The Thinking Man’s Barbarian
Tripwire continues its daily recommendation of 100 graphic novels people should read with Dark Horse’s Slaine: The Horned God , by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley, out now in hardcover, reviewed by its contributing writer Tim Hayes …
Slaine: The Horned God
Writer: Pat Mills
Art: Simon Bisley
Thiry-one years of elapsed time feels blown to bits after about 31 seconds of reacquaintance with Slaine: The Horned God, courtesy of Rebellion’s new US hardcover edition. Pat Mills’ bubbling stew of Celtic mythology, sexology and theology slots into such easy sync with Simon Bisley’s ferocious painted cartooning that the book looks less like a period piece from 1989 and more like a point of origin. You hardly have to squint at all to see the 2000AD editorial team suddenly sat bolt upright with antennae twitching.
For all the pure impact of the art, which is a lot, The Horned God is mythology with conspicuous brains. Mills sets the sly, charismatic axe-wielding warrior Slaine Macroth and his ever-lecherous biographer Ukko the dwarf off on the trail of four mythical weapons, which will allow the unification of warring tribes and the fending off of invading armies. But only a few pages in, the real agenda becomes clear: The Horned God is a book of ideas. It teems with them. Principles of government, codes of honour, the price of fealty and the results of betrayal are all thoroughly aired – before, between and very occasionally during outbreaks of wholesale slaughter.
In particular, two genuinely slippery concepts are woven into the fabric of the book. One is the involvement of the Earth goddess Danu, the capricious matriarch whose triple personalities make her an ethereal handful. “I can be your mother, your lover or your sister,” she warns Slaine. “And you’ll never know in which guise you will meet me again.” He looks suitably nonplussed.
The other theme is the nature of Danu’s counterpart and Slaine’s nemesis, the decrepit Lord Weird Slough Feg, a baleful vampire who is nevertheless part of the natural order and the cycle of things. That Feg and Slaine himself are manifestations of the same primal forces is the ambiguous issue at the heart of the story.
The art glues these ideas together. Or rather, it stuffs them bodily into the same frame. If Bisley was ever inclined to mimic the Frazetta template of icy Hyborian barbarians, then he only glanced at it before consigning it to the bin. Instead the figurework is all angles and elbows, bone and gristle. Several pages of The Horned God look hot to the touch: horseflesh melts in ribbons from a steed caught on the wrong end of a dragon’s breath; a mythical spear with a taste for blood peers out from an inferno, looking literal daggers through the flames. Even the subtler manoeuvres are well above body temperature. Witness one of comics’ great spats, when a needling row between Slaine and his old lover Niamh sees the figures first drained of colour and then slowly vanishing behind spatters of crimson, leaving Slaine to fume in his own personal red mist.
Best of all, Bisley did what authentic trendsetters always do, and let his style evolve before the paint was even dry. The first two-thirds of the story are murky and earthy, spattered with pastel browns; sometimes even the exteriors look like they’re underground. But when the story enters its last act, Bisley changes tack: the gutters evaporate, the lines harden up and the palette shifts drastically. The final pages are all about abrupt lines and high saturation and crystal blue skies, and they look gorgeous.
2000AD‘s short-form format can leave dents in a writer’s broader intentions, and the The Horned God’s intricacies are better served by being collected in one place and laid out in plain sight. It makes it easier to see what Mills was up to and how he gets under the skin of his character, a muscle-bound but far from meat-headed fighter keen to reason his way out of a crisis while a civilisation takes shape around him. The thinking man’s barbarian.
Slaine: The Horned God is out now from Rebellion.
Here’s a link to the first five of our 100 GNs too