Mark Turetsky: Salve, Stuart! I’m glad we could meet up for Kieron Gillen’s glorious return to Marvel Comics (his last work for the publisher was the ongoing Star Wars series, plus a one-pager for Marvel Comics #1000). Before we dive into this issue, I thought we could discuss in general terms what Warhammer is. My understanding is that it’s an AU fic of HG Wells’ Little Wars that kinda got out of hand?
Stuart Wellington: Hail, Battle Brother! That is a little bit of shorthand, but basically correct. Warhammer 40,000, or 40K, is a miniature wargame produced by Games Workshop for the last 30-odd years. To flesh out the games, they have spun a backstory that is both shockingly simple, and mind-bogglingly labyrinthine.
MT: Which I think is a good way to look at our opening two page scene, appropriately enough! For the first page, we follow the trajectory of a single round. Jacen Burrows lays this out as a three panel page, with each panel of equal size and shape. It’s a very cinematic setup. I only go into this level of detail here because it’s the only time we see this kind of panel setup in this issue, and the only spot we have narrative captions in this style. Gillen’s prose is interesting, going between super-technical long sentences to very simple ones (like “it accelerates” or “it detonates”), or as you put it: mind-bogglingly labyrinthine and shockingly simple.
But I think the main thing here is that it’s a bit of synecdoche (that’s having a piece stand in for the whole or the whole for a piece), with the bullet standing in for Calgar, Calgar for the marines, the marines for the Imperium (is that the right word?) etc. etc. And from a meta perspective, it’s this comic blowing up our brain, standing in for Warhammer 40K itself!
SW: Whoa. That’s a lot to take in, Mark. Just like the full page that follows, with Marneus Calgar wearing his terminator armor, mowing down chaos cultists with his Gauntlets of Ultramar. This is the first of a few larger battle illustrations throughout the issue. It really highlights for me why it was such a great choice to bring in Jacen Burrows for this book. He really captures the great little gory details of the fight, but also the scale of the greater conflict. All rendered with super clean linework that is easy to read.
After opening media-res, we cut to a title page…
MT: Yes! This past weekend, for completely unrelated reasons, I was reading Secret Wars: Battleworld: Siege, also written by Kieron Gillen. Each issue ended with the same sentence “There is no hope.” I had no idea he was channeling 40K in that title. Is “There is no hope. No peace. No love” a common line in 40K or did Gillen write this one?
SW: It’s funny. Over the years I have read MANY iterations of this description of the 40K universe. As the flagship book for this line of comics, I thought this was a pretty succinct way to introduce a new audience to 40K. I miss the mention of “the laughter of the bloodthirsty gods” and whatnot, but this works. Though it is probably the first time I’ve seen an explicit mention of “no love”.
MT: Interesting! So, the next scene we get introduces us to the present narrative. We’ve met Calgar in battle, so now we see him during a moment of calm. It looks like he’s in the same square where he was just shooting at heretics, so we can probably assume this is taking place prior to that. We also meet the only other substantial character in this part of the story, Quintus Heximar, who is an Adept. So what’s the deal with this guy? It seems like he’s got a computer in his brain?
SW: Well, the Adept is a Tech-priest for the Adeptus Mechanicus. He is a worshipper of the Omnissiah, the machine god. Which is the only approved religion in the Imperium of Man other than worship of the God-Emperor. Not a scientist, a tech-priest approaches technology through ritual and superstition. Oh, and they replace a lot of their flesh with bionics. Thus the robot voice.
MT: Yeah, Clayton Cowles did a great job lettering the robot voice. I also love the implication of digital glitching with the random ones and zeroes thrown in there.
MT: … and I’m sure you’re used to this, but the sheer commitment to the tone of this book: one of Calgar’s men refers to “the harvest’s front lines,” which is a seriously militaristic way of looking at farming…
SW: It’s funny.
MT: Yes! Like, it pretends to be a seriously militaristic grimdark world, and yet the best-known thing about it is the “Ultramarines,” which is a pun that would not get by any hobbyist miniature painter in a million years.
SW: Well, the tone of Warhammer 40K has always been a blend of silly puns, and over-the-top violence and crushing grimness. That kind of black comedy feels very British, like 80’s and 90’s 2000AD comics. And it doesn’t always translate well to American audiences. Having spoken with many American gamers, they often overlook the inherent silliness of the setting and just see it as a bunch of badass dudes battling. Luckily, it seems like Gillen understands the tone.
MT: Whenever someone uses “bad ass” as a positive term that apparently means “psychopathic in a cool way,” I treat it as a red flag. As for Gillen, he seems to use his Twitter account as a personal black book for any terrible pun that comes into his mind. So yeah.
Anyway, we’re on a farm world, and it’s being attacked by Heretics. I take it Heretics are humans who haven’t seen the light of the God-Emperor?
SW: Exactly. “Heretics” is shorthand for humans who worship the Dark Gods of Chaos: Khorne, Slaanesh, Tzeentch and Nurgle.
MT: So they’re not just non-believers or freethinkers, they have an alternate set of beliefs.
SW: They either come from cults hidden within the Imperium, or from planets that have long since fallen to the forces of Chaos. The latter have their own culture, language, and obviously, religion.
MT: So, another formal piece of this comic: as a transition between scenes, Gillen gives us data pages, which have been put to such memorable use in the current line of X-Men comics. It’s a handy way to fill in a reader who’s new to 40K and he also hides some great jokes in there, including (my personal favorite) aphoristic “Thoughts for the day.”
SW: That is a specific reference to the Warhammer 40K lore. Almost every page of the rulebooks feature little snippets of the Imperial Faith. All very tongue-in-cheek. And plus, I LOVE maps. The more fantasy maps the better if you ask me.
MT: I was glad to see that our solar system is in there somewhere. I shudder to think what 40K’s Earth might be like, though.
SW: That is a story for another time, bud.
MT: We get a bit of a battle, but it seems like it’s with a bunch of chumps, giving us a nice two-page spread of Calgar and his forces imparting some Imperial punishment on the Heretics. And I agree this kind of carnage is where Burrows and colorist Java Tartaglia really shine. Especially the way Burrows seems to relish in clearly delineated blood spatter.
SW: While we sing the praises of the art, I feel I need to mention how much I love that despite how clean the linework is, all of the armor is scratched and dented. It feels very gritty. In the past, when Games Workshop would farm out their properties, everything would look a bit too clean and glossy for my taste. Burrows’ Space Marines all have battle damage.
MT: A question about that: We’re on a farm planet, not off at the front doing whatever big war must be going on. Is Calgar, at this point in his career, one of the top guys? Or is this a not-so-great assignment?
SW: Marneus Calgar is THE TOP GUY. He is the Chapter Master of the Ultramarines. He commands one thousand Space Marines and is in charge of an entire sector of Imperial space. Though it seems like a small mission, we are seeing that he is a leader who likes to be in the front. And maybe, the rebuilding of this agri-world is a bigger deal than it seems.
MT: And the agri-world in question is Nova Thulium, which, we find out and explore through a series of flashbacks, is where Calgar is from. We get to meet his childhood… I would have said friends, but There Is No Love, so we’ll call them companions. They’re Tacitus, a helot, Severan and Kato. I gotta say… I won’t hold out much hope for these guys surviving to the end of this series.
SW: We learn that young Marneus comes from wealth, and is using that wealth to train to be a Space Marine. Seems like a questionable choice, considering the often repeated death rate among aspirants. But I suppose the status that comes from a child joining the Adeptus Astartes makes the danger worthwhile.
MT: I feel like this might also be in conversation with a different Gillen book, Three (which is something of a response to 300), wherein our heroes are three Spartan helots who take a stand against their societal oppressors. So we know Gillen is willing to explore issues of class in strictly stratified societies. I’m excited to see where this part of the story goes, because right now the only thing we can say for certain is that Calgar, the most privileged of the gang, survives.
SW: They are introduced to Crixus, their trainer. He’s your usual grizzled, gruff and scarred drill sergeant type. The interesting thing is, he is an instructor because he failed at becoming a Space Marine.
MT: It’s like that old, wrong adage: those who can’t, teach. So he brings our kid adventurers up to Thulium’s moon and it immediately becomes a survival test when he abandons them to fend for themselves as he flies off to their next checkpoint, with a giant monster called an ambull in the way. I’m assuming there are ambull miniatures?
SW: Yeah! The Ambull is an alien that was introduced then promptly forgotten back in the early days of 40K. But recently the Ambull got a facelift, with a new model and rules to play in a variety of games set in the Warhammer 40K universe.
MT: I’m going to go ahead and assume that it’s got a pretty high challenge rating against four unarmed kids?
SW: Those kids better be praying to the dice gods that the Ambull rolls poorly. While I may not be a huge fan of seeing Marneus Calgar and his friends as children, I do like how the story’s time jumps are location specific.
MT: I’m very much getting vibes of the whole “I never thought I’d return to the land of my birth, but here we are” trope here.
SW: So in the present, a pair of tech-priests are going for a stroll on Thulium Minor, where they are ambushed by some mysterious attackers in the “to be continued moment.”
MT: And these bad guys have some monstrous-looking lettering going on. I’m sure you have a theory about who they might be?
SW: Based on the spikes and jagged designs on their power armor, those are definitely Chaos Space Marines. They are former protectors of humanity who have turned against the Emperor, and worship the dark gods of Chaos.
MT: Rebelling against the emperor sounds good to me, but I take it this is one of those worlds where there are no good guys?
SW: “Good” is usually measured in how it relates to the survival of the Imperium. Or how gross the guys look.
MT: So I’ve still got a few questions about stuff that we’ve seen in this comic: Is Marneus big because of his power armor, or have all of his biological enhancements turned him into an exceedingly big boy?
SW: He is a very big boy. The comic actually mentions that during the process of making a Space Marine, they implant the recruit with many new organs. This makes them bigger, gives them extra hearts, lets them spit acid, and survive in conditions that would kill a normal human.
MT: I think the precise number given is nineteen. And I hope they all have names like “megakidney” or “power spleen.”
SW: Most of them have sciency names, but there is a “multi-lung” and “secondary heart”.
MT: One other thing that bugged me: are there women in the 40K universe? I may be missing something because most of our characters wear bulky armor…
SW: Unless things have changed very recently, Space Marines are all male. But you will see women represented in the Astra Militarum, which is made up of regular old humans. The Adeptus Sororitas, or Sisters of Battle, are an elite religious fighting force made up exclusively of women. And some of the alien races, such as the Aeldari, have a much more balanced gender diversity.
MT: Glad to hear it, as it’s something of a shock, since Gillen tends to write very good female characters, often as leads. But I guess that’s more of a factor of the license this book focuses on.
So Stu, does this comic live up to your lofty expectations?
SW: Honestly, I’m a bit mixed. The art is gorgeous, but I’m a bit of a Burrows fanboy. The structure of the book works, and I like the little nods to the greater Warhammer 40K universe. But the quiet moments of conversation feel a bit flat to me. It feels like a very mundane way to impart exposition for such an extreme setting.
Now that you’ve received your first implant, how do you feel about starting your journey to becoming a Space Marine, Mark?
MT: I’m definitely interested in seeing more of this world, and some of the wild things hinted at in this issue. I’m also curious to see if Kid Calgar And The Boy Crusaders rises above the usual “kids surviving in a hostile place” narrative that’s being implied here, and I’ve got a few theories as to how that might happen. It’s hard to rate part one of a five part mini, but I’m definitely interested, if not precisely dying to know what’s next.
SW: That’s exactly where I am at. The book does a lot of things right and I’m willing to overlook the potentially cliched bits.
MT: Well then, until next month, keep your power armor locked and loaded!