Rebellion have just re-released two new albums of adventures from the Celtic barbarian Sláine Mac Roth (pronounced shlawnye): Time Killer and Sláine the King. Both albums repeat stories from the mid 1980s when role-playing and fantasy were all the rage. Both series were also a high point in the early years of the British Sci-Fi comic 2000AD. These releases are particularly exciting because they feature the awesome line-work of artist Glenn Fabry, who completely reinvented this sword and sorcery saga. Astonishingly, Fabry had been working in a petrol station before he got his big break on the strip.
As a teenage reader, I never noticed how many of 2000AD’s heroes wandered about bare-chested (Blackhawk, Rogue Trooper) and Sláine is another example of that pack. In fact, in later stories he even orders his fellow Celts to go into battle ‘skyclad’, which was rather chilly being little more than a thin coat of blue paint. However, these tales are not just another foray into brawn and battle. The adventures of Sláine are wreathed in ancient myths from throughout the British Isles.
The early stories have dated quite a bit, featuring pages of rapid action, fighting dragons and some rather uninspiring artwork from Massimo Belardinelli. They cover the early wanderings of Sláine, a Celtic renegade in Tir-Nan-Og (the land of the young). The setting is an ancient Britain which draws heavily on Celtic legend and real historical sources from the time of the druids. Accompanied by the light-fingered dwarf Ukko and the trainee sorceress Nest, Sláine battles monsters and wizards armed with his axe and a fabled gift that he has received from the earth goddess Danu. For Sláine is a warped warrior, a type of berserker. Drawing on powerful forces from the earth, his body swells and grows in moments of high stress, exploding with power and energy to the terror of friend and foe alike.
Fortunately, the early stages only last for about forty pages whereupon the series takes a quantum leap. From nowhere, Sláine finds himself battling a sinister alien force from inner space, the Cythrons, who secretly farm humanity to feed upon their fears. The artwork from Fabry and David Pugh is unbelievable, and the new reproduction is extremely crisp, although the pages are slightly smaller than the originals. You also don’t get the original covers, so I have reproduced one here:
Sláine’s conflict with the Cythrons is a rollicking, and extremely violent, adventure. Writer Pat Mills was at his creative peak at the time. Not only does he introduce the Cythrons with their prehensile tongues and leyser weapons, but there are also giant blue-black Atlanteans, evil multi-dimensional beings called Els, and dark gods sleeping in forgotten tombs. My favourites were the diluvials, ancient creatures with an exoskeleton who create sonic weapons with their horns to liquidise their enemies … and any nearby buildings (they are the monsters in the 2000AD cover above).
In Sláine the King, the role-call of villains grows ever deeper as we encounter shape-shifting witch-queens, and the fish-like Fomorians, who menace the land of the young as they march downwards from their home on the terrifyingly named Tory Island.
As a fantasy story appearing in the mid-eighties, Sláine was also caught up in the role-playing games fever that was infecting half of Britain’s teenagers at the time. The sequence Tomb of Terror was linked to a game that 2000AD‘s weekly readers could follow for themselves. It was great to see this game repeated in its entirety in these volumes, although they missed off the certificate that you could fill in on completing the game. It appeared as the back cover of 2000AD prog 461, and oh, go on, here it is, and yes, I did fill it in when I was eleven years old:
These two volumes are fantastic. They feature some of the best comic art ever produced. Like Brian Bolland, Fabry was slow as an artist, but also a genius. The stories are packed with real references to myth and legend, and the action never stops. Most powerful of all is the fact that in presenting his fictional world, Mills never makes his characters feel like modern people. They are barbarians, and their way of thinking is not like our own. For example, in one moment the heroes happily debate whether or not to murder their alien prisoner for no particular reason, and every one of them agrees to do so — mercilessly. And when Sláine slaughters his enemies, well, “he did not think it too many”. They don’t make heroes like that any more.