Games Workshop’s dystopian Warhammer 40,000 setting is comically, ear-splittingly loud. Its grimdark sendup of over the top excess means everything is slammed so far beyond 11 that 11 is a mere dot to the denizens of the 41st millennium: violence, aesthetic, characters, scale. Marvel’s new Warhammer comic gets this, but it nails a far quieter aspect of 40K just as well.
Kicking off last week, Kieron Gillen, Jacen Burrows, and Java Tartaglia’s Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar series (with lettering from Clayton Cowles) offers a great primer for comic fans who might not be necessarily familiar with the world and lore of Games Workshop’s beloved, but still rather niche, sci-fi tabletop series. The series dives into the history of one of the Space Marines’ most beloved heroes: the titular Calgar, the leader of the iconic Ultramarines Chapter.
In the debut issue’s present he returns to his home system of Ultramar — specifically his own homeworld, Nova Thulium — to quell uprisings of heretical cultists. Meanwhile, in the past, we see the young man Calgar was as he and his friends begin their first steps on the path to becoming the genetically engineered, cybernetically enhanced killing machines of the Imperium of Man that are Space Marines.
In doing so, it pretty much covers all the basics you need and want out of a Warhammer 40K comic, whether you’re a lifelong fan of rolling to hit, rolling to wound, and then sighing very loudly at your luck, or a complete neophyte to this world. Space Marines, the most beloved faction in the tabletop game? Check. Chaos baddies? Check. Trenchant thoughts about the calamity of endless war laid over imagery of senseless, gory violence? Check, check, checkedy check. A man gets like, a good quarter of the upper half of his body ripped clean off and it’s just like, a thing that happens.
So far, so very 40K.
So yes, Calgar #1 nails the beats, but that’s not really makes it sing as a new entry point in Warhammer’s long history in the medium. It’s loud about its bleakness, yes. But it’s the bits that are quiet about it that really shine.
Thrumming throughout the background of Calgar #1 is this palpable tension of despair that is never actually released. It’s just there. It’s not just tension in that, yes, Calgar feels concerned that there’s chaos in a system as safe as Ultramar, or that it’s very clear in the past flashbacks that not all of little Marneus’ friends are going to make it out alive of their quest to even start thinking about becoming a Space Marine. There is a casual approach to things that are absolutely terrifying in Gillen’s writing of this world that perfectly encapsulates the most horrifying thing about Warhammer’s grimdark universe in the first place: everyone in it knows fully well that this existence fucking sucks, and they just get on with it anyway.
Neither Calgar, his battle-brothers in the present, or his childhood friends in the past, question the injustice of the world or systems around them. It’s there in the fringes of the text: in pages designed as little info-dumps about the state of the galaxy or the status of certain worlds we see discussed in the story, presented as Imperial archives. There we see a mix of distanced matter-of-factness when describing events that would be, in any other setting, disgusting calamities, quasi-religious dogma that speaks to the fascist nature of humanity’s society in this setting, and bleak humour as Gillen intersperses pep-talk-y “thoughts for the day” (“A farmer who fails to feed the soldier is as much an abomination as the soldier who flees the battlefield,” one reads; “Thought of the Day: Why are you Thinking?” reads another) on top of it all.
But it’s in the text itself, too. To Calgar, the bloody, gut-churning crackdown on his chaotic foes is “business to attend to” as he glibly puts it to the Mechanicus Adeptus assigned to help him shore up defences on Nova Thulium. The presence of such evil on his former home — which he already has a detached relationship to, having lived for centuries at this point — has no meaning to him, because Marneus Calgar has seen hundreds of worlds burn and fall to darkness. In the past, he and his friends treat the fact that the survival rate of the process to become a Space Marine is so excruciatingly low they’re all basically signing their own death sentences like it’s no big deal. You either die becoming a Space Marine, die fighting as a Space Marine, or die when some nightmare race of aliens or supernaturally demonic hellions come raining down on your world, extinguishing you and a billion other people along with it in the process.
They know that questioning those systems would be to be as heretical as the cultists Calgar and his Ultramarines brutally crack down on. They know that this is the best that it’s going to get — ceaseless war, ceaseless gore, endless eons of despair and pain — and that things are, in all likelihood, going to get significantly worse. No one in Calgar #1 is broken by that truth because at this point, everyone has just accepted it as universal.
In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. Marneus Calgar #1 delights in this truth on a loud, brash front. But that it also gets the quieter aspect of that bleakness so right speaks to just how well this team really understands the world of Warhammer 40K.