Slaine: An Interview with Pat Mills

By Sam Proctor

Cover details from Slaine: The Horned God
Detail from the cover of the seminal Slaine: The Horned God by Simon Bisley

Since his 1983 debut in 2000AD, Slaine Mac Roth has carved himself a place in comics history with the help of his trusty axe, Brainbiter. A member of the Sessair tribe, who worship the Goddess Danu in Tir na Nog, the Land of the Young, his saga is a rich mix of history and mythology. Over the years, Slaine has been a rebellious outlaw and outcast, the High King, the Horned God and the Green Knight – and his foes have included the Fomorian sea demons, the Lord Weird Slough Feg, the alien god-race of the Cythrons and, most recently, the Trojans. Sam Proctor talks  to Slaine co-creator, writer and 2000AD founder, Pat Mills.

Slaine taps Celtic myth and literature, notably the Tain. Is he important to you as an exploration of your own Irish ancestry?

Absolutely. There’s an echo of the modern Irish character in the Tain. Being brought up in England in an Irish family means you have to work harder to have a sense of identity. That’s why it it’s sometimes said the Anglo-Irish or Irish- Americans seem more Irish than the Irish.

You said previously the way characters speak in Slaine was influenced by original source materials. Also, elements like his barbed spear, the gae bolga, reference real artefacts. Is the very authentic feel that things like this give to Slaine’s world another reason for the saga’s appeal?

I think it has to be. I read recently the expression “to put the kibosh” on things comes from “to put the gae bolga on it” – a phrase that is also still in use, apparently. The gae bolga is the ultimate killing spear.

You have also said Roman accounts of the British Isles and their cultures prevail as a “cultural conditioning for the society we live in”. Is it fair to say your exploration of history and myth in Slaine is a resistance to this – a way of, as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o puts it, “decolonizing the mind”?

Yes. Very important. Teachers in the UK have a lot to answer for in conditioning kids to see Roman imperialism as a good thing. Slaine and my other stories attempt to reverse this – with some success, I believe. So currently I’m featuring Slaine in Britain at the time of the legendary invasion of the Trojans.

This mythical history would suggest our culture goes back long before the Romans – something the establishment does not want us to know.

I find that Slaine often reminds me of Beowulf. This is partly because of the way the characters speak, as mentioned above. But it is also because, like Beowulf and Grendel, Slaine and his foes can often be seen as two sides of the same coin – the hero’s superhuman strength making him just as monstrous as the villain but used for socially sanctioned violence.

I think there’s something in this. But the Celtic warp-spasm is fairly unique. Cuchulain is the most well-known warped man but there were a few others. Murdoch at the Battle of Clontarf, for instance.

The Slaine saga also frequently puts me in mind of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the hero’s journey. Is his work something that has informed you?

I have read it and I think it did have some influence. There was a similar book called The Horned God which gave me some idea of how a hero would function in a matriarchy.

The early story Tomb of Terror, which introduces readers to the world of the dark, alien god race the Cythrons, has a very Lovecraftian feel. Has he been an influence?

I think we had to do some Lovercraftian stories. But Cythraul is the Celtic name for Hell, hence Cythrons. A key influence was The Dark Gods by Anthony Roberts and Geoff Gilbertson. They explore UFOs, demonic visitations and Lovecraft from a roughly Celtic perspective.

You are currently using the Brutania Chronicles to explore Britain’s link with Brutus and the Trojans. What made you decide to tackle this myth?

The fact that no one else has. Isn’t that astonishing? We know all the Greek myths but not about our own. That’s a deliberate policy of teachers and academics, reinforcing the Greek and Roman perspective.

The Horned God story arc, which ran in 2000AD from 1989 to 1990, was a seismic event in comics history. Apart from the scale and content of the narrative, it featured the groundbreaking fully painted artwork of Simon Bisley. Were you surprised by its reception and continued status in the canon?

Not really. It’s astonishing artwork – possibly the best that’s ever appeared in comics – and a complex story. It’s right that it should still appeal today.

Bisley is one of many great comics artists to have held the reins on Slaine, following Massimo Bellardinelli, Mike McMahon and Glenn Fabry and succeeded by Clint Langley. Despite differing styles, the visual feel of Slaine’s world has always been very consistent. How closely do you work with artists and what is it like to see their visualisation of your ideas?

I do work closely with them but I also give them a flexibility they may not have elsewhere. Slaine’s visual appearance changes somewhat with each artist – in a way that couldn’t happen with Dredd.

Interestingly, each artist seems to roughly base the character on himself. I don’t think this happens on other stories. All the key visual elements of Slaine were established in the first story, drawn by my ex-wife Angela, and that was deliberate on my part – so no one else could subsequently claim artistic co-creation.

Actually, during the “Dark Ages” of 2000AD in the 1990s, the editor Dave Bishop told me – with some amused satisfaction – that David Bircham, the artist he had appointed, despite my reservations, had never seen The Horned God and I formed the impression that neither of them thought it was necessary.

Consequently, David’s story didn’t work with the readers – not least because he had painted a Slaine who looks black on occasion, like himself.

Once again, the artists drawing Slaine as themselves! Fascinating. The failure of that series is not really down to the artist but rather to editorial not directing him and trying to minimise the power of creators. Weird power trips like this should have no place in 2000AD and thankfully those days are behind us.

Part of Slaine’s journey in The Horned God is awakening to the divine feminine. Is this something our broader society and culture could benefit from today?

I think there’s much more awareness today and some of that is down to organisations like your own and stories like The Horned God. There is still resistance – in my personal experience to female comic artists – but it is more covert these days.

Do you think part of the reason why Slaine has always struck such a chord with readers is that he is very fallible character on an ongoing journey of self-discovery and spiritual growth?

Absolutely. So when he was a teenage rebel readers related to this. I recall Slaine fan and film director Duncan Jones and Clint Langley saying this in conversation. Now he and the readers are older, he is exploring complex family secrets which teenagers might not have interested in.

The Druid Cathbad tries to dissuade Slaine from entering the Cauldron of Blood to meet the Goddess and learn about the Horned God Carnun (modelled on Cernunnos), who he says dates back to a dark age when witches ruled the world and men were “treated like objects”. Cathbad and the Druids surrounding Slaine’s court are portrayed in a way reminiscent of many depictions of Christian priests – as suppressors of previous traditions and beliefs, spinning disinformation for obedience through fear. Do you feel that the Druids may have been more patriarchal and political than they have been portrayed in modern times?  

It seems very possible, although records are incomplete. Researching the existing material, they reminded me of Catholic priests and so I drew on my Catholic background for inspiration.

As I have a low opinion of that religion it may well have coloured my view of the Druids somewhat unfairly

The Lord Weird Slough Feg had refused to relinquish his power and go into the earth at the end of his allotted time as the Horned God, culminating in his clash with the Goddess’s new Horned God, Slaine. Is the idea of the ancient system of kingship and rule rooted not only in the cycles of birth, life and death but in safeguarding against the corrupting quality of power?  

Yes and that’s a very elegant way of putting it. Hence why US presidents can only serve two terms.

While creating a consistent world, Slaine artists have continued to break new ground and after years of painted art following Bisley, the saga switched to Langley’s cutting-edge digital strips in the Books of Invasion arc.  

Slaine’s muscularity and virility has been a constant and with current artist Simon Davis, the saga has returned to a very painterly style. He had a hard act to follow after Langley and seems to have taken an interesting tack.

Ageing is an issue in comics, exemplified by the debate around Judge Dredd [another character Pat co-created], who ages in real time and should be around 70 now. I feel Davis has given us a very different Slaine, one who for the first time looks and feels older and a little world-weary. Would you say that is a fair assessment?  

Yes. And that’s very much a reflection of his view of the character and perhaps his own personal reality. The script doesn’t feature quite such a world-weary character, more a character who was a bit lost and looking for direction. But I like Simon’s visual “add”.

Beyond myth, another rich vein in Slaine is magic, in which you appear to have a keen interest. The Treasures of Britain, for instance, dwells at length on alchemy and some of your other works – notably the zombie strip Defoe, featuring angelic magic and a London city plan remodelled on the Tree of Life – are awash with esoteric references. What piqued your interest in this area? 

Because of my interest in magic. It’s interesting how this seems to be a trend with Brit comic writers – e.g. Grant Morrison and Alan Moore as well as myself. But I’ve taken a different path to them. You may know I used to give talks at Pagan Talking Stick and similar events.

Is magic a part of your own belief system and creative process? And if so, in what way?  

I have four magical experiences/sources.  (1) My good friend Tony Skinner, who I wrote Finn with, is part of a coven, prompting Steve McManus, a past editor of 2000AD, to say: “I can’t have a witch writing for 2000AD.” Pathetic. Tony passed on a very authentic view of Paganism and its esoteric opponents and I saw some magic at close quarters.

(2) I had a very strong reincarnation experience (written about in French series Sha) which I would say was objective evidence for past lives. It gave me a very deep interest in Gnosticism which – like everything else – can be a negative or positive system. I believe we all have the answers within ourselves – we don’t need a book whether it’s the Bible, Talmud, Koran or some pretentious magical Liber. And we don’t need gurus or Merlins, except in a very equal sense as fellow travellers in life and guide. We certainly don’t need Messiahs, whether it’s the Christian or the equally ghastly New Age variety.

(3) I saw an “organic” UFO, which I’ve given talks about and written about, notably in Finn. The kind photographed and shown in The Cosmic Pulse of Life by Trevor Constable. Isn’t it curious that this widely noted phenomenon does not get media coverage? Just the metallic Spielberg variety of UFO. It’s Messiah shit, coming to save us crap. Horrible.

(4) Ritual experiences as a kid from two very separate esoteric groups. One gnostic magic – with a Judaic element – and the other a curious and esoteric form of Catholicism that so far seems to have avoided exposure.

Obviously, both are very negative, and I would strongly condemn them for all the obvious reasons. But I really don’t have a problem talking about them because I think transparency is important.

Christianity and Judiaism are just large and very successful cults. But as it was part of my fate, ultimately those negative experiences have to also be seen in a positive light. They undoubtedly sparked my pursuit of esoteric knowledge. So I formed a personal magical belief system that takes account of all the four sources I’ve listed above. Combined with some psychological systems.

It’s incomplete but it makes sense to me. It’s Gnosticism – self knowledge – at work. It’s a great source of story material and it’s undoubtedly cathartic, although I sense it’s probably also esoteric as well. As writers we are “spelling”, after all. So by writing about this stuff and reaching an audience, we are prompting fate and opening doors to the subconscious and the unknown with who knows what results, but I don’t believe “bad” ones.

Finally, what is on the horizon for Slaine?

More to do with New Troy/Llandin (London) and Brutus, first legendary ruler of Britain.  I think the tone of the story will be different again. Having explored the dark recesses of Slaine’s family, I’ll present him a new light. It’s important that heroes stay fresh and dynamic with something new to say.