Exclusive: Torunn Grønbekk Discusses Faith and Sisterhood in Warhammer 40,000: Sisters of Battle. Plus a Preview of Issue 4
The world of Games Workshop‘s Warhammer 40,000 has come to Marvel Comics! The second series, written by Torunn Grønbekk with art by Edgar Salazar, finds a squad of Adepta Sororitas, aka Sisters of Battle, on a mission and surrounded by the corruption of Chaos.
I got to ask Torunn about her own history with Warhammer 40,000 and what it’s like to work with Games Workshop and write for the Sisters of Battle.
Graphic Policy: What was your experience with Games Workshop before working on Warhammer 40,000: Sisters of Battle? Have you played any of their games?
Torunn Grønbekk: I got into Warhammer back in the Fantasy days (…20 years ago!) It took me a while to discover the glory of Warhammer 40,000, but after reading up on the lore before painting some Warhammer 40,000 minis for a friend, I was hooked.
– Nowadays, I tend to paint more than I play, but I’ve still got my Sisters of Battle army.
GP: The first edition rulebook of Warhammer 40,000 is almost 35 years old, and there’s so much rich history of the world. Is it overwhelming diving into a project like this?
TG: I’d say it’s more inspirational than overwhelming. There’s, of course, a massive amount of lore to get lost in, but I had a fairly good understanding of the universe when I came on board this project. More often than not, taking a deep dive into researching very specific details would spark new ideas, so I wouldn’t have wanted to be without those side quests for sure.
GP: What type of research goes into a project like this?
TG: The extensive kind. Once I had the general idea in place, I needed to make sure if and how what I had in mind would work. Even the smallest detail needed to be researched and considered. For example, one of the characters is a Sister Dialogus who is on the mission specifically to record and translate ancient symbols carved into the walls of the underground city. Now, I knew they have pict-recorders, but are they readily available? Would they actually be used for something like this? Would it perhaps be built into a cherub that silently and creepily followed the squad, recording everything? (The latter being my favorite option, but it would also mean explaining it, drawing more attention to this specific plot point than was necessary — and of course, it would be one more element for Edgar to draw on almost every page) In the end, and after a ton of research, I opted to equip Sister Heda with plenty of war gear, haughty righteousness, and a notebook instead.
Another important thing was to verify the things I thought I knew to make sure my subjective understanding of the universe was both objectively correct and up-to-date. Like for most people, my knowledge of the lore comes from a mishmash of sources: what I read and play, my friends, the codexes, Black Library books etc. An excellent foundation, but not all sources are created equal, and I needed to make sure I got everything right. That meant a lot of re-reading of the codexes, checking sources online, and if all else failed: asking Games Workshop directly.
GP: What has stood out to you about this force and their history?
TG: Pipe organ tank!!! (I joke, but not really.)
Despite being a staunch atheist, it was this idea of faith I first found truly fascinating about the Sisterhood. And, let’s face it, they are just so damn cool. They are well-considered in every possible way, and I find the miniatures utterly delightful. The first time I saw an Exorcist, I squealed.
GP: Something that has stood out to me is the focus of the squad with this series. The previous series was very much about Marneus and his history. Canoness Veridyan is part of the story, but it comes off as she’s a part of a squad, not the center of attention. Was the shift to pulling the focus away from an individual on purpose?
TG: Very much so. I wanted to write a story that rang true to people familiar with The Sisters and the lore, but also one that works as an introduction to The Sisters for those who aren’t. Focusing on the sisterhood, following one squad, and how they worked together seemed more appropriate than singling out one specific Sister. Canoness Veridyan is a great character in her own right, but she is first and foremost a commander in The Order Militant. If you want to get to know her, I believe the best approach is to see how she leads and puts her trust in her squad.
GP: There’s also a very interesting change in that the previous series was very open in its settings while this is very claustrophobic in tunnels underground. Was that intentional?
TG: Absolutely! The tunnels serve a practical function, too: I wanted the squad cut off from the rest of the army, which meant sending them somewhere the Sister’s Vox just couldn’t reach.
It also lends itself well to worldbuilding. Civilian life in Warhammer 40,000 is always interesting (if, y’know, dire), and though we focus mostly on the Sisters and the cult, my goal was to make the underground city a place that felt lived in. I spent a lot of time figuring out how the population would spend its days, what kind of work they do, what they eat, how they worship, and it all began with the architecture of the underground city. (Not all of that makes it into the comic, of course, but some things do, like the giant mirror relay system that transports light from the surface down throughout the city. The idea was that this population that rarely, if ever, sees daylight would find the blinding Emperor’s light transporting – much more a religious experience than, say, a sermon. That fact that we could use it to blind some heretics before killing them was just the icing on the cake.)
GP: Chaos has corrupted the planet Siscia. Was there ever a discussion about another enemy or was it always Chaos? Genestealer Cults feel like they’d work well with this story as well.
TG: Certainly! Genestealer cults were actually very much on the table (so to speak), but as I worked through how I wanted things to play out, how much space we had available to tell the story etc, Chaos ended up as a better choice.
GP: There’s been a lot about the Sister’s faith in the Emperor. It’s absolutely something that makes them stand out from other forces of the Imperium. Was that something you really wanted to highlight through the story?
TG: Definitely. The Sister’s faith is such an integral part of their characters and history, it wouldn’t have been possible to do a story focused around them without prominently featuring their faith. There are no doubting sisters, no agnostics, no “I’m more spiritual than religious” sisters. Their faith is their most prized possession. This fanaticism is partly what I think makes them great, and in some ways, believable. I’ve tried to lean into it as much as possible, as it explains both their tactics and their behavior on the battlefield. I’ve also tried to feature and touch on things like The Repentia, faith healing, and other of the more quirky yet powerful sides of their faith.
GP: What’s it like working with the Games Workshop team? What’s their input on the comic series?
TG: It’s been great! They’ve been extremely helpful during the entire process, from finding correct references to going over the scripts and pages to make sure everything holds up.
GP: What has surprised you the most while working on this series?
TG: I’m not sure surprised is the correct word, but more… continually amazed by the wealth and depth of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I’ve always been struck by the imagination and delight that’s gone into the miniatures and the level of detail you find in both the characters and the lore. (It’s one of my favorite things about painting minis – figuring out what all the little details are, who the character is and what that mean-looking weapon does.) I quickly found that same attention to detail in all the other aspects of the universe, too. Nothing is easy or straightforward in Warhammer 40,000, but that’s in part what makes it work so well. Take something like time; it would be impossible to make a universal time system that would work for all the star systems and worlds across the universe and still feel authentic, so they didn’t. Instead, we get the opportunity to make a time system that would make sense locally, which, though difficult, adds to the worldbuilding.