June 2017 – What Makes a Monster

As a cisgendered male, born and raised in the UK, James Bond was a huge part of my childhood. Whenever there’s a Bond film on the telly, I’ll maybe watch for a few minutes, inevitably surprised that I remember what’s going on. I’ll never be able to name the film, but I’ll remember that this is the bit where Bond spots the bad guy because the bad guy doesn’t know that only a beast would eat red wine with fish. It’s strange: I don’t even really like Bond. I only watched his films because I was a child, and this was back before the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed. You had to watch something. But despite that, every Bond film lingers in my head as a vague, muzzy kind of recollection, like the faintly-remembered smell of the house I grew up in, or the cake I ate for my eight birthday.

After Roger Moore died, I was hit by the same sort of sadness one always feels when a fondly-remembered actor passes. Hit by that strange pang of not-quite-sadness that comes with every reminder that You Too Shall Pass, I decided to rewatch ‘Moonraker’. Critics deride it as the silliest of Bond films, made only to cash in on the nascent ‘Star Wars’ boom, but you know what?

It’s pretty good.

Yeah, it’s goofy as balls, but the villain’s plot is kind of amazing.

I mean, normally in Bond, there’s some Russian guy and he’s working through about seven different fronts because he’s going to use nukes to kickstart a resurgence of the Soviet Union and

Wha –

Sorry, drifted off there.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Bond villain plans. They’re almost always bollocks.

But Drax’s plan is just balls-to-the-wall mental. He’s going to fly a collection of ‘perfect humans’ into space, poison the entire planet to death, then return to the same New Eden every supervillain monologues about eventually.

It’s completely bonkers. But at the same time, you just have to admire the fact it’s not the same old shit.

Not to mention Michael Lonsdale is obviously LOVING the role. He barely once cracks a facial expression, but the way he delivers lines like “Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.” Or better: “Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” Or my personal favourite:  “James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”

Seriously, the film might be silly and stupid and feature a ridonkulous space battle between Drax’s master race and the US army’s somehow already prepped for zero-G combat space marines… But Lonsdale gives a definitive performance in How To Play A Bond Villain.

I think Drax might even be a better villain than the much-vaunted Blofeld.

See, after I finished ‘Moonraker’, I decided I might as well finally check out the latest Bond offering. I’d been putting off watching ‘Spectre’ because ugh, James Bond? Who still watches that?

‘Skyfall’ was superb, sure, but that was clearly a one-off accident – you only get to give a character one origin story, and ‘Skyfall’ makes the most of Bond’s. The other Craig films had been the usual tedious clusterfrak of fragile masculinity and tedious male power fantasies and honestly, I just couldn’t be bothered.

But, fresh with the thrill of having partially enjoyed a Bond film, I fired up ‘Spectre’ and oh my Glob why am I watching this overlong mess? Seriously, what is even happening? Who’s this guy? Is anything meaningful going to happen?

Wait, what?

Blofeld is Bond’s brother?

Oh, just fuck off.

Sorry if I spoiled the fact that Blofeld is the main antagonist of ‘Spectre’, but honestly – it’s called ‘Spectre’: having some other guy as the Big Bad would be like promising the audience of a ‘Batman’ film The Joker and delivering Calendar Man.

And it’s not like it matters – Blofeld is a completely boring villain. He’s just a psycho who seemingly does stuff for the sake of being bad. His backstory has his father adopt the orphaned Bond. This causes Blofeld, thick with jealousy, to murder him.

I mean: what?

Then Blofeld founds a nebulous Most Evil Organisation Ever which basically goes on to do evil shit for its own sake. It holds meetings where board members get their eyes gouged out and no-one points out how completely insane this is because that’s just how evil they all are.

Now, given the way some drug cartels operate in the real world, this is arguably realistic, but the thing about baddies like this, is that they’re boring to watch.

Why? Because we’ve seen this before, and in literally everything. ‘This organisation does not tolerate failure’ says Blofeld all the way back in the early Sixties, and here we are, half a century later, and nothing’s changed.

I’m not saying you can’t have that ruthlessness as a critical part of Blofeld’s characterisation, but it needs to be done in a slightly better way. If not, it’s just clichéd and generic.

Generic Doomsday Villain Syndrome.

We’ve all seen tedious Generic Doomsday Villains. TV Tropes defines them as ‘A villain without coherent motivation, goals, or personality; he is defined solely by the threat he poses.’

What are Blofeld’s motivations? I mean, after the latest film, it comes off like he founded Spectre just to fuck with Bond, which is preposterously petty, and – given that he dealt with his father by murdering him – completely crazy. And not in the ‘dangerous psychopath’ way, but in the ‘bad writer couldn’t be arsed to come up with a proper character’ way. Blofeld’s personality is defined entirely by the word ‘evil’.

He’s just shit.

And there’s millions like him. Moriarty in the original ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories: less a character, more an excuse for Conan-Doyle to put the Holmes character in the bin. Read the story if you don’t believe me. For all his reputation, in the story that introduced and disposed of the character, he was a completely generic, one-note baddie. Holmes just sort-of says ‘Oh, and Moriarty’s behind everything’ and then goes off to fight him and die. All the interesting stuff about Moriarty comes later on, created by writers who hate the Holmes character less than Doyle did at that point.

The MCU has a particular problem with Generic Doomsday Villains. Malekith from ‘Thor 2’: he wants to blow stuff up because honestly I can’t even remember. Something to do with red stuff? And he’s got a half-burned face because… he just sort of does? AND THEY WASTE CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTONE ON THIS SHIT? Jesus Christ.

Ronan The Accuser in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ spends the whole film running around and bellowing at people before murderising them. Sure, the film’s not really about Ronan so much as watching the Guardians bicker with each other, but still: Ronan is a boring-ass baddie. Just like Malekith, he’s played by an amazing actor, Lee Pace, and if you don’t know who he is, go watch Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Fall’ and then weep at What Could Have Been.

Ultron from ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’: he sort-of hates Tony Stark and wants to drop a meteor on the planet but he also wants a living body and…? What was his motivation again? Just being bonkers?

To those of you going ‘Yeah but…’, or, like Kevin Feige (the MCU’s showrunner) saying: ‘A big criticism of ours is that we focus on the heroes more than the villains, I think that’s probably true… We at Marvel… yeah, we focus on the heroes. We don’t mind that. We like that.’

You know, I can see your point. It’s definitely smart to focus on the heroes, because they’re the ones the story is about. There’s definitely an argument to be made that it’s perfectly fine to simply use the villains as a tool to bring the characters together and give them something to do. No matter how dull Ronan is, as a plot device, he works perfectly in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.

So there is an argument to be made that Generic Doomsday Villains have their uses. Tropes are, after all, tools. However, while that’s all well and good, but I have one word for you.

Loki.

The Old Aphorism

“A heroine is only as good as her villains.”

We’ve all heard it, we all know it’s true, and Loki is the proof. He’s the one exception to the MCU’s film-based shitty villain problem. Loki is an amazing villain. The question is, why? Why does Loki succeed where Ronan fails?

In my opinion, there’s a number of complimentary factors. Firstly, Loki gets the whole ‘brothers who’ve turned on each other’ trope right. When Blofeld’s family connection to Bond is first revealed, it’s out of the blue. We’ve never heard about Bond having a brother before. Bond’s reaction to Blofeld has simply been recognition, nothing more than that. There have been no flashbacks, no old family footage… Nothing to show the audience that yes, these two grew up together. We’re told they’re brothers, not shown it, and so it comes off like it just doesn’t matter.

Loki on the other hand, spends the first half of ‘Thor’ as Thor’s best friend. He’s sensible, calm, sensitive… and Thor is a complete douche. He ignores Loki’s sound advice, and just goes around dudebroing at everyone. We see how their relationship chafes at Loki, how he’s endlessly overlooked in favour of this musclenumpty with great hair.

Loki’s also got a solid, sensible plan. He doesn’t want to do evil shit just for its own sake. He wants to rule Asgard. He wants to teach Thor what a dickhead he is. These are not unreasonable plans. There’s a good chance that the audience will be entirely on Loki’s side, because the shocking thing is, he’s not wrong. He is cleverer than Thor, he does have the soft skills of diplomacy Thor lacks. He isn’t hot-headed in the way Thor is. And Thor does need teaching a lesson; even Odin thinks so.

Loki doesn’t actually cross over into actual villainy until we see his reaction to the reveal that he’s adopted. His pain is palpable… and worse, completely misplaced. The film shows us how Odin cares for him, sees him as a real son, but Loki attacks him anyway. Loki’s initial turn to evil is heartbreaking.

When it’s later revealed that he’s always planned to do away with Odin and Thor, that he’s been planning this anyway, then it cements him as A Bad Guy, but, crucially, nothing he’s done feels stupid. Emotional, and foolish, but it’s all very understandable. He’s not bad because he likes being bad; he’s bad because he’s made poor choices and let his flaws of pride, jealousy and pettiness overcome him.

Loki’s tragedy is, ironically, that for all his intelligence, he can’t learn. Thor is banished to Earth, learns to let go of his resentment and become responsible, returning home a better man. Loki can’t ever overcome his bitterness, so for all his gifts, he remains trapped.

Loki’s weakness emphasises Thor’s strength. Loki’s inability to change emphasises Thor’s growth. Loki’s pettiness emphasises Thor’s maturity.

Loki villainy is the mirror through which we see Thor’s heroism.

Loki’s later appearances all build on these strengths, leading to a fascinating, complex character. Whenever he shows up, we know he’s not to be messed with; not because we’ve been told so, but because we’ve seen how dangerous he is. Loki has fans in a way that Ultron and Ronan do not. People care about Loki – they’ll come to see a film if he’s in it, even though he’s the baddie! He’s a character whose inevitable Heel-Face turn in the second ‘Infinity War’ film is going to get one of the biggest pops of the night, guaranteed.

Hopefully, this shows that a well-developed, three-dimensional villain is generally preferable to the Generic Doomsday variety.

So – and hopefully you’ll forgive the oxymoron – how do we create a good villain?

Well, let’s look at some other well-designed villains and see what they have in common.

A Cavalcade of Bastards

N.B.: relentless SPOILERS follow for the ‘Hannibal’ TV series, ‘The Dark Knight’ and the ‘Game of Throne’ TV series and ‘Fight Club’ follow.

Hannibal Lecter, ‘Hannibal’ (TV series)

When he first broke out in the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ film, Lecter was intriguing, but ultimately just a straight update of the Dracula myth – a European aristo with superhuman senses, speed and strength, driven by dark needs to feed on Westerners.

However, in Bryan Fuller’s exceptional TV series, Lecter metamorphosed from a charismatic psychopath who killed people because, well, that’s just what he did, into something utterly remarkable.

In the series’ beginning, Lecter hasn’t been caught yet. He retains all the traits of the film version, but with a number of interesting diversions. This Lecter is driven by a God complex; he literally sees himself as a creature that’s so completely beyond humanity that they mostly bore him. As a result, Lecter is intensely lonely. Of course, this self-same God complex won’t allow him to admit this loneliness, because to do so would be to admit he wasn’t a God. Until Lecter is introduced to Will Graham, Lecter probably wasn’t even aware anything was missing from his life.

But, called in to assist the FBI’s best profiler, everything changes. Why? Because Will Graham’s unique condition – the ‘perfect empathy’ which makes him the greatest profiler the FBI has ever known – means Lecter has met the only individual on the planet who can understand him. Lecter’s loneliness, the single splinter of humanity in his entire psyche, ends up driving the majority of the doctor’s behaviour for the series’ entire run.

With Will Graham in his life, Lecter knows he can finally be understood and accepted… but he remains Hannibal Lecter. His God complex is still there. And what that means is that Lecter can’t love anyone but himself. So what he does is set out, over years and years and years, to turn Will Graham into him.

Because once Will is Hannibal, they can be together.

After his first justifiable homicide in the line of duty, a traumatised Graham turns to Lecter – who at this stage is his psychologist – and asks for help. Lecter responds – insidiously – by suggesting that killing felt good, so why is Will worried? From this slow, awful beginning, Lecter first drives Graham to madness, then to brutality, then to acceptance of this brutality.

By the series’ end, Lecter has completely refashioned the profiler’s psyche so thoroughly that Graham can no more imagine life without Lecter than Lecter can without Will. All the killings, the murders, the horrors are – to quote the film version of Lecter – ‘incidental’. The only thing that matters to Lecter, literally the only thing in the world that’s real to him, is his love for Will Graham. And how terrifying that is, to be pursued by an absolute monster who lacks the slightest fetter, limitation or qualm of conscience. Lecter is never stupid, never foolish, never miscalculates… even when he’s eventually captured, it’s because he’s turned himself in. And why?

So Will Graham always knows where he is, because he wants Will to know he loves him.

The Joker, ‘The Dark Knight’

I’m not ordinarily a fan of the Joker, because he’s a bit of a Generic Doomsday Villain. He just does bad things, because, well, he’s the fucking Joker. That’s what the Joker does.

Imagine my surprise at ‘The Dark Knight’, though, where they take this one-note, Generic Doomsday Villain, and do something incredible with him: they give him a meaningful personality.

This version of the Joker retains the totally psychopathic behaviour of the comics’ Clown Prince. Where this version diverges is that he’s got a plan. Always. No matter what’s going on, he’s working towards a greater goal. He never spells it out until the end, because his plan isn’t for anyone else – it’s just for him.

Well, him and Batman, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

So the thing to bear in mind about this Joker is that he lies. Like, all the time. Consider how many versions of his ‘Do you want to know how I got these scars?’ stories he tells (and more on them later). Therefore, when he says to Dent ‘I don’t have plans’, well: he lying his ass off. Yes he does, and as the film shows, breaking Dent by telling him there was no plan… well, that was one of the plans.

The thing is, not everything he says is a lie. It’s one of traits that makes him so much more dangerous this time round. Despite this, there’s all kinds of implications, hidden through the film, about who he is, where he’s come from, and why he’s doing what he’s doing.

Firstly, he knows how to use a rocket launcher, and competently so. This is not something you can just learn on a gun range. He’s frighteningly skilled with IEDs. As the man himself says, he likes gunpowder and gasoline. Bomb-making and demolitions are not civilian skills. Then there’s the fact that he doesn’t just think tactically, like Batman. He thinks strategically. He’s not planning a battle, he’s co-ordinating a war, and he can command his soldiers with frightening acumen.

Then consider what he’s wearing the first time we see him:

A suicide vest.

Finally, consider the speech he gives to Harvey Dent that breaks him, and turns him into Two-Face. That speech tells you everything.

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.”

Well, by the end of the film, we’ve seen what a lie this was. He’s planned to blow up two ships, and when that failed, he’s planned to turn Dent bad. This Joker’s every move is a plan. He’s a strategist, moving on a scale so huge it doesn’t look like a plan unless you can see the shape of the whole thing.

But the key line in his speech is this: “You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

A truckload of soldiers.

Blown up.

This Joker was a soldier. He went to war, was tortured (hence the scars) and saw awful things. His comrades die; people so desperate that a suicide vest seems like a logical choice; people’s lives reduced to nothing for no reason at all. Seeing this, he was unable to turn away from how unfair it all was. How ‘the plan’ isn’t right or just or fair. Disgusted with the indifference of the universe, and consumed by nihilism, the man who would be the Joker comes back to the US as “an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”

He’s driven by cosmic irony: by the unfairness of the universe. He’s a monster, trained for a war he believed in, only to find the whole thing was a vast, cosmic joke. That, really, everyone was awful – the enemies who killed his men, the commanders who sent his men to die, the civilians who allowed it to happen, everyone who complacently accepted. The only logical response, this Joker seems to have decided, was to come back to use the skill-set he was taught to prove that nothing matters – that the world is a joke, and that American lives matters as little as any others.

And of course, he never says any of this. Not to anyone except Batman, because no-one else is worthy of his time. It’s why he jokes with them. It’s a way of proving his superiority. It’s why he kills them. They’re all equally worthless. It all ties into his ‘Do you know how I got these scars?’ speeches; these lies can be read two ways. On one level, he’s just fucking with people; trying to make them sympathise with a lie that he knows is untrue. Their sympathy for him – and the idea that this sympathy makes them somehow moral – is a joke, because they didn’t have any before, so why should the fact they do now matter? How does sympathy after the fact make a person moral?

However, on a deeper level, those speeches tie into his whole artistic theme – that everyone is equal. Each story about his scars is equally plausible. So he could be anyone… and anyone could be him. In-universe, no-one knows he lying but him, which means he’s lying as art. He’s making the point – which Batman is the only one to catch onto – that deep down, anyone could be The Joker.

That ability to see The Joker’s point – to empathise with him – is why he won’t kill Batman. At first, The Joker looks at Batman and sees a thug who might stop him… but when he realises what Batman really is, The Joker sees only himself. Batman’s seen the lies, just like The Joker has. Batman’s seen that ‘the plan’ is a joke. It’s why Batman ‘completes’ him: Batman’s the only other person in the world who not only ‘gets it’, but who has stood up to do something about it.

The fact that Batman’s opposing The Joker is irrelevant. Notably, at no stage does The Joker try to turn Batman to his side, because as far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t need to. Batman’s already on his side: the side which sees the injustice of the world and acts against it in disgust.

It’s why it’s so important for Batman to allow The Joker to live: by killing him, he proves The Joker is right. ‘The plan’ allows you to kill ‘bad people’, and that’s the first step on the slippery slope to justify killing anyone. Of making life a joke.

Joffrey Lannister, ‘Game of Thrones’

The thing I love about Joffrey is that he’s basically the perfected version of what we  wrestling fans call a ‘heel’.

Wrestling, as long-term fans of my blog will know, is distilled epic narrative, boiled down to its simplest, purest elements: that guy’s the hero, that guy’s the villain, they hate each other, let’s watch them fight. The goal of the wrestler is simple: make the crowd care. The hero makes them care by getting them to cheer, the villain gets them to care by making them boo. It really is that simple.

Because of that simplicity, the villain – the heel – doesn’t have a terribly sophisticated battery of techniques to draw upon to get the crowd booing. Classic heel tactics include: cheating; having a collection of goons to do their fighting for them; lying; talking tough before a fight but crumbling when one actually shows up; running away the moment things aren’t going their way; and, most importantly of all, cruelty. A true heel is a coward who – despite their many gifts – picks on the weak, slanders the noble, and doesn’t have the slightest bit of courage in their body.

Christ, what a masterclass in being a heel Joffrey is. He’s literally the perfect heel.

He picks on the Stark girls and when they stand up to him, he has his seven-foot henchman kill their friend. He goes after their dogs – their dogs! – and snivels to his mummy when things threaten to go South. When he becomes King, he talks shit about how he’s the greatest king there ever was. He smirks as he makes men fight to the death, hands out horror and mutilation for kicks, tortures and murders vulnerable women… All because he’s a wretched little sociopath with no greater goal than his own amusement.

Where a Generic Doomsday Villain does awful things because The Plot Demands It Is So, Joffrey does awful things because he’s immature. And unlike the Generic Doomsday Villain, it’s shown time and again that Joffrey’s immaturity, stupidity and capriciousness is actually a horrible weakness that’s going to kill him.

Because he can’t help himself. Joffrey’s horrid nature comes from a completely arrested development: mentally, emotionally and psychologically, he’s a child, with the absent moral compass and limited intellect that implies. The pointless evil shit he does, he does it because he’s dumb as hell… which means unlike a Generic Doomsday Villain, there are severe, personally damaging consequences for his sadism. As we’re shown, if he’s got the opportunity to do something horrible, he just does it, and damn the consequences. His viciousness isn’t a strength, but a terrible failure. He has Ned Stark killed for shits and giggles… which starts a monumental war that nearly unseats him as king, and which directly leads to disaster for his family. He’s the villain the other villains hate, because he’s so preposterously vile he can’t help fucking up everyone’s plans.

Then there’s his cowardice.

Before the Battle of the Blackwater, Joffrey brags about how hard he is, shows off the shiny new sword he’s ridiculously named ‘Heartrender’ and smirks about how he’s finally going to get to do all the killing.

Then when the Battle arrives, he runs like a little bitch and literally ends up hiding under his mother’s skirts. He’s a complete weakling, and it is impossible to not hate him. When his death finally shows up, you can’t help cheering, and that’s pretty much the ultimate accolade for any heel.

Tyler Durden, ‘Fight Club’

The first time I saw ‘Fight Club’, you could’ve signed me up on the spot.

That’s how insidious a villain Tyler Durden is.

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t,” says Tyler as played by millionaire movie god Brad Pitt.

Tyler Durden is the most incredible example of a seductive villain that’s ever been on screen. Because he’s charming, and funny, and clever, and most of all, he’s right. An alpha male before the idea had gained popular traction, he’s every cynical, nihilistic douchebag who’s ever gone ‘The world is a shitty place and everyone in it is shit’, only he’s pretty enough to make you believe him.

When we meet him, he’s dressed in the coolest outfits, talking slick about The Secrets Behind Everything. A talk with Tyler is like having the veil taken down, enabling to help you see the world As It Really Is.

And his plan is brilliant, isn’t it? Blow up buildings to make everything better. Because acts of terrorism absolutely always work, don’t they?

The brilliance of Tyler Durden is that he appeals to every urge to strike out against the oppression of an uncaring world. The things he says resonate; it feels like he’s speaking truth, because a lot of what he says feels true.

That doesn’t mean it is, though. Tyler Durden, like The Joker, is a very effective liar.

Because what listening to Tyler results in, is a fascist army. He collects dispossessed, angry men. He teaches them to fight. He normalises violence, and praises them for their skill with it.

Then he gives them easy answers: ‘the problems of society can be fixed by violence’.

He teaches them to make bombs.

‘You are not your khakis’ he says, and we nod because he’s right, I’m an individual. I’m not going to dress just to look like everyone else. I don’t need a uniform.

Then Tyler puts his men in Project Mayhem uniforms, and they love him for it, happy to no longer be an individual, but part of something bigger than themselves. They never see the irony.

Having won their love, Tyler then sets about utterly dehumanising these vulnerable men. He takes their names. He takes their identities. He even starts to use language which refers to them as animals – ‘monkeys’ – taking their actual humanity.

“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

And they thank him for this horseshit, because they think he’s telling them the truth.

Tyler Durden is everything he professes to hate. He hates advertising because it takes people’s humanity and identity, selling them an idea in exchange… which is exactly what he does, only he gets to sneer about how clever he is while he does it. He’s a hypocrite of the worst order, and an idiot, because all he can see is nihilism. All he can see is that, in the long-term, nothing matters, which means that nothing matters.

But that’s not true. If nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we decide matter. If there’s no bigger meaning, then the only meaning is the one we choose. Which is, of course, why The Narrator rejects Tyler’s nihilism in the end: because Tyler is wrong. Tyler’s embrace of violent nihilism isn’t the logical answer; it’s simply one possible answer, seen through the toxic lens of Tyler’s anger.

The Narrator rejects Tyler and embraces Marla because he realises he’s not angry any more. He was angry because he was lonely, but in finding Marla, and accepting that it’s okay to love her, he isn’t alone any more. So he isn’t angry. So he doesn’t need Tyler.

In a very real sense, Tyler Durden is the Narrator’s misplaced rage, and the story makes it clear, the solution to that rage isn’t bombs, and it’s certainly not Fight Club. It’s making meaningful connections with other human beings: in the film’s ending, with Marla Singer, and in the book’s, with the people The Narrator befriended in the support groups he was attending at the story’s start.

The Recipe.

So, what have we learned from these horrible pricks? What rules does a writer need to follow to create a good villain?

They must have an understandable, relatable backstory.

The villain can’t just come from nowhere, and they can’t just be monstrous. If they are, you might as well replace them with a storm, or some kind of animal. If there’s no element of recognisable humanity there, you’re not really creating a villain, you’re creating an antagonist, which is something subtly different. Whilst ‘force of nature’ antagonists can be terrifying (as in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, or the films ‘Jaws’, ‘The Fifth Element’, or ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), they’re not really engaging.

A element of intrinsic humanity is what allows the villain to act as a foil to the main characters, and allows the villain’s vile qualities to emphasise the protagonists’ higher natures. What is key is that even if that human background is not discussed, it should still be there. The writer/creator/designer should know it, use it to drive the villainous character, and hopefully make it at least inferable to the audience.

So Hannibal Lecter may be a clinical psychopath whose mind doesn’t remotely function like a human’s, but he’s still capable of loneliness, and desperate to be understood. The Joker’s a monster, but he’s also a former soldier driven to despair and madness by war. Joffrey’s just a horrible child given too much power, too soon. Tyler Durden is pure male angst given license to run wild.

They must have a plan – or motivations – which make logical sense.

There’s an old idiom which says that every villain is the hero of their own story. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. No-one wants to think they’re bad. The very first response most people will have to accusations of sexism, racism or prejudice is ‘ No I’m not!’ – even when they are. Look at the way modern racism hides behind irony, pretending to be ‘just a joke’, as if there’s a difference between ironic hate and actual hate anywhere except in the accused person’s mind.

As a result, villainous plans and motivations must be ones that the audience can empathise with: Hannibal’s need for love; the Joker’s need to be proven right; Joffrey’s childish desires to do whatever he wants; and so on. A truly great villain might even have a plan which the audience is persuaded is actually a good one (see Tyler Durden).

They must be morally reprehensible.

This is the most important thing, because if they aren’t basically hateful in some way, you’ve not creating a villain at all. Now, ‘morally reprehensible’ is a broad category. It doesn’t need to be murders or killings – look at Tyler Durden’s mistreatment of the men of Project Mayhem –

but the villain must commit acts which demonstrate their moral compass doesn’t point the right way.

They must be powerful.

Or else how do they threaten the heroes of the story? A critical thing is that they don’t need to be physically powerful – look at Joffrey – but they must be a threat. No-one knows just what Hannibal’s been up to; that, combined with his prodigious intellect means he can get away with more murders than the US police force. The Joker can’t hope to stand against Batman in a one-on-one fight, but he’s so clever that it takes forever before Batman can even get him in a one-on-one fight… and even when he does, The Joker’s stacked the odds against him. Joffrey never found a fight he didn’t run from, but he’s always got men to fight for him, and the law’s always on his side. Tyler Durden’s a capable fighter to begin with; by the end of the story, with a fascist army fighting for him, he’s unstoppable.

How does this relate to 40K?

In a universe where everyone’s capital-E Evil, there are two big villains in 40K: Chaos and the Dark Eldar.

Now I’ve written numerous times about how I think Chaos is an awesome villain (and if you’ve not read those articles, why not take the time to download my free eBook, ‘Sinister Pinion’, where you can read all about it? The link is here .

Consider their relatable backstories: Khorne just wants to be a good warrior, Tzeentch believes in enlightenment, Nurgle loves you, Slaanesh just wants to get high. The Ruinous Powers all come from sapient desires, and honestly, who can’t relate to those drives? Unlike the Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s work, the Chaos gods all have distinct personalities beyond ‘murder all the things’… even Khorne, whose goal is ‘murder all the things’ is doing that incidentally. In truth, he just wants to be the very best. He’s driven by – perhaps even defined by – insecurity. The endless skulltaking is just his desperate effort to prove he’s not.

Then, consider that the Chaos gods all have plans. Khorne’s is to kill everything. Nurgle’s is to spread his love/ disease. Slaanesh’s is to get high. Tzeentch’s plan is, hilariously, to have lots of plans, and just like Khorne, that complexity addiction comes from his humanity. Just as Khorne’s trying to be the best at violence, Tzeentch is trying to be the best at cleverness, so of course its plans are needlessly overcomplicated and overlapping. That madness is a huge part of why Tzeentch is interesting.

As for the last two criteria, they barely need stating. The Chaos gods are obviously morally grotesque, and just as obviously powerful. The Eldar couldn’t withstand them, and the Imperium’s barely managing.

So overall, yeah, the Chaos gods are interesting, engaging villains. Likewise, the Chaos Primarchs, and most of the Chaos characters are fascinating. Horus was driven by his desire to live up the Emperor, and his rage at the Emperor’s failings. Abaddon’s driven by his need to live up to Horus. Ahriman just wanted to save his brothers. Fabius Bile just wants to get high.

Well, maybe not, but he’s definitely got plans beyond ‘wreck all the shit for no reason’. I leave you to conduct your own analyses as to the rest.

The Dark Eldar, on the other hand, are Bad Villains. They just do evil shit because… well, because that’s just what they do. Sad to say, they don’t seem to have a higher philosophy.

Now, the Craftworld Eldar, are excellent villains. Their motivation is simple: we created our own God of Evil, and now we want to survive. Like the Eton Boys who run my country, the Eldar are just selfish. They put themselves and their families above all others, they don’t care who gets sacrificed to keep them on top.

You could even argue that the Eldar’s sacrifice of others is somehow justified, given the ancient age of their species and the terrible loss of knowledge their extinction would represent.

But the Dark Eldar?

Meh.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love this faction. They have a great aesthetic, and their background is really solid. The idea of Commoragh, and the distinction between the Kabals and the Covens is clear and interesting (no matter how obviously ripped off it is from ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’s Lasombra and Tzimisce clans. Seriously, good background is good background).

However, it’s my opinion that the Dark Eldar need a bit of a rethink as far as their motivations go. Seriously: what do they want? And it’s not good enough to say ‘slaves’ because… well, why? Economics? Psychosexual sadism? Just because that’s what baddies do?

It’s not well enough thought out yet. Not for me, anyway. And when characters like Asdrubael Vect are essentially a poor man’s Lord Vetinari…

I’m not saying the Dark Eldar are beyond saving. I’m just saying, they’re not really that engaging yet. The newly forged Ynnari faction’s definitely given the army a push in the right direction, but…

Well. I suppose we’ll see. Perhaps the advent of 8th edition will give them some much-needed personality, but as yet, I’m not overly sure.

 

A Beginner’s Guide To Scratchbuilding Infantry Weapon Accessories

So if you’ve been following me on the Instagrams, you might have noticed that I convert my models. Like, a lot. And I’ve had several people messaging me and asking how I do it.

Well, welcome ladies and gentlebeans to a tutorial on how I convert weapons. I originally posted this back in 2014 on the Bell of Lost Souls Forums, but it’s been kind of lost there, so I thought I’d re-do it as a single blogpost you can all refer to.

In this, we’re not looking at a straight scratchbuild, but rather combining scratchbuilt components with presently extant Games Workshop kits. There are six separate tutorials below (for, in order: rail mounts, reflex scopes, flash suppressors, sniper barrels, rifle bipods, and telescopic scopes.)

Customising infantry weapons is remarkably easy work, though if you intend to do it on a large scale, it can be very time consuming. I have individually converted every lasgun in my Astra Militarum army – over a hundred individual weapons – and I feel maintaining consistency is important for any army that isn’t Ork. As a result, it you’re going to do this on an army-wide scale, be prepared for a significant investment of time.

However, I have only done so because 1.) I hate GW lasguns and 2.) I love converting. If you’re not like me, you may want to use these just for your veterans, Tempestus, Sternguard, or other elite choices, to lend them character.

So, without further ado…

The Tools You Will Need:

  • Plasticard sheets – you won’t need much at all, but you will need various thicknesses. One should be as this as you can get – about the thickness of paper. The other should be about 1mm thick.
  • Plasticard strip – you’ll need some square rods, about 0.5mm x 0.5mm. You’ll need about 400mm or so.
  • Three styrene rods of various thicknesses – one should be about 1mm diameter, the next 2mm, and the final one 3mm.
  • Poly cement
  • 40K-scale infantry weapons – while you can scratchbuild your own, we’re not doing that this week, so break out some infantry weapons. This is aimed at lasguns (because that’s the model I work with most), but you can adapt it to bolters, pulserifles and the like. It won’t really work with Eldar weaponry (wrong aesthetic), but I imagine you could adapt these techniques to the Eldar with some careful adapting.

Tutorial 1: Rail Mounts
Modern weapons use rail mounts for additional weapon systems – these are easily recognisable as the ‘ridged’ bars and grips seen on almost every modern American assault weapon system. To quote Wikipedia:

Rail Interface System (RIS, sometimes also referred to as Rail Accessory System, RAS) is a generic term for a system for attaching accessories to small firearms such as pistols, rifles and light machine guns.
Common accessories include tactical lights, laser aiming modules, forward hand grips for improving weapon handling, telescopic sights for medium-ranged or distant targets, and reflex sights/red-dot sights for short to medium-ranged targets, iron sight lines, bipods, and bayonets.
Most RIS equipment is compatible with one or more of the most common rail systems, all of which are broadly similar:

  • Weaver rail mount – an early system, still popular in the civilian market
  • Picatinny rail (MIL-STD-1913) – standardized US military version
  • NATO Accessory Rail – developed from MIL-STD-1913

These are used primarily in the military and by firearm enthusiasts to improve the usability of the weapon, being accessorized quickly and efficiently without requiring the operator to field-strip the weapon.

Let’s make some for our lasguns!

To begin with, you’ll need a piece of rectangular plasticard; it should be the thinnest you can get, and about 10mm x 60mm (for a full infantry company.) You’ll also need that styrene rod

Measure the piece, so that it is exactly 9mm wide:

Once you’ve done that, apply poly cement down one edge…

…and glue the styrene rod to it, keeping it in-line with the edge of the piece like so:

As you can see, once it’s glued, clip it off.

Don’t throw the bit you’ve clipped away! You’re going to repeat the steps above, only for the opposite edge, like so:

Now, you can measure this bit, but I just judge by eye. Place a thin line of glue down the middle of the piece and, you guessed it, glue that styrene rod down again:

Repeat this step for the gap between the middle piece and the edge piece…

…and repeat again for the final gap – glue that styrene rod between the middle piece and the end piece again. As I say, I judged all of this by eye, but if you prefer to be precise, then measure.

N.B.: As a side note, I often make more rifle rails than I need. I store them afterwards in my bits box. Because of the nature of ploy cement and the thinness of the card, they can curl as in the older piece shown on the right here:

If this happens, it doesn’t mean the piece is useless; it just means you need to use superglue to attach the rails to any rifle, instead of the poly cement I use below.

Now, why did I get you to measure 9mm width exactly, when ordinarily I never care about dimensions? Simple:

So, here’s our lasgun, pre work.

I need to clean this thing up before I do any more scratchbuilding. Using a careful, directly downward push, controlling the blade with my finger, I clip off the barrel. As always, USE BOTH HANDS! I had to use one of mine to show the angle you need here. When I made the cut, I held the gun down with my other hand. SAFETY FIRST!

I then flip the lasgun around and clip off the magazine. I flip it around because it’s easier to make the cut, and if I slip (which is all too possible) any damage to the plastic will be on a side which will not normally be visible during gaming.

Your lasgun should now look like this:

I then shave off any extraneous details. This is obviously a personal taste thing, so if there are some you want to keep, keep them. If you’re following my methodology, you’ll have a lasgun which looks like this:

Next, I take my scratchbuilt rail component, and using a single downward cut like you see in the picture, I cut off a piece about 2mm thick:

See where we’re going here?

I apply glue to the two ‘high points’ on the top of the lasgun…
Here’s the finished rail:

Now, you don’t just have to mount these on the top – it would be equally appropriate to have one on the side where the Astra Militarum winged skull is, but I quite like that bit of detailing, so I always leave it. There’s also the fact that the inspiration for these modifications is the G2A2 Assault Rifle from the first F.E.A.R. game…

…(Monolith games are the best FPS company ever hands down) which has a helical magazine, and a side rail would get in the way of that. Of course, that’s a whole personal taste thing, so, as always, go with what is in your heart,

So, that’s the rail done. Now we move onto the next bit:

Tutorial 2: Reflex Scopes

A reflector sight or reflex sight is an optical device that allows the user to look through a partially reflecting glass element and see an illuminated projection of an aiming point or some other image superimposed on the field of view.

They’re in every single FPS nowadays as the most basic scope beyond simple iron sights, and they are ridiculously easy to scratchbuild.

Get a piece of 1mm plasticard; the bit below is big enough for an infantry platoon!

Cut off a 2mm bit.

Cut a third off the end.

Using your scalpel to align it, glue the short piece to the longer one like so:

Cut off a little piece roughly to these proportions relative to the rest of the piece you’ve made (again, I’m doing everything by eye, not measuring.)

Glue in place like so…

… and you’re done. It can be affixed to the rifle’s rail like so:

Tutorial 3: Flash suppressors

So, as I said, this is based on the G2A2, so I need a thing over the muzzle.

Get that piece of square rod, and get cutting and gluing.



Now, the first kind of muzzle mods you can make are the ones you saw on my ladies’ guns, and they’re not a scratchbuild, but a kitbash. You’ll need a Grey Knight teleporter backpack.

Just clip the teleporter rods off and you’re done: instant flash suppressors.

(Of course, if you don’t have teleporter backpacks, you could just use thick styrene rod. I just like the extra details of the banding on the teleporter rods.

Now, if you’re really interested in doing some unique stuff, we can always go hardcore, and that takes us to our more complicated tutorials.

Tutorial 4: Sniper barrels.

Now, this is where we break out the real modelling kit. You will need a pin vice (a little mini hand-drill) with a 1mm diameter bit. Begin by drilling out the front of the rifle where the barrel will go. TAKE YOUR TIME AND GET THE ANGLE RIGHT. You get it wrong, and the sniper barrel will look wonky and therefore stupid.


Next, put a drop of poly cement into the hole you’ve just made and slide your 1mm styrene rod into place.

If this reminds you of sex, might I suggest perhaps you’re not having enough intimate time with your partner. Don’t be alone. If you’re in a relationship, go kiss your partner right now and tell them how much they mean to you. If you’re lonely, make some time this week to go out and meet people – not necessarily for relationships, but just to make connections. You may not meet The One For You this week, but the more people you know, the higher the chance that they’ll know someone just right for you. Love doesn’t come to you – you need to go out and meet it, and you do that by being social, even (especially) when it’s scary and embarrassing.

Anyway, back at the gun tutorial, you may note I’ve got a ridiculously long barrel there; that’s deliberate – I’m not going to trim it down until I’ve got the next piece made.

You’ll need two pieces of styrene rod like you see below: one thicker and drilled (or, as in this case, pre-hollowed) the other solid and slightly thinner.

Glue them together like so:

So, once you’ve got this suppressor finished, judge how long you want your sniper barrel to be, and clip it down, then glue the suppressor in place – the barrel should fit neatly into the hole in the suppressor.

Et viola – a completed sniper barrel. If you wish, you might consider a rectangular suppressor to suggest an antimateriel rifle like a Barrett M82 ‘Light Fifty’; that’s certainly what GW’s Ratlings currently have!

Tutorial 5: Rifle Bipods
These things are fiddly, but easy. First, you need to make the bipod’s legs. Once again, break out good old square styrene rod, and cut, measuring by eye – you need two pieces long enough to reach from the widest part of the suppressor to the rifle’s body, like so:

You then need a small piece of 1mm plasticard, cut into a roughly 1mm x 1mm square shape – here, I’ve removed two corners to add visual interest.

Glue it at the lowest point of the wide part of the suppressor, then glue the two rods you’ve made, one on each side. They should be glued to the piece you’ve just glued on, as well as to the rifle’s body.

Now, you could have the legs of the bipod out if you wish, but that’s not a beginner’s conversion, so I’m leaving that out for this week.

Next, cut two 1mm x 1mm squares from your super-thin plasticard sheet…

…and use your scalpel to glue them onto the bottom of the bipod’s legs to make feet…

…and there you go. A finished bipod.

Tutorial 6: Telescopic Scopes

For this bit, you’ll need three styrene rods of various thicknesses – one should be about 1mm diameter, the next 2mm, and the final one 3mm.

Cut three lengths. The thinnest should be roughly the same length as the middle thickest, with the thickest piece being the longest. The middle thickness piece should also have one end with an angled cut as seen here. You’ll also need a tiny piece of 1mm thickness plasticard as seen blow the three rods:

What happens next is kind of obvious really: glue them together like so. The 1mm plasticard rectangle forms the ‘base’, with the thinnest piece as the middle of the scope. The angled piece is for the sniper, and should be angled as shown, with the thickest piece placed at the business end of the gun.

I also like to add focus controls to telescopic scopes. Just cut two plastic ‘coins’ from the thinnest rod, and glue them to the thinnest part of the scope as shown – one on top, one on the side.

If you really want to go hyperdetailed, you can cut a slice from the thickest rod like so…

… and glue it on top of the scope as a flip-up lens cap:

You may note I also added the helical magazine; it’s simply a piece of the thickest rod cut to length, with two small pieces of our old faithful square styrene rod for detailing.

And there you have it. As always, thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope you are inspired to join me in the calming waters of scratchbuilding. If you’ve used these tutorials to personalise your armies in any way, please post some photos to instagram with the #sinisterpinion – I’d love to see your work!

 

 

 

 

 

Free eBook for all ‘Sinister Pinion’ readers.

Well, It’s been a busy few weeks. I’ve gone back through two and a half years’ worth of articles on Warhammer 40,000, wargaming, and loads of other stuff in between, all in the name of creating ‘Sinister Pinion‘, the collected volume of every blog article I’ve written.

Frankly, I’m pretty pleased with it. All told, the thing contains 532 pages of the very best cultural critique on the Imperium of Man, the Ruinous Powers and the entire Warhammer 40,000 universe, across more than thirty absurdly detailed, in depth articles.

I don’t want any money for it; just please, share this article with all your fellow gaming friends and geek culture nerds, and please: help get my book out there.

Sinister_Pinion

Warning: contains mature content.

One Life, Steeped In Early Rogue Trader

 

It starts with John Barry.

It’s some time in late 1989 and he’s holding out what looks like a small collection of bones. They’re strange to see – in truth, I’ve never seen anything like them before, but the smoothness of the pieces is compelling. They’re tinier than any  toy I’ve played with; barely millimetres across, I’m immediately sure that he’ll drop them by accident, spilling the pieces across the floor, never to be found again.

John Barry (always referred to by both names) was one of my very few friends in Primary School. A fat, arrogant sort of boy with pudding bowl hair, covered in a constant sheen of sweat, he lives a life that eleven-year-old me envies with a burning passion. His father’s rich, and travels constantly. What this means is that John Barry is constantly disobedient, but, more importantly, knows more about cool new toys than anyone else I will ever meet. In the past, John Barry’s shown me treasures from around the globe. Everything from a remote-controlled tank with a built in cap-gun for a cannon, to special Transformers you can only get in America – his house remains the only place I’ve ever seen an original Megatron figure. John Barry’s the person who told me that Action Force – the toys we both played with when our love of He-Man finally began to pale – is properly called GI Joe. I do not believe him when he says this, until time and licensing proves him correct.

Of course, by the time Action Force has become GI Joe, John Barry has shown me the handful of bird bones that will become my addiction for the next thirty years.

I ask him what these mysterious skeletal pieces are.

“It’s called a Space Marine.”

After a few weeks, I’ve learned everything I can through third and fourth hand sources. There is no internet, and no-one I know owns a copy of the rulebook. Uncovering  information is like investigating the occult, all knowledge forbidden. Secret. There are space soldiers called Space Marines, I know this. They have weapons called bolt guns, which are awesome because they look like real-world guns – they have banana clips! – and, come on: bolt guns. That’s a weapon sounds like it could mess you up. There’s other stuff I’ve uncovered too, things like mowlty-melters and something to do with librarians… I don’t understand any of it, but there’s a power to it all. It’s dark, and adult and somehow dangerous. I can’t explain the pull of it, but the more I find out, the more I want to know.

By the end of my first term at the Boys’ School, I’ve finally managed to locate some actual reading material. My old friend Martin, who used to be my best friend, but who has drifted away from me in the way friends do when you both start at a new school, has loaned me the Warhammer 40,000 Compendium. The Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook Is Required To Use This Book, but I couldn’t care less. It is the most exciting book I have ever read. There are stats and numbers and charts like it’s some kind of bloody grimoire; reading it feels like reading magic.

And then I’m reading about Dreadnoughts. About how they’re gigantic robots with human pilots inside… and that once a human is inside, they can never come out. There’s an exploded technical diagram, showing me the internal workings of the Contemptor-Class “Chuck” Dreadnought.

It is the most horrifying, beautiful picture I have ever seen.

In the centre, a man curls in on himself, like a baby, holding his knees. Cabling, the rainbow-coloured kind that spilled out of the side of my old school’s BBC computer and into the LOGO turtle punctures the man’s sides like a tragic, murderous Jesus forever on the tip of Longinus’ spear.

I study that picture for hours. Hours. Sitting in my first lessons as a Secondary School Pupil, the heavy paper wonderfully solid in my hands, I shiver at the thought. What must it feel like to be entombed inside so small a compartment, your body stabbed and agonised, steel wires in your spine, as the robotic flesh of your new form shrugs off bullets and bombs, colossal hydraulic fists pulping enemy bodies like a hammer into overripe fruit. As a child weaned on the horrors of Doctor Who and late 70’s BBC children’s programmes which never quite understood that children shouldn’t be terrorised, the concept hits my imagination like a bolt of unadulterated brilliance. It’s a perfect idea: a human, made into a robotic monster, his flesh sacrificed for superior skill at murder.

Unwrapping presents on Christmas, Martin’s is my favourite. It’s the smallest, but weighs as much as the largest. Shredding the wrapping paper, I look down at the very first blister pack I’ve ever seen. A Contemptor-class “Chuck” Dreadnought, the little £3.99 price sticker still on. The model is everything I could have wanted, and the excitement, the raw exhilaration is so much that every detail becomes electrifying. Turning the packet over in my hand, I admire all of it. The hard, transparent shell; the strange square of grey sponge; the glossy cardboard with the picture of the hand-drawn Space Marine on the front; the matt back, covered in tiny text. I read all of it. Warnings jump out at me: PRODUCT CONTAINS LEAD, and THIS IS NOT A TOY and that it is NOT RECOMMENDED FOR CHILDREN YOUNGER THAN 11.

At the sight of this, I’m worried, because I’m only ten; I won’t be eleven until March. And, annoyingly, I’m a good little boy. Where every other child seems delighted at the thought of mischief – or playing at being a grown-up –  I just get anxious. So I do the only thing I can and take it to an expert.

Showing the model to my Dad, I fidget while he appraises it coolly. Warning me that lead is, indeed, very dangerous, he says he doesn’t think there’s going to be any problem. That I should be fine. I open the packet and they heavy pieces tumble into my hand. They’re not so small as the bone fragments that make up a Space Marine, but compared to my Action Force figures, they’re tiny.

Over the rest of Christmas holiday, I come to know what it is to struggle with lead. Not even knowing where to start, I turn to my Dad again. A mechanic and technical author, to my child’s mind, my Dad’s skills with machinery is so innate, so intuitive, it verges on the supernatural. If he can’t fix a thing, well, that means it can’t ever be fixed. But even he’s never assembled anything like this before, his only prior experience being a childhood spent in Airfix kits and Meccano.

As instructed, we try superglue, but the pieces collapse the moment the thing’s picked up. We try superglue again, and it’s exactly as unsuccessful as before. Dad recommends Evo-Stik Impact, and I spend an unpleasant few hours inadvertently making small balls of the stinking stuff; balls which look and feel exactly like the contents of my nose. While the box brags about how this two-part epoxy can stick anything to anything, all the vile stuff seems to do is reek like the inside of a tramp’s bottom and stick nothing to nothing.

Eventually, I give it up as a bad job.

I remember that I read an article on something called ‘pinning’ in the back of that book I picked up from the car boot sale. The article was from a thin, typed volume called ‘Warhammer Fantasy Battles’; on finding it had nothing to do with Space Marines, I was so disappointed I pushed it to the back of my reading pile and left it alone. But coming back to it, I find it’s got a typed piece on how to connect heavy metal parts together using something called a pin vice, which is apparently a tiny drill, then filling the gap with modelling putty.

Sadly, the only shop I know that sells anything remotely geeky is a small local place called Uncanny Comics. Amongst the ‘Aliens’, ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘2000AD’ comics and Punisher-skull T-Shirts, there’s not a single Warhammer item. When I ask, no-one there knows what a pin vice is or where I can get one. When I ask about modelling putty, they ask if I mean plasticine. Recognising a dead end, I say no, thank politely them, and leave.

Defeated, I ask my Dad if maybe we could use the soldering iron to weld the model together.  I already know it’s a bad idea, but it’s nice to have confirmation as he shakes his head.

Eventually, I use superglue again, resigning myself to never touching or moving the model from my house. After hours of work, the pieces are together and they’re not falling off at random. Covered in great blobs and striations of glue, some with my fingerprints in, it doesn’t look great.

But despite this, despite everything… despite the fact the shoulders don’t quite fit, despite fact the feet are at wonky angles on the base, despite slight bend in the rear vent that I can’t quite make straight? My Dreadnought – my very first Warhammer 40,000 model – is incredible. From this point on, under the wobbly gaze of a haphazardly assembled lump of lead which threatens to fall to pieces if I so much as breathe on it, I am utterly, hopelessly lost.

I start playing the game.

Not that I’m playing properly. With maths not exactly my strong suit and no-one able to explain the arcana within the supplemental rulebooks, I’ve been playing a vague approximation a game. It’s not really 40K, and it’s based more around my expectations of how the rules work than anything else. Even when we finally get a copy of the Warhammer 40,000 rulebook, my friends and I are the first generation of schoolboys to ever play the game. Which means there’s no veterans to tell us what the rules are, what dice to roll, what figures to use. We are the entire history of the community, and not a one of us can make head-nor-tails of the specifics of the Rogue Trader rules.

During this time, I constantly feel like I’m failing. That I’m not doing it right. The near-constant arguments about even the most basic of rules do not help this feeling.

Later, of course, I will discover we are not alone. As the internet connects me to fellow 1st edition gamers, I will learn that the Rogue Trader book is infamously poorly laid-out. That the rules were frequently wonky, overly complex, unnecessarily convoluted and frequently ill-conceived. I will learn that it seems Rogue Trader was a game where nearly everyone was forced to cobble together a vague kind of game that worked for them, just as my friends and I did.

After a few months, though, we’ve got out local game invented, and we’ve all got something approximating an army. Not that my miniatures collection is what you could call inspiring. With only £1.25 a week pocket money, and the nearest Games Workshop a £2 bus ride away – a bus ride that I’m still too young to take – the idea of going out to buy miniatures is an impossibility. Which means I have my Dreadnought, and a handful of models bought second hand from John Barry. As is his way with diversions, he’s quickly grown tired of Forty Kay, and his disinterest allows me access to miniatures I could never otherwise acquire. These second-hand models are all ugly first edition sculpts; less figures, these are more like twisted plasticine horrors from some godawful Soviet film on corn targets and the glory of Comrade Stalin. Nonetheless, they’ll do. Especially when my ‘army’ is rounded out with nothing more than a few of my old Action Force vehicles repurposed for the Emperor’s Service.

After my birthday has been, visiting me with the unimaginably vast sum of nearly twenty five pounds, I am delighted to discover we are going to visit my Grandparents in Oxford.

Because Oxford has a Games Workshop.

Knowledge of my new obsession has spread through the family by now, and I find my grandparents have set me up on what won’t be called a play-date for another decade, with a boy named Tarrick. He’s the son of my Grandad’s secretary, and has played 40K for as long as me.

When I meet him, he is a little standoffish and strange. Tarrick is barely a year older than me, though fancies himself an adult, a conjecture which I find baffling in its inaccuracy. Tarrick takes me into Oxford city centre, where we visit shops more varied and fascinating than my hometown will ever have. Music shops and comics shops and somewhere called HMV.

Of course, I only care about one particular shop.

When we arrive back at Tarrick’s house, all my birthday money is gone. My Mum’s going to be furious, because I’ve ‘wasted’ it on a box of Space Marines, as well as the ‘Terminators and Tyranids’ boxed set. In a cloud of excitement, Tarrick and I unbox my two purchases together. To this day, I can recite the boxes’ contents like a litany: two terminator librarians, six terminators, ten space marine scouts, three tyranid warriors, twelve genestealers, four genestealer hybrids and, of course, thirty six Space Marines. With the last of my money I have bought the first issue of Marvel UK’s short-running comic ‘Overkill’. Twenty five pounds gone, and I have seventy three models to my name.

I never imagined I could own so many miniatures.

The terminators are used most often, chasing orks each other round a small cardboard box over the next three months. The genestealers will eventually become a Genestealer Cult army of almost bestial ferocity, which will one day fight the Imperial Guard for control of my lounge floor. A single genestealer will make it through the withering fire of twenty seven lascannon to butcher three squads of Guards in a single assault phase, only for the game to be lost when my little sister wanders off to find herself a rusk, leaving me to play alone, and without her giggling as she rolls the dice, the game doesn’t seem quite as much fun.

The Space Marines will be my first lessons in painting. I will learn that you can highlight Salamander Green paint with Bad Moon Yellow if only you drybrush it hard enough. My models will look dreadful, but I will be inordinately proud of them. I will learn that Bolt Gun Metal looks amazing – like actual, real metal – but even better if drybrushed over black. I will experiment with black lining my models, before deciding it looks beyond dreadful and sticking to drybrushing. I will learn that no matter how hard I try, Chapter decals will never, EVER lie flat on a Space Marine shoulder pad, so I will give up using them, telling myself the old lie ‘I’ll do them later’.

I will never base a single one of my models.

As for Tarrick, I’ll only ever see him once again, a few years after our day shopping together. Not knowing what we have in common any more, I’ll awkwardly bring up the subject of 40K. He’ll laugh at me, then brag about all the sex he’s having with girls now. Later, I will learn that he’s gotten a girl pregnant, and that it’s been quite the scandal.

Part of me will feel vindicated. Part of me remains jealous.

Loneliness is a constant companion.

By my second year at the Boys’ School, I will have a bits box of almost heroic proportions. Finally abandoning Space Marines for the plentiful lascannon of the Imperial Guard, I’ve steeped myself in the game to the point that when second edition is announced, I nearly lose my mind.

Sat by the fireplace, as Meatloaf warbles throatily about what he won’t do for love, I read the announcement over and over again. It’s in an issue of ‘White Dwarf’ with a particularly horrible picture of a Space Wolf Terminator on the front, and it is amazing. New Space Marines are promised… and the models are amazing. No longer the small, dinky beakies of the RTB01 set, the plastic models of the 2nd edition starter set are instead the glorious Mk VII Marines of my dreams, and the level of detail is insane. Bolters, where you can see every shell in the magazine; missile launchers, just like the ones from the metal Devastators boxed set; a sergeant with an actual chainsword…. Christ, even the models’ hands. The fingers aren’t vaguely modelled gloved hands, but fully articulated armoured gauntlets – every finger joint is modelled. Every single one.

Looking back, from a modern vantage point, the kits are almost absurdly basic. Monopose marines, monopose orks… and awkward monoposes too. Everyone’s holding their weapons either right in front of their chest, or out to the side like some kind of bizarre Norse longship seen in profile. Seen from twenty five years on, they are obvious as the precursors of the ‘two-dimensional’ style of models that will become absolutely ubiquitous for nearly a decade. But at the time?

At the time, it is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.

What’s crazy is that the more I read about the rules, the more exciting it gets. Gothic card scenery in the box. Three (three!) books, with one on rules, one on background, and one on weapons. Dice for explosives and dice for fully automatic weapons. Datacards for vehicles, with every vehicle getting its own unique damage tables. Cards for a hundred unique pieces of equipment. The Black Codex, with new army lists for every faction in the game. Proper card templates, not something photocopied and glued to a packet of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

When I unbox the game on Christmas Day, my delight is as boundless as it was when I opened my copy of Epic Space Marine the year before. A few years later, I’m unboxing Adeptus Titanicus and the thrill is the same. Twenty years from now, I’ll be unwrapping Forge World’s Horus Heresy books and spending the entire day luxuriating in fictional nonsense. Christmas time becomes a synonym for a day spent, lost, in The Imperium of Man.

Time passes.

The nearest Games Workshop to me is still that unaffordable £2 bus ride away. Desperate to play games, but with that option closed, I do the only thing I can and begin a Games Club at school. I am too young and naïve to know what a terrible idea this will be.

The teachers don’t understand the concept, barely understand me, and certainly don’t understand what we’re playing, so we’re largely left to our own devices. As a result, Games Club is, for the most part, horrible. Every lunchtime is spent with friends who are, in practical terms, not. This is my first experience with the worst side of the gaming community.

My amateurish, beginner’s paint jobs are judged and found wanting; I am mocked for ever having dared pick up a brush. My conversions are laughed out of the room. Any miniatures I bring are ridiculed for being cheap plastic, which – as everyone knows (apparently) – are not as detailed or as impressive as the metals ones my friends own. When I play Imperial Guard, my army is laughed at for being so weak. When I play Space Marines, my army is laughed at for being unoriginal, because everyone else plays Marines. When I bring in the latest White Dwarf to read, I’m told I’ve wasted my money, because it isn’t as good as it used to be. And Warhammer 40,000 isn’t as good as it used to be. And Games Workshop will be going bust any day now, charging the insane prices they do.

Twenty years later, I will be astonished to discover that the conversations of my youth are still happening.

Despite this, I go every day, play 40K every day. Well, it’s that or loneliness, so I might as well go. We play half-hours snatches of games that never really go anywhere, but which are better than nothing.  After a few years spent in the hate-pit that is the Games Club I have founded, my perceptions of human interactions have become so warped that I assume friendship comes from mutual loathing. I become convinced that human beings are garbage, and start to hate the world.

Eventually, I will grow up, pull my head out of my backside, and see this as the self-absorbed teenage angst that it is. I will make real friends, and learn how mistaken I was. When I become a teacher, I will learn that the problem wasn’t Games Club, but that teenagers are just dicks.

I will never stop wondering why people talk about teenage years being the best of their life, and judge anyone who makes such a claim as being soft in the head.

One Saturday in my third year at the Boys’ School, I will go into town to buy the latest issue of ‘Overkill’. It’s not a great comic, but I like it. On the way, I will randomly run into and be attacked by another boy from school. He will punch me in the head, break my glasses, scar my face. After this, because neither I nor anyone in my life knows what the letters PTSD stand for, I will become a hikikomori.

Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, I will never willingly leave my bedroom for any reason except school. With everything outside now a place too terrifying to go, Warhammer 40K becomes my entire world.

I spend my evenings sat at a desk whose surface is gouged and ruined by my craft knife. Never having heard of a cutting mat, in the centre of the desk is a seven-inch crater torn into the chipboard, the edges of it liberally spattered with paint. While my nine-inch portable black-and-white television plays out CITV, Children’s BBC, Neighbours, and Knightmare, I will dutifully create armies of absurd size.

My mother becomes concerned. She thinks I should be out meeting people, wonders why I don’t want to make friends. I can think of nothing more appalling than either prospect. She blames my hobbies for keeping me inside. One evening, after an argument with my brother turns particularly nasty, she confiscates my collection of fantasy and science-fiction books, because they’re what’s turning me nasty. I am spending too long in fictional worlds, she says, and not enough time in the real one.

She’s partly right, but removing a problem isn’t the same thing as solving it. I sit in my room and watch telly and paint models and wait until my books are returned.

Eventually, though, familiarity will have bred contempt. By the time I’m sixteen, I’m sick of Games Workshop. Of their money grabbing bullshit. Of the horrible red paint jobs on everything. Of goofy, cartoonish sculpts. Of the rules. Of having to spend time with other gamers. Warhammer 40K has become the prison I must escape.

Desperate to change my life, I begin to hang out with my brother and his friends. I’ve avoided this before, because he’s younger than me, but it turns out to be a good idea. He’s a lot cooler than me, has a lot more friends and they – astonishingly – all like each other.

Our interests don’t really overlap. I’m into science fiction and they… well, they’re into all sorts of things: jumping through hedges, wandering out into fields to look at cows, going to petrol stations late at night, and, most of all, underage drinking. I’m too rule-abiding to consider drinking before I’m old enough, but I come along with them when they’re pissed.

Despite this, I’m having a good time. My brother’s friends are fun, and kind, and they invite me along to stuff even though there’s Clearly Something Wrong With Me. Wanting to offer fun activities of my own and be part of things, I make occasional references to Games Workshop games, but these are always met with a polite but firm refusal. My brother will usually give me a disapproving look, but never stays angry for long, because while I might be a dickhead, I’m his dickhead, and shit that means something.

One day, his friend Adam lends me a rulebook. It’s for a new game, called ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ and it’s as much of a thunderbolt as that dreadnought picture was.

My life changes. I don’t become a Goth or anything; I’m far too rule-abiding for that, and the idea of wearing make-up horrifies me on the genetic level. But in the face of V:tM, 40K just doesn’t cut it any more. Masquerade is everything that 40K isn’t. It’s real. It’s personal. Best of all, it’s resolutely NOT competitive, and after a lifetime of competition, I’m more than ready for something that isn’t.

Losing myself in tabletop roleplay, I drop Games Workshop completely. I don’t even think about it. My armies are sold off to Year Seven pupils for pennies. When I pass a Games Workshop, I feel nothing beyond a mild sense of embarrassment that I was ever into anything so lame. When, at a meeting of the Hallam University roleplaying society, someone pulls out a box of plastic Warhammer Beastmen, my heart swells with pity for him. Doesn’t he know?

How can he not know?

He gamely tries to convince me that it’s still good. I raise my eyebrows and nod. Just like any addict, he’s trying to sell me the needle so he doesn’t feel worthless. They want you to fail so they’re not alone.

I nod and smile, and look at the models and nod and smile and then that’s about it for nearly a decade. There’s the occasional twinge. One day, I pass by a charity shop and see a copy of 2nd edition Space Hulk for £20. Momentarily, I think of buying it, but then walk on and get my groceries. Another day, a friend from roleplay gives me a box of old plastic Imperial Guard. I say I’ll paint them up for old times’ sake, but then they’ll go in a plastic box, where they lie until I break up with my second girlfriend. As I clear my things from her house, I bin them without a second thought. No point taking rubbish with me.

At the tail end of my twenties, there’s nothing left to buy.

I’m not really a hikikomori any more, but I’ve never become the kind of man who goes out a lot. As a result, I’ve got money; more money than my teenaged self would ever have believed. Sure, it’s not actually much – mostly, it’s spent on saving for a house (a task that will take fifteen years). That said, some of it’s disposable, and I treat myself to fun stuff. But White Wolf have mostly wound down the World of Darkness, so what’s left’s been going on computer games. First on a PS1, then on a Dreamcast, then on the PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360…

But now? Now there’s no games left that I want. A ‘Doom’ gamer in a world coloured first in ‘Halo’, then ‘Call of Duty’, the world has moved away from what I like, and modern gamers would rather kill poor brown people than demons. So it is that, as my fun funds burn a hole in my pocket, I walk past the York Games Workshop.

I’ve not been into one in years. Not since their staff started talking to me. Unwilling – unable – to answer the ‘What army do you collect?’ question, I’ve assiduously avoided them. But there, in the window is a squad of Space Marines, and…

…and I sort of stop, and look at them.

They’re bigger than I remember. Prettier too, the sculpts more defined, the details more impressive. And look, there’s one with a Mk VI helmet! Oh my God, a beakie, a proper beakie! Just like they used to look, only better. Wow.

It’s amazing.

Walking home, I find myself thinking it might be fun to buy a box. Just a box. And assemble them. Just for old times’ sake. Because I’m nearly thirty now, and it’s sometimes fun to look back at where you’ve come from.

So I do. Just a tactical squad. And I’m not going to game with it or anything, just going to assemble and paint it, and maybe put it away in case any of my gamer friends want it for Xmas or something.

But the glue does it. The moment the smell of that polystyrene cement hits, I’m a boy again, child again. That stench, so powerfully awful, but powerful too, tied into all the old delights. I smile as the arms go on, smile as the first model – of course a MkVI beakie – comes together, is completed.

By the time the squad’s completed, I’m hooked.

The next week I go back and buy that Techmarine box. I was always in love with the Adeptus Mechanicus, and he’s got four Servitors too… plus that servo-harness! What a model! Better than anything we had back in my day.

Then I get…

But you know how this goes.

Before long, there’s a small mountain of unpainted plastic and metal in my study. I’ve a Space Marine army I didn’t expect and I’m already picking out the next thing. I’m converting again, only this time with the money and tools to do it properly. I buy a pin vice and a cutting mat. Devouring articles online, I begin to develop painting skills beyond the cack-handed fumblings of my youth. I start to sculpt, first with the Milliput I used to use, then with the Green Stuff GW favours, until I realise that each has different uses.

My girlfriend shakes her head and smiles to see me so happy.

When we finally take her father to court for raping her, I am a witness on the stand. My legs fail me, my voice dies in my throat. I’m not the man I want to be. Not brave, like I wanted to be. I tell the court what he told me: that he did it, that he’s guilty. Cross-examined, his defence holds up pictures I did of a Terminator Captain, back when I was a boy. I’d posted them on social media, shared them with friends, for laughs and for approval.

She asks: what’s wrong with you? What kind of man draws this sort of thing? This many skulls?

Turning to the jury, she makes the implicit, explicit: how can we trust a man who draws anything this violent?

Walking from the court into the bilious sunlight, my girlfriend and I walk around Manchester. I’m too ravaged to go back to our hotel, so we go where I feel safest.

The game shop smells like they always do. The dice are a satisfying weight in my hands. I am me, and I don’t need to cry any more. I buy models, convinced that I will one day get round to painting them, but they end their days in a ratty cardboard box, unpainted, destined not even for eBay, but for the car boot sale.

Even though he’s guilty, her father is let free. Justice done, life darkens. My girlfriend knew it was coming; her counsellor explained as much and so she’s ready for it. Like life forces every woman to, she’s redefined the terms of victory; justice was always impossible, but confronting him was not. She contents herself with that.

I try to, but I can’t. I want the world to work to be the way it should be, but it’s not. Here’s the proof that it favours the liar, the chancer, and the unjust.

I cope poorly.

My work suffers. I enter a deep depression and I’m young again, boy again. Just like in those days, I crawl into fantasies, climb back into old comforts.

From the outside, it must look strange. The worse I feel, the better my painting becomes. But it’s not strange. When I’m painting, I don’t have to think about how unjust the world is. When I’m making models, everything is about the art, the creativity, and creativity is the highest, the purest of all joys. I do some of my best hobby work in the worst times. Adrift, 40K is my life raft.

Eventually, after much work, much effort, much therapy and counselling, my depression passes.

By now, my youth is a memory, my twenties past, and my thirties approaching their end. Warhammer 40,000 has passed through three editions. From devouring the 5th edition rulebook with a song in my heart, I’ve gone from buying the 6th edition rulebook out of a sense of duty to avoiding the 7th edition one entirely. It’s not that I don’t want to play the game. It’s just that there’s no-one to play with, most of my interactions with other players are online, and anyway, I always preferred the modelling.

Inevitably, my girlfriend becomes my then-girlfriend. It’s not a surprise. She’s been distant; I’ve gone from being the support that kept her up to the bars of her prison. I’ve been distant; as she’s drawn away, I’ve drawn inside, choosing art over her.

So she hates my models, hates that they kept me from her. It’s not a surprise to me. Like my mother, it’s easier to hate the symptom than the disease. Even so, even knowing this, when she’s finally gone, I don’t paint anything for six months.

Instead, I spend time elsewhere, inside the life of someone else. I travel a lot, visit people, making vague acquaintances into true friends. I roleplay for the first time in years.

When I come back to the modelling table, things are different and the same all at once. 40K’s always been my safe space… or so I told myself. Thought of it as the place I come when I’m scared, or in pain.

But it isn’t. It’s my passion. It’s where my art lives. Where I’m happiest.

Eighth edition has just been announced. Already, the community is tearing up as though the sky is falling. Imperial Guard are weak. Space Marines, too boring, everyone plays them. White Dwarf isn’t as good as it used to be. Warhammer 40,000 isn’t as good as it used to be. Games Workshop will be going bust any day now, charging the insane prices they do.

Twenty years later, and the conversations of my youth are still happening.

But I’m more excited about this new edition than I have been for any other. Because it’s a new start. Can you imagine that? An entirely new start.

Back when John Barry first passed me that handful of bird bones, I’d no idea what he was really passing me. Because 40K isn’t something that “I’m into”. I can’t even say ‘it’s a huge part of my life‘, because it’s so much more than that. It’s been the bad times, it’s been the best days of my life. It’s cut me off from the world, turned me into a misanthrope, a hermit. It’s kept me going when there was literally nothing else there: my safe space, my happy place.

It’s the thing by which everything else I love is judged. It colours everything.

As a younger man, I’d have felt the need to apologise for that. But in eleven months, I’m forty. I’ve lived half my life in the Imperium’s shadow, and I can’t see ever leaving it. Even if I suddenly stopped, its reach into my thinking and reactions would be unavoidable. In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war; in the strange tones of our current times, we live in a golden age of gaming. The models are better, the rules are tighter, everything’s just so much MORE than it was thirty years ago.

It’s glorious.

As of this writing, I own fifty Dreadnought models.

________________________________________

That’s all for this month; if you enjoyed it, why not head off to Amazon and buy a copy of my book?. It’s the best book about lesbians fighting cyborgs and ghosts you’ll ever read.

Buy ‘a qlippothic engine – Beta Sequence: OSTROV’ now!

I suppose you think escaping the village was enough. It certainly must have seemed so while you were contained within.

I wonder: did you imagine it would be simple from this point onwards? That there would be no further security measures? That it was a simple journey from here to home; only a handful of sleep until you lie safe, your child safe in your arms? There’s something almost charming about that. The naivete of it, perhaps. The thought that, honestly, everything would work itself out after this point. So wonderfully innocent.

But you’ve several steps ahead of you yet. Projects Anima and Kraken await you, as do the Friendly Robots, Cardiac Spiders, the Penanggalan, the Dvigatel’ Smerti, the Aborticide floors, the room closest to Hell…

… not to mention that child of yours, long since remade in our own, most radiant image.

But that’s the best thing about innocence, though, isn’t it?

Taking it away will always be the most delicious pleasure of all.

a qlippothic engine – Beta Sequence: OSTROV is now available for UK customers to buy in Kindle ebook here, and for US customers here. If you prefer paperback, UK customers should click here, while US customers should click here

I’m Calling It Right Now: ’Get Out’ Is The Greatest Horror Film of This Generation.

Disclaimer: So let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I’m a white Englishman. A really white one. Worse, I’m a white man with left-wing leanings, and that’s absolutely going to colour my discussion of this film. However, given that one of the most critical of critical thinking skills is the ability to know oneself, and that ’Get Out’ is – in my opinion – a desperate attack on the indolence of left-leaning white folks who really, really don’t… Well, I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts about this most superb cinematic effort.

” A black mirror, made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront.” – Neil Gaiman on the perfect nightmare.

I love horror. Truth be told, I love horror more than anything, but the genre has a huge problem. Put bluntly, much of it is crap.

And not just a little bit crap, mind you, but mind-meltingly, ass-wreckingly crap. The kind of crap that leaves you furious that two hours of your life has been wasted on watching YET ANOTHER group of generic teenagers get killed, even though ‘Cabin In The Woods’ proved once and for all that Hollywood should stop making that exact same damned film because, as a genre, it’s been won.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yes, horror. I just love it. One of the things I love most about the genre – the thing, in fact, leaving apart those moments when I’m forced back into my chair away from the screen, practically browning my trousers – is the potential it has for symbolism. Almost more than any other genre, metaphor has always been horror’s greatest strength.

Because, of course, the monsters aren’t really monsters. They’re just whatever we’re afraid of, hidden behind a smokescreen of symbolism. Dracula might not be real, but our every nameless, unspoken, ridiculous fear of the foreigner is. Seen this way, the Count isn’t a just character, but a coagulation of every xenophobic anxiety from the Old World, come to our country to buy our property, steal our women, spread disease and kill our men. In the same way, Frankenstein is the walking personification of or fear of science and the evils that intelligence without wisdom can create; his monster, the purest representation of how ‘normal’ people victimise those who aren’t, learning only too late that ignorance and violence inevitably rebounds on the wielder.

The best writers can really exploit our nightmares to ask important questions about the human condition.

And I think this is why the majority of the stuff that gets produced and released to Netflix is so very, very depressing. All that potential to show us unpleasant or troubling truths about ourselves… and it’s usually nothing more than teenagers in a wood getting killed by transphobia.

So, I cannot begin to express how much I love Jordan Peele’s ’Get Out’. Not just because it’s scary (and it is; the whole two hour run-time’s infused with a dread so thick you can taste it) but more than that: because it’s about something. Specifically, racism. However, unlike every other Hollywood film, where the racists are nice, obvious Others – the kind of people who wear white hoods, burn crosses and are Not Us (no, never us) – ’Get Out’ dares to go where lesser films do not.

A perfect nightmare, it dares to do something both audacious and meaningful with its cruelties. Rather than simply presenting its Grand Guignol as simple emotive spectacle (though it is both emotive and it is spectacular), its true audacity is to hold up that black mirror to a white, liberal America that’s denies any examination of itself and go ‘You. You are the problem’. It left me feeling awkward, uncomfortable, and chilled to the bone.

Christ I fucking love this film.

SPOILER ALERT:
This is not a review of ’Get Out’. You don’t need one. Just go see it, it’s great. What this is, is an analytical essay, exploring the themes, ideas and concepts the film presents (from my aforementioned, White, middle-class, and like, maybe 60% heterosexual male perspective). As a result, there’s not just spoilers – there’s literally no point reading this unless you’ve seen the film. So, watch the film, then come back here.

Horror Traditions.

So there’s this story in horror which gets told and retold ad infinitum. Older than dirt, the ‘Don’t Go Into The Woods’ genre is so ubiquitous that if you’ve ever watched a horror film, you’ve probably seen it. The genre has a long and powerful tradition in literature and cinema, but the modern version of the story doesn’t really get defined until the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974) lays out all the tropes that all the later films will employ. The isolated, hostile location; the a big house which already seems weird to start with, but which holds unrelenting horrors inside; the evil forces inside the house which seek to destroy those interlopers foolish enough to have gotten lost on the way.

‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ may be the very first to truly lay out all the narrative tools, but later films built on them. Everything from ‘Evil Dead’ to ‘Cabin In The Woods’… even the first ‘Alien’ film is a ‘Don’t Go Into The Woods’ film, only the ‘Woods’ are a mysterious planet, and the scary house is a crashed spaceship.

The genre represents a story which plays on our subconscious fears in simple, easy to spot ways. The ‘house’ is somewhere unwelcoming, most usually represented by its crumbling façade and an interior filled with nightmares. The inhabitants are, mentally and morally, Not Like Us; most often they will be disfigured or physically different as a way to show their ‘Otherness’. There will usually be some kind of motif to link the monsters to Patriarchal fears of queer or violent sexuality. Norman Bates is a crossdressing lunatic. Leatherface is trans panic personified – a psychopath with a flayed woman’s face, flailing his chainsaw-cock at the world. The Evil Dead possess trees to rape women. Giger’s Alien literally has a penis for a head, hiding another rape-erection inside.

Teenager victims are then punished with death for going where they shouldn’t, and doing things they shouldn’t. As The Director puts it in ‘Cabin In The Woods’, they’re punished for “being young”.

The genius of ’Get Out’ is that is employs all of these tropes, but then confounds them by casting the white middle-class characters as the villains. ’Get Out’ forges an entirely unique horror film by repurposing clichéd tropes with an unapologetically black perspective on where ‘The Woods’ are, and who the horrors within them might be.

In this piece, I’m going to be taking ’Get Out’ apart, and looking at just exactly how it uses its metaphors to ask some difficult questions of white America.

“We know too many Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, and Abner Louimas, know too many Sean Bells and Amadou Diallos. Know too well that we are the hard-boiled sons of Emmett Till.”
– Javon Johnson

Any discussion of ’Get Out’ must necessarily begin with the audacity of that opening scene. As with so many horror films, it opens with a scene of a young, attractive person, caught out alone in a hostile location, and ends as that person is attacked by a man in a mask, their body disappeared into the night.

However, unlike those films, ’Get Out’ chooses to invert audience expectations in a number of powerful ways. Firstly, the more conventional victim-figure of a white woman – that most vulnerable of creatures (or so White America would have you believe) – is replaced with a black man. Black men are so rarely presented as vulnerable in cinema, so often shown as the aggressor, the ones most adept with physicality. The switch confronts the audience from the outset, demanding they recognise the essential humanity of a demographic which is all-too often Othered and demonised into caricature.

It’s a well-worn trope that in horror, ‘The Black Dude Dies First’, but ’Get Out’ presents this cliché in a significantly more political way than I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film.

Firsly, instead of the usual poverty, the scene’s mise-en-scen bespeaks nothing but wealth. The streets are well-lit with clean, aesthetically attractive lighting obviously designed to remind a viewer of the boulevards of a gated community. The road is clear and clean, well maintained, without a hint of graffiti or poverty in sight. There are trees and hedges, all perfectly lovely. It might be night-time, but it’s clear: this is a safe neighbourhood. This is somewhere well-to-do. This is somewhere where Bad Things just don’t happen. In any other, more conventional, Hollywood film, this would be where the bumbling middle-class family gets ready to go on vacation. Every house is large and expensive, all beautifully done in that peculiar, tastefully vast style of American wealth… the monster even drives an expensive-looking sports car.

All this use of carefully crafted aesthetics makes it impossible to read this scene without seeing Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till, or any of the thousand unremembered black men murdered for the simple crime of frightening a trigger-happy gun owner with their blackness.

Which is, of course, the point. Horror films are a repository of subconscious, unspoken fear. Hollywood has – with only depressingly rare exception – made films by white people, for white people. Usually, presumed white, straight, cis-het men. Where those films play on the subconscious fears of the white, straight, cis-het men who make them (hence the preponderance of transgendered serial killers and gay-panic induced queer murderers.)

’Get Out’ on the other hand, represents an entirely different cultural paradigm and viewpoint: the black fear of white supremacy. For the first time in a mainstream American popcorn film, we have a representation of the unspoken terror that must grip a vast majority of black American men: the horror that white people may do as they wish with black male bodies, and with impunity. Seen not from the presumed white viewpoint, but instead from an unrepentantly black perspective, the white suburbs become as alien and hostile as any isolated rural murder-farm.

For the first time, a horror film screams: “Hey middle-class white America: you are scary as Leatherface”.

And that’s not just transgressive; it’s shocking because we’re so used to racism being equated with white hoods and back woods, not lovely suburbs with well-kept lawns.

One particular touch I liked was how Jeremy Armitage, brother of the protagonist’s girlfriend and this film’s Leatherface equivalent, wears a knight’s helmet as he bundles his victim into the boot of his car. Knightly helms have connotations of wealth, privilege, aristocracy, courtly romance, skill at arms… all traits that Jeremy undoubtedly perceives in himself.

But the terrorists of the KKK explicitly call themselves ‘White Knights’ and undoubtedly fancy themselves as possessing all those same traits. Visual puns like this help clearly draw parallels between white liberal elite America’s ‘unconscious racial bias’ and the more overt active racialized violence of murderers like the Klan’s. Right from the start, in incredibly subtle ways like this, the film lays out its central thesis: that white liberal America is not so different from the Klan as it likes to tell itself.

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
― Toni Morrison, Beloved

There’s a saying: ‘Britain thinks 100 miles is a long way; America thinks 100 years is a long time’, and as a man who lives in a city that remembers Rome, I think there’s some truth to that. Slavery’s legacy infects America. There’s no escaping this, but there is a lot of denial about it. One of the things that people – white people – like to ignore is how recently slavery was still a thing in that nation. Slavery only ended 152 years ago, which sounds a lot, until you put it into actual human terms: that could be someone’s great-grandmother, who remembers her the scars on her great-grandmother’s back.

When I was born, there were still people alive who remembered family members born as slaves.

White America hates thinking about this, or if it does, it does so in terms of guilt. ‘Why should I feel guilty about something I didn’t do?’ Well, you shouldn’t. That’s a ridiculous idea. We mustn’t feel guilt; we weren’t (I assume) a slave owner. The sins of the father are not passed to the son. The appropriate response is not guilt, but a sense of responsibility. A sense that there are still wrongs in the world which we white people benefit from, to the detriment of black people; wrongs that are within our power to right.

What wrongs you ask?

Well, ’Get Out’ presents a number of them in very clear terms.

As I’ve established, horror is predicated around fears, and most powerfully about unspoken, subconscious fears that are often extremely hard to even name, let alone process or rationalise. Where white horror cinema tends to be built around a fears of emasculation and vulnerability in the face of a more primal world we cannot control, ’Get Out’s thematic concerns instead present a powerful look at two very specifically Black fear-myths. Firstly, the power of white people to subordinate black bodies. Secondly, the power of white people to deny such subordination has ever occurred, gaslighting black culture into thinking the war against racism has been won when it’s as far from conclusion as its ever been.

“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” – Martin Luther King

N.B: Because she’s such a significant character, we’ll be coming to Rose and the specific tropes she invokes later.

So the opening of ’Get Out’ establishes that we’re going to be dealing with a very different kind of murder-family than is entirely usual in horror.

To begin with, Chris’ every interaction with the family very effectively establishes how they’re not just white middle class – even before they’re revealed as absolute monsters, they’re the very worst of those indolent white liberals who Martin Luther King lamented, the ones for whom the time is never now. They fawn over Chris. They talk about how they wanted to vote for Obama for a third term, make a big show of how they’re well-travelled, how they embrace alternate world cultures. They’re educated, sophisticated, well-to-do; in every way, they couldn’t be further from the stock hillbilly-cannibal characters of your standard gore-fest.

However, intriguingly – especially for a fan of horror – Peele has written the Armitages as, essentially, the middle-class version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s ‘family’. The parallels are undeniable.

Chainsaw’s family has Leatherface, a violently unbalanced murderer who wears a mask as he carries out his crimes; the Armitage’s has Jeremy. Leatherface has a sibling, Hitchiker, who’s out in the world, causing trouble. The Armitages have Rose. Leatherface’s big brother runs the family, a horrible patriarch whose genuine evil drives his damaged little brother. Dean Armitage runs his family in the same way, organising and orchestrating their acts for his own grotesque purposes. The Chainsaw family is headed by Grandpaw, rendered infirm by age, but whose legendarily brutal past inspires and informs all his descendants’ actions. Roman Armitage may be forced to hide in the body of a Coagulated man for the majority of the film, but it’s revealed that he’s the one who’s driven everything.

The meta-textual point is that the two families are essential mirror opposites, separated only by class – and the wealth and respectability that class brings. After all, at a whole-family level, the two share terrifyingly similar behaviour. For example, in ‘Chainsaw’, the family uses trespassers as literal meat; in ’Get Out’ the Armitages are, likewise, interested in the flesh of their victims. Not as food, perhaps, but they definitely don’t see their victims as people. The Coagula, the film’s combination of hypnotism and brain surgery the Armitages inflict upon their victims is the purest kind of body horror. It invokes the classic horror trope of ‘And I Must Scream’, and is easily as vile as ‘Chainsaw’s cannibalism. The scene where Chris is powerlessly bound to a tastefully gauche leather chair can straightforwardly be read as the middle-class parallel to the scene in ‘Chainsaw’ where Terry McMinn’s Pam is hung, kicking and screaming, on Leatherface’s meathook.

Where ’Get Out’ dares to go further than ‘Chainsaw’ or other such slashers is in the politicisation of the Coagula; where Leatherface will simply kill you, the Coagula will destroy you. Peele’s direction of those poor, co-opted black characters who’ve been Coagulated is masterful, and the actors’ deft work at conveying the misery and despair of the Coagula’s victims really drives home the horror of what’s been done to them.

(As a related side note, Betty Gabriel’s performance as the Armitage’s ‘house maid’ Georgina is an absolute masterclass in acting. Her performance is so good it’s worth the price of entry alone.)

The thing is, beyond simple horror, the Coagula is one of the film’s key satirical elements. Subtextually, the Coagula’s victims are instead a metaphor for the way black people are diminished by being forced to assimilate themselves into white culture – a culture they never wanted to be a part of. On the surface, all the Coagulated black characters are happy. They smile, they primp themselves, they go for runs, they hold hands with their white friends…

But it’s all so obviously unnatural, so obviously wrong.

This is most driven home by Chris’ interactions with the character of Logan – who turns out to be an acquaintance named Andre. As Logan, the character speaks with the same cadence and vernacular as the white people around him. He carries himself as they do, has the same sort of ‘well-to-do’ mannerisms… The effect is genuinely strange; actor LaKeith Stanfield deserves huge credit so effectively invoking the uncanny valley. He makes it clear that Andre’s essential black identity has been utterly shredded by what’s been inflicted upon him.

A key demonstration of this is the shift when Andre is briefly able to break free from the Coagula’s ‘sunken place’ and shout a warning to Chris is profoundly disturbing, and the key signifier is Andre’s use of AAVE, that most distinctive, beautiful (and endlessly parodied) dialect. AAVE is, as with so many elements of black culture, alternately vilified and admired by white culture, that the way the character shifts between the two can’t be read in any way but a political one.

The film’s metaphor makes it clear: the only way for black people to truly be completely accepted by well-meaning white people? Is to give up your black identity entirely. You’re not allowed to dress black, or think black, or talk black. You have to literally give yourself up. Surrender. Submit. Replace the blackness within you with pure white, because the goal of these white middle classes isn’t so much the equality they claim it is, as it is to ensure that deep down ‘we’re all the same’.

How rarely do those with cultural power acknowledge that ‘same’ might carry connotations of loss for minorities? That the powerful ask the disenfranchised – not necessarily deliberately, but through every snide comment that denigrates minority culture – to give up an essential part of themselves? Society would never ask white people to give up their essential whiteness, but it doesn’t hesitate to denigrate black speech patterns, black hairstyles, or any element of black culture that’s too far removed from the acceptable mainstream. For white people, that kind of horrifying loss of self-identity would never need to happen.

In this way, the film’s Coagula procedure operates as a powerful metaphor for the crushing of black culture under white values; black people only truly accepted by the white community as ‘family’ once they’re utterly white on the inside, the only blackness remaining a lone voice screaming in misery at what’s been lost.

As with the opening scene, the film uses implications through its visuals, primarily the use of its mise-en-scen, to show where the roots of the Armitage’s attitude come from. Above ground, the family house is traditional, but modern. Despite this, the Coagula videos that Chris is forced to view are shown to him on a big old Radiation King TV, explicitly tying the Coagula to the 1950s: the era of white picket fences, boys named Chip, girls named Judy… and strange fruit dangling next to burning crosses. It’s an era that, for much of white American media, is held up as nostalgic; the kind of place where Richie and the Fonz might run into Marty McFly’s dad. ’Get Out’ shows us the flip side of that white utopian vision: a place where horror lurked for those who weren’t so privileged. The Coagula video shows the Armitage family’s Grandpaw explaining the procedure, while surrounded in visuals that are utterly rooted in the 50’s and the values of that era: neat gardens, happily coloured clothes, the perfect nuclear family… As a result, the Coagula can be seen as representing the darkness within the American white liberal elite. A time that was, for the kyriarchy, a cultural heyday was, for everyone else, a time where terrible ideas left unacknowledged were allowed to fester into modern problems of spectacular unpleasantness.

It’s interesting as well, because the film presents the idea that liberal values aren’t actually enough to save someone from the prejudiced attitudes of their upbringing. While Dean Armitage may be superficially a meritocrat – he’s not targeting black people deliberately, they’re just in fashion right now! – his actions give the lie to that. His family’s targeting of black people is an obvious, racist pattern, and one that’s obviously been passed down from father to son. As Dean says, his father Roman – who innovated the Coagula procedure – never got over losing to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. As the aphorism goes, when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Actions speak louder than words, and all Dean’s petty rationalisations regarding fashion do is serve to prove quite neatly how much racism exists simply because of a lack of critical thinking, which is, of course, the point. Saying black people are chosen because they’re ‘in fashion’, is a neat way for Peele to represent white middle class indifference to black suffering. To be able to say ‘I’m not racist’ without ever questioning the myriad ways we benefit from systems and power structures that exclusively target black people to the benefit of white is a key pillar of the white supremacy that has always dominated American culture.

The film is also not shy about looking at the failings of white liberal parenting. Ignoring (for the moment) Rose’s obvious psychopathy (because we’ll get to her in a bit), Jeremy Armitage is shown to be the most unstable member of the family, and the film makes it clear that his instability has a definite weird racial edge. Aside from the visuals of his knightly helmet signifying his as a white supremacist, in his biggest scene, we see Jeremy baiting Chris. He’s obsessed with Chris’ physicality, by turns jealous and prideful. He brings the conversation to MMA, leers at how Chris could be ‘a physical beast’. It’s obvious that he wants to fight Chris, made explicit when he comes over and tries to ‘playfully’ assault him. Given the delight with which he mocks Chris after he’s collapsed under hypnosis, it seems that Jeremy’s driven by a desperate need to be better than Chris… which, considering he’s only just met the guy, would be weird.

Unless Jeremy’s an overt racist, which, and let’s be honest here, he is. He’s jealous of Chris’ blackness, and clearly wants to assert himself over it. Chris challenges him in a way that he never states or explains, but which can only be resolved through Jeremy asserting his dominance through violence… at which point the subtext is pretty much just text. Jeremy’s a racist prick, raised by middle-class liberals who’ve taught their son that not saying racist things is the same as not being a racist.

But it isn’t, and the film shows that. It’s also interesting that when Jeremy’s desired fight comes – when he locks on the sleeper hold, attempting to live out his MMA fantasies – he loses. He’s not as good as he thinks. Chris – a non-violent photographer, remember – wins through luck, determination and grit, not because of any inherent racial advantage. Jeremy doesn’t lose because he’s white; he loses because, like every racist, he’s a hateful loser and the audience wants to see him go down.

And it’s at this point we get to the film’s most terrifying villain: Rose.

MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!” – Flavia Dzodan.

While the Armitage family as a whole is a satirical skewer through the heart of white ‘liberalism’, it’s in the character of Rose that the film really drives home its theme that the problem isn’t just the obvious racists, but those indolent left-wingers for whom the time is never now.

When we’re first introduced to the character of Rose, she’s shown to be, in every way, a Good Person. She’s funny and charming, and pre-emptively embarrassed for her family’s clumsy attempts to bond with Chris. In a masterful piece of meta-casting, the role is played by Allison Williams of ‘Girls’ fame. On that show – one entirely concerned with the lives of white liberal elite women and the difficulties they go through (to the somewhat infamous exclusion of people of colour) – she plays a relatively prissy, uptight character who’s still more responsible than the series’ lead. This role cannot help but inform the reactions of those audience members more familiar with Williams’ work, helping to immediately establish the character as trustworthy, reliable, and – most importantly – not a threat.

But Rose is a psychopath. The film takes great pains to show us this through her actions. Post the film’s reveal of her evil nature, she evinces a staggering lack of empathy. From the photographs of her victims, it’s clear she’s led many, many innocents to their doom. Literally as Chris is being Coagulated (or so she believes), she’s online, browsing for her next victim – this after being in a relationship with him for five months. The film reveals her as a consummate actor and masterful liar, able to convince Chris she’s looking for her keys even as she’s stalling him. When the façade finally falls, not just her expression changes, but her entire manner. Body language shifts, tone of voice changes… it’s an incredible performance from Williams, easily the equal of the actors portraying victims of the Coagula for its shocking difference to what has come before. William’s performance makes it clear through every movement and microexpression that the character is an abject monster.

If the film as a whole is a clear repurposing of the ‘Don’t Go Into the Woods’ genre from a black perspective, then Rose’s luring of so many, many men (and one woman) to their doom is basically the hoary old Bluebeard narrative, made shiny and new because, as with all the tropes in the film, it’s coming from a black perspective. The classic narrative is played so straight, it even has Bluebeard’s secret room of dead partners in it, albeit as photographs rather than corpses.

So in this sense, Rose is nothing we horror fans haven’t seen before.

However, the reason we’re discussing Rose’s psychopathy before we look at the ‘nice’ things she does at the start of the film, is because of the satirical light it throws on every one of her interactions with Chris. Before the reveal, Rose is funny and charming… a delight in every way, but – and this is what the reveal exposes – she’s was never once on Chris’ side. Looking at her actions from a post-reveal point of view, every single thing she does is only ever a move in a game, all designed to leave him ultimately reduced to a tool for her own class of people.

This is where the film really hammers its satire home. In the scene where Chris is pulled over by a – presumed openly racist officer – we see Chris co-operate with the officer. He doesn’t like it, but he smiles, he’s deferential and polite… he does everything America’s system of white supremacy has taught him he needs to do to survive. The tension in the scene is gut-churning, and I was sure that the officer was being set-up as a Chekov’s Gun, most likely for a final scene where he’d end up shooting and killing Chris as he ‘Got Out’.

But ’Get Out’ isn’t interested in making obvious points about overt racism, or police brutality. That tension, that sense that if Rose wasn’t there, Chris would be brutalised or dead? That’s all the film needs to say on that issue. ‘Police are scary if you’re black’ is so obvious, the film doesn’t waste time belabouring, justifying, or rationalising that point.

Your white comfort is not its concern.

Instead, the film shows Rose boldly standing up to the police officer, calling out his overt racism in an act of unconcealed allyship which establishes she is a Good Person. She can’t be racist, because she told a racist off for his racism!

…or so the indolent logic goes. Of course, post reveal, we can see this for the very superficial allyship it is: Rose is saying all the right things, not because she believes in them, but because they benefit her. In-universe, the character doesn’t want the police to know who the black man was, because once Chris becomes a missing person, the cop might come asking questions. Rose’s refusal to let the police see Chris’ ID protects her family.

Taken on the meta, satirical level, however, the film skewers lazy allies, showing that white liberals who will speak out against racism as a way to make themselves look good are no friend to the black community.

Later in the film, Rose’s selfish behaviour takes on a much more insidious edge. As Chris sees and experiences more of the weirdness-verging-on-horror of the Armitage house, he comes to the woman he loves, a woman he trusts because she spoke up for him and says ‘My lived experiences have shown me something bad is going on’.

Rose’s response is to gaslight the absolute shit out of him. ‘Honey, there’s nothing wrong. Your lived experiences aren’t as important as the words I’m saying to you.’

In refusing to acknowledge what her boyfriend is saying, the film drives home a further salient point about the dangers of white allyship, and actually listening to the people we purport to stand by.

People see things from their own perspective, and it’s truly difficult to put your own experiences aside and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It takes work, intelligence and empathy and some people just don’t have the capability. But, white people are so used to their voice being the one of authority, so used to speaking and having their words heard, that they talk over the legitimate, true fears of people with different life experiences, delegitimising real anxieties and sweeping serious problems under the carpet in the name of a quiet life. Any of us could be Rose, hushing someone in pain because, to quote Ultron, we’ve “confused peace with quiet”.

Rose’s refusal to listen also carries another, more awful betrayal. Chris might be in fear – literally for his life – but no matter what, no matter how much she might claim to love him, Rose will always put his needs second to her family’s. Why is this significant on a satirical level?

Because it contains the horrible truth that white women will side with abusive authorities as long as it lets them hold onto their privilege. Last November, 53% of white women voted for Trump, a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy and sees nothing wrong with abusive his position of power to do what he likes with the bodies of Miss World contestants. A self-admitted abuser of women is voted into power by white women because they “don’t think racism is a big deal”.

When 94% of black women voted for Clinton, well, a disparity like that makes you wonder. Like, maybe there’s more than a few Roses out there, who say they’ll stand with you in public, but who’ll betray you the second standing by you threatens their own status.

“I have the people behind me and the people are my strength.” – Huey P. Newton.

It’s telling that Rod, Chris’ awesome TSA friend, is the one who saves the day.

On a metaphorical level, Rod represents the black community. Rod is woke, and his journey shows – in a fairly comedic, but also frustrating way – the difficulties facing the black community when trying to explain the problems facing them.

Rod very quickly works out exactly what’s going on. He realises what the Armitage’s are going to do with Chris, and yeah, while his ‘sex slaves’ line is played for laughs, he’s right about that too.

Remember Andre? Andre who was coagulated with Logan’s brain? Logan who was married? Logan who still wants to have sex with his wife? Andre who screams at Chris to ‘Get Out!’ because every night, Andre has to watch from the sunken place as he’s raped by Logan’s ancient wife?

There’s a long history of white fascination and exoticisation of the black body, from the creepily hypersexualised presentation of Sarah Baartman as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, all the way through to a lingering legacy of racist tropes invented in the name of ‘protecting’ white women. Rod’s aware of this. Sure, he phrases his fears and knowledge in ways which lead others – including Chris – to not take him seriously, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

The film rubs our nose in this when Rod’s ignored by the police. He shows up with a photo of a missing person he’s found, but because his truth seems too ridiculous to be believed, the police laugh at him. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it shows how useless the authorities are when it comes to crimes committed against black people. Even nice, ‘good’ ones like Chris.

Secondly, and more importantly, all the police Rod speaks to are black. Significantly, the first officer he speaks to is a black female detective. He comes to these supposed professionals with actual evidence of a crime, but because he doesn’t report it in exactly the right way, he is laughed out of the building by people who look like him.

The film’s point is that of course the police aren’t onside, because sure, they might be black, but they’re police first. It’s a chilling thought to contemplate that the authorities won’t automatically be on your side – even when they look like you – because the institutions they serve will have changed them. In this way, the film points out that just having black officers will not help solve the problem of a racist police force (or any racist institution, for that matter). Internalised and institutional racism needs to be overcome consciously; it doesn’t just disappear by magic. The characters of the disbelieving police also serve to highlight that the film isn’t attacking white people; it’s attacking white supremacy, which is a system that exists within the minds of black people as much as it does white.

At the end of the film, Rod’s final glory is that he saves his friend. This was a lovely subversion of my expectations that I genuinely didn’t see coming; as I said, I was sure the police car was due to contain the evil officer from earlier. Not to mention, the lingering spectre of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was looming large in my mind, that film’s black protagonist shot to death by witless police who mistook him for a dangerous threat.

But that never happened. Chris got out and the satire concludes by telling us that, at the moment, the only people black folks can rely upon is each other. The black community, woke and engaged, taking the initiative and putting in all the effort is the only thing that will save black people. Not the police, not white people; only the black community, because white supremacy is everywhere and in everything.

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Martin Luther King “Letter from a Birmingham jail”, 1963

If you think ’Get Out’ is a film about how terrible white people are, you haven’t been paying attention. The Armitages are exactly as representative of white people as Leatherface is of Texans, which is to say, not at all. ’Get Out’ isn’t about white people, because white people aren’t even really in it. White actors are, but white people aren’t, because it’s not about us.

It’s about black subconscious fears.

As I said at the start, horror films – the most effective ones – are all about the things we’re afraid of, but that we can’t quite put into words. ‘Subconscious’ literally means ‘beneath our awareness’: a subconscious fear is a fear you’ve got but that you can’t quite articulate because you’re not fully aware of it.

’Get Out’ is a catalogue of everything black people are scared white people can do; not on a literal level, but on a metaphorical, subconscious one. They’re afraid of being gunned down by a scared citizen with no gun training and even less self-control. They’re afraid a police officer will gun them down because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid the partner who claims to love them won’t support them because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid that partner might turn on them because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid of being reduced to slavery again because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid they won’t be believed because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid the authorities will ignore them, even if they tell the truth, because of the colour of their skin.

And based on the evidence, it’s kind of hard to argue that those fears aren’t completely and utterly rational. The manifold legacies of slavery, of disenfranchisement, of exploitation, of police brutality, of being betrayed by supposed white allies… it all means the black community lives with fears which are entirely sensible, because time and time again, lived experience has proven that they are true.

So if you’re white and feeling defensive or angry, let me turn you from ’Get Out’ to another cinematic masterpiece:

‘The Lego Movie’.

At the end of that film, there’s a confrontation between two people. One has all the power, the other doesn’t. One defines how the world is supposed to be, the other is forced into complicity through threats and aggression.

Then the dominant one of the pair finds his Lego-figure analogue: a cartoonish, ridiculous asshole named President Business, with a sweeping cloak, flaming crown, and boots so tall he towers over the weaker figures. And on seeing his analogue, the dominant human figure is cut to his core.

“This is how you see me?”

White people: this is how black people see you.

Not consciously. It’s not fucking literal. They’re not worried you’re going to hypnotise them and cut their brains out.

But they are worried you won’t support them.

They are worried you’ll sell them out.

They are worried you won’t actually do anything meaningful to help advance their needs, even when you claim to be a friend and ally.

The point of ’Get Out’ isn’t to go ‘ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE LIKE…’, but to show us just how scared a huge portion of our community is. The villains of ’Get Out’ are to white people as President Business is to the Father in ‘The Lego Movie’. They’re every unspoken fear that white people have created, not through cruelty, but through indolence. Through laziness. Through a refusal to leave the house and challenge the structures which have kept black people down for the better part of four centuries.

To get angry about the way white people are presented in ’Get Out’ is to be the real villains of the piece.

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Like this piece? Why not have a look at my books? Seriously, they’re pretty good, and if you like horror, you won’t be disappointed.

‘a qlippothic engine – Beta Sequence’: available from the 2nd of April 2017

Edie stares, guts clenching at the sight of her X-rays. Her ribs glow a phosphorescent blue against the black of the background. She tries to distract herself from the shadow, tries to look away, to look her bones over: there’s the sternum, there’s the pelvis, the clavicles, all in perfect clarity. The edges of the bones are rendered in a detail so hard-edged as to be undeniable. Around them, like translucent clouds are the altogether more indistinct shapes of her organs, the same hazy blue of old cigar smoke.

Her heart, though. The thing around it’s as clear as bone, clenched like a fist with eight fingers. Even with the suggestion from her memory-dream, she hadn’t been expecting this.

The body of the thing is flat; looking at it side on, it can’t be more than maybe a couple of centimetres across. From the front, though, the hard abdomen and smooth thorax nearly cover her heart. Its eight hard limbs, each nearly as thick as a fingerbone, encircle the organ completely, holding it in a choke. She looks at where the head of the thing should be, but the X-ray becomes vague and indistinct. It becomes impossible to tell where the organ ends and where the…

The…

The spider

begins.

“What is that?” asks Veronica, her hard voice grown harder.

“Get it out of me,” says Edie.

“That is hybrot countermeasure number twenty-three seven omega, designation ‘Serdtsepauka’,” replies the Friendly Robot to Veronica. “Developed by Project Kraken in nineteen-eighty-nine, the Serdtsepauka is a hybrot countermeasure, genetically engineered from the genus Atrax Robustus. It ensures complicity of prisoners, subjects of extraordinary rendition, and captured enemy combatants. Standard practise involves surgical implantation of the Serdtsepauka into the recipient over the course of a three hour operation. Grafted directly into the cardiac muscle, the Serdtsepauka is then sustained for the rest of its life by the bloodstream of the host organism.

“In the event of prisoner non-compliance, operators may then deploy the Serdtsepauka through the use of electronic signals sent wirelessly to proprietary systems embedded in the countermeasure’s nervous system. These induces a variety of effects on the host, ranging from simple palpitations, to cardiac events, to – should the operator desire – death.”

“Get it out of me,” says Edie, her voice rising.

“I’m working on it, mate,” says Veronica with mild desperation. “How do we get it out of her?”

“Post-implantation extraction is not advised.”

“Get it out of me,” says Edie, her voice becoming shrill.

“Edie, calm down,” says Jacintha, who’s not sounding too calm herself.

“Get it out of me!” screams Edie, finally dropping all pretence at control. “Get it out of me, get it out of me, get it out of me!”

Then Jacintha’s fist crashes into her face and the world rolls over into blackness.

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The second part of YorkNecromancer’s debut novel series a qlippothic engine will be available for download and in paperback from April 2nd, 2017. Beta Sequence: OSTROV picks up where the first novel left off, moving the series into altogether darker, more horrifying waters. For those readers who haven’t yet encountered this landmark series, the opening chapters of the first novel Alpha Sequence: DEREVNYA can be enjoyed by clicking here. If you like that, why not follow these link to purchase it in either Kindle download or paperback? America readers should click here while British readers should click this link instead.

If you have any questions, feel free to message me via my Facebook page.

Argue On The Internet Better

The Moral of The Bucket

Is there anything more boring than school assembly?

After eleven years as a pupil and fifteen as a teacher… if I am sure of one truth, it is this: assemblies fucking suck. They’re long and boring and always about some unhelpful, untrue nonsense. ‘Believe in yourself’ or ‘be yourself’ or ‘MLK cured racism forever’. You know, some cheap, useless bullshit that hides the grotesque unfairnesses inflicted upon people by a society predicated upon selfishness and cruelty that we all have to sit through and pretend is in some way enriching the minds of the pupils who hear it. Which no-one listens to anyway, because we all switched off after the first fifteen seconds.

In twenty six years of them, I remember exactly one that was worth my time.

The speaker brought a bucket to the front of the room and put it down in front of everyone. Then she filled it with rocks.

“Is it full?” she asked.

“Yes,” came the bored reply.

So she pulled out some smaller rocks, and nimbly fitted them into the gaps. People looked up, their attention piqued.

“How about now? Is it full now?”

“Yes,” came the reply, although no-one sounded as certain this time.

She pulled out a bag of pebbles and dropped them into the spaces.

“How about now?”

“No,” came the reply, everyone now caught up with her game.

“Clever,” she replied, pulling out the bag of sand and pouring it into the bucket, filling it to the top. “So how about now? Is it finally full?”

“Yes,” came the confident cry.

At which point, she pulled out the jug of water.

With the bucket now definitely actually full, she turned to a hall full of year 11 pupils about to sit their exams, and said:

“You’ve all got lots to do each day: coming to school, doing homework, revising, chores, making time for yourself. The bucket represents your day. So what have you learned about your day? What’s the moral of the bucket?”

“There’s always time if you look hard enough?”

“No,” she replied. “Your day’s a fixed size. There’s only the time you’ve got.”

“We can always fit more into our day?” came the tentative reply from a lone voice at the back.

“No,” she replied. “Your day has limits. You have limits. You can only fit in so much.”

“So what is it then?” shouted one of the louder, braver boys at the back.

Picking up a large, jagged lump of granite that hadn’t fitted in, she held it up to the hall and smiled gently.

“Always start with the big rocks first.”

Differentiation.

That assembly is a perfect example of how teaching works. One of the rookie mistakes every noob-ass teacher makes when they step up to the whiteboard and decide they’re going to impart knowledge to the no-nothing numpties who’d rather be at home killing brown people on ‘Call of Duty’ is this:

“They’ll learn if I tell them.”

No.

No they won’t.

Years of Darwinian existence at the chalkface teaches us all the same brutal truth: you can’t tell anyone anything and expect them to learn it that way. The information might go in, but it falls out straight away, because telling isn’t teaching. Anyone who thinks it is, is a dumbass.

To truly teach, you have to be like Dom Cobb. You have to practise inception.


Pictured: me getting metaphorically ready for the first lesson of the day.

In the film ‘Inception’, Cobb gets a line that – somewhat unexpectedly – perfectly summarises why just telling someone something doesn’t work:

This is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about? …but it’s not your idea. The dreamer can always remember the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.”

 This is an utterly accurate summation of why, if you tell someone something, they don’t retain it. Teaching is the act of making information stick in people’s brains, and the ideas that stick are always the ones you come up with yourself. As Cobb says, perfectly summarising the end result of good quality teaching:

 

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.

Now, unlike what the film may lead you to believe, inception isn’t actually as difficult as the film makes out.

And no matter what some people might tell you, you don’t even need to bring a gun.

True inception simply requires what we in teaching call ‘differentiation’.

Differentiation is the act of creating different resources for your pupils based on their needs. You see, the problem of teaching is that you know what you want your pupils to learn, but you can’t tell them what it is. So, instead, you create puzzles and activities that (hopefully) lead them to working out the idea for themselves. Instead of telling them something, you facilitate a way for them to come up with the conclusion you want: to ‘create’ the knowledge spontaneously in their own head.

Inception.

Because Cobb is quite right: if a person works out an idea for themselves, they’ll remember it forever.

Now, teachers aren’t the only people who use this technique; religious teachers of every faith have been using it for years. Parables, koans, fables… These are all ways to convey knowledge to a learner without telling them what the knowledge is. It’s why story is so powerful: every story is a lesson about something, whether it means to be or not.

Now, at this stage, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m bringing this all up. Well, it’s because of arguing on the internet.

Arguing On The Internet

As long as I can remember, wargaming has been a hobby that’s as much about hating the hobby as it is enjoying it. Models have always been too expensive, rules have always been unbalanced, army lists have always included sub-par units, Games Workshop are always on the verge of going out of business… Since the second issue of White Dwarf, someone out there has complained that ‘White Dwarf’ isn’t as good as it used to be in the good old days. (They’re always wrong; ‘White Dwarf’ has never been good.)

The thing is, the internet has taken this hobby-within-a-hobby of relentless mythering and supercharged it. On the internet, like-minded misanthropes can meet and, just like the sort of strung-out junkies who’d suck off a dog in exchange for a hit, they can complain about a hobby they hate that they’ll never, ever quit.

The problem – for me, at least – isn’t actually the complaining. There’s nothing wrong with calling out crap when you see it, and despite what the memes may tell you, arguing on the internet can be quite productive… assuming both sides are properly supporting their ideas and coming from a place of informed debate. Sure, emotive, emotional arguing achieves very little, but proper, reasoned debate is possible… It’s just difficult.

So, my aim here is a primer for effective differentiation: a way for you to more effectively incept your ideas into the heads of others when you’re online. A way to ensure your arguments remain n reasoned and supported, rather than pure unthinking emotion, better able to convey the nuance and subtleties of what you actually think.

Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Just knowing something doesn’t mean you’re clever.

This is kind of hard idea for people to wrap their heads around; I know it was hard for me during my teacher training, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Knowledge simply represents data. Intelligence, on the other hand, represents the ability to actually use that data in useful, meaningful ways.

This is why we teachers use Bloom’s taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom was the educational psychologist who chaired the committee which first broke down the various educational domains into ranked areas of increasing complexity and specificity.

The theories Bloom and his buddies came up with date from the fifties, and I’m not about to argue that they’re completely accurate in their description of human learning processes. In fact, in modern education, the theories can be contentious. Don’t take them as empirical truth is what I’m saying.

Despite this, I personally regard Bloom’s as a useful tool. Not as something to be slavishly adhered to (as some educational institutions treat it) but as a kind of mental checklist; I use it whenever I’m trying to establishing exactly why a specific pupil doesn’t get the topic we’re covering. Bloom’s is useful as a reminder that intelligence isn’t just about IQ… which is why all the best ‘schemes of learning’ (the technical teacher-name for a collection of related lessons) will therefore necessarily take pupils up a kind of ‘slope of learning’, from simplest concepts to hardest. Despite its imperfections, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a simple guide to difficulty levels. Its utility lies in the way it can be a reminder that a person may not be able to advance from a lower level to a higher level as they haven’t understood all the steps in between. After all, you can’t evaluate a topic if you haven’t got knowledge of it.

I would argue it is these ‘missing gaps’ in our readers’ knowledge which makes arguing on the internet such a pain in the ass. Bloom’s is flawed, yes, but taken as a rough and ready system, it presents a useful tool to enable us as educators (yes, including you) to identify where our audience might have gone off-piste, as well as the kinds of things we might need to help them get back on track.

So, what are the stages of Bloom’s taxonomy?

1.) Knowledge: the ability to recall data or information.
This is the most basic level; it’s literally rote retention of simple facts: ‘The sky is blue’; ‘Christians believe in Jesus’; ‘a simile is a comparison using “like” or “as”’. Knowledge represents the capacity for a learner to repeat information that does not have to be understood, simply defined through clear observation.

2.) Comprehension: the ability to understand the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems.
Which sounds really complex, but all it means is that instead of simply observing something, you are now able to say something a little deeper about the thing you know. “Christians believe in Jesus because they have read the Bible and agree with the tenets within”, for example. Comprehension also represents the ability to state a problem in one’s own words: “The sky is usually blue; however, when it’s grey, that means there’s more water vapour in the air, which means it’s more likely to rain.”

3.) Application: the ability to use a concept in a new situation or unprompted use of an abstraction.
This is the ability to apply something that’s been learned in the classroom into new and unexpected situations, either in life or in the work place. For example, if I teach a pupil how to use emotive language, they might use that skill at Christmas time, pulling on their parent’s heartstrings to try and get more presents. Doesn’t mean they succeed of course, merely that they have learned something which can actually be used.

4.) Analysis: the ability to separate material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood.
At this stage, learners have understood the individual parts of a concept, and are now able to understand how to put those ideas together, in such a way that they can now understand structures. At this level, things are starting to get difficult, because analysis requires the ability to understand abstract ideas – to work out how things function without necessarily having that function shown to them. So as an example, a pupil studying English might be able to look at the language in a poem, and explain how it’s being used to affect a reader’s emotions as a means to manipulating their thought processes. On the other hand, a pupil studying design and technology might be able to look at the component parts of a device and assemble it without being told what the device is.

5.) Synthesis: the ability to build a structure or pattern from diverse elements.
By this stage, a learner is not only capable of understanding the components and processes behind an idea or concept, they can actually start innovating using those same concepts as tools. They can put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure. So an art student might, for example, be able to look at a pre-existing style of painting, the style of artwork from another culture, and a newly invented kind of paint, and combine those disparate elements to create something that is completely new, but which honours the inspirations the artist has drawn from.

6.) Evaluation: the ability to make judgments about the value of ideas or materials.
This is the final, most difficult stage of learning, because it involves understanding all the prexisting stages, and being able to compare them. Of course, it’s something we do every time we go shopping: which of these two seemingly identical products is the one I will buy? However, when dealing with a more difficult, abstract topic, this process can become incredibly difficult, especially when higher-level mathematical or scientific skills are involved, or when several complex ideas relating to cultural critique are interacting with each other all at once.

As I’m sure you can see, it’s the evaluation stage which is the most awkward when it comes to discussion online… mostly because it seems easy. After all, we do it all the time.

Except we don’t, and that appearance of familiarity can be deeply deceptive. Just because a person can compare oranges and apples doesn’t mean they can effectively compare three or four seemingly contradictory, high-level abstract concepts on any level beyond the most superficial. Knowing what those concepts are is simply not enough; one cannot evaluate just because one has knowledge of a topic. If all you have is knowledge, then you’re missing the comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis stages.

Put simply, Bloom’s argues that we have to know what a thing is, understand how it works, be able to use that thing ourselves, explain every aspect of it, and be able to use it in conjunction with other things before we can truly start comparing it to other, similar things. Without all those intermediate stages, we can try and evaluate, but the gaps in our intelligence will mean we make mistakes that someone without those gaps won’t.

Which means, stepping backwards from this, that if you want to truly teach someone else online (or anywhere) of the truth of a certain concept, you yourself need to appreciate all of those stages, and lead your ‘pupils’ up the mountain of knowledge one tentative step at a time.

So let’s see how this could be applied to a discussion about wargaming.

Nom Nom Lovely Crunch.

To start with, I want to look at how we might potentially use Bloom’s to present a discussion on a topic from the ‘crunch’ side of 40K. In this case, it’s going to be looking at the preponderance of 3+ saves, the ubiquitous feature that makes MEQ armies so very MEQ.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The arguments and discussion points I’m going to cover in this do not represent my own opinions on the topic; they are used for illustrative purposes only because the topic itself is one with which most gamers would be familiar.

So, we start at the beginning, with the Knowledge stage. Here, we just have a simple piece of data: Space Marines have a 3+ save.

So butch.

The next stage is where things gain a touch more complexity. The Comprehension stage requires us to understand, interpolate, and interpret that knowledge. In simple terms, for this argument, we’re going to state a problem in simple terms: Marine armies are ubiquitous, meaning 3+ saves are ubiquitous; as a result, if everyone has a 3+ save, then armies are all very similar, which makes games dull.

This is where a lot of arguments about Marines tend to begin – look at their similarity! They’re all the same! I’m sure you’ve gotten involved in arguments about strength 4, about armour penetration rules, all those things which could mitigate this (potentially) tedious similiarity. If so, you’ve reached the Application stage, you can use concepts you’ve learned to change, overcome or improve situations you find yourself in. In this example, the Application stage would be to point out that there are actually counters to 3+ save in the game already: it’s possible to counter 3+ saves through the careful use of AP3 weapons. So, to pick an example, a Deathwatch player – who has easy access to AP3 melee weaponry – might elect to give every model in their Deathwatch army power weapons. Boom! Problem solved forever, right?

Pictured: the artificer blade ‘Hard Counter’.

Obviously no. But someone who’s at the Analysis stage is capable of separating concepts into component parts and considering the organizational structure… which is a posh way of saying they can look at individual elements more closely. So, they see the problem of too much 3+ armour, and instead of offering a simple, blanket not-solution, they offer a slightly more refined solution. Our hypothetical player’s analysis point out that those AP3 power weapons are only useful in assault… which means that any model with a power weapon which doesn’t enter assault has had points wasted on them. Given that not every model is likely to enter assault, it would therefore be points-inefficient to equip the whole army, simply on the off-chance a random model might get the chance to smash face. However, our analyst offers a more refined solution to the issue of AP3: only equip models that they have specifically designed to enter assault with power weapons.

The next stage of this, Synthesis, involves building a structure from diverse elements. In simple terms, this would be where our hypothetical player starts putting disparate parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new, more effective structure. At this point of the argument, someone with a grasp of Synthesis will realise that the preponderance of 3+ saves cannot be dealt with by assault troops alone. So, in order to be able to tackle 3+ at both assault and range, they elect to equip some models with Plasma pistols, whose increased range will give them more ranged control of the battlefield.

Plus cook them alive in their own armour.

And here is where we reach the final Evaluation stage, making judgments about the value of things.

After a few games, out hypothetical player judges that the Plasma pistols are effective in assault, but less effective at range because their range is too short, meaning they aren’t actually any better than a simple power weapon… so giving them to troops who already have power weapons is overkill. Plus, the ‘Gets Hot’ rule has claimed important troops at the worst possible time. So, while they are happy with their use of the occasional power weapon to tackle 3+ saves, they still require a ranged hard counter. They have two real option: Plasma guns, which will leads to an overall drop in the assault effectiveness of their troops, due to the lost attack, or Grav weaponry. Grav weaponry will be less effective at wounding, but lacks the ‘Gets Hot’ rule. So, the options break down to:

– A plasma pistol: points expensive, short ranged, and has ‘Gets Hot’, but is super-killy.

– A plama gun: the same points and ‘Gets Hot’ problem of the plasma pistol, but with decreased assault effectiveness on top; however, all of which is compensated for by a good range.

– A grav pistol: short range and effective in assault; marginally less killy than a plasma weapon, but without ‘Gets Hot’.

– A grav gun: all the strengths of the grav pistol and the plasma gun, with the only downside being the decrease in assault effectiveness.

Looking through all these criteria, our player decides that the extra range the guns have over the pistols brings an additional advantage: the ability to control significantly more of the board, which not only makes their men more deadly, but also forces their opponent to think carefully about the risks of position their men too, allowing our player more board control. Having chosen to take the gun, they then have to decide which one, which will obviously depend on their local meta.

But who are we kidding, it’s going to be grav. No ‘Gets Hots’, and absolutely beast at getting rid of Monstrous Creature nonsense? Of course grav wins.

Now, for those of you going ‘Well all that stuff seems pretty bloody obvious to me’, well, yes. This is a very simple logical chain, used to illustrate the ways that each level of Bloom’s facilitates the next. For our next example, I’m going to take you through a cultural argument rather than a gameplay one.

Ooooh, Pretty Pretty Fluff!

For the example of Fluff analysis, I’m going to use the perennial topic of female space marines, firstly because it’s an argument that everyone is familiar with, but mostly because it’s an argument where I can clearly lay out my own thinking (because it’s an argument I’ve spent approaching three decades having).

Pictured: the worst thing that could ever happen to 40K, according to some.

The Knowledge stage of this argument begins even more simply than our last one. We start with the simple statement that all Space Marines are male.

The Comprehension stage is where we first express the problem. Games generally have players of both genders. Space Marines are the most popular 40K army; therefore, if all Space Marines are male, then female gamers are being treated unfairly.

Now, this is the stage that people’s rage kicks in, and turns the argument nasty. That’s because the Comprehension stage is simply the expression of a problem. We need to take the argument significantly further to reach a fully thought-out response, whether that argument be in favour of female Astartes or against. So, the hard work really begins at the Application stage, where we first start to think in abstractions. In this case, one Application would revolve around the abstract concept that Warhammer 40,000 isn’t real, and that therefore, Space Marines aren’t real. As a result, the in-universe ‘fact’ that ‘All Space Marines are male’ can be ignored if I, as a player, want to ignore it.

The Analysis stage, where we separate concepts into component parts so that we can understand the structures which justify the existence of the concept being discussed. For example, in following our argument, we can now look at the origins of the game: the people who created Warhammer 40,000 were males, working in the 1980’s, when society was undoubtedly a sexist one. The men responsible for the game probably didn’t expect that women would ever play their games; given the world they lived in, that belief was probably true. This means the in-universe ‘fact’ that all Space Marines are male… well, it exists as a logical response to the specific time, place, and people involved when the game was created. In the same way as novels from Victorian England contain horrifying racism that would be unacceptable in the modern world, Warhammer 40,000 comes with the legacy of the world that existed when it was created. It’s a product of its time.

Synthesis is where we begin to probe that concept even more deeply by pulling together various ideas from widely differing places, creating a new structure from pre-existing older ideas. Here, for example, we could create an argument that synthesises disparate ideas from the real world. If we accept that 40k’s roots were necessarily inadvertently sexist, we can also realise that the real world has moved on from there. Culture has changed. In computer games, another traditionally male-dominated domain, women now account for 54% of all gamers worldwide; female gaming has made those companies which embraced it huge profits. In comics, another bastion of one-time purely masculine culture, Marvel and DC comics have achieved financial success by overtly appealing to the female market (Kamala Khan, Harley Quinn). Those female readers have brought both companies mad money (not to mention providing comics which are equally enjoyed by all genders). Given that different areas of geek culture whose psychographic and demographic groups overlap with Games Workshop’s have achieved huge financial success, it therefore follows that by ignoring even the possibility that women might play tabletop miniature games, Games Workshop is missing out on huge money. When we then factor in several years of low profits for Games Workshop (combined with a global economic downturn, and the undoubted financial impact of Brexit on the primarily UK-based company), GW cannot afford to be sniffy about money which could just be lying there waiting to be made. Put simply, female marines make financial sense.

After all, people are already paying other companies for the bitz…

The Evaluation stage of the argument finishes the argument off. As established, the in-universe ‘fact’ that ‘All Space Marines are male’ is unfair to female gamers. As established, it is a byproduct of the era in which the game was released, and because the game is fictional, it is not a fact, but a choice regarding a piece of fiction, and therefore able to be changed. As established, changing this ‘fact’ to allow for female Space Marines would be likely to make Games Workshop money; morally, it would be fairer for all gamers. It would also be undeniably true that male gamers would lose nothing: any as established, any gamer can assemble any army they choose, including an all-male Space Marine army if they like. Now, should the change to fluff be made and female marines be embraced by GW as canonical, then there’s no doubt that GW would lose some customers. This is the same community which featured a member who infamously burned his entire army when WHFB became AoS. Some players would undoubtedly respond to such a change with such horror that they might leave the game, and badmouth the company. This would hurt profits, and so the question becomes: do GW stay the same, embracing these more conservative members of their community, or does GW embrace change, risk losing them and having them conduct what will undoubtedly be a loud and toxic campaign that could easily turn very nasty?

Looking at all the issues from a dispassionate place, the choice boils down to two core motivations: either profit or morality. From a profit standpoint, as established, female space marines represent a financial risk, but also a possibly huge financial gain. From a moral standpoint, to the traditionally-minded player, female marines represent an unthinkably appalling concept; to a progressive, the current fluff is equally despicable.

(From my own personal point of view, the choice to introduce female space marines seems obvious. If female marines exist, then I can get the girls who are currently playing Perudo, Ghost Castle and Poker at my school games club into 40K. I know this, because every discussion about 40K I’ve had with the girls always starts with them being amazed at how awesome the figures are, and ends with them being disappointed that there’s no women. So they keep playing the games that don’t exclude them, GW misses out on a school that would otherwise be entering its tournament scene, the school doesn’t give my club any more money to buy new stuff, and the three remaining 40K players are forced to keep using battered dictionaries as scenery instead of having actual scenery. Seems obvious to state it, but a rising tide lifts all boats…)

Caveat: Mister Garak’s ‘Misconception’

So, the two examples above hopefully demonstrate the way to best structure your own arguments, and have modelled a potentially useful way to order your thinking to better explain it to other gamers.

However, the thing to always remember is that encouraging higher-level thinking and intelligence isn’t necessarily going to encourage the result you expect. Just because you set up an activity using Bloom’s Taxonomy, don’t expect your truly clever students to necessarily reach the same conclusion you do. High-order thinking like Synthesis and Evaluation, by nature, isn’t learning by rote. Your pupils will take the pieces you give them and assemble them in ways which are logical to them… ways that may not have been obvious to you. After all, there exist genius-level scientists of equal intelligence who are Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Zoroastrians… all of them unable to convince the others to change their opinion. Intelligence doesn’t necessarily make a person better at seeing objective ‘truth’, but it definitely makes them better at defending emotionally-based positions.

In ‘Deep Space Nine’, Cardassian super-spy and sociopath Garak was told the story of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, and decreed that the moral was not ‘never tell lies’; it was ‘never tell the same lie twice’. So, you know, be prepared that if you’re teaching people to actually think, they may think some very unexpected things.

That’s all for this month; if you enjoyed it, why not head off to Amazon and buy a copy of my book?. It’s the best book about lesbians fighting cyborgs and ghosts you’ll ever read.

a qlippothic engine: alpha sequence is out NOW.

Derevnya BoLS banner 2

If you’re a follower of this blog, then you’ll no doubt have seen the header. Well, my debut novel is out now, and I’d like to invite readers of the site to enjoy a free copy.

Starting from Monday the 6th of February 2017 and lasting until Friday the 10th, the first volume of a qlippothic engine will be free to download to all. A genre-busting story of horror, science fiction and ontological mystery, Alpha Sequence: DEREVNYA is the beginning of a three part narrative that will take readers on a very strange journey indeed. One where death itself need be no impediment to further suffering.

To read the opening chapters, readers can click here and follow this link to enjoy the preview of the first two chapters of Alpha Sequence: DEREVNYA I posted back in January, but why bother with that when the whole book can be yours for absolutely nothing? Just follow these links: America readers should click here while British readers should click this link instead.

Like this? Want to know more? If so, then as well as following this blog, you should like my Facebook page where I’ll be publishing details of the follow-up, Beta Sequence: OSTROV, currently slated for release in April this year.

Feb 2017: Wolverine – The Original Faster Horse

The 90’s was a weird time.

The Dark Age of Superhero Comics was in full swing, with bandoliers, belts and badasses the only flavour of ice-cream available to buy. Whimsy and lightness were out; stubble and dead girlfriends were in. This was the era when a hobbit-sized manimal possessed of more back hair than a stoat with three X chromosomes was the coolest guy in town. Which always kind of surprised me. After all, when your power set is essentially the same as Jason Voorhees, you’re not supposed to be the epitome of cool.

More popular than The Beatles.

Back in the 1990’s, you couldn’t move for Wolverine. Despite being a hero whose only real power is violent murder, and despite having the emotional range of Steven Segal on those emotion suppressors from ‘Equilibrium’, Wolverine’s gurning countenance glowered down from the cover of approximately eleventy thousand comics. X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Adventures, X-Men 2099… Marvel milked that cash cow until the milk ran out and the udders squirted blood. For over a decade, the stubbly shortarse with knives for hands was so ubiquitous on covers of comics so terrible they could conceivably be used by Q as an argument for the extermination of the human race, that he even has a trope named after it: Wolverine Publicity.

The thing is, you can kind of see why. The early nineties was the last great era of the action hero: Stallone and Schwarzenegger were demigods at the box office, so it made sense for the comics of the era – aimed as they were at the exact same demographic group of testosterone-poisoned teenaged boys – to ape what was popular in the mainstream. In this, Wolverine was more than successful, fighting, ninjas, cyborgs, cyborg ninjas, ninja cyborgs and of course, his worst enemy, Big Wolverine.

Because the only person who could possibly be a threat to Wolverine is a bigger version of Wolverine.

You’d think Wolverine would be an easy sell. He’s macho, has the king of all steroidal physiques, thinks in tough-guy clichés, and literally has knives for hands. By rights, he should be the greatest of all action heroes, ever.

But merciful Zeus Wolverine’s films are terrible.

Now, this has nothing to do with the man who plays him. Hugh Jackman is an incredible actor with huge range. ‘The Fountain’ is an unsung masterpiece, ‘The Prestige’ remains one of my favourite films of all time, and any man who will grab a stein of beer at a moment’s notice and pretend to be Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a class act all round. But, sadly, the only good film about Wolverine in is the very first, original ‘X-Men’ from 2000, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Despite featuring Cyclops, Jean Grey and the rest, it’s utterly Wolverine’s film – he almost effortlessly steals it from everyone else – and he’s just so amazing in it, we all thought he’d work on his own. I mean, come on, he gave Cyclops the finger and was kind to Rogue. How could a film where those douches weren’t around sucking up valuable Wolerine-kicks-all-the-ass time possible fail?

Spectacularly, as it turns out.

‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ was a garbled mess that exchanged plot for shots of a hideous cyborg made entirely of veiny bratwurst, wearing Hugh Jackman’s skin while it butchering faceless baddies to absolutely no effect. Seriously, this was a film so bad that Deadpool himself called it out.

The second attempt was no better. ‘The Wolverine’ was a borderline-racist caricature of what Americans think Japan is like that was so crap I was honestly amazed he didn’t end up in a duel with Tom Cruise’s character from ‘The Last Samurai’. Although, actually, that might’ve been better than what we got, which was Wolverine going toe-to-toe with a shoddy CGI abortion that wouldn’t have been credible in 1989, let alone the new millennium.

As two films have borne out, Wolverine just doesn’t work on his own. Not even a little bit. The interesting thing is that people always seem to lay the blame for this at the feet of bad scripts. Which is fair enough – the scripts were dreadful. I mean, it seems so simple: bad guy shows up, Wolverine tanks the damage and then solves the problem by stabbing them in the dickhole. Seems easy enough, yeah? Why can’t the studios just make it work?

Well, I’d argue that the problem isn’t the studios. Maybe it usually is – look at the way they mishandled Deadpool! But Wolverine’s a character they’ve more than given the chance to succeed, and he just never does.

Why?

I think the reason is Wolverine himself.

He’s just not that interesting.

If you take a step back from the awesome to actually look at the meat of the character, there’s not actually a lot there. He’s got generic anger issues, a generic mysterious past, generic amnesia about said mysterious past… he’s a walking cavalcade of clichés, and he’s kind of hard to tell stories about as a result.

He works as a character when he’s with the X-Men because it’s a great juxtaposition: all the other X-Men are generally pacifists. In an organisation dedicated to showing humanity how safe and normal mutants are, Wolverine is the mutant everyone should be scared of. When the evil senator says ‘Some mutants are living weapons’, Logan’s the one they’re talking about. When the Danger Room’s power goes out, he trains other X-Men by locking the door and turning out the light and just attacking them.

He also makes the prettiest papercraft.

He’s the X-Man other X-Men fear. Which means we see his awesome by comparing him to them. His awesomeness exists in direct relation to their lack of it. The plucky protagonist gets caught in a room? Logan crashes to his rescue. The intellectual protagonist gets lost in navel gazing? Wolverine drops an Adamantium-edged truth bomb and passes her a beer. He’s the X-Men’s ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card, and that’s what makes him so amazing…

… but the moment you take him out of that equation – the moment he’s the one who has to carry the narrative – he fumbles, because on his own, there’s nothing about his personality that’s massively unique. When he’s skulking around the back, the mightiest warrior in a group of peaceful hippies, he stands out. Alone, he’s just another generic action guy: scowls and manpain and cliché.

The crux of a good narrative comes when characters run into a problem which they cannot solve through their strongest skills, or when they encounter difficulties they cannot overcome through the methods they’d usually use. Superman isn’t interesting when he’s taking on Muggle bank robbers, because the fight is a foregone conclusion. He’s interesting when he has to fight the concept of wealth inequality, or the fundamental problems of human cruelty, or when he’s up against President Luthor: a man he literally cannot punch without incurring impossible political consequences. In the same way, Wolverine isn’t interesting if he’s confronted with problems whose solutions are either knives, stabbing, punching, or kicking.

But those things are literally all his fans want to see him do… right up until they see him do them, whereupon we get a pointless fight between Wolverine and Big Wolverine, two men whose weapons are knives, but whose powers are immunity to knives. It’s a fight that literally neither of them can win, but the demands of the action genre mean there’s no other way the story can let their conflict proceed.

The fans want to see Wolverine fight. When he’s with the X-Men, it’s awesome, because he can’t be there to defend them all. When he’s alone, it’s always something of an anti-climax: he’s just too good at it. He is, to all intents and purposes, indestructible, so the fight has no stakes.


Well, apart from the girlfriend who will inevitably be killed for him to have some more manpain over. Which isn’t a boring cliché that’s making me yawn even as I write it.

This is why I’m actually quite grateful Marvel’s businesses were choking by the end of the 90s. The Dark Age, whilst initially successful, was losing money hand over fist by the end because every story was the same, and no-one cared any more. Marvel had to sell off the film rights to their biggest properties just to stay afloat: Fantastic Four, Spiderman, the X-Men… all the big money was given away.

Without that, we’d probably never have had the MCU.

On The Rise of a Reformed Junkie.

It may seem unthinkable now, but there was a time when Iron Man was B-list player. The first Iron Man film was a legitimate punt; no-one really knew who Tony Stark was, and Robert Downey Jr. was best known as a drugged-out former star of TV’s Ally McBeal. No-one knew it was ever going to lead to the insane success it received.

But Marvel had no other options. They’d needed money, they’d sold off the X-Men, Spiderman, all their biggest names, and so they had to fall back on the B-listers. The guys who people vaguely remembered from episodes of Spiderman and his Amazing Friends they’d watched decades before. But, by being forced into focusing on lesser-known characters, the organisation that would become Marvel Studios managed to tap into something people actually wanted: to see something they hadn’t seen before.

In the current superhero-saturated environment, it’s easy to forget what a breath of fresh air that first X-Men film was. My friends and I had been talking about how awesome it’d be to see Wolverine in a film for years, but we knew it’d never happen. Not when the dominant paradigm of the time was ‘Batman and Robin’, a film which was built entirely around a philosophy that superheroes should be ‘toyetic’. X-Men happened, and it was magical because we hadn’t seen it before. It was a real thrill to see the Wolverine in that first cage fight, just smoking a cigar and beating a man without even popping the claws; the way they made you wait for the first time they came out… we were champing at the bit to see him slash a motherfucker up.

By the time ‘The Wolverine’ came out, that thrill was gone, and with exactly as much character depth in his sixth film as he’d displayed in his first, Wolverine was something we knew completely. And this is where the truth of things was revealed. Like the film The Amazing Spiderman, the simple truth is that people don’t want to see things they’ve seen before. We’ve seen Wolverine beat up a horde of spec ops dudes in gasmasks so many times now. We’ve heard Spiderman explain how with great power comes blah blah yakety schmakety…


Pictured: something that never needs to ever be in a Spiderman story ever again.

It’s the reason ‘Amazing Spiderman’ tanked, while the excitement surrounding Spiderman in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ was so intense. ‘Civil War’ was a new Spiderman. There was no angsty bullshit, no tediously rehashed scene of Uncle Ben dying, no retelling of a not-exactly-complicated origin story we all learned back when we were five.

Instead, there was a funny relationship with Tony Stark, a man clever enough to immediately know who the Spiderling Crime Fighting Spider was. There was Peter Parker geeking out over Winter Soldier’s cybernetic arm, marvelling at the build quality of Falcon’s wings, being mildly awed at the simple fact that that’s actually Captain America he’s fighting.

In short, it was the first time a film had done something original with Spiderman in years.

The thing is, everyone says they want to see something new, but the truth is a little more complicated than that. People don’t actually want what they think they want. They don’t want originality, because true originality is actually a little bit overwhelming. If it’s something the audiences have absolutely no familiarity with, no cultural reference points to refer to, then it’s actually not pleasant for them. Because true originality is, by necessity, weird. Radiohead followed up the triumphant ok computer with Kid A, an album that essentially attempted to reinvent the concept of music, and which was instead a garbled mess of bleeps and bloops which only the most pretetentious music fans could even tolerate. Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’ is a work of stunning originality… and an experience so horrible it only succeeds as a surrealist comedy.


A film whose star looks like he was stitched together from leftover foreskins  by Jim Henson’s creature shop.

Genre criticism argues that people don’t actually want originality, and the failure of films which just rehash the same old ideas proves that there’s no success to be found in doing the same thing repeatedly to diminishing returns. The thing is that people don’t actually want their favourite thing over and over again; they want something that’s like the thing they loved, only different enough that it’s not immediately recognisable as such: a new twist on old favourites.

A hilarious recent example of this – for me, any way – is Doctor Strange.

Dr Stephen Strange is an arrogant genius with a goatee beard and many material possessions, forced to reevaluate his life after a crippling injury, trained by a wise mentor in an isolated location, emerging empowered by his newfound knowledge, driven to use said gifts for the betterment of all people by a guilt at his previous selfishness.

He is LITERALLY Tony Stark, only with magic powers instead of science powers. Right down to the facial hair, they are literally the same man, and their initial films are, to all intents and purposes, the same.


Dear Glob let this be in Infinity War

But the thing is, there’s just enough differences that Strange felt new and exciting.

Despite what the common wisdom will tell you, a lack of originality isn’t a bad thing; refusing to give fans what they want – another Iron Man film – isn’t a bad thing, because you can just file Tony Stark’s serial numbers off, call him Stephen Strange and BOOM, new property.

We can even see this in supposedly utterly original properties that take apparently daring risks like ‘Game of Thrones’. For all its defiance of everyone’s expectations with Ned Stark and Robb Stark, SPOILER ALERT John Snow has turned out to LITERALLY be Aragorn. Just like Tolkein’s famous ranger, Snow is the lost son of the rightful king, returned to claim his birthright from the unworthy usurpers who have been ruling in his absence. ‘Game of Thrones’ may seemingly bear very little similarity to ‘Lord of the Rings’ beyond the superficial, but the truth is that slowly, it’s been revealed to be hitting many of the exact same story beats as the trope codifier. Jon Snow’s narrative may not be fully exposed yet, but it seems to be the same Hero’s Journey that Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins and Buffy Summers all walked long before him.

And as I’ve explained, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As we’ve seen, when people say “That’s so unoriginal,” what they mean for the most part is “I’ve seen these exact same story and character patterns played out in this exact same way before,” not “I want something I’ve literally never seen before”.

Now, I think this is kind of important for fans of Games Workshop and most especially Warhammer 40,000, because as of 2017, we are in interesting times.

A Gathering Storm

If you’re a 40K player, unless you’ve been living under a barn, you know about the Gathering Storm. GW have been cranking out campaign books for a while now. Since the lacklustre turd that was ‘Campaign of Fire’ at the start of 6th edition, we’ve had the various Warzone books, as well as Shield of Baal, Warzone: Damocles, Sanctus Reach, Death Masque… but despite all these, Gathering Storm represents something legitimately new.

“When are GW going to move the narrative forwards?” fans have been asking for years, so much so that last year, I wrote a blog exploring the concept. Well, to go with the interesting times we live in, everything seems to be changing, 40K included, and the unthinkable has happened: the plot of 40K has indeed moved forwards. Cadia has fallen; the Primarchs are returning; three plastic Sisters of Battle models have been released!


AND THEY SAID IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!

All of which begs the question: what does Gathering Storm imply?

After all, for years, Warhammer fans had been clamouring for the story of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle universe to move on. When it did, and when it came to the unavoidable apocalypse of an ending that had been promised… Well. There’s no deny the disappointment of that for many people, nor that the Age of Sigmar setting which followed was contentious.

Speaking as a never-fan of WHFB, I wasn’t overly distraught over the loss of that game’s setting. I also rather like the Age of Sigmar stuff, overblown hair-metal nonsense though it undeniably is.

However, I’m massively invested in 40K, and the things I love about it – the cultural stagnation, the fascist nightmare that is the Imperium of Man, the complete and unrelenting horror – all those are threatened by the Gathering Storm narrative, especially with the release of Guilliman. A true, genuine hero is something I personally don’t like the idea of it 40K (Ciaphas Cain excepted) and the idea of turning 40K into a white-hat-vs-black-hat Manichean universe of ‘goodies vs. baddies’ is honestly the last thing I want my beloved game to become.

So what should I do?

Well, not panic.

Because yes, the absolute worst could happen. 40K could go the way of the Warhammer universe, finally bent and broken over the knee of the Ruinous Powers as the Emperor’s Finest go down swinging. I honestly can’t imagine anything more tedious than that, but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. I could have serious reason to be worried.

But panicking is a bad idea, and knee-jerk demands for what we think we want are unhelpful; Henry Ford may never have said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful adage to bear in mind whenever a serious/significant change is made to a beloved setting or product.

We’ve established that people don’t want the same thing again and again, no matter how much they might protest otherwise. No matter how much the devout might rail and pluck at their beards, 40K is a long, long running game. We’re coming up to its 30th anniversary, and that is a long time for a setting to be static. Every equivalent setting – Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and so on – have played with other settings, other eras, other ideas. 40K has evolved and developed, until the point where I would argue that we’re now in an unprecedented golden age, especially with the mainstream release of Horus Heresy.

So when it comes to Gathering Storm, I’m quietly optimistic, especially when the signs so far have all been so promising. The models are utterly wonderful, the changes to the setting so far have been engaging and exciting, and it seems to be building up to something genuinely quite brilliant. Not to mention that, if we step back from the narrative and look at the real-world business side of things, the fact that 40K is in nowhere near the dire situation that WHFB was in pre-Sigmar. With that system, GW had reached the stage that they honestly had nothing to lose. Unlike WHFB, there’s nothing to be gained from a complete restructuring of the setting.

And honestly, even if they did, sure, it could all go pearshaped and we could end up with something that’s not a patch on the setting we have now. But the truth is that the model line exists as it does now. Whatever changes come, the core elements must necessarily remain the same, and as we’ve seen from other media: it’s better to have something unexpected than something we’ve seen before.

I for one am looking forwards to where the Gathering Storm leads.