A Flawed Faith in Monsters.

The Greatest Debut I Have Ever Seen.

Holy shit but The Temple is on fire right now. Puma’s in there (I mean, obviously Puma’s in there), and he’s wrecking face like the Aztec champion he is. Texano’s throwing haymakers around like he’s the world’s most enthusiastic concussion salesman. Big Willie Mack’s moving like a man who’s had gravity explained to him but has decided to treat it as optional. Even Rey goddamned Misterio, the Mystery King himself, a literal living legend, is in there, a forty-year old ring veteran who still moves with the speed of a half his age. Of the twenty competitors who’ve entered, twelve lie defeated, so the fight to see exactly who gets to take home the sacred Aztec gold is between only eight, and I’m on the edge of my seat.

Come on Puma. I know Misterio’s in there, but you’re the man. It’s your time now. Your time.

Come on.

Then the war drums sound, and my lungs breathe in, involuntarily.

How can the war drums be sounding again? Everyone’s already in the ring. Twenty warriors were supposed to enter, and twenty warriors have, what’s –

A number flashes up on screen.

21.

Twenty one?

What’s…?

From the shadows atop the sacred steps of the temple, out swaggers El Jefe. Here? Now? The Temple’s not been under his hand for long, dark months… not that you’d know it from the way he looks. He moves with the assurance of a conquering Emperor, ready to stretch out his hand and claim dominion. He smiles that most wicked of smiles; the one that bespeaks misery for hero and villain alike, because El Jefe is not a normal man. Not the path of the obedient sheep for him, no, El Jefe doesn’t live for right or wrong. A visionary, he’s dedicated his life to the only real truth:

Violence.

Introducing himself, he takes a moment to bathe in the baying roars of the crowd. Soaking in their adulation, he glories because he knows they’re here for the same brutality El Jefe himself adores. Then the moment is passed, and the terrible work begins.

“My brother,” roars El Jefe, standing aside to permit the audience to bear witness. “The Monster: Matanza Cueto.”

From behind him, steps forward atrocity wearing the skin of a man. He’s huge, but that’s not the reason the room falls silent. Nor is it the fact his shoulders are literally double the width of El Jefe’s. It’s not the bloodstained boiler-suit, rank with crusted filth. It’s not the spasmodic twitches of broad, blunt fingers, obviously eager to tear flesh. It’s not even the leather-bound skull-mask The Monster has instead of a face.

It’s those eyes.

They’re the eyes of an utter maniac.

As The Monster descends the steps, walking to his brother’s altar of violence in preparation for the sacrifices that will be offered, every current fight is forgotten as the warriors stops and simply face towards the destruction that approaches them.

For his part, The Monster does not walk like a man. He walks like a god. There’s no speed to the advance. No rush to action. Inevitability doesn’t need to rush. Mounting the ring apron, The Monster steps inside, staring down the eight seasoned warriors who might dare to oppose him; the eight who’ve dedicated their life to the pursuit of glory on the field of battle but now find themselves facing… well.

Defeat.

They rush him.

Disappearing amongst the flurry of fists, The Monster seems to have no chance. Then bodies explode in all directions, flung aside by the kind of lunatic strength possessed only by the insane or the divine.

Fenix is the first to be destroyed. Making a desperate leap, The Bird of War finds himself caught, held fast in a grip so effortless it seems for a moment he must be weightless. Hefting the reigning champion like nothing, The Monster spikes Fenix into the ground with the finality of a last coffin nail being driven home.

After that, the three count is a formality.

They make a mad dash then, the seven remaining warriors. Everyone tries everything. Punches, kicks, grapples, holds… but every attack met with the same response: none. All their skill, all their power. It’s worthless. Because they’re just men, and The Monster…

… The Monster is a god.

Within minutes, seven have become six, six become five. Nothing saves them from The Monster’s rampage. One man, desperate, has locked himself to the side of the arena. He can’t be defeated unless his broken body lies on the Temple’s seal.

He finds his stratagem hasn’t accounted for a horror with hands which can tear through steel. Ripping the metal like paper, The Monster flings the screaming offering into the ring and five become four.

A minute later, four become three.

One who fancies himself cunning, a villain with a skill at betrayal, attempts parlay. He suggests a team-up, pledges his good and faithful service to The Monster if only The Monster will spare him.

But The Monster reaches out its hand and three become two.

After that, only the Prince of Pumas and King of Mystery remain… but even their regal combination counts for nothing.  After all, what god has ever respected the titles of men?

Two become none, become the total and abject defeat of a proud warrior culture, all laid to waste by a creature of divine violence whose relentless will brooks no refusal. Even when El Jefe hoists the gold aloft, The Monster seems not to understand; the only thing in those murderous eyes are questions.

Why are there no more? When can there be more?

Can it be soon?

A Hawaiian Named Jeff.

The Monster Matanza is played by Jeff Cobb. If you’ve never heard of him before, he’s a blandly handsome native of Honolulu with a proud background in sports. Aged 35, his gimmick prior to playing the single greatest monster in modern wrestling was that of ‘Mr. Athletic’, a generic wrestler with an offensive style built around a high-impact, Greco-Roman approach.

It wasn’t a great character. I mean, it kind of suited him, but watching him as a younger man, out there in a singlet, working very similar matches to those he’d wrestle as Matanza, there wasn’t the same visceral response I felt as I did on the night The Monster made his debut. ‘Mr. Athletic’ was a talented, if colourless mat technician; The Monster Matanza Cueto is the blood-soaked avatar of the Aztec god of slaughter, and he is absolutely compelling.

The Wrestling Monster.

There’s lots of ways to wrestle. Every nation’s got a different culture, and those different cultures have lead, over the years, to completely disparate styles of ‘fake’ fighting. There’s the classic showboating American style of power wrestler; the highly technical Canadian style of submission wrestler; the brutally realistic Japanese Puroresu style; the classic English brawler; the crazy athleticism of the Mexican Luchador.

Not only does every nation has its own style of wrestling, but within those styles, there are specific gimmick styles. These govern not just what the wrestler does, but the how and why of why they do it. The patriotic hero who wants to represent the stretch of dirt he was born on. The dastardly villain who just wants the win and doesn’t care how he gets it. The unknowable foreigner who’s got his own customs – look at his crazy passport! The sporting champion who’s competed all his life and is dedicated to excellence. The pragmatic mercenary who’s just here to get paid.

Of all the character archetypes (called ‘gimmicks’), though, one of the most awesome is The Monster. Matanza Cueto is simply one example, but there’s been hundreds of them over the years, and you probably know them: The Undertaker, Kane, Awesome Kong, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg …

If you recognise those names, then you’ll probably have a good idea about what The Monster is and how it works. Usually a bad guy, but occasionally not, at its core, there’s three simple tropes which govern how a Wrestling Monster operates:

1.) Terrifying levels of strength AND in-ring ability.

You can’t just have one. If you’re only bringing strength, then you’re a basic power wrestler. If you only bring wrestling ability then you’re a mat technician. These are fine styles, but they’re not enough alone to make a Monster. When he debuted, Undertaker could walk the ropes with an agility that defied his size, but was big enough to throw other wrestlers around like dolls. Likewise, when he exploded onto the scene, Brock Lesnar had enough strength to bench press a small building, and enough speed that no-one could outrun his hate. A genuine monster has to have both.

2.) Impressive appearance.

‘The look’ is a key attribute of a Monster. They have to look like they can murder you to death, or they’re just not credible. An effective mask is an easy way to hit this one – characters from Big Van Vader through to Kane through to Matanza have used a scary mask to emphasise their inhuman nature. Of course, a mask isn’t a necessity; Brock Lesnar was so ridiculously huge that he didn’t need to use anything beyond the snarl of a career dog-rapist to convince you he was a legitimate threat.

However, these two things along do not make a Monster. The, final, and most important part of the construct is this:

3.) No selling, ever.

‘Selling’ here meaning the theatrics of pain. Put simply, a Monster is never, ever, show that something hurt – even when it does. Horrible power moves, crazy hard suplexes, finishing moves… even chair shots are not allowed to do anything to The Monster. (As a side note, this can lead to the all-too-human talent making some ridiculous choices. Brock Lesnar’s messed-up Shooting Star Press at Wrestlemania 19 nearly knocked him out cold and the terrible concussion it caused is thought to be the prime cause of the diverticulitis which cut short his MMA career. Despite this, Lesnar, who should’ve been seeking medical attention, carried on with the match, because… well, that’s the gimmick. Men can be hurt, but a Monster cannot.)

When these three tropes combine they can be used to create an almost impossibly attractive lure for the crowds. We love them because they provide something which is actually in very rare supply in the modern world.

They’re awesome.

Now, it’s important to note that I’m not using that word as a synonym for ‘good’. I’m using it in the most literal sense of the word, because it accurately describes what a true Monster does: fill the audience with actual awe. With a sense of genuine wonder, a sense of seeing something unbelievable, something evoking respect and adulation and terror.

It’s easy to see why so many wrestlers have used the gimmick over the years: when it’s done well, you’re instantly a legend. You’re not a man any more; you’re a sentence which begins “Holy shit, did you see…?

The Fatal Flaws Of Monstrosity.

There’s a real problem to the Monster Heel, and from the point of view of the individual fan or performer, it’s tricky to see. After all, what’s not to love about a Monster? You’re powerful in the purest, most distilled sense of the word. You’re popular in a way that’s almost unachievable without a lifetime of hard graft. You’re always going to win, and who doesn’t want that? To be the winner? Everyone wants that, to be the guy whose life is filled only with ups.

Wrestling’s not real, and neither are the victories.

Those ups? They’re only part of a story, and it’s a story that never ends. Worse, it’s not a narrative about one person. There’s going to be other people, and those other people, they’re going to have ups too. They are, eventually, going to win. When your story is based around the myth of your absolute invulnerability, then you are on terribly shaky ground. If all you have is invulnerability then the moment that’s gone, you’re left with nothing.

Put simply, the problem for the Monster is that the moment they lose, they’re finished.

There’s numerous examples of this. Probably the best example of this is Goldberg. When he was introduced, he wasn’t so much a man as a force of nature. An almost complete lack of ability to wrestle even slightly convincingly was camouflaged through matches which only lasted seconds. Goldberg would enter the ring, hit a his opponent hard enough to make them forget the names of their children, before scoring the three count and screaming ‘WHO’S NEXT?!’ with the look of a sexually rampant mastodon. Goldberg tore through 170-odd opponents and the only question anyone ever asked was “Wait, did he actually mean to kill that guy?

Then Kevin Nash (a boring and terrible wrestler who also, interestingly enough, was chief writer at the time) pinned him in an utterly inconsequential match and Goldberg’s career was pretty much done. People still wanted to see him fight, but… well. The spark was gone. Before that match, everyone had been on the edge of their seat, wondering not who would beat him, but simply if he could even actually be beaten.

But he had been beaten, and cleanly. With the question answered, the Monster was revealed as just a man. It would only be twenty years later, the humiliation of that loss utterly forgotten that Goldberg would be able to reclaim his Monstrous mantle, and even then, those older fans who remembered his shame would still comment on how curious it was to see this defeated man fighting at all.

If the fact wrestling’s fake makes the concept hard to understand, then consider a parallel example from the world of MMA. Like Mike Tyson before her, Ronda Rousey, was, to all intents and purposes, a real-life Monster. People watched her fight not just because they wanted to watch a simple, but because they wanted to watch something spectacular, and in her prime, Rousey was beyond spectacular. She was a complete physical beast. Not just a dominant physical presence, but with technical skills so utterly beyond anything her opponents could cope with, that simply surviving longer than half a minute against her seemed impossible. It bears reminding that Rousey was legitimately winning fights in seconds, and not against pushovers.

But then she lost, and now, no-one cares. Her previous wins, so legitimately awe-inspiring when they happened, are footnotes. The only thing anyone remembers now is that Rousey lost, and lost hard. When her comeback fight was somehow even more embarrassing, the writing was on the wall: her career was at its end. The UFC had built its women’s division on the back of a beast, not a small, sad-faced woman who clearly didn’t even believe in herself any more.

We’re drawn to the Monster because they seem impossible. But the sense of awe they provide is like innocence: once lost, it can never be regained.

Narratively, The Monster brings another problem: monsters need a steady diet of kills. The generate their veneration from the speed with which they crush all opposition,  and so they ultimately need to be fed everyone…

…which means they hog all the storylines, all the belts, all the attention. Wrestling’s just a TV drama, like any other, and The Monster is just one character. Sure, they’re awesome, but it bears repeating that every wrestler is someone’s favourite. Seeing The Monster beat your favourite guy or girl is obviously rage-inducing. After all, that’s my guy! Sure, The Monster murderised all those other jabronis, but how could he beat my guy? It doesn’t make any sense! My guy’s so much better than that!

Remember, a key trait to The Monster is that they’re an overwhelming threat. When they win, they win fast… the flip side of which is that their opponents have to lose fast. Inevitably, this quick loss can mean your favourite guy looks weak by comparison – potentially unrealistically so. Not to mention, to a devoted fan, the idea that their favourite guy can be made to look so pathetic can feel like an insult.

After a while, it can reach the unfortunate point where The Monster’s beaten enough fan favourites that resentment starts to set in. Where the fans previously salivated at the thought of seeing The Monster turn another wrestler into human origami, now they’re just eager to see the prick lose.

This gets even worse if they’re featured regularly, even if you’re a fan. After all, you might love chocolate, but a diet of plain milk chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all day, every day would get tiresome very quickly. In the same way, when the same literal thing’s happening every episode of your favourite show, tedium is the only possible result.

All of these factors combine to mean the lifespan of The Monster is both short, and absolutely finite. Monsters burn brighter than any other, but they rarely have career longevity. Exceptions, like The Undertaker, do exist, but they’re actually very rare, because they require a careful, tactical evolution from the generic Monster template into something different. It’s a difficult, complex process, involving taking long and significant breaks from the mat, before coming back as a slightly (or sometimes radically) different version of the character. Taking Undertaker as a classic example – perhaps the very best – of a ‘reformed’ Monster, Mark Callaway’s character has a clear evolution, through several massive changes. First he was an undead Monster zombie, before being ‘killed’ and returning as a cod-Satanic cult leader, before taking a couple of years away and returning as a biker, before finally settling into his ‘Dead Man’ gimmick, which combined the best aspects of all the previous iterations of the character. By abandoning, altering, and carefully choosing when and more importantly, how to lose, Undertaker’s exceptional talent enabled him to enjoy an unprecedented career in a way that a simpler Monster (like, say, Ryback) could not.

In summary, the general lifespan of The Monster gimmick, looks something like this:

  • Monster is introduced: they destroy everyone, promoting a powerful fan reaction and gaining immediate popularity.
  • Monster ploughs through many, many jobbers, and a few important guys. Fan reaction increases, and fans begin to wonder how the Monster will lose.
  • Monster carries on winning. The fans begin to resent the Monster, wanting to see it lose.
  • Monster carries on winning. Diminishing returns set in and the fans turn hostile as the Monster becomes boring. Note that this stage doesn’t always happen… but only if the Monster loses before now.
  • The Monster loses. No-one cares any more; attempts to resuscitate the Monster’s career are possible, but require starting from the very beginning again… and if diminishing returns have set in, well… there’s just no comeback from that.

Now, the reason we’re discussing this wrestling concept is because it’s got huge utility when looking at Warhammer 40,000’s codices.

Hyperbole: /hʌɪˈpəːbəli/ n. exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.

When the Space Marines were introduced, they were the greatest army in the universe. Then came White Dwarf 127 and there were the Eldar, the greatest-er army in the universe, the oldest species in existence, with ancient, powerful technologies. Then came Advanced Space Crusade and suddenly the Tyranids, an impossible, vast hive mind and the greatest threat to the galaxy’s myriad species that could possibly be imagined. Well, until the Necrons were revealed, a race even older than the Eldar with technologies powered by literal gods so powerful they dwelled inside the stars…

If you’ve spent any time playing 40K, you’ll have read a codex, and, most likely, been starstruck by how awesome your favourite faction sounds. The fan-term ‘ codex creep’ specifically describes the tendency for the latest codex to be the most powerful as an easy way to sell armies. However, we’re not discussing that.

We’re discussing GW’s writing style.

As a fan of 40K, you’ve probably noticed that in the fluff – which is much more permanent than the rules – every faction is basically introduced in the same way that wrestling introduces its Monsters. Think about it. The codex comes out, and all we hear about for the next three months is how devastating they are. How brutal their unique units can be. How horrifying their weapons are.

You remember the first time you read about bolters? I dare you to tell me you weren’t impressed.

Seriously, my first reaction was genuine awe. “It’s called what? And it’s a fully automatic, armour-piercing rocket launcher? That’s amazing.”

But the bolter is not the best gun in 40K. The most iconic, sure, but its primary place is as the baseline. The bolter is the most meat-and-potatoes weapon in the whole of the GRIMDARK; we use it to judge the effectiveness of other weapons. A fully automatic, armour-piercing rocket launcher, and it’s nothing more than a measuring stick really.

Think your favourite codex. Now think of the units in it which most disappoint you.

Not the ones with underpowered rules. Those just suck. Not the ones with the shoddy miniatures. They’re just annoying. No, the ones with the awesome models, but with the rules that just didn’t quite measure up to the idea you had in your head after reading the fluff.

Every codex presents its army as ‘unbeatable’. Every entry makes every unit seem amazing. Every weapon entry reads like the description of a nuclear weapon. Why? Because Games Workshop has a very specific writing style that it uses in its codices, mostly built around the use of a very specific set of rhetorical devices, primarily excessive hyperbole and unremitting emotive language. This constant use of hyperbole, of words designed to get us, as readers, excited, creates an intense sense of ‘power inflation’, where absolutely everything is THE BEST THING EVER.

But not every army can be THE BEST ARMY EVER. In fact, the concept of a balanced game – that mythic, Platonic ideal to which most gamers would agree the game should aspire towards – rejects the existence of a ‘best’ army as laudable, or even desirable. The existence of a ‘best’ army necessarily implies a broken, joyless game system.

All of which means that the exaggerated descriptions of the codex doesn’t do well in preparing gamers for how these things will perform on the battlefield. Having read about how amazing your Dark Eldar are supposed to be, it can be a real kick in the teeth to discover that the truth falls well, well short of the codex descriptions.

The overall effect of this can be to induce a high level of cognitive dissonance between gamer expectations of how things should behave, and how they actually behave. Put simply, the descriptions are so awesome, players are inevitably disappointed when the rules mean units or equipment perform poorly, or not as described. It’s like ordering rare steak and being served beef jerky.

What this means is that some player experience the sense of defeat a wrestling fan feels when The Monster finally goes down… only with the frequency of 40K games, that miserable feeling is constant.

Needless to say, the experience can be an agonising one. After all, if you’re completely invested in your army and its background – and who amongst us is not? – then every game of 40K can start to feel like a betrayal. Space Marines are  genetically engineered supersoldiers with power armour and fully automatic rocket launchers: how can they ever lose? Chaos Space Marines are  genetically engineered supersoldiers with power armour and fully automatic rocket launchers only they have daemonic magic and UNLIMITED COSMIC POWER: how can they ever lose?! Tyranids are an unstoppable force of genetically mutable horrors able to think and move as one and able to evolve a perfect response to anything that dare oppose them, all whilst utterly immune to daemonic magic and PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS: how can they ever lose?!

Every codex presents its army as though it was objectively the best; as though it was The Monster, a combat beast that will swiftly and mercilessly destroy every opponent, all whilst remaining immune to their every attack. When players run into the real world, though, they find out very quickly that The Monster is, in fact, just another army.

So what can we do about this?

Think On A Meta Level.

Well, the answer is to adjust our expectations. When you’re twelve and just starting out in the hobby, it’s fine to be angry. You’re a kid, you don’t know any better. But as an adult fan, we should all hopefully be mature enough to see the codices as what they are.

They’re advertising.

As much as they’re a guide to the fictional worlds of Warhammer 40,000, each codex is a finely crafted piece of advertising for Games Workshop’s models. Some of that advertising is obvious; pictures of attractively painted models have a clear purpose in taking the money from our wallets.

Sometimes the advertising is based on the rules. In the last edition of 40K, Space Marine Heavy Grav-guns were the best gun in the codex. As a result, they were selling for four times the price of Heavy Bolters on bits sites.

Sometimes, though – perhaps most powerfully –  the fluff is the advert.

Because it’s not just an attractive model that sells. It’s not just good rules that sells. It’s the very idea of an army – or its individual components – that sells. I own over fifty Astartes dreadnoughts, and they’ve only been good on the table for four months. Honestly, I think they might be more surprised about their newfound skill than me. So why have I been collecting what were sub-par models for the last decade?

Because they’re awesome. Because I love the background. I read the background as a kid and it sold them to me. As a child, I didn’t realise that’s what it was doing, but as an adult, I do.

The bottom line is that we need to recognise Games Workshop isn’t going to change its style, and its style is based around hyperbole and excess. Every unit entry, save for things like Grots, is going to claim that the unit is the very best thing in the game. They’re not going to stop doing that, because that’s just their style. So Games Workshop can’t make every unit perfectly meet the fluff. It just can’t. Eighth edition is a bold, brilliant attempt to do so, but even the ground-up redesign hasn’t been quite enough to make absolutely every unit worth taking (looking at you, generic Leman Russ Vanquishers). We, as gamers, need to recognise and appreciate that there are always going to be disappointments when we play; that some units will seem amazing, but ultimately turn out to be utterly mediocre.

So the next time you’re feeling let down when ugly reality steps all over your dreams of awesome intergalactic superwarriors, try to remember that your army isn’t The Monster. It can’t be, and if it is, it means that something’s gone horribly wrong in the game’s design. It’s just an army, and you – yes, YOU – are going to lose at some stage, because the description of your army is just a sales pitch. It might sound like you’re going to rock that battlefield the way Matanza rocked Lucha Underground, but the truth is that it won’t. As the Inquisition is fond of telling us, hope is the first step on the road to disappointment, so the best thing for us to do is try to see the codex hyperbole for what it is: an exciting, often beguiling sales pitch… but a sales pitch nonetheless.

_____________________________

That’s all for this month’s column, but it’s not all for this month. After all, my DEATHWATCH ARMY GIVEAWAY competition is still running, and at the time of writing, I’ve had NOT ONE ENTRY! Which means that, potentially, the winner might do so by default!

Seriously, I don’t want to have to give my mate Pete an army. He doesn’t play 40K and wouldn’t know what to do with it. I want it to go to a gamer who’ll appreciate it, so why not enter? Over £100 of completely unique miniatures could be yours!

CLICK THE LINK AND ENTER!

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One thought on “A Flawed Faith in Monsters.

  1. I agree completely, I always see the fluff as typical of how I imagine my army to work, and tabletop battles as atypical, where two matched armies square up for an unusual encounter.
    Coming at it from the opposite angle though, what does annoy me is when I see the fluff for one army is thrown out the window to accomodate the narrative for a plotline, and the hyperbole goes too far. For example, and the worst offender I can remember, is the Ultramarines movie. At the end of it a hyped up unit of space marines cut down many times their number of traitor marines like wheat. It didn’t feel realistic at all, and made the Chaos marines feel weak and ineffective, and faceless like their entire existence was built around dying quickly. Not like millenia-old, grudge-filled warriors meeting their match, just like chaff being removed so we could get to the next plot point. It showed space marines being great, too great, and made Chaos look toothless.
    It’s not great when my marines don’t always kick ass on the battlefield but I’m okay with it, but when they’re disrespected in the fluff just to make something look better it becomes frustrating.
    All factions lose at some point , but the manner needs to be realisitc. I hope that all made sense.

    Like

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