There is much to love in Britain's venerable weekly sci-fi comics showcase 2000 A.D., especially during its "classic" period. JUDGE DREDD's futuristic cop-on-the-beat exploits, STRONTIUM DOG's "Sergio Leone in space" stylings , heavy metal robotic action with THE A.B.C. WARRIORS, tense deep-space warfare with THE V.C.'S, a curious blend of science-fiction and the occult in NEMESIS THE WARLOCK, intergalactic fun with sociopathic alien juvenile delinquents D.R. & QUINCH... The list goes on and on, but perhaps the most unexpected and unique series to crop up during that era was SLAINE, a major break with the magazine's established sci-fi format in that it was a more or less straight-up sword and sorcery yarn. (There was an earlier Two Thou strip, BLACKHAWK, that kinda went there, but with far more of a sci-fi flavor to it.) Anyway, 2000 A.D. is slowly putting out collected editions of its major series and SLAINE is among the chosen, so here's one SLAINE-fan's assessment of what's up with the current wave of reprints. (Much of the first few years-worth of SLAINE have been reprinted in various formats since the mid-1980, starting with issues of THE BEST OF 2000 A.D., so keep in mind that this is the first time the run is being collected in sequence in trade paperback form.)
VOLUME 1: WARRIOR'S DAWN
The foundation from which the entire SLAINE series springs is laid out in this first volume, therefore making this book vital to really "getting" the series. Despite being rather visually uneven due to the series going through inevitable growing pains and a run of three artists whose talents suit the strip in wildly varying ways (a state of affairs that could cripple a 2000 A.D. strip in that era, most notably and unfortunately THE A.B.C. WARRIORS), SLAINE gets off to a very entertaining start by introducing us to its protagonist when he's a nineteen-year-old drifter, making his way back to his tribe, the Sessair, following three years in exile for committing a grievous breach of tribal etiquette. Accompanied by Ukko the dwarf — a seriously unscrupulous and unwholesome companion if ever there was one, but somebody had to chronicle Slaine's adventures — Slaine wanders from one misadventure to the next, acting like a complete asshole the whole time, and Mills rescues the narrative from what could easily have been yet another rote barbarian story by injecting it with liberal and legitimately funny doses of levity. What makes that angle work is that the art is rendered totally straight, supplying the perfect counterpoint to the series' considerable goofiness. But the initial "comedic Conan" feel gives way to a rich mining of Celtic and other endo-European myth bases (which would later be run into the ground to disastrous effect) and plants the seeds for plot complications that would rear their heads a few years down the line, most notably the introduction of Drune sorceress Medb (who carries a bitter grudge against Slaine for rescuing her from being ritually sacrificed, a process that would have made her a full-fledged goddess of evil).
Massimo Belardinelli's balls-out crazy visualization of Slaine's ultra-bizarre "warp spasm."
This volume's art chores are handled by Angie Kincaid (series co-creator who was on board only for the initial installment) and 2000 A.D. mainstay Massimo Belardinelli (who turned in an utterly inspired, completely balls-out mental/insane visual for Slaine's warp spasm, a supernatural berserker fury allowing him to channel the power of the earth goddess, Danu), but the real kudos here belongs to Mike McMahon, formerly best known for his seminal work on JUDGE DREDD during that strip's glory years ("The Cursed Earth," anyone?). Using a heavily textured and sketchy style that veers far afield of his earlier work, McMahon grants his SLAINE installments a legendary quality that is wholly right for the series in a way that has not been seen since, with each panel looking like its subjects were either carved into stone tablets of ancient woodcuts relating the story's heroic events.
Sheer genius, McMahon's SLAINE work could rightly be judged the finest of his already impressive career. McMahon's SLAINE output is a relatively scant eighteen chapters but its quality ensured classic status, especially the breathtaking "Sky Chariots" and its stunning imagery of flying longboats brimming with heavily-armed warriors engaged in savage combat.
VOLUME 2: TIME KILLER
Having gone from an entertaining barbarian actioner to full-blown epic in virtually no time, SLAINE's scale only increased from this volume onward. Slaine's path back to his tribe continues apace, but that journey becomes totally beside the point when our hero gains a fearsome dragon as his flying steed and takes on trainee druid priestess Nest as a traveling companion. Those developments occur in time for our hero to become embroiled in a battle against the Cythrons, a pack of other-dimensional Lovecraftian wigglies who seek to subjugate our world and feed off of the human energies of hatred and violence (read "war") throughout the ages. This conflict proves quite a test for Slaine's well-honed martial ferocity and his goddess-given super-powers, bouncing him back and forth through time and unleashing scads of inhuman carnage and brutal violence. For sheer unbridled thrills and completely out-of-control action that barely gives the reader a moment to breathe, this arc ranks among 2000 A.D.'s finest hours and will leave you wondering just where the hell the creators could take Slaine and his companions after they faced a threat that would have given the most powerful of superhero teams pause. The art here starts off with Belardinelli doing the chapters introducing the Knucker (the aformentioned dragon) but "Time Killer" proper gave readers the bone-crunchingly violent and visceral borderline-"underground" artwork of David Pugh, which was simply fucking excellent and perfect for this arc's Lovecraftian flavor (and is inexplicably underrated when the history of this series is discussed).
But then they handed us Glenn Fabry and all bets bets were off. Let me put it this way: Glenn Fabry is one of the comics biz's best illustrators and his art on this arc kicked in the skulls of all who witnessed it when it came out. His ultra-detailed, imaginative-yet-realistic style was just what a fantasy epic like SLAINE was calling for, and to this day I don't think anyone has come within light years of injecting the series with the visual charge Glenn provided (though Pugh comes in at an extremely close #2 position for me; sorry, Mike), and I very much doubt anyone ever will again. (There are those who champion Simon Bisley, but more on that shortly.) What's really amazing is that Fabry was just getting started here and with a debut like this, a legendary status was assured.
VOLUME 3: THE KING
After the ultra-violent (for a kid's comic) events of "Time Killer," the battle against the Cythrons continues in "The Tomb of Grimnismal," in which Slaine and his companions must make their way into a deep stone sepulchre where a vastly powerful and totally evil elder god is regenerating. If they fail to kill Grimnismal, the horrifying Lovecraftian thing will destroy all life on Earth before going on to once more conquer the stars (which previously happened in some long-ago era and led directly to Grimnismal's imprisonment), so failure is definitely not an option and the skills and powers of Slaine and friends get put to the test like a sunavabitch during this adventure that reads like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (I mean that in a complementary way). Following "Tomb" comes "The Spoils of Anwynn" — drawn in a serviceable but somewhat generic style by Mike Collins and inked by the now-famed Mark Farmer (who's often well-paired with superstar penciler Alan Davis) — a spiritual quest that tests our hero's wisdom (?) and other qualities as he makes his way to the book's main attraction. After being told by the half-Cythron/half-human wizard Myrddin (whom we realize will later be better known as Merlin) that he is destined to rule his people, Slaine embarks on a journey of enlightenment and tests of worthiness that will prepare him for his inevitable role. But a thick-headed and violence-driven barbarian lout is not exactly the ideal candidate for such heady teachings, so it's up to the druidess Nest to guide him. After that the series returned to a much more down-to-earth setting, but lost not one iota of its legendary/mythical punch in the balls. In "The King," following his mystical quest, Slaine finally returns to his tribe but finds his people under the heel of the Fomorians, repulsive land-walking sea monsters who have all but extinguished his people's fighting spirit. As the tribe's leader falls under the baleful spell of his creepy bride, Megrim (actually the evil Medb from Volume 1, now in disguise), it becomes apparent that he is no longer fit to rule and must be ritually sacrificed so a stronger leader can take his place. As Medb prepares to take the throne, Slaine returns and a blood-omen indicates that it is he who should lead the Sessair. Once approved for his role as ruler, Slaine wastes no time in putting his boot right up the ass of his Fomorian enemies and revives the Sessair's gumption, but he also comes face-to-face with the reason why he fled years earlier and is shocked by what he finds...
One of the Holy Grails of my original art collection: a "money shot" Glenn Fabry page from "Slaine The King."
"The King" sets up everything that followed in its wake for the next two-plus decades, but that should not be held against it; Glenn Fabry's labor-intensive artwork here is the main selling point and it's the kind of piece that would deservedly and instantly elevate its creator to the highest ranks of comics illustrators (or illustrators of any kind, if truth be told), and as such it's a must-read for comics readers. It's simply stunning and I cannot praise it enough, so if you have no interest in reading the overall run of SLAINE there are several collected editions of "The King" dating back to the 1980's, so if you're willing to pick it up I would recommend the hardcover version that came out a few years ago under the title SLAINE: THE KING.
The highly recommended hardcover edition, including just "The King" and skipping both "The Tomb of Grimnismal" and "The Spoils of Anwynn."
VOLUME 4: THE HORNED GOD
Okay, here's the arc that serves as a milestone for several reasons, among which being that this it is widely considered to be not only the creative high-water mark of SLAINE's entire run, but also for the entirety of 2000 A.D. (an opinion that I do not share!). First of all, "The Horned God" was perhaps the story most representative of 2000 A.D.'s period of shift in format from square-shaped and printed on newsprint (or as Garth Ennis puts it, "bog roll") to regular magazine dimensions, as well as the whole mag going from gorgeous black & white to occasionally-dodgy color. Those of us who consider ourselves hardcore 2000 A.D. fans almost universally agree that the magazine's classic period lasted until the switch to full color and tend to cite this story in particular as sounding the death knell of the once-kickass sci-fi weekly. "The Horned God" was blessed with some initially alluring painted art by Simon Bisley, who seriously channeled his obvious Frazetta influence straight onto the canvas and threw in a dash of Richard Corben and animated cartoons for good measure (Bisley's version of Ukko the dwarf is a triumph). But what started out as major eye-candy swiftly devolved (in my humble opinion) into an overblown exercise resembling a combination of by-the-numbers HEAVY METAL-style illustration and the stuff rendered in high school by metalhead kids who found inspiration in the rather sophomoric albums of Saxon and Manowar.
Is it the cover of the new Manowar album? No, it's the "groundbreaking" art of Simon Bisley on "The Horned God."
As for the story, this is where Pat Mills begins his long descent into neo-pagan claptrap that would try the patience of even the most tolerant of mythology buffs and pan-theists (like Yer Bunche). What starts out as promising grows lugubrious, pretentious and turgid with each turn of the page, and it appears that Mills forgot that all of this was supposed to be fun. Sadly, that state of affairs has pretty much continued unabated since Bisley's run and not even a brief, painted return engagement by Glenn Fabry could restore SLAINE to its former glory. Since "The Horned God," the series has plodded along endlessly and inexplicably remains one of the magazine's most popular recurring features, despite murky and nigh-illegible computer-manipulated artwork Considering how completely excellent the first few years-worth of SLAINE were, that's a goddamned shame, but I guess everything eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns.
The bottom line on all of this is that the first three books are indispensable and should be added to the shelves of any serious comics collection as soon as possible. The import prices can be a bitch but believe me when I tell you they're absolutely worth it. Now if only 2000 A.D. would settle things with Grant Morrison so they could publish the complete BIG DAVE...