Mark Turetsky: Once again, we return to the place where it all started, for one final time amidst the carnage of endless battle. And I don’t just mean the winter storm that’s been pounding my neighborhood here in The South. Welcome back, Stu!
Stuart Wellington: That’s just what happens when you live on the ice world of Valhalla, Mark. Luckily your vox signal is pretty clear, and it seems like your cogitator is receiving enough power to get this review done.
*Issue spoilers follow!*
MT: So our issue starts off with Marneus and Quintus squaring off against their old frenemies, Severato, and they’ve got a new friend. Some kind of…
SW: They have a DAEMON ENGINE! It’s called a Lord of Skulls. This is a unit that you can buy for your Chaos Space Marine army, and Burrows has managed to perfectly capture the subtlety of it. They were even nice enough to give a little unit breakdown on the following page.
MT: What’s that particular action figure retail?
SW: That fella has a price tag of $160 US. Putting it at the higher end of individual models for the game.
MT: I like that he has a giant flaming skull full of giant flaming skulls. And his tank treads. He kinda reminds me of a lady who’s half train and the main love interest in Kieron Gillen’s Ludocrats comic.
SW: The Lord of Skulls is certainly one of the models where, when you first see it you think, “oh, that’s kinda silly.” But as time goes on, you accept that no, it is pretty cool, actually. Basically just a scaled up Khorne Berzerker stuck on a super-heavy tank.
MT: And it turns out that Marneus isn’t so badass that he’s above running away from it.
SW: The tactical retreat has always been a big part of the Space Marines’ battleplan.
MT: He brings frail Quintus into the devil caves from his youth, and of course it’s now filled with Khorne’s Chaos cultists, as you’d expect. But at least they don’t have a giant tank-man (man-tank? The mind reels) and Marneus is able to make some quick work of them.
SW: Yeah, page 11 features a classic Jacen Burrows action sequence, where we have 4 panels on top of each other, and the perspective remains static but we see Marneus butcher his way through the cultists. It makes the act feel clinical or methodical. Like Marneus is just going to work.
MT: It’s a really impressive page. Add to that the casual gore that’s become such a staple of this comic and it’s a nice contrast of tones. I also like Quintus trailing behind, ever the support unit.
SW: They battle their way to a suitable place to make a last stand. Sort of a command-center-by-way-of-gothic-church style place that is so common among Warhammer 40k living and working spaces.
MT: Probably the cruelest thing about the 40K world is that they don’t differentiate between work and home, and you really need a balance to maintain healthy professional boundaries, which I guess the god-emperor just doesn’t respect.
SW: Humanity can only exist because of the continued sacrifice of the God Emperor of Mankind, Mark. If blurred boundaries is the price we have to pay for that, then Mark, I will settle that debt …. In blood!!!!
Sorry, got carried away there.
MT: I’m guessing that this is the reason our “thought for the day” is never, “Thank the God Emperor It’s Friday.” Weekends have been abolished.
SW: I do love the little exchange between Quintus and Marneus, where Quintus opines wistfully about the chance to study the ancient ruined starcraft that they are likely to die in, while Marneus only wants to destroy it.
MT: Marneus heads out to buy some time for Quintus to repair a computer, and we get a kinda cool formal thing here: Marneus’ narrative captions begin narrating the present tense of the story.
It’s subtle, but earlier issues had either his memories narrating the flashbacks, or direct dialogue with Quintus. The only other time we’ve had this narrative tense was the opening two pages of issue #1, in the out-of-context scene of the exploding bolt. So we’ve kinda come full circle here.
SW: Because Marneus is now face to faces with his childhood friends, who are now a powerful Champion of Khorne.
MT: There’s a fight between Marneus and Severato intercut with Quintus fighting off a random cultist who’s found him. And within Marneus’ fight, there’s a montage of his various accomplishments. It’s a nice touch, but like his earlier exploits shown in issue four, these single panel glimpses serve to open up the 40K universe. It shows noobs like me that 40K isn’t just space marines versus cultists. It’s also things like… killer robot skeletons and goblin-men?
SW: This is a great window into the greater 40k Universe! We see snippets of Aeldari, Tau, Necrons, Orks, and, of course TYRANIDS! Speaking of killer aliens, remind me to tell you about the time Sigourney Weaver came into my Games Workshop Hobby Center.
MT: We also learn that Marneus doesn’t just have two hearts…. HE’S GOT THREE! Is that new information to a seasoned gamer such as yourself?
SW: Well, I’m a little hazy on the modifications a marine undergoes when they become Primaris. But I think he still only has two hearts. Though the art suggests that there is all kinds of stuff packed into his chest.
MT: He says “the Emperor gave me two” implying two more, in addition to the first one he was born with. Of course, he might believe that the God Emperor gave him life in the first place. But we did see him getting his second heart put in in issue #4 as a 10-12 year old neophyte and here we see him getting something new put in there as a full-on adult marine.
SW (hastily googling “primaris space marine”): After a quick bit of research, I’ve learned that part of the process of crossing the Rubicon Primaris involves the implantation of the Belisarian Furnace, an organ that connects the two hearts, and provides a physical boost should one of the hearts be damaged.
MT: Ah, that must be it, then. And Severan finally fulfills his lifelong wish of stabbing Marneus in the chest. But of course, he didn’t count on the ol’ networked hearts trick, as I’m sure they call the Belisarian Furnace in casual conversation.
SW: And Severan’s attack leaves him within reach of the Gauntlets of Ultramar, a place noone wants to be.
MT: Have I ever told you that Ultramar is a chain of gas stations in Canada, where I grew up? I had no idea that I was funding the Imperium just by pumping gas there.
SW: Just doing your part.
MT: Well, after Marneus lulls Severato into a false sense of security by allowing him to stab him through the heart, he quickly dispatches his old childhood friends and rushes back to see how Quintus has fared. And Quintus has acquitted himself pretty admirably, all things considered.
SW: He earned the respect of Marneus Calgar and only lost one limb, not something easily done.
MT: Were you initially confused by that panel, as I was? It looks like the cultist’s arm is Quintus’ arm. It took me a minute to spot the severed arm above his head.
SW: It’s a bit like those pictures where a bunch of friends have their arms around each other’s shoulders and one kid looks like he has one super long arm. (Thought for the Day: One Super Long Arm is a Clear Sign of Mutation)
MT: And our boy Quintus saved the day! He called in the cavalry (or maybe I shouldn’t use that word, as I’m sure there are actual cavalry units in this game, riding on giant beetles or something) and the Ultramarines are battling the cultists and our Large Treaded Tank Boi.
SW: Marneus mentions a dangling plot thread, then heads off to do what he does best: tear off heads.
MT: He flies up to the Lord of Skulls’ shoulder and rips the poor guy’s head off! I don’t even think the Lord of Skulls could even knock him off if he tried. His arms just don’t look like they bend that way. It seems like an unsportsmanlike tactic is all I’m saying.
SW: It’s going to knock him a few points on his overall Tournament score, but his win ratio will probably keep him near the top of the table.
MT: And we end on an ominous data page: the altar of Khorne, now given the proper name of “The Black Altar” is missing, and it’s possibly being set up as a line-wide MacGuffin, with 8 different segments to be found and, presumably, destroyed..
SW: Honestly, the missing altar bit ends the issue on a down note for me. It distracts from Marneus’ arc. But otherwise, this is one of my favorite issues of the series. Plenty of jokes, action and the art looks great.
MT: I feel like this issue Jacen Burrows really cut loose in a big way. We’ve got three full page splashes (all featuring the Lord of Skulls! In fact, The Lord of Skulls ONLY appears on full page splashes!) I noted in the last issue about page budgeting with half-info pages. There’s nothing like that here: every art page is filled with detail, with no wasted space.
SW: Oh totally. Throughout the whole series, the quality of art has been very high. And this issue feels like a victory lap.
MT: I’d like to call your attention to something Gillen wrote July of last year in his newsletter, when he announced that he was writing this mini. He wrote
I’ve been approached to do Warhammer things in relatively recent years before. I’ve turned them down for various reasons – which are less relevant than the reasons I said yes this time. With the resources that Marvel can bring to bear on a project, it’s a chance to do try and do Warhammer comics with a different sort of scope. I basically pitched a set up where I write the first mini, consult on the line and generally give them fun connective tissue to play with. It’s not the Full Hickman Age Of X, but a chance to be more involved in a development of a line is certainly one of the reasons I said yes. […]
Marneus Calgar is our entry way into the world of 40k. My inspiration is very much Batman Year One. As in, do a book which works both as an introduction to a character and a world while also absolutely hitting the notes a fan of the world would like to see. If you’ve always wanted to know more about 40k, this is a place to join us. If you always wanted to see how a power fist turns people into mist, this is also the place to join us.
So, looking at this from the perspective of, here’s an introduction to a whole new chapter of Warhammer storytelling, with Gillen presumably having some consulting role on where the line goes from here, how successful do you think this miniseries has been?
SW: I think that he has managed to do a pretty admirable job with Marneus Calgar. I’m a difficult audience for these things. I’m both a big fan of the source material, and a huge snob. He has managed to fulfill the first criteria: kept true to the spirit of Warhammer 40k and provided glimpses of the greater universe contained in the property. As for the second: it may have taken me a little while to warm up to the characters, but by the end I found myself invested in the fates of Marneus, Quintus and the various baddies. While I may not leave the series caring too much about the mysterious Black Altar, I’m still keen on checking out more stories in the line.
MT: Yeah, since I personally don’t have much of an attachment to the 40K universe as a whole, I’m not sure the Black Altar works as a story hook for me. But if Quintus ends up being the connective tissue, I’d be more interested in checking out the rest of the books. Of course, it would also help if they brought in more artists and writers that I’m interested in reading as well. If not, well, this mini was a great deal of fun anyway!
SW: I can see that. It helps to have a connecting character who is a bit of an observer, rather than just a massive post-human killing machine. I definitely went into this book with kinda low expectations, and they were happily exceeded. A bright start for the Grim Darkness of the Far Future.
MT: Well put.
And stay tuned, dear readers, because this may not be the last you hear from myself and Stu! Any final thoughts, Stuart?
SW: I would say to the readers: If you’ve been following along with us, thanks and I hope that you have also enjoyed the ride. If you have not picked up the series yet, but are interested in learning what this whole “Warhammer thing” is all about, this is a great introduction to that world and a bloody good time.