By Luke Williams
“Slaine” is one of the longest running strips in 2000AD. Its history is long and chequered and has attracted dizzying levels of praise and occasional opprobrium since its debut in 1983’s Prog 330.
Created by writer Pat Mills (who wrote almost every episode) and his then wife artist Angela Kincaid, steeped in Celtic history and ancient British mythology “Slaine” was 2000ADs first real “stab” at a swords and sorcery strip.
“Slaine” is the story of an exile from the Celtic tribe of the Sessair for the crime of sleeping with the King’s “favourite”, his eternal love Niamh. Slaine wandered Tir Nan Og, the land of the young, with the scheming dwarf Ukko. Led astray by the dwarf, Slaine raised money by acting as a mercenary, bodyguard, prison owner, thief and circus act for food and shelter, occasionally falling foul of the enemies of the tribes of the Earth Goddess, the Drune lords and their soldiers, the Skull Swords, before returning home to fulfil his destiny.
Often described as the “thinking man’s Conan” Mills’ seemingly boundless capacity for research meant that the strip was used to comment on a range of topics, including the UKs colonial past, feminism and the environment.
After Kincaid’s debut episode, the strip was drawn by two alternating artists. Massimo Belardinelli and Mike McMahon. Belardinelli often comes in for criticism for his figure work and perhaps lacks the grittiness of what was to come, but no one can deny the beauty of his line or his extraordinary imagination.
But it was Mike McMahon, always innovating, never stagnating and debuting a new, striking style, poles apart from Belardinelli that drew the most attention.
McMahon’s art on “Sky Chariots”, “the Beltain Giant” “Shoggey Beast” revealed a prehistoric scratchy, expressive style, and lauded amongst the art community. With the conclusion of the early years’ sequence wrapped up with Belardinelli’s “Dragonheist”, the decks were cleared for the next phase of the characters life.
The David Pugh / Glenn Fabry era sees a significant change in art style, more intricate and realistic with the two artists closer in style than the previous paring. “Time Killer “is some of Fabry’s earliest comics work and you see him develop as an artist through this run and onto “Tomb of Terror”. Ever the innovator, Mills introduces science fiction elements are introduced “leyser” guns, a sojourn into the “Fighting Fantasy “gaming books, the introduction of the alien Cythrons and their leader the Guledig.
There is brief and satisfying diversion into astrology and Celtic interpretation of Greco- Roman myth with Mike Collins and Mark Farmer on “The Spoils of Annwn” which acts as a prologue to the much heralded “Slaine the King”. After years of being a wanderer Slaine returns home to find his tribe under the thumb of the Formorians, allies of the Drune Lords and takes his place at the head of his tribe, leading the resistance against their oppressors and meeting his destiny.
Glenn Fabry brings out the best in Mills; “Slaine the King” is beautifully drawn and is arguably the pinnacle of the series. To top that series Mills and editorial decided to go full colour, with a new artist who had just completed a run on the revival of “A.B.C Warriors”.
“Slaine the Horned God” was a three book epic, the single longest storyline in the series so far. Following his coronation as King of the Sessair, Slaine embarks on a plan to defeat the Formorians and the Drune Lords and free the Land of the Young. To do so, Slaine must gather forbidden weapons, unite the tribes of the Earth Goddess and replace the old Horned God, Slough Feg.
Simon Bisley arrival as artist on the strip is both a blessing and a curse. His dynamic style is a huge departure from Fabry’s, as much as Fabry and Pugh were a departure from McMahon and Belardinelli. Bisley’s painted art was a shock, and it cast a large shadow over the strip and comics as whole for years to come. Due to the poor reproduction and paper quality in the Prog’ at the time it’s often said “The Horned God “was responsible for hundreds of pages of murky art. Pages that were glorious and vibrant on the drawing board became murky on the printed page, but set a trend that has only recently been reversed.
The successful culmination of Slaine’s quest left Mills and his future collaborators with dilemma. What do you do with a character who has become a god?
Simple. Rather than end an incredibly popular strip at a logical point you send the character pinballing around time, stripping away most of the baggage they had collected over the previous 7 years of series development, rebooting the strip. Mills and his artistic cohorts send Slaine bouncing around history defending Albion / Tir Nan Og, Celt and Britons from the invading forces of Romans, Spartans, Normans, becoming Quantum Leap with an axe.
The art became the focus of the strip. It was undeniably popular, the art was stunning (if occasionally murky due to the poor reproduction) but the strip floundered in this period, a lack of direction and overexposure, becoming a regular presence in the Prog thanks to a succession of artists, almost all providing painted work.
This included such luminaries as Glenn Fabry, Dermot Power, Steve Tappin, Clint Langlely, Paul Staples, Greg Staples, Rafael Garres, David Bircham and Nick Percival. Storylines encompassed King Arthur, Robin Hood, William Wallace and Boudicca.
It was only when Mills set about the” Lost Years” set during Slaine’s period as King, was the strip reinvigorated sequence of stories and built upon that with his and Langley’s epic “Books of Invasion“ storyline which revisited similar themes as the “Horned God”. Langley’s computer generated art was spectacular and reinvigorated Mills and the strip.
“The Brutania Chronicles”, billed as reboot soon began to meander despite some strong Simon Davis artwork. Slaine was portrayed as older, more weary and tired. Revelations of Slaine’s past seemed a little desperate, and it didn’t engage.
This brings us to “Dragontamer”, the much trailed final series with astonishing art by Leonardo Manco. A direct sequel to the “Brutannia Chronicles”, “Dragontamer”, Slaine leads the resistance against the occupation of Albion by the Trojans and their leader the Emperor Brutus and his grotesque family.
Manco’s art is beautiful, but plot and script are a retread of what came before and adds nothing new to the mythos, editorial had found someone born to draw “Slaine”, but not a story to go with it.
It is reductive but it is easy to divide “Slaine” into two eras. Pre Bisley, and post Bisley. The strip has always brought out the best in its artists, but perhaps that’s where its troubles began it’s been too much of an art showcase for far too long and interesting ideas for the character had long since run out. “Slaine” really ended with “The Horned God”, a logical and fitting end point to a brilliantly written saga.
Although it looks beautiful, “Dragontamer” adds little to the series, it’s an oddly muted end to one of 2000ADs most popular and important strips.
Collections of the Slaine saga are available from the 2000AD webshop