Pat Mills is one of 2000AD’s founding fathers, and Sláine is one of its founding characters. In the same way that Gerry Anderson won a generation of children by taking them seriously in adventure shows, 2000AD won a generation by presenting adult themes entertainingly, with the extra added buzz of science fiction and fantasy. In this they were creating parallels to the film world that have ultimately rebounded on them.
So, in the cop world, Dirty Harry begat Judge Dredd begat Robocop. I can’t be so clear about the chronology of the Sláine idea, but it clearly interweaves with Robin Hood and televisual swashbuckling in the likes of Xena: Warrior Princess and even He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe.
Of course, the comics medium allows the themes to be explored in different ways, and Mills was taking Celtic legends as source material for his inspiration. In styling, Sláine often appears to look like Sid Vicious with his spiky hair and his aggressive three-fingered (!) gesture. He has an uncompromising love of violence that, if he won the ultimate victory, he would then have no need of.
He is also brazenly heterosexual, in love with his wife, Niamh, and yet, taking it as a badge of honour to consort with other women.
In this and other examples, Mills uses the swashbuckler story to challenge the preconceptions of modern life. Niamh’s concerns are those of a contemporary spouse: faithfulness and attentiveness of her husband. Sláine’s concerns are fighting, loyalty and his people, historic equivalents of football and drinking with his mates.
Consort Ukko adds comic relief as he seeks the greedy spoils that accompany Sláine’s position. He is disgusting and selfish, and Sláine routinely beats him for it. He is the scribe of Sláine’s adventures and we see quite a lot of the story from his perspective.
There is an ambiguity about death in Sláine’s violent world, as it is honourable and desired for rulers to sacrifice themselves, occasionally ritually, but warriors must die to be able to change into new forms. It isn’t clear how warriors get their heads around fighting to survive, but simultaneously needing to die to fulfil their purpose.
Meanwhile, Sláine’s demon nemesis, Elfric doesn’t seem to be capable of dying in the conventional sense, and his demon gods feed off of suffering that comes from war conflicts.
Sláine’s loyalty lies with ‘the Earth Goddess’ who has her own dark side, bringing death as well as bringing us into the world. There are also some interesting thoughts on imperial powers such as the Romans, with their suspicious ‘civilising influences’ compared to our proud native Englishmen.
The references to sex, and decapitated and sliced humans take us a long way into adult themes. Cheeky frames of Ukko picking slime from his nose rub shoulders with brazen women in inns and naked six-pack men heading into battle.
Artist Glenn Fabry is not noted for his speed, but his artwork is vivid, surprising and stunning. Dermot Power varies from artistic to realistic, but is always exciting. Greg Staples has an almost storybook quality to his work. The combination of their work in this collection is not uncomfortable and, if anything, shows the richness of the possibilities of Sláine’s world.
This anthology finds Mills’ storytelling on fine form, and the artwork, reproduced in delicious colours, makes it a real treat.
Mills’ work does not always get unanimous praise, but here he is a consummate story teller. (I also have it on good authority that he is a great statesman of the comics world, showing patience and kindness to those seeking his advice on trying to get into the business.)
The stories are mostly delivered in sumptuous full colour (or full colour black in the case of the first story!) on nice glossy paper, although watch out for the occasional sticking together of two pages confusing your reading experience. A black and white comic game, ‘Cauldron of Blood’, is also included, where you can decide the course of the story through numbered frames.
In summary, this is a satisfying collection of a fine 2000AD stalwart character on top form.