Sláine The Horned God
Writer: Pat Mills
Artist: Simon Bisley
Sláine had his debut in 2000AD in 1983, and is still going as I write. 25 years under his belt now and I do not think it too many!
This review deals with the arc “Sláine the Horned God” from 1989, but I will include a bit of background first for those who haven’t encountered the character before.
Sláine charts the adventures of eponymous Sláine Mac Roth in an alternate European past based primarily around Celtic / Gaelic myths and legends with a sprinkling of Lovecraftian time bending elder gods and British historical figures. It also has discernible influences from Robert Graves and modern paganism, Moorcock, Robert E Howard and, being by Pat Mills, has one or two political points to make along the way.
As a great warrior, Sláine wields the mighty weapon, Brainbiter, shouts “kiss my axe!”, rides to battle on his dragon, The Knucker, and is subject to the Warpspasm. Based on the “riastrad” or “battle frenzy” of legendary heroes such as Cu Chulainn (Sláine’s closest literary cousin, I would say) and King Arthur (oh yes, if you read the older legends rather than the sanitized Victorian ones) where a warrior channels the energy of battle itself and warps into a terrifying, unstoppable monster. In many adventures he is accompanied by Ukko the dwarf, a filthy, lewd, degenerate, snivelling, untrustworthy creature who provides the framing device for The Horned God as he records the adventures of Sláine many years later.
The story is set in the land of Tir-Nan-Og (the land of the young) where many Irish myths take place. Pat Mills has described it himself as “the land of Celtic Twilight”. In several arcs, Sláine also travels through time (2000AD is a sci-fi comic, after all) to fight alongside key figures from British History and Legend such as Boudicca and King Arthur, but at the time of The Horned God all that is yet to come.
The Horned God is, I think, the first “grown up” comic I read, several years before I “got into” comics, as they say. With the thrill power turned up to eleven and eye-wateringly beautiful painted art by Simon Bisley, it is a perfect way to encounter the medium, and the character, for the first time.
The Horned God cycle follows the story of Sláine fighting various battles - political, religious, spiritual and physical – as he struggles to find the lost treasures of Ireland and unite the clans while suffering a personal apotheosis that will see him transformed into the latest incarnation of Carnun (the horned god of the title) and being crowned the first High King of Ireland.
The violence threshold is high and there is plenty of hewing and hurting and hacking and harming. No place for the squeamish here. The Nature Worship on show, and its Goddess, is as much about red-in-tooth-and-claw brutality as it is about love and laughter and romping in the meadows. Expect glistening gore and flying gibs a-plenty.
The Lord Weird Slough Feg, first encountered in earlier Sláine stories, returns to oppose Sláine in a brilliant take on growth and stagnation (good and evil being far too simplistic a stance for Pat Mills) and its personal and political implications. Being a Mills villain, there is enough of the hero in him to problematise the relationship between Slough Feg and Slaine – in fact, they are even more closely bound than Nemesis and Torquemada - but to go into that would be a huge spoiler so I will leave it there. Slough Feg is no mere foil to, or reflection of, Slaine – he is following his own dark dreams and desires and the story occurs because the paths of the hero and villain cross.
It is extremely hard to review the Horned God without giving away any of the story. As it builds on mythic patterns, a lot of the “what happens” is already familiar. “How it happens” is what gives this story its place in the Hall of Fame of British comics.
As a product of its time, there is a strong ecological message, threaded with mysticism, underlying the hacking and slashing. While it seems that Mills greatly enjoys writing Sláine, it is as much for the opportunity to slyly subvert the tropes of heroic fantasy as it is to celebrate it and use its best aspects to tell a heart-thumpingly good yarn. It is this playful and chaotic approach to his art that makes me such a big Mills fan.
The dance between freedom and control, society and individualism that informs much of Mills’ work raises its head once again. In this case the discussion really centres on “religion” vs “spirituality” and some sharp satire about church and state. There are more questions than answers, though, and the reader is really left to make up his own mind as to whether the choices made by the characters are the ones they themselves would have chosen and whether things could have turned out better.
There is rhythmic quality to the writing and the story construction that echoes the poetry of the ancient sagas. This builds to a great crescendo as the story thunders along, sweeping you up as it passes like the Wild Hunt itself. It will leave you hag-ridden, gasping and dishevelled in the morning – but you will be back for more.
The art is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Simon Bisley effortlessly captures the strutting, exultant, heroic arrogance of the world of the tribes in all its glory. His woman are strong and sexy and beautiful – easily the equals of the men in lust, laughter, loyalty and slaughter. The men themselves are iron-thewed fighting machines, glorious and magnificent, striding masterfully about the land. Lord Weird Slough Feg, inspired by “the sorcerer” from the Lascaux cave paintings is one of my favourite character designs in all of comics, sinister yet strangely sympathetic, compelling and revolting all at once and conveyed in all his ragged, shadowy sublimity. And as for monsters, well no one draws a monster like Bisley.