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Slaine: The Horned God by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley

Slaine: The Horned God by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley
Book Name: Slaine: The Horned God
Author: Pat Mills and Simon Bisley
Publisher(s): 2000 AD
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback
Genre(s): Comic Book / Fantasy
Release Date: May 17, 2011

Slaine Mac Roth, Celtic warrior and berserker, first appeared in the pages of the comic 2000AD way back in the early 1980’s. I still remember that first episode, where Slaine fought a dinosaur (Tyrannosaurus, if I recall correctly), beating it by throwing a frog into its mouth; the poor amphibian expanded, choking the dinosaur. That stunt was the idea of Slaine’s companion Ukko, the sleaziest thief of a dwarf ever to draw breath. Together Slaine and Ukko wandered the mystic lands of Tir Na Nog, adventuring courtesy of opportunity, greed, and prophecy alike.

Slaine was a favourite of mine from day one, but the character I grew to love was Ukko. Not only was he a lowlife, but Ukko told the story of this man who would be chieftan, embellishing it with moments of deep meaning and humour. Of course, Ukko was really writer Pat Mills, a legend in the comic-book world. Together with various artists, he created a rich tapestry of a universe (sometimes other universes) for Slaine to inhabit. Gradually, as comics seemed to become more about the art than the story – men with big muscles, women with impossible curves – I stopped reading them.

In the years that followed, 2000AD graduated from black and white newsprint to high-quality paper filled with an abundance of colour. Slaine returned, this time drawn – no, painted! – by a then unknown called Simon Bisley. Who was this upstart? How dare he draw one of my favourites in a style I didn’t approve of? Needless to say, I kept away, unimpressed by examples shown to me.

Well, that was my loss.

Christmas can have a lot to answer for regarding unwanted or ill-advised gifts, but one I received was the collected Mills/Bisley story The Horned God. Reading it was a joy from start to finish, and the art…well, I’ll come to that in a moment.

The story sees Slaine undertake a quest for four artefacts which, when united, will enable him to become high king, a rising of rank which will enable him to lead the people of Tir Na Nog against the army led by the dark druid Slough Feg. Yet, there’s so much more to this than a simple quest story followed by a trademark Big Battle. Mills’s script once again has Ukko telling the story, but starts with an air of melancholy, for Slaine is “no longer with us” (there’s a heartbreaking picture of Ukko as he turns to face the reader while informing us this), before summarising what has gone before and getting into this latest story.

Slaine’s world is steeped in Celtic mythology, the mystic paths of druids, the dual natures of deities; the philosophy of the horned god is to reveal the truth of how the masculine priests have usurped the ways of the goddess, to bring about a new age of matriarchal society. It’s heavy stuff, but only as deep as you want it to be; Mills never preaches, and the story is always entertaining. Ukko’s wit hasn’t deserted him, or his dirty tricks, and it’s a tale well told – gripping and exciting, while also having a more thoughtful side.

As for the art…I have to hold my hands up and admit that I’ve changed my mind in the last twenty years. Yes, there are splash pages where Slaine wields impossibly-sized weapons, yet they add to the mystique of the tale; as if the art is based on a story told so many times that everything is larger than life – a legend, if you will. I can’t shake the feeling that Bisley was given free rein, and that’s why there are these excesses, but they are fitting and, for each of these, there are dozens of beautiful smaller illustrations. One of these shows Slaine in a forest, the trees of which intertwine to the sides of the panel just like a Celtic knot. It sounds simple, but it looks beautiful and is engraved on my mind.

If you fancy a change from a novel, Slaine is well-worth seeking out. There’s even a writer’s commentary at the back, which is candid and revealing; I can’t think of a stranger inspiration for a fantasy series than the old British comedy series Steptoe and Son, but once Mills mentions it, you can see old man Steptoe in Ukko’s face.

The Horned God isn’t the first of Slaine’s adventures, yet it’s easily accessible, and I’d recommend this to anyone. It’s a mature adult work, one with plenty of nudity and gore, yet it works on every level. It’s good sometimes to have your heroes visualised for you, which is the strength of a comic, but can also be its weakness. Good stuff, though, and I’ll be seeking out more in the very near future.


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