"'Sláine' has always been a writer-driven story, or I should say muse-driven story. I write what the muse tells me to write and she gives me little choice in the matter."
That's Pat Mills, talking about the Celtic barbarian series "Sláine," which he has written in the pages of "2000 AD" off and on for nearly 30 years.
In my temporary moments of clarity, when I take a minute to step outside the vortex of my obsession with mainstream American comics, I would cite Mills as one of my favorite comic book writers of all time. He's certainly one of the best in the business, even if he's rarely cracked the American market, and thus, doesn't get written about nearly as much as he deserves. His disdain for superheroes has allowed him to keep his distance from Marvel and DC, while so many other "2000 AD" writers have been scooped up and churned through the sausage grinders of Gotham City or whatever the equivalent would be in Marvel's outer space.
Mills' disdain for superheroes has also directly led to the creation (with artistic collaborator Kevin O'Neill) of one of the best superhero comics of all time: "Marshal Law." Of course, the Omnibus collection of that series has never been released, even after many years of broken promises, and I would guess that the majority of current comic book readers have never even seen a single installment of the series. It's worth tracking down the single issues, though Top Shelf has something planned for "Marshal Law" in the near future, as they indicate in a misguided CGI "trailer" that captures the flavor of the comic about as well as this captures the flavor of that.
But I'm not here to talk about "Marshal Law" or delicious bacon, even though those are two of my favorite things in the world.
No, I'm here to talk about the new Rebellion hardcover edition of "Sláine: The Horned God," because, while it may not be one of my favorite things in the world, I do quite enjoy Pat Mills barbarian comics, particularly when they're drawn/painted/or-otherwise-illustrated by Simon Bisley.
I know I mentioned that the average comic book reader probably hasn't seen any issues of "Marshal Law" (and I know regular readers of THIS column will no doubt comment on the CBR Forums by pointing out that they have, in fact, read ALL of the issues, but that's because you are old and/or smart, and I appreciate both), but I can't be the only reader who saw that first Simon Bisley "Doom Patrol" cover back in 1989 and thought, "This is the best piece of artwork in the history of the world and nothing can ever top it, not even the best work of the Renaissance masters or that one painting by Frank Frazetta with the guy with the axe."
In 1989, we still had thought balloons, and mine were often filled with hyperbole, I don't know about yours.
What I didn't know, until a year later, was that this Simon Bisley guy was not just doing THE greatest "Doom Patrol" covers ever, but he was also drawing a Pat Mills comic in "2000 AD" at the same time. And it was a barbarian comic. I didn't like barbarian comics. But I did like Pat Mills, and I actually had the "Marshal Law" poster on my bedroom wall in my younger years. I was a cool kid, obviously. I'm pretty sure the "Marshal Law" poster replaced my unironic Eric Estrada poster. I used to watch "CHiPs" devotedly. I told you I was a cool kid.
Anyway, when Fleetway released a three-volume softcover reprint series of the Pat Mills and Simon Bisley "Sláine: The Horned God" story arc, and I somehow managed to find it in my backwater town where-until-shortly-before a television show co-starring Larry Wilcox was the best thing going, well, I was pretty excited. Even if it was a barbarian comic. And even if the spines of those Fleetway collections were glued with what I can only imagine was an adhesive called "Elmer's Lite: For Surfaces You Don't Really Want to Stay Together After All."
This new Rebellion hardcover is certainly an improvement, though it is printed at slightly smaller dimensions than the original "2000 AD" issues, and there's one double-page spread that is either printed a bit off-register or it was shot from a slightly-blurry original.
Still, a couple hundred pages of Mills/Bisley comics (with a few pages of commentary by Mills and a few sketches by Bisley in the back) is a value at any price. This is the good stuff.
And, as I found out back when I read my falling-apart Fleetway editions as a teenager, these are a decidedly different kind of barbarian comics.
To be fair, I didn't have deep knowledge of the genre when I first read the Mills/Bisley "Sláine" stories, though now that I have read more original Robert E. Howard tales and seen more variations on the barbarian genre than I had back in 1990-1991, I still think that Pat Mills was doing something decidedly different with the archetypes.
Then again, so were Roy Thomas and Barry Smith (he wasn't a fancy enough illustrator for the "Windsor" part at the time) when they adapted the Howard "Conan" stories into a Marvel comic book series in the 1970s. If anything, that "Conan the Barbarian" series, which took the blunt, brutal, hyper-sexualized, hyper-physical, yet roguish Howard stories and recast them as sleek, action-packed superhero-minus-the-costume comic books created the modern barbarian genre as we still know it today. That Thomas/Smith comic had so many imitators in the Bronze Age that it kind of wiped away whatever the barbarian genre had been before, just as the James Whale "Frankenstein" film replaced, in popular consciousness, the reality of the quite-different original Mary Shelley text.
All of that is a long-winded way to lead up to this: "Sláine: The Horned God" is no Conan comic book, even if it does feature a muscle-bound barbarian character derived from Celtic mythology.
In the opening lines of this week's column, I quoted Pat Mills talking about "Sláine" from the back-matter of the Rebellion hardcover, and there's more to that quote about how the muse influenced this particular story. "In this case," writes Mills, "the theme is matriarchy, which I knew Celtic fans would be fascinated by. I was not so sure about traditional fantasy fans, but Simon's breathtaking artwork persuaded nearly all of them."
I'm not going to go into a research-heavy dissertation on the theme of matriarchy in Celtic myth, but here's a super-short version of some of the thinking in that regard, mostly influenced by Sir James George Frazer's classic, "The Golden Bough:" Many early societies seemed to have worshipped not a traditional pantheon of pagan gods, nor simply a self-sacrificing male fertility god (of the Adonis/Christ sort), but rather, a mother goddess. A female fertility goddess. Some incarnation of Gaia.
That Pat Mills would take inspiration from that kind of anthropological approach and apply it to a barbarian comic in the sci-fi adventure magazine "2000 AD," well, that takes some guts. He could have ended up with "The Mists of Avalon," and that wouldn't have meshed with the "2000 AD" aesthetic.
Then again, Pat Mills created "2000 AD," so he clearly knew what he was doing. Or he had enough faith in his skills to make it all up as he went along, riding the inspiration provided by his self-proclaimed muse.
He also, as he points out, had Simon Bisley. At the height of his powers.
Bisley has maintained a low profile in recent years, and even when he does pop up on a comic book series, as he has on Peter Milligan's "Hellblazer," he presents himself as a relatively conservative comic book artist. Someone obviously skilled, someone who can tell a story well, someone who can depict a kind of jagged, angular perspective on a talking-heads comic. But the Bisley of 1989, 1990, 1991? That was a manic, exciting Bisley. That was when Bisley was doing a mixed-media version of Frank Frazetta meets Bill Sienkiewicz. "Sláine: The Horned God" provided him a chance to paint monstrous creatures and voluptuous women, "warped" barbarians and aged dwarven scribes.
It's a violent comic book with eviscerations and decapitations, but at its center, it's about a barbarian god-king who undergoes not just a conventional heroic quest (though there's that, in Mills subverted form), but one in which he directly confronts the facade of patriarchal society and speaks on behalf of the mother goddess on matters of cooperation and the embrace of nature, not the conquering of it.
Yet the ultimate effect of all that is not a diminishment of the action and violence associated with barbarian comics, but rather an approach that knowingly winks (literally) at the audience who expects something a bit deeper than muscle-bound characters smashing each other with rocks and swords, but within the context of a larger story about the relationship between the hero-gods and the gods of nature, we get exactly what we need: a story that's smart enough to be about something, but also smart enough to realize that it's a comic that has to deliver gloriously exaggerated images of conflict. Mills and Bisley have it both ways, and it makes for a barbarian comic that breaks free from the Roy Thomas/Barry Smith "Conan" influence.
It's also shrewd in its narrative structure, posing itself as a tale transcribed by Ukko the dwarf, who has his own lascivious interests and may overemphasize the sex and violence that Bisley illustrates with such dynamic splendor. But, at times, the druidess Nest seems to influence the telling of the tale, bringing her more reasonable female approach to the narrative. Mills presents the conflict between the two warring narratives with the kind of wit and humor that permeate all of his work.
That's ultimately what makes "Sláine: The Horned God" so worthwhile. Mills and Bisley don't take themselves seriously, but they seem to give everything they've got to tell this story, and Sláine himself learns that same lesson. In the climactic scene of the book, while spears and dismembered limbs fly over his head, Sláine says, "I am not afraid of death, because I know not to take life too seriously. It's all a game to you. It's your sport." Then Bisley draws a winking Sláine who says, in the next panel, "I'm the laughter in the woods... remember?"
Then he undergoes a "warp-spasm" and leads the tribes of the Earth goddess on a slaughtering spree, Ukko tells us. Nest surely disagrees.
"Sláine: The Horned God" isn't the first of Pat Mills' Sláine stories (he actually co-created the character with his wife in 1983), and it's not the last. But it's probably the best. Simon Bisley painting and drawing his heart out will do that to a comic. Especially one that isn't afraid to be smart and funny and vicious all at the same time.
Plus, Sláine rides a dragon and throws barbed spears with his feet. That's what Conan wishes he could do, all those times when he's standing with his arms folded, looking surly.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan