Thursday, November 24, 2011

153. History's Last Record

June 2005: Have you ever had a relationship fail so awfully that it poisons everything that you experienced during that period? I have. It only happened once, and when my time on this earth is finally finished, I'm going to have strong words with somebody on the other side, because there are about seven months of my life that I want back. Nothing good came of these seven months. I have no happy memories of that girl, at all. Except this one episode of Slaine.

The love-hate relationship that I have with Slaine is pretty simple. I just do not understand why this strip is still running. Well, it seems to be on an indefinite hiatus again, and it may not return, but the editor's and writer's insistence on bringing it back, again and again, after it keeps coming to genuine, memorable conclusions leaves me completely baffled. The very best stories are the ones with endings. Slaine's story has ended. Several times. Each time it comes back after these endings, it does so weaker and less thrilling than before. And yet, Pat Mills is such an amazing writer that, even when the series is treading creative water, he's still able, every once in a while, to do something completely stunning with it.

There's a school of thought that suggests that the epic, Simon Bisley-painted "The Horned God" should have been the grand finale. Despite the fact that about the last thirty pages look like Bisley painted them in one afternoon on sheets of typing paper, with none of the lush detail of the earlier parts, I can get behind that. But then we wouldn't have had the awesome, ass-kicking reintroduction to the ultraviolence in "Demon Killer," when Slaine arrives in his future, tells Ukko, "Announce me, dwarf," and proceeds to lay down an awesome beating on a company of Roman soldiers. And there are other examples. The "all of your adopted kids are dead" moment of "The Swan Children," for instance.

But wherever Slaine should have ended, it certainly should have done so before the "Books of Invasion" cycle began, shouldn't it? This started in 2002's year-end "Prog 2003" and, forty episodes over two and a half years later, it finally finishes in issue 1442. (Well, the stickler in me points out that it is not technically five "books" of eight episodes each, because Tharg has programmed several double-part episodes along the way, and the stickler in me also points out, as I did in an earlier entry, that Mills has received some sort of a "do it your way" pass to really script in terms of 48-page episodes that just get broken down into six-or-twelve page chunks for serialization, but then again, the stickler in me has no friends.)

So anyway, "The Books of Invasion" is forty episodes long, and it has detailed Slaine and his allies' war against the Fomorians, undersea beasts who control air-breathing mammals in a nasty, parasitic relationship. It has been agonizing, humorless and trite. Niamh's death, as recounted previously, is one of the worst creative decisions that Mills has ever made, the living definition of "women in refrigerators" fantasy, done for no better reason than to turn the male lead into a brutal object of retribution. I've tried to like it, but the only moment in the whole run, before the finale, that engaged me at all came just a few weeks previously, and it was pretty short-lived. Tracking down the last of the Fomorian Sea Devils, Slaine and his fellows have been finding villages where the beasts have laid eggs under the skins of all the farmers. With no other choice, our heroes have killed hundreds of civilians along the way. Exhausted and emotionally drained, there is a brief moment where Slaine, who has killed and axed and beaten his way through more than twenty years of adventure, finally denies his catchphrase, and finds the death toll too many.

But the end...

No good will ever come of me sharing with you readers how miserable I was, and how I was denying my unhappiness in this relationship very early on. I wanted so badly for it to work that I was overlooking warning signs that astronauts can see from space. She poisoned everything, and I let her, because I was so lonely, and so scared that my children wouldn't have a stepmother.

I picked up my comics from the shop in Athens where I collected them, and went over to her house, and after a couple of hours, she started cooking supper and I sat down in her den to read.

The war is finally over, and Slaine is saying his goodbyes, after seeing Gael crowned the new High King and before leaving for good, telling his newest allies the usual heroic "look after yourselves and stand guard against evil," but he has one thing to do before he saddles up. He needs to tell Niamh a last farewell.

Clearly, I'm a sensitive guy, and I've blubbed over emotional stories many, many times before. Pixar's Up did it to me twice in one film, wretched thing. But holy freaking anna, I will never forget how I teared up at this scene. It is one of the most amazing moments in all of 2000 AD, and all forty of those episodes were worth it to get us to this point. The goodbye is the saddest thing I've ever read before Slaine leaves Niamh's ceremonial tent. The punch in the gut, silent, single panel revelation after he leaves is the meanest thing I've ever read.

And while Langley's artwork throughout the series never engaged me emotionally despite being a huge technical achievement, turning the page to see that amazing double-page spread... Now that, good readers, that was one hell of an ending. A complete, standing ovation triumph that left no doubt whatsoever why we call Mills the Guv'nor.

Me weeping and choking back tears in her den, putting down the final episode of Slaine while the air smelled of her darn good chicken and dumplings. That's the one good memory I have from that relationship. Thinking of her makes me think of this episode, and thinking of this episode makes me think of her, at which point I remember a little more, and concede that, honestly, well, all right, it was not quite as relentlessly awful as I make out.

Maybe there were one or two other okay moments.

Slaine, sadly, returned at the end of 2005 anyway for a wholly unnecessary epilogue to "Books of Invasion" to reunite with Ukko. And again in 2009-2010 for four additional, utterly pointless 24-page stories. Mentions in this blog of any of these episodes, when we come to them, will be dismissive and brief. But for one beautiful day that summer, he had the best final episode of any comic character, ever.

Next time, over to Judge Dredd Megazine as Jack Point returns!

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