What is it that makes barbarian characters so popular and appealing? The original barbarians – the Huns, the Goths, the Gauls, the Saxons, Jutes and Picts etc – were history’s Hell’s Angels, credited with nothing less than bringing about the fall of western civilisation and the onset of the Dark Ages. They were anything but heroic, yet their fantasy equivalents are some of the most enduring and well known characters in the genre. Few have not heard of Conan, Robert E Howard’s muscle-bound anti-hero (although in fairness that may have more to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger than the character on the printed page). Of rather more respectable vintage are Druss, axe-wielding hero of many of David Gemmell’s Drenai heroic fantasy novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd in the Lankhmar novels. Barbarian warriors are also, of course, a staple of role-playing games. In this medium they are often represented as lone warriors, very different from the vibrant historical cultures on which they are based. Several characteristics are commonly shared, including physical prowess and fighting skill combined with a fierce temper and a tolerance for pain. No doubt due to their animal magnetism (though not to their general lack of personal hygiene) they appear to be irresistible to the opposite gender, and seem to possess an equal appetite for food and drink. While Conan, Druss and Fafhrd are all fairly standard examples of this archetype, the graphic novel character Sláine is a somewhat more ambiguous and intriguing take on the classic barbarian.
The British comic strip 2000 AD is best known for its future wars and sci-fi dystopias but, in 1983, it made a marked departure into fantasy – but with a twist. Sláine is a barbarian fantasy adventure series based on Celtic myths and legends. Subtle it ain’t: the eponymous hero wields an axe called ‘brain biter’ and the power of the ‘warp spasm’. This is Sláine’s terrifying ability (based on the ríastrad or body-distorting battle frenzy of the Irish hero Cúchulainn) to turn into a frightening, monstrous figure who knows neither friend nor foe, as a result of calling on the power of his patron, the earth goddess Danu, to ‘warp’ his body. Whilst Sláine’s most obvious source is Irish mythology (based on the Cúchulainn reference), it also owes a significant debt to Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (although it must be said that Howard himself drew heavily on Celtic myth, as is evidenced in part by the Irish name of his own barbarian hero). However, Sláine is in no way bogged down by its mythological precedents – it is brutal, thuggish and often played for dark laughs against a backdrop of ancient culture and flights of fancy. Set in the ‘Land of the Young’ of pre-Roman Ireland, Sláine is a ne’er-do-well banished for getting the king’s favourite pregnant, before eventually uniting his tribe and becoming the first High King of Ireland. Together with his ever-present companion, chronicler and comedy sidekick Ukko, Sláine MacRoth is the ultimate bad boy of fantasy, complete with his very own memorable battle cry: “Kiss my axe!”.
Sláine’s creator, Pat Mills, came up with the character partly out of a desire to explore his own Irish roots but also because, in his own words, he wanted to avoid creating a “muscle-bound git”. Despite being a barbarian character, Sláine is a sinewy warrior, exuding menace and brutish charm (even sporting an eighties’ mullet). As well as standing out from 2000 AD’s other, predominantly sci-fi fare due to its fantasy nature, the strip was different in other ways. Mills ensured that Sláine was deliberately illustrative, combining features of folk art with a much more European sensibility, while much of 2000 AD’s stable was more simple and action-packed. This was epic storytelling, where the line between fantasy and reality was blurred, mixing gods, monsters and historical figures. With nods to everything from Celtic legends of the Tain all the way through to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Mills wove an incredibly rich tapestry of stories. He wanted to see ancient Celtic legends brought to life and also to challenge the way that history and myths were represented. But it is not just Mills that deserves credit for the success of the Sláine comic strip, for the series benefited from the start by having an awesome roster of the very best in British artistic talent contributing to it.
Sláine was initially drawn by Mills’ then wife, Angela Kincaid, who soon bowed out to be replaced by Mick McMahon, among others. Better known for his work on Judge Dredd, McMahon evolved a painstakingly detailed style, with hatching and body shapes creating almost a woodcut effect and enhancing the epic feel. Italian artist Massimo Belardinelli then added a beautiful, phantasmagorical element to the series, which was probably the closest the comic strip ever came to exploring its fantasy roots. But what undoubtedly made Sláine a hit was the epic 31-part The Horned God series. This was illustrated by Simon Bisley, who developed a stunning, painted style that simultaneously showed just what was possible with graphic novel fantasy art and launched a whole slew of imitators on an unsuspecting public. The Horned God instantly made Bisley a comic book superstar as well as giving 2000 AD a classic of the medium that was acknowledged across the world. In particular, partly due to the revolutionary techniques of its artists, Sláine was a huge hit in Europe – a first for a British comic strip.
Many felt that Sláine could have bowed out on a high with The Horned God but the strip continued into the nineties – not always with great results it has to be said. Many readers felt that it had lost its fantastical foundations and wearied of what they saw as a succession of increasingly thin plots. After the glory of Bisley’s run, the artwork also lost focus, never really settling and remaining overshadowed by what had gone before. In fact, The Secret Commonwealth storyline was so poorly received that Sláine was rested for 3 years, before returning with The Books of Invasions in the new millennium. Although disliked by many long-term readers, this saga, with its epic, widescreen storytelling, was a big seller. Thanks to a combination of artwork and interlocking story lines, therefore, Sláine has endured while other eighties icons of 2000 AD, such as Rogue Trooper, have waned. After such a varied journey, where the barbaric Sláine’s adventures will take him next is anyone’s guess…