Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar is the first ‘Warhammer’ content I’ve ever engaged with. It’s the first time I’ve ever really been interested in the property. Before reading this comic, I knew the word “Skaven,” I knew there were Space Marines, and I knew it was some kind of miniature based board game. I obtained this information almost solely from Kieron Gillen’s Twitter or his newsletter.
At this point in my comic reading, I will buy anything Gillen works on. It’s partially a completist drive, partially that I tend to enjoy his work, but most importantly, I think, it’s because the more work I read by him, the easier it is to make connections between works, and the easier it is to digest and understand it well. Those connections and that understanding leads to a more seamless and comfortable experience.
In some ways, I find this process frustrating.
But also, look at the pretty horror.
The world of Warhammer is one that feels like something I would typically never touch. I find its aesthetics — “ugly” isn’t quite right, “dumb” feels too little. They’re clearly excessive, which I’m sure has been overused as a descriptor, and fans would correctly argue is obviously very much the point. In most ways, this is still the kind of thing that I would assume is Just Not For Me. Which is fine. But I had to try this. Why?
Gillen. F*cking Gillen.
Again, I’ll put that off, as Marneus Calgar deserves proper treatment as a comic I very much enjoyed, despite my initial, and perhaps long-running, distaste for the aesthetics of the series. While Gillen’s name got me to check this out, the vast majority of the heavy lifting is done by the art team of Jacen Burrows, Guillermo Ortego, Java Tartaglia, and Clayton Cowles, with Joe Sabino doing data page design.
The great strength of this miniseries is the excess. In every way, it feels like each member of the creative team pushed themselves to be as ridiculous as possible while still being almost impossibly polished. I think the series would have easily been a big pile of dumb, but the work put into each issue made the dumb feel meaningful in a way that couldn’t possibly be given to only one of them.
There are multiple instances where Tartaglia’s colors make the scene’s violence horrifying rather than cartoony, or where the thickness of a line does the same. There’s an instance where Cowles’ balloon placement is about as close to a pun as I’ve ever seen in lettering, and I might never stop thinking about it. This is very much the most Kieron Gillen comic that could ever be, but the rest of the creative team did more than just make it work, they made it, and surely elevated it in a way that no one else could.
Yet, the Gillen of it all looms.
Kieron Gillen provides a frankly ridiculous amount of access to his thoughts and writing process. It’s one of the reasons he’s one of my favorite writers today. There’s a level of trust that I’ve developed in him, both from that access, and through his generally excellent work. But writing about his work? Trying to say anything meaningful about it that hasn’t already been said? It’s like there’s a scratch inside the bones of my skull.
Part of me is tired of writing about him, parts are bored of writing and reading crit about him, part is frustrated that I can’t figure out what to say, and most of me just wants to give up and write “great 9/10”.
Marneus Calgar feels like an introduction to a new world, but it also feels like an introduction to many of the things that have always been there in Gillen’s work, and things that inspired him in the first place. It feels like a book that should have been an early work of his, both because of his long love of Warhammer 40k and it being a licensed property. That almost makes it fit better now, so soon after Ludocrats finally released.
What’s more, Marneus Calgar has obvious ties to characters like Darth Vader and Otto Von Subertan, both aesthetically and characteristically. However, who was the actual source of those traits? Is some of Gillen’s Vader sourced from the space marine? Or is some of this Marneus Calgar story informed by Vader’s? Is Otto’s war against boredom thematically drawn from the endless War of Warhammer?
The reality is likely far more messy, but those are the kinds of connections that come easily with Gillen’s writing. They’re part of the surface reading of the work, or they are if you read enough of them. It’s why I think his shorter series are able to feel like major works — they’re oftentimes built off of themes or ideas represented in other, longer work.
And so, Marneus Calgar stands as a book that’s equally about Ludocrats‘ war against boredom and WicDiv‘s warning against easy godhood. It’s about Vader’s military leadership and Über’s ultraviolence. It does all of this in five issues, while still always being about Marneus Calgar, his war, and his origin.
I’m at the point where I’ve been reading Gillen’s comics for almost ten years, and I think I’m getting pretty good at it. However, even while the joy feels effortless, I want to be good at reading others as well. Marneus Calgar is genuinely a story I find to be great and it’s one I’ve enjoyed immensely for various reasons. But I’m ready for a challenge, I think, for something more. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just keep trying to scratch my skull.
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