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Marvel’s Warhammer 40,000 comic digs into one of the game’s darkest corners

Marvel’s newest comic series kicks off today with Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar #1, and it’s every bit as grimdark and gory as I’d been hoping for. But the storyline itself — a coming-of-age tale about the early life of a centuries-old warrior — emphasizes an unusual bit of lore from the Games Workshop universe.

That’s right, Marvel’s newest line of comics gives fans something else to be uncomfortable with other than the Empire of Mankind’s ten thousand years of fascism. Marneus Calgar is here to remind you that Space Marines begin their service to the God Emperor as child soldiers. Here’s hoping that these new-fangled Primaris Space Marines were supplied with enough pathos in their gene-seed to make the series pay off.

Who makes Marneus Calgar?

Marneus Calgar is written by Kieron Gillen, a U.K.-based author, former journalist, and a massive Warhammer fan. In the past he’s written runs of Thor and Iron Man, the tabletop-inspired adventure series Die, as well as a Warhammer fantasy-themed comic titled Warhammer: Crown of Destruction. The Warhammer Community team itself says that his “love of the 41st Millennium […] borders on terrifying.”

Art is handled by Jacen Burrows, who has collaborated with the likes of Garth Ennis in the past. Color comes courtesy of Javier Tartaglia. The entire project has been shepherded by the loremasters at Games Workshop’s Warhammer Studio, who signed off on every rivet.

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Why is Marneus Calgar happening now?

Games Workshop as a whole is experiencing a remarkable resurgence across its entire business line. According to information made available to investors, sales are absolutely through the roof — even despite the ongoing global pandemic. Its factories literally cannot make enough of its miniatures to meet the demand. But, like any other pop culture property, the big marketing push is in seeding a love for its marquee science fiction franchise in younger fans.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=3kzSRCnP31I%3Frel%3D0

The effort to broaden the fanbase has picked up since 2019, first with a line of young adult novels and later in an animated series that the company is producing in-house. Games Workshop even signed on with Amazon to bring a live-action adaptation of the Warhammer 40,000 universe to life. A comic series with Marvel seems like a pretty low lift by comparison.

Is there any required reading?

Nope. Marneus Calgar is the first comic from Marvel in this new 40,000 series, and seems custom-built to onboard new fans. If you’re looking for a deeper dive into the 40k universe as a whole, then I’d recommend checking out the new 9th edition Warhammer 40,000 Core Book, which includes more than 190 pages of fluff.

Is Marneus Calgar good?

I’ve read the first few dozen books in the Horus Heresy series, and a couple more that tell the history of my beloved Dark Angels. In fact, I’ve got a few novels literally narrated by Chaos Space Marines sitting on my bedside table right now. What I’m saying is that I know good grimdark when I see it, and this… this is some good grimdark, right here.

Fans of Warhammer 40,000 will be pleased to find that Marneus Calgar #1 pulls no punches about how the enemies of mankind are persecuted on the battlefield. Prepare for entrails-a-plenty, with ceramite-clad warriors positively dripping with gore. Burrows’ art is precise and detailed, right down to the shape of iconic bolt rifles and the detailing on Calgar’s master-crafted combi-fists.

Image: Kieron Gillen, Jacen Burrows/Marvel Comics

Image: Kieron Gillen, Jacen Burrows/Marvel Comics

But also, be aware that much of this story actually takes place inside the head of Calgar as he recalls the time before he became a Space Marine. Frankly, it’s the most introspection I’ve seen from an Adeptus Astartes since Dan Abnett’s Horus Rising. For every panel of heretics being eviscerated, there’s another panel of some wide-eyed children being put into peril. The goal appears to be grappling with the realities of feudal class struggles — and also the fact that Space Marines are literally child soldiers.

As a nearly full-page spread makes clear, new Space Marine recruits (called Aspirants) are between 10 and 12 years old. Less than 1% make the cut before dying. After several years of “intensive training, indoctrination […] and chemical enhancement” the now 13-to-15 year-olds enter the 10th company of their chapter, where these Neophytes are fielded as Space Marine Scouts. Only at the ripe old age of 16 years are they finally eligible to become a full-fledged Adeptus Astartes.

A group of heavily-armed 13-year-olds.
Photo: Games Workshop

That sort of makes me feel weird about all the unpainted miniatures sitting on my desk at the moment, and about lore that includes terms like “psycho-indoctrination” in passing. Humans transformed into Space Marines are effectively immortal, but this comic wants us to remember that they were children once.

I’m curious to see where Gillen’s story goes. So far it feels like a must-read for fans of the franchise, but I’m not yet sold on its appeal for everyone else.

One panel that popped

Image: Kieron Gillen, Jacen Burrows/Marvel Comics

The one panel that stood out to me has been in the public eye for weeks now. It’s a two-page spread of Calgar and a demi-company of Ultramarines leaping from a Thunderhawk Gunship and tearing through some generic Chaos troops. You can see it in the above trailer at the 18-second mark.

The spread perfectly captures the look and feel of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. When 13-year-old Charlie first saw the second edition boxed set on the shelf at the local game shop, that full-color spread is what he saw in his mind’s eye — even if the actual box art was far more sanitized for public consumption.

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