As 2000 AD‘s first editor, Pat Mills obviously looms large over the anthology, with his influence felt on Judge Dredd, ABC Warriors and Nemesis The Warlock, but it’s Sláine – the time-travelling pagan epic – that has become his best known creation, simply for the sheer love for the character and the possibilities of the setting that bleeds from every page.
If John Wagner is the unflinching human face of Dredd, then Mills is the human face of Sláine mac Roth.
Come the mid-Nineties, and with Celtic mythology milked dry, Sláine stories seemed to be coming thick and fast, as the warrior/king and servant of the earth goddess Danu was catapulted through time like a woad-caked Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. Only instead of many varied missions top suit the age, Sláine’s were increasingly variations on a theme – reunite with his lost love, Niamh, in whatever form she happened to have taken in that period, and fight alongside some folksy woodland types against the forces of darkness.
The problem is, as the character relentlessly advanced through history his foes became less likely to be demons and more likely to be the some real world historical force in thrall of the forces of darkness – in the case of the William Wallace retelling that opens up The Grail War collection, it’s the English. Characterised as more easily malleable by Sláine’s old enemies the Cyth than the noble, boisterous Scots, who are more in touch with their pagan spirit, it’s all a bit Braveheart.
Like Mel Gibson’s revisionist biopic, its portrayal of the English is somewhere between the Nazis in big-hearted adventure romp Indiana Jones and the Persians in Frank Miller‘s nakedly bigoted 300, and is a trope speculative fiction should probably get shot off regardless of who’s on the receiving end – there’s demonising the foe, and then there’s literally demonising the foe.
The bulk of ‘The Grail War’, the titular grail war itself, makes far better use of history – plunging Sláine well outside of his comfort zone and into the Albigensian Crusade against Cathar heretics in the South of France – neatly subverting the usual Sláine storyline, when the force of life that his goddess bade him protect becomes represented by the crusaders and the reincarnation of his lost love Niamh is revealed to be the blood-drenched crusader knight Simon de Montfort, then he changes sides, aligning himself with Esclarmonde of Foix, the mythical defender of the grail in gnostic folklore.
It’s fascinating stuff from both a storytelling and historical standpoint, and represents a real evolution for the character and a sense that Sláine’s morally absolute adventures are over – the big Conan-style monster slaying of his earlier strips – to be replaced by the infinite greys of our universe.
Increasingly complex, metaphysical and tough to follow it may be, but it helped keep the character alive through the last half decade of the 20th Century and well into the 21st.