When it comes to “grim dark,” Marvel and Disney are two companies I don’t associate it with. The partnership between Games Workshop and Marvel for comics based on GW’s popular tabletop games might seem odd. When thinking of other recent acquisitions by Marvel, like Conan, Aliens, and Predator, it doesn’t seem odd at all. There might be a broader plan by the House of Mouse and its comic crown jewel. And after reading Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar #1, any apprehension is out the window.
Kieron Gillen handles the duties as scribe for this debut series. The comic centers on Marneus Calgar, the hero of the Ultramarines Space Marine Chapter. For those who might not know their grim dark from their dark grim or Space Marine from Ork, Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar #1 serves as a decent introduction to the world crafted by Games Workshop.
For those unfamiliar, Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop miniature game that was first published in 1987. It recently launched its 9th edition and is a combination game and model kit hobby. You buy units to build your army. Those units you put together, they’re mostly plastic model kits, arming them as structured by the rules. And if that hobby aspect wasn’t enough, you can paint them up. The game features numerous futuristic armies with the forces of the Imperium of Man taking up the main focus. Mankind is ruled by an immobile Emperor who sits on a Golden Throne and the Imperium has taken over 1000s of worlds across the universe. Their rule is fascist, brutal, and undemocratic. As with expansion such as this, threats exist from all over, both from outside aliens and heretics within.
Gillen has the (un)enviable task of explaining the above to new readers. But, the comic also needs to deliver something new and interesting for long time fans. With over 30 years of material to work from, the comic gives an interesting focused start. Marneus Calgar takes center stage as Gillen has the character reflect on his origin while dealing with modern-day threats. Calgar, for those who might not know, is the Chapter Master for the Ultramarines. That Space Marine chapter is the pride of the Imperium. Many consider them “boy scouts” of the Warhammer 40k world. They’re generally the “default” Space Marine army for Games Workshop featured with releases such as the most recent 9th edition. They follow the rules and are unwavering in their support of the Imperium leading the way.
What’s interesting about the choice is that the comic gives us a well-known character as opposed to a generic marine by which we can explore this new world. It also seems to ignore the current focus of the games on the “Indomitus Crusade”. That battlefront is the current storyline featuring in Warhammer 40,000 9th Edition and some of the books released around it.
The direction of the generic Space Marine has been done before in previous comics published by GW’s Black Library or Titan Comics. What the comic does is reveal the unknown history of Calgar a character who has had a lot of focus throughout GW’s 30+ years with this game. That focus has been on Calgar’s heroics on the battlefield, not what he was like as a kid. The comic gives readers a champion to focus on. In Calgar we get a mythic leader that’s a certain archetype and familiar. It’s a way to ease new readers into the world with something familiar and deliver something new to long-time fans.
And Gillen knows his stuff. As a fan of the game himself, the comic does a solid job of organically introducing the world and concepts of Warhammer 40,000 without being overwhelming. We learn what it takes to be a Space Marine and how difficult it is. We get a sense of the world as a whole. And Gillen nails dialogue that’d seem silly in any other situation.
What’s a bit hit and miss for me is Jacen Burrows‘ art. With color by Java Tartaglia the art doesn’t quite nail the “grim dark” aspect and there’s a slight inconsistency about it. It’s not bad at all, don’t get me wrong but there’s things at times that feel a little cartoonish. This is primarily at the end and I don’t want to spoil it but the design of some characters could be a bit more menacing.
Now, GW has been slowly moving away from their more over the top imagery (some of it would make the comic “adult”). But, there’s still can be a horror aspect about what’s currently produced. And the art GW produces can be jaw-droppingly amazing. But, when a painted miniature Ambull or the art GW has produced feels a bit scarier than what’s in the comic, there’s a slight disconnect in styles. This is definitely a more personal opinion, Burrow and Tartaglia do a solid job, but there feels like there’s a little bit held back. What does work is the detail from GW’s established world that the two nail. There’s weapons, ships, the characters themselves, look fantastic. But, a great example of where things don’t quite click is the flashback as the teacher Crixus looks a bit more gritty than young Calgar, his friends, or the Ambull.
The lettering by Clayton Cowles deserves a shoutout. There’s a lot of subtle changes to the lettering that add flavor to the comic. There’s the normal dialogue from Marneus and his Space Marines but then the lettering shifts with the Adeptus Mechanicus. It really nails down that these are human/cyborg type hybrids and emphasizes their mechanical nature. Then there’s the secret villain at the end who also has different lettering as well and there are spotlights on info about the world that also uses a different font. It’s all subtle but really works at sucking you into the world.
I went into Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar #1 nervous. The cover art didn’t really give me the most confidence and the fact that Marvel has publishing compounded that feeling. But, from the first page which does some anthropomorphism to a bullet round which then explodes its target, that nervousness was settled. While it doesn’t go neck-deep in the grim dark, it does go waist to chest-deep.
As a long time player who has gone deep into game rulebooks and elsewhere I was quite happy with Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar #1. The comic had more than enough new to me and feels like it’d be a solid introduction for those new to the world. There’s a lot packed in and done so in a way that’s not overwhelming and natural. This is one that’s solid sci-fi military action with a bit more depth and thought than we’ve seen from previous volumes.
Story: Kieron Gillen Art: Jacen Burrows
Color: Java Tartaglia Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Story: 8.5 Art: 7.5 Overall: 8.4 Recommendation: Buy
Marvel provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review
Purchase: comiXology – Kindle – Zeus Comics