Typically dingy image of Slaine by his most famous artistIn the pub last night the subject of SLAINE came up. Or more specifically, “Is Slaine still going and if so, how in Gods name?”.

 (What’s that? Oh, OK. A comic strip in 2000AD, m’lud, about a barbarian with a big axe.)

A little research suggests that the last Slaine strip – for now – was published earlier this year. The moody cover, using the traditional Slaine palette of black, brown and dark red, said “Slaine – The Final Act”. Forgive me if I’m sceptical – we’ve been here many times before. Since at least the late 80s every Slaine story has been the same, with the same pictures and many of the same words. Many of them have had a teasing air of finality, but 2000AD will not let him rest. Lo and behold, the synopsis on a 2000AD review site tells me that the story ends with Slaine bumbling off to seek someone or something, axe in hand.

My understanding – conveyed drunkenly to me by Vic Fluro – is that there is a subset of 2000AD fans, ageing metal fans with celtic knot tats, who are only interested in Slaine, and who are the only people interested in Slaine. They look like their hero, only a good deal weedier. Such is the magazine’s perilous financial status that they are like the Ulster Unionists in the Major Government – everybody hates them and wishes they’d go away but they exert a stranglehold over policy as their withdrawal would bring the whole thing crashing down. “Policy” in this case meaning “More awful stories about Slaine”.

Mr Sinker takes a hardline view on Slaine – namely that he was never good from his first appearance (in ’82 or so). I maintain that he was, up to but not including the ill advised attempt to do a 15-episode Slaine “gamebook” in the comic. At that point the story was an intriguing science-fantasy blend of quasi-British mythology and Lovecraftian alien time gods. Afterwards came a rollback to purer celtisms and axe action, and then the commercial breakthrough of The Horned God, which introduced Slaine to his true nemesis: fully painted art. Since then every Slaine story has been illustrated by people who would have been great on 1970s Conan book covers but can’t tell a story for chips. The colouring of the strip has narrowed to a murky range of dark greens, browns and reds and the script is on autopilot: “He didn’t think it too many”, “I wouldn’t dirty my axe”, lame quip from Ukko The Dwarf.

Slaine is simply the worst example of the problem most old school 2000AD characters have run into. They were introduced in the late 70s and 80s with aims and motivations that implied a definite story arc – clear his name and return to his village to fulfil his destiny, in Slaine’s case. The stories in 2000AD progressed quite briskly towards the resolution of this arc, as the comic seemed to have faith in its ability to come up with new characters that would prove equally popular. But it never really happened, and Slaine, Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper et al have all been through more or less convoluted revisions to pull them back to the status quo that made them popular in the first place. (Only the comic’s star IP, Judge Dredd, has remained immune to this).

So it’s no doubt au revoir Slaine, not goodbye. In another year or two some fresh young brushmaster with a portfolio full of toad-green goblins will take up the torch, and the legend will stagger lamely on.