think Mills gets much credit for that, really. Well, now he has.

For anyone who has yet to discover Sláine, this is a perfect introductory saga, not only recapping the previous adventures of Sláine, but setting a very high bar for future strips too. A true highpoint for Sláine and for 2000AD and well worth the £1.99 introductory price when it comes out.

And, while this fortnightly collection of 2000AD classics aren’t available in America, you can still pick up the most recent reprint from 2013 if you look around a bit. So, no tears please.