Is open NOW!
I’ll be using this site to sell a variety of high-quality painted and converted miniatures over the coming year. The aim is that I’ll be adding only a few items at time – probably no more than ten a month – with each one being a completely unique one-off.
At the present moment, I won’t be taking commissions, though that might change later depending on how successful the shop is.
Anyway, if you want to see what I’m selling, just click here, and be sure to check back regularly. I’ve a bunch of things I’ll be adding…
…’Either be silent or say something better than silence.’
This will be my last blog post for at least a year.
Back in 2012, I began this blog as a way to force myself to begin writing. Having a self-inflicted deadline was the most effective way for me to actually make progress with my goal of becoming a published writer. In the time since I began this blog, I have written five short stories, twenty novellas, four novels and I managed to make it to the final round of interviews for a job at Black Library. I also remain sadly unpublished, but c’est la guerre. It’s something I will be carrying on with, but as far as this blog goes, I shall be taking a break of at least one year.
The reason is, simply, that for the moment, I feel that have nothing left to say. In the two years and change that I’ve been getting my ideas down, there hasn’t been a single month where I haven’t at least panicked a little about what the next article was going to be. I’ve always managed to come up with something, but as of right now, I’m feeling the artistic burnout. While I could almost certainly force myself , I think anything I produce wouldn’t be up to my personal standards. As a result, I think it’s better to take a break an recharge to come back strong.
There will be occasional updates here, but they’ll mostly be reserved for announcements regarding my other writings. At the moment, I’m at a bit of a crossroads; there’s the potential that one of my short stories might see actual publication in a real, actual, physically real anthology of horror stories. If so, I can finally get myself a literary agent and start to pursue this writing malarkey for really real.
Of course, if that all falls through, I’m essentially back to square one, but I remain hopeful.
What I’d like to do at this stage is to thank you for coming here. The site will remain up, my articles in place, and – at some stage – I will be collating a complete edition of all my writings in PDF form for free download, so you can enjoy everything I’ve written in a more convenient form than having to scroll through this webpage.
Anyway, that’s all from me for now. If you’ve enjoyed Sinister Pinion (or TL;DR as it was originally known), then thank you. I hope I was thought-provoking, and if not, I hope I was at least entertaining. If you haven’t already, you can find me and follow me on Facebook and Instagram under my nom de plume of V.W. Talos.
Hope to see you all in January 2019.
When there was no-one, there was Buffy
Round about the year 2001, I was as lonely as I’ve ever been.
Working at the cinema, tearing tickets and sweeping up popcorn, I’d stand on the top floor for nine hours a day, entirely on my own, before coming back to my empty flat. While notionally I had friends, they were all just that little too far away to come and see me. For my part, I was entirely too poor to be able to afford the bus ticket needed to visit them.
By October, I hadn’t seen anyone socially in nine months. Days consisted of distracting myself from my isolation. Wandering into town to watch people, because for someone with my crippling social awkwardness, it was the only way I really had to get close to human interaction. Evenings were spent watching films. I’d lose myself in computer games. Nowadays, this might have been a way to have some contact, however unpleasant. Of course, this was years before I could afford even a computer, much less an internet connection, so all my gaming was a solo affair.
In a very meaningful sense, my only friends at the time were Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, and Buffy Summers.
Sliding those VHS tapes into the VCR, the world changed. I could forget the emptiness of my home and heart, and allow myself to pretend, if only for a moment, that I had friends.
Obviously Spike was my favourite. How could he not be, the glorious, sarcastic bastard. Then came Giles, because how can you not love a man who faces interdimensional eldritch horror with steely determination and a cup of tea?
But that October, watching season 5, I was astonished to find that no-one’s favourite, Xander, was somehow really resonating with me. His character arc had him shifting from the kind of generically nebbish bloke I despised into a credible adult whose life arc seemed…
Well. I hate to say it, but aspirational.
I mean, look at what was on TV at the time; talent shows and nonsense. Young people screaming how they were mad for it or whatever. I didn’t want to be those dipshits. The kind of proto-alcoholic who drink the nightclub dry and pass out in a toilet. I just wanted a place in the world. A job that paid. An employer who valued me. People who wanted to spend time with me because I was a worthwhile person to spend time with.
And by season 5, Xander… man, he had everything. Putting aside the rubber forehead monsters, he’d gone from being an annoying boy with no meaningful skills, to a carpenter. Unlike me, he was someone who had parlayed his abilities into a meaningful life role. He did good work and was recognised for it; he could afford his own house! He knew people who valued him for his honesty, his integrity, his humour. He was loved. A million light years from the vile, materialistic, too-beautiful young people who filled everything else on TV, here was an average man doing really, really well. I wanted to be him so badly it burned.
A few years ago, I discovered that Nicholas Brendan is a piece of trash.
The fact he’s an alcoholic is merely tragic. I don’t judge him for that, and nor should anyone; alcoholism is a horrible disease, and I count several recovering alcoholics as friends. For that, he should receive help, not scorn. No, the thing I can’t forgive is that he’s a domestic abuser. There’s nothing lower than a person who betrays with violence the one they should love the most. For those who would argue that inebriation brings absolution, it’s worth remembering that no-one does anything drunk they didn’t plan sober.
Somehow, that one stings even worse.
My suspicions of Whedon were first roused after that dipshit, rambling speech he did about how he didn’t like the word feminism. It was jarringly inane horseshit. Then, slowly, more and more genuinely feminist writers I respected began to call him out as a bad ally in other ways I hadn’t noticed, the man’s star began to fall further.
All of which means that, for all my love of Buffy, I can’t watch Buffy and enjoy it the way I used to any more. There’s an argument to be made that an artist and her works are separate, but I just don’t subscribe to that theory. The meaning of a piece of artwork stands separate from the artists, absolutely, but the artwork itself stands as testimony to the person who creates it. My miniatures reflect only my aesthetics. My articles are little bits of me. My novel is a little piece of my soul. For better or worse, however bad or good they might be, the things I create are reflections of who I truly am; not the literal surface bits, but the deeper, realer parts.
I could watch Buffy, and lose myself in the nostalgia. Watch Xander’s journey again, and smile, comparing his story to my own, seeing in his growth a path that I didn’t take, but which my own life echoed in bizarre, unexpected ways.
But I wouldn’t see Xander Harris any more. I’d see Nicholas Brendon. I’d see Xander smile, and wonder if that was the same smile that lured in his victims. Remember the harrowed, bloodshot mugshot of Brendon, his eyes red raw with drink. The truth of the actor makes any suspension of disbelief impossible. And in losing Xander, I’ve lost the whole series.
That loss… it hurts.
The Weinstein Scandal
With the breaking of the Weinstein scandal, and the growing revelations that hundreds of beloved films were made by abusive, predatory men? Many others right now are experiencing that same, horrid sense of betrayal and loss.
My partner introduced me to WhatCulture? And I was really enjoying it, only for it to turn out that Adam Blampied – a charming, and entertaining man – is a skeevy, deeply unpleasant creeper. I’ve loved Honest Trailers since discovering it; the founder of the company that makes them is so prolific a harasser of women that the company he founded has fired him and released videos denouncing him. Labyrinth was one of my favourite films. On learning that David Bowie very probably committed an act of statutory rape, the whole experience of watching him act opposite a fourteen year old girl becomes far more uncomfortable. The first Jeepers Creepers film was a perfectly serviceable horror flick… made by a man who had served years in prison for filming himself raping little boys. Beetlejuice is a great film, possibly Burton’s best… but it stars a convicted child sex offender. The Ninth Gate was one of my favourite supernatural films… but that was before I knew about Johnny Depp’s history of violent attacks on women.
Before I knew that Roman Polanski’s raped a child.
The Weinstein case is the bursting of particularly disgusting boil. More and more predators are being revealed, but it’s always been this way since the days of Roscoe Arbuckle.
With so much horror revealed, it leaves us, as hopefully decent, moral consumers, with a horrible problem. Much of our art, it would seem, is created by predators. On a personal level, we can do nothing to prevent their crimes save believing their victims and demanding change, which can feel horribly disempowering.
So what do we do?
Crucially, I think, we can at least avoid providing them with a payday. As a result, personally, I don’t support the work of men who are confirmed predators.
I also try to educate myself as to who they are. While it’s fashionable to complain about social media and the evils of new technology, the truth is that those of us who are engaged know far more about famous art creators than ever before. Digital platforms enable us to learn about their lamentable beliefs, their minor transgressions, and their most despicable crimes. Sites like Your Fave Is Problematic and others make it easier than ever to find out exactly who has done what, and, more importantly, who is making amends.
The morality, for me at least, is fairly simple: by paying for their art, I inevitably pay artists money. Perhaps some, perhaps very little. In this way, I support artists. However, by clicking, by watching, by lionising, by simply being a fan, I support them too. ‘Word of mouth’ means that even if I contribute not one penny to their bank accounts, I still contribute to their success.
Which can mean that simply by mentioning these pricks, we might be supporting the insupportable. I mean, I’ve recommended The Ninth Gate up there; you click on it, you maybe buy it, and I’ve unwillingly contributed to a convicted child rapist who admitted his crime making money.
Walking away from the things you love
Thing is, it’s easy to ignore people you don’t like. Sean Penn’s a despicable piece of trash who beats women… but he never made a single film I gave a shit about, so I don’t have to worry about accidentally supporting him.
But when it comes to something we care about? Or worse, something that’s part of who we are. Man. Walking away from that can be agonising. At one of the lowest points of my life, Buffy was literally the only thing that kept me going. When I had nothing and was at my most desolate, Buffy was there for me. Even now it’s part of my history; part of me. I completely identified with Xander and I’d never done that with a character before. That means something to me; it always will, and I can’t change that.
It’s no surprise that this kind of thing almost immediately produces cognitive dissonance. Confronted by the one truth that we love something, and the other truth that the same thing is unworthy of that love, it creates a horrible sensation. We’ll do almost anything to switch that feeling off, to mentally shield ourselves from the discomfort of knowing two mutually contradictory ideas.
Denial is the most obvious response. To avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance, people will deny anything and everything. They’ll deny that the criminal committed the crime, that the crime was that serious, that the criminal has gone unpunished. They’ll point out all the ways the criminal is a good person, because the fact he’s fun at barbecues makes what he did okay.
You can see this denial so clearly with a figure like Polanski. This is a man who anally raped a drugged child – and admitted to doing so – yet had one hundred respected individuals from the film industry write a letter in 2009 supporting him. Reading their comments on him, you can see the same pattern.
“He has paid for this.”
“Other people who committed the same crime weren’t punished as severely.”
“Things were different back then.”
“It was so long ago now.”
“The victim has forgiven him.”
So many supporters, all minimising what he did – which was, to be crystal clear, anally raping a drugged child – a crime he admits, for which he has not served an appropriate prison sentence.
Would these supporters be so fervent for a random man off the street? Before embarking on his career as a serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer committed almost exactly the same kind of crimes. Had Dahmer not progressed to murder, would these people now be arguing he be allowed to go about his life happy and free?
That Polanski’s art is exceptional is inarguable. His films are superb. The man’s art has undoubtedly moved his supporters utterly. The simple truth is that reaching a person’s deepest feelings… that has an incredible power. Heart will always win over head, and if a predator can engage our hearts, well. That can go a long way towards convincing us – reminding us, in fact – that they are not monsters, just humans with hearts, insights, and feelings as keen and real as our own.
This is because their art is as true as their crimes. Life is complex. People don’t easily slot into good and bad. Roman Polanski is an incredible, talented artist, capable of making the most wonderful, humane films.
He also raped a drugged child. Further victims, recently come forward, suggest that he may have raped many. That he may be a serial predator.
Does a man’s inherent humanity forgive his inhumanity? Do a man’s good deeds forgive him his crimes? Does the fact Polanski made wonderful films excuse the horrors he has inflicted?
For me, the answer is obviously not. No. Are you kidding? Never. I don’t give a good Goddamn how good Polanski’s films are, that despicable piece of shit raped a child and got away with it. You don’t defend someone like that; you make an example of them by sending them to prison and never, ever letting them out.
When I see an injustice, wherever possible, I don’t tolerate it. The standard you walk by is the standard you accept.
Games are art too
Wargaming can be problematic.
The word ‘problematic’ doesn’t mean ‘evil’. It means ‘this is a problem’. Problems come in different shapes and sizes. Some, like the crimes of Polanski and his ilk, are deeply, unforgivably serious. Sometimes, problematic means ‘criminal’.
Sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes, it’s describing something so minor, so insignificant, that when faced with something like the Weinstein scandal, they seem almost a joke.
“Add stuff for women?! Are you joking? That’s what you care about? Christ, you SJWs. Get some fucking perspective. Argue about some real problems, don’t waste your energy on this.”
The thing is, this argument is bullshit.
The fallacy of relative privation, or the ‘some have it worse’ fallacy argues that because some people (in this case, child abuse victims) have it worse than others (in this case, people who want better representation in gaming), the people who don’t have it so bad should shut up. That, in fact, they should be ashamed for wasting their time when there’s more important work to be done.
It’s a derailing strategy, and it’s horseshit, because
“If you can’t complain about X just because there exists another problem, Y, that’s worse than X, then the only person who has any right to complain at all is the person who objectively has it worst in every way possible. The other 7 billion people’s problems are meaningless by this reasoning.” In other words: nothing matters if it’s not literally the worst thing happening.
This fallacy assumes that we can/should only focus on one problem at a time. That we can/should only care about the biggest problem.
“If you’ve been gutshot, you don’t worry about a paper cut.”
Yeah, that’s true.
The thing is, if you’re creating metaphors, maybe don’t compare a society of millions to one person. There’s lots of us here, we’ve got enough of us to deal with every problem, and you know what?
We can fucking multitask.
To quote Heinlein, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
To my mind, the Weinstein scandal and arguments about SJWs in gaming, whether played on a computer or a board, they all come from the same place: unchecked male power being challenged. And while one is obviously of far more seriousness and importance than the other, we as a people, are capable of discussing both.
The interesting thing to me is that, in the same way that good people waste time defending criminals because of the way the criminals’ films made them feel, a certain group of gaming fans will defend a grossly unfair community paradigm because, like films, those games made them feel something just as powerfully. In the same way that Polanski’s useful idiots defend the man because they love his films, this vocal group of gamers rip and tear at those of us who’d dare critique the games they love, because to attack the games is to attack them. Just as Nicholas Brendon’s failings hurt me like a personal betrayal, any criticism of a gamer’s chosen game can and will hit them on the same level. Like a reflex, they almost immediately jump to defend the seemingly indefensible because their emotions are hurt; they’ll come up with the rationalisations once they’ve had time to think about them. Right now, they’re experiencing terrible cognitive dissonance; lost in their own feelings, all they want is for that feeling to go away.
For you to go away.
What makes things worse is that often, these people are very clever. There’s an underlying assumption that intelligence somehow overrules emotion, that intelligence equates with rationality, but of course that isn’t so. Unless directed to do so, an intelligent person will not always – or even often – use that intelligence to challenge emotional assumptions that feel true. Instead, they will deploy that cleverness to come up with ever-more elaborate rationales, justifications and defences, attacking a true idea which challenges and deconstructs the underpinnings of their own thinking.
Hence, men – otherwise good men – who would in any other circumstances would argue that women and men are equal, will passionately argue that something as ultimately harmless as, say, female space marines are the worst thing that could ever happen. The arguments are always trash, quoting nonsense science, appeals to tradition, claims that background lore which has already been revised and amended can never be revised or amended. The inferior quality of their arguments are irrelevant, because they’re not interested in actually arguing; they’re interested in making the thing that upsets them go away.
The thing is, morality is not an absolute. It can feel like it is, but in the words of Albert Pierrepoint, England’s last executioner, “The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off”. The simple nature of utilitarianism demonstrates this; for example, you could persuade the most caring and compassionate person in the world to murder a baby, if fatally harvesting that child’s organs was the only way to cure a planetwide pandemic say. Oxymoronic as it might seem, there will always be justifications for injustice.
But if, as I do, you believe that child abuse is wrong, you cannot support the work of child abusers, or be a fan of it. Likewise, while games haven’t done anything as monstrous, the moral argument is just as clear. If you genuinely believe in equality between the genders in the real world, you cannot simply sit back and argue that there should be no <INSERT WOMEN’S DEMAND HERE>.
Gaming may not have the institutionalised horror of the Hollywood system, but it’s still a culture mired in injustice. It is our job as hopefully moral fans to take stand against those things we love which nonetheless violate our moral codes. Your fave might be problematic, but it can improve.
The bottom line, is that I’m a fan of films and games. I love them, and I’m able to call it out, and there’s no contradiction there. I’ve had to give up on Buffy. With the spread of things like the #MeToo movement, I’m hoping that in the future, I won’t have to give up on any other art I love.
Warning: contains spoilers for ‘The Mist’ (film and series), ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘The Fly’, ‘IT’, and ‘Martyrs’, as well as peripheral discussion of rape culture.
Frank Darabont’s ‘The Mist’ is a brilliant film.
Sure, it’s not a masterpiece. The acting is sometimes a little ropey, the religious satire more than a little heavy-handed, and the idea of big, scary monsters is always going to be a difficult topic to suspend one’s disbelief over… especially when those monsters include giant-ass uberlobsters which treat the square-cube law with the same respect that Brock Lesnar treats his opponents, that is to say, none.
But come on, what a goddamned film. That tentacle attack? And the face-melting spiders? The oppressive claustrophobia of that supermarket? It’s just so consistently great. Not to mention, Toby Jones is fucking magnificent. I dare anyone to watch that film and not cheer for him all the way through.
Now, I just finished watching Netflix’s ‘The Mist’ TV show, and by ‘finished watching’, I mean ‘gave up around episode nine when the relentless homophobia just became too disgusting’. Even ignoring the despicable handling of its one and only LGBT+ character, it is just reprehensibly bad. The goofy, awesome gribblies of the film are replaced with heavy-handed, uninspired ‘visions’ which can, like Freddy Krueger, kill. Because why be original, eh?
On top of this, the series includes an ugly, atrociously mishandled storyline about rape front-and-centre; one which does nothing to forward the discussion about rape culture within society, serving instead to make a rape victim look like a lying slut who wanted it, her mother seem like a vengeful shrew who is too annoying to be listened to, and, by having the rapist revealed to be the weird queer kid…
It is a terrible, terrible series. Everything about it is dreadful and everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves.
The thing is, though, ‘Game of Thrones’ has had similar issues with both its portrayal of rape, as well as with its handling of gay characters… yet I don’t despise it anywhere near as much. Sure, it’s annoyed me; made me angry on a few occasions. But the thing is, ‘Game of Thrones’ has characters that I truly, genuinely care about… and that’s a powerful thing. Powerful enough to make me decide to consciously overlook the gross Jaime Lannister/Cersei rape scene, the gross repeated casual rape of Craster’s daughters which served as, basically, set dressing, and numerous other revolting and unnecessary moments which weren’t horrifying, but the television equivalent of what we wrestling fans call ‘X-Pac heat’.
Put simply, I want to see what happens to Brienne of Tarth. I want to see what happens to Tormund Giantsbane. I want to see what happens to almost every character in that show, and I’m prepared to overlook any number of other deeply problematic story elements to do so.
‘The Mist’ by contrast, is a total piece of shit series without a single redeeming feature. I couldn’t care less if a single character on that show lives. In all honesty, I hope they all die… which is why I’m less willing to forgive its deplorable representation of my people.
Thing is, this shit-ass series isn’t the only one to fall into the trap it has. Sometimes, it seems almost every horror film does so.
Despite how easy the good ones make it look, horror is actually a really difficult genre to do well.
Why We Have The Face/Heel Distinction
I’ve spoken numerous times about the Face/Heel distinction which the art of wrestling uses to elicit audience reactions.
Wrestling is a gloriously simple theatre. Its primary goal is this: asses in seats. No asses in seats means no ticket sales. No ticket sales means no-one gets paid.
The thing that puts asses in seats? An audience which cares about what’s happening in the ring. And that’s it. An audience which doesn’t care doesn’t come back. An audience which does brings their kids. Those kids bring theirs, and the money comes in forever.
Now, you can put asses in seats with a great display of athleticism, sure. That’s how other sports do it. But wrestling can do something ‘real’ sports can’t: it can control the audience’s responses to the action by having a goodie fight a baddie.
In wrestling, having one worker play the goodie and one play the baddie aids both wrestlers in ‘getting heat’. ‘Heat’ is a simple, almost visceral concept, and it is this: get a reaction. The difference between the goodie and the baddy is ludicrously simple: we boo the heel and cheer the face. If the audience is making either of those noises, boos or cheers, the wrestlers are said to be ‘getting heat’, which is the best thing they could do. Heat puts asses in seats.
‘But wait Yorkie, even the boos?’
Fuck yes even the boos.
You see, what wrestling understands is that it doesn’t matter why the crowd is getting hot. All that matters is that they are… because a crowd will pay to see one of two things happen: a wonderful Face win, or a deplorable Heel lose. The very best of matches feature both of these things happening simultaneously.
What’s interesting about modern wrestling is that it’s bizarrely close to Ancient Greek theatre in this. You see, for all their myths, the Ancient Greeks didn’t have heroes the way modern stories do. Heracles murdered his wife and kids after all; can you imagine a story where Tony Stark butchered Pepper Potts?
The Ancient Greek word for the main characters in their story was ‘protagonist’, or ‘the one who struggles’, and what’s important is that they didn’t have to be good, as in morally virtuous. They could be abject monsters. All that mattered is that they were interesting. If that seems weird to you, you could consider a modern example in the form of the film ‘Scarface’. Tony Montana is a wretched, hateful, weak, incestuous, treacherous piece of shit… but he’s absolutely fascinating to watch. In point of fact, it’s his despicable nature that makes him so interesting. He might be vile, but he’s never boring – and he’s endlessly quotable to boot.
The series ‘Game of Thrones’ demonstrates the way the Heel/Face dynamic can make a show a huge success. Joffrey Baratheon is the most wretched Heel that TV’s had in years: spoiled, cowardly, sexually sadistic, murderous, weak… He has literally not one redeeming quality, and we kept coming back over and over again to see if this week was going to be the week he got what was coming to him.
Likewise, Brienne of Tarth is noble, decent, pure. She’s also the series’ most dominant badass. People tune in again and again to see what happens to her: will she survive? Thrive? Eat chicken sexy-style with magnificent lunatic Tormund Giantsbane?
(IF THERE’S ANY JUSTICE, YES, OBVIOUSLY SHE WILL.)
Anyway, you get my point. Heel, Face, it doesn’t matter. We’ll tune in to watch a Heel get mashed, or a Face emerge victorious. In many ways, the Face/Heel dynamic is all that matters in storytelling. Even if the story makes no sense, even if we can’t really suspend our disbelief because there’s dragons, or giant tentacle monsters, or whatever else, it just doesn’t matter. If we’re invested in seeing a character we cheer for succeed, or a character we boo fail, we’ll put up with literally almost anything.
The Problem of Heel vs. Heel.
Most matches are Face vs. Heel, and this isn’t because wrestling is unoriginal.
It’s because Face vs. Face matches are really fucking difficult to do well, and Heel vs. Heel matches are almost impossible. The reasons why are obvious.
A Face vs. Face match is, in theory, awesome. ‘Captain America: Civil War’ is probably the best recent cinematic example of why. I mean, are you Team Cap or Team Stark? Everyone wants to know that their hero is the greatest, and the Face vs. Face match is a great way to settle that.
But the problem is that either someone’s got to be the loser, or that the fight ends in some bullshit DQ where there’s no real resolution. If one hero loses, well. Any of that hero’s fans in the audience are going home sad. But if there’s no real resolution, well… what was the point? Anticlimax can be a powerful storytelling tool, but the sense of disappointment and missed opportunity can be difficult to handle well. Consider ‘Civil War’s ending, where Cap quits and the Avengers are broken. It’s emotionally powerful, but a very bleak ending, and not to everyone’s taste.
Face vs. Face is hard. Heel vs. Heel is so difficult as to be pointless.
You see a Heel isn’t just a baddie. They’re not like The Punisher, some antihero who might be a horrible monster but who we secretly love because he’s so awesome; antiheroes are always Faces. No, the Heel is a douche. We boo them because we hate them… and in a Heel vs. Heel match both of them are dicks. So sure, it’s great seeing a Heel lose, but that loss is kinda irrelevant, because no matter who loses, someone we despise wins.
Which means we just don’t care.
There’s literally nothing at stake. Whoever wins, the audience loses. Now, having said that, it is possible to make Heel vs. Heel match work. Usually (and obviously), it involves one of the Heels turning Face, at least for one match. Apart from that, though, the result of booking Heel vs. Heel is a match no-one could possibly give a shit about, or a story that just doesn’t matter. Sure, in theory Joker vs. Green Goblin sounds awesome… but imagine that story without any hero to balance it out, and with both of those characters at their absolute worst. Who do we cheer for? Why do we care? At the end, one of them’s dead and a whole bunch of innocents died and…
You get the idea.
Now, notice I’m not saying it can’t work. ‘Scarface’ works. But any story where one person we don’t like goes up against another person we don’t like, honestly, it’s hard to give a shit.
And this is why horror is so goddamned hard to do well.
In Which We Cannot Bring Ourselves To Do What We Must.
In his work, ‘The Little Book of Movie Cliches’, Roger Ebert joked that if aliens tried to learn about human culture through watching films, they’d come to the conclusion that humans worshipped dogs as gods.
See, until a few years ago, dogs NEVER died in films. No matter how towering the inferno, no matter how powerful the earthquake, that dog’s going to survive. People just can’t bear watching dogs die. Men, sure. Women, definitely. Kids? The precocious little fucker’s a terrible actor, good riddance.
But a DOG?! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
Movie audiences are perceived to be quite fragile by producers, and this is what has created the central problem of mainstream horror films. It shouldn’t require stating, but here it is: we watch horror films to see awful things happen to people. If I’m clicking ‘play’ on a horror, it’s because I want to see someone die. Not necessarily gorily, but if so, then that’d be a lovely bonus. I don’t watch horror to laugh or to cry or be excited. I watch horror to be freaked out. To be disturbed. To be shaken to my core. To be horrified.
(N.B.: As a side note, the reasons for why we enjoy this feeling are far too complex to go into here. If you’re interested by the seemingly paradoxical nature of seeking out such an obviously unpleasant experience, you should totally read Noel Carrol’s ‘The Philosophy of Horror’.)
However, at the same time, while we’ve come to be horrified, we don’t like it when awful things happen to people we like. Which means that horror directors will try to make the characters that are going to die before the credits roll… well. Unlikable. They’ll be the arrogant jock, or the guy who brags about his guns, or the girl who was mean.
Makes sense, right? I mean, we didn’t come here to see bad things happen to good people. That’d be far too close to the real world to be fun.
The problem of horror – and especially modern horror films – is that in a film, like say, anything with Jason in, where there’s going to be LOTS of deaths, this tends to mean that every character is an unlikable asshole.
This has a tendency to turn many – perhaps most – horror films from powerful, disturbing stories into something… less. They become highly structured, and every one of them proceeds the same way: a tedious first act where we spend ages with a bunch of boring Heels, before turning into a second act which is little more than a collection of violent moments where the main Heel kills all the other Heels, and which would probably work more effectively as a gore-filled gif set than a narrative, before finally closing with the Final Girl killing the killer.
TV Tropes refers to this tendency towards mediocrity as the ‘Developing Doomed Characters’ trope, or, its more appropriate original name calls it, ‘Twenty Minutes With Jerks’.
As TV Tropes puts it:
All right, you and your friends are hitting up that new monster movie at the theater. You’re ready to see some carnage. Some destruction. Some crazy special effects. This film is sure to be packed full of it.
Except you have to wait to actually get to that part. No, the director has decided to spend the first 20 minutes of the flick introducing you to a ragtag bunch of hip kids aged 16 to 27 who are all experiencing relationship drama and personal issues and family problems. The idea here is to use Character Development to try to make the audience identify with the future victims more, so the audience will be more affected if and when they die. In-Verse, it accounts for why the characters would want to act the part of the hero, or the villain for that matter.
Problems often arise when the audience simply doesn’t care about said personal issues. Some viewers are Just Here for Godzilla, in which case they have to sit through the tedium of introductions for characters they know are going to start dropping like flies. (After all, viewers are going to be able to guess which characters won’t make it through anyway, so why should they care about them?) Other viewers might actually like to see some character development, but they tend to be disappointed too, because the development here is usually pretty sloppy and rushed. If the characters aren’t very likeable, it’s going to be twenty minutes of impatient waiting for the monster to come along and start killing off the insufferable jerks.
This, in a nutshell, is the main problem confronting horror today. So, how do we solve it?
It’s Better To Look At What Works Than What Doesn’t.
As I’ve already mentioned, the film of ‘The Mist’ works really, really well, and a huge amount of that is down to Toby Jones’ Olly. Thomas Jane’s in there too, along with nearly the entire cast of ‘The Walking Dead’ season one, but it’s Olly who’s really the hero of the film. It’s not just the fact that Toby Jones is clearly the best actor in the film, and nor is it due to the fact that Olly actually has a personality, as opposed to Thomas Jane’s character of the Generic White Father. No, Olly works because he’s engaging, and interesting, alternately nervous and assertive, blackly humorous and powerfully brave. Where Tom Jane’s father character could be switched out for Rick from ‘The Walking Dead’, or Agent Myers from ‘Hellboy’, or any one of a billion tedious dumbass white male characters whose only purpose is to serve as a proxy for a presumed straight, white male audience, Olly is something else: a nervous little mouse who roars louder than the monsters, and dies saving the day. When the Uberlobster finally shredded him, I genuinely screamed ‘No!’ at the screen, because I was so completely invested in him getting away. Sod the old geezer, the kid and everyone else – Olly was the whole f’n show for me.
Although, even with that said, the ending of that film is just savage beyond words.
Leaving ‘The Mist’ aside, there are other superlative films out there which have the courage necessary to be truly horrifying: to make me honestly care about a character, then utterly destroy them.
David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of ‘The Fly’ is probably the premier example of how to tell a truly tragic horror romance. For those who haven’t seen it, the concept is simple enough. Boy meets girl; boy and girl fall deeply in love. Girl’s jackass previous boyfriend isn’t over her, and pulls some possessive bullshit; girl goes to confront jackass. Boy doesn’t realise what girl’s doing, and, drunk and sorry for himself, uses his untested teleporter without checking for flies. Boy gets fused with fly at genetic level and spends the rest of the film turning oh-so-slowly into a monster as his lover is forced to watch.
‘The Fly’ might be famed for its gruesome body horror – and make no mistake, it is horrifyingly gruesome – but unlike lesser films, all that gore serves a purpose. At first, it’s tragic: we see a character who doesn’t deserve it physically rot. We feel his fear, feel his lover’s utter desperation at his degrading condition. We cheer for them to find a solution, even as the narrative reveals that there isn’t one. After this, the gore serves to show how far he’s fallen; how far from human he is.
At the end, when he’s first attacked, then utterly wrecked the jackass boyfriend – a jackass who’s been revealed to be not the possessive dick he at first seemed, but a vulnerable, heartbroken loser as well – the film reveals that it’s not about good guys or bad guys; it’s only about victims. It’s about what’s it’s like to watch a loved one die by degrees, unable to help them in any meaningful way.
The final shot of the film, where the protagonist’s lover is knelt over his mutilated, utterly inhuman body is so emotionally devastating as to be beyond words. So much so, that a planned happy ending was dropped after test audiences found it too twee. After seeing true love torn to pieces by cosmic happenstance, any ray of light felt false.
Another, more modern horror which gets things completely right as far as audience engagement is concerned is ‘IT’ – both the original, and the remake. The Losers’ Club is, quite simply, a masterstroke. With their collection of personal, unique underdog traits, every member of the Losers represents someone pissed on by society. Someone we can cheer. The disabled kid, bullied for his difference; the black kid, bullied for his melanin; the woman, bullied for the temerity of her sheer existence, and so on. Their disproportionate vulnerabilities mean that all of them likeable to some degree.
The modern remake then takes this a step further by going out of its way to make the characters funny, in the way that we all are as kids, and therefore both recognisably real, and, more importantly, the kind of kids we’d have liked to have been friends with. When Eddie explodes at his mother’s despicable abuse, he calls his pills ‘gazebos’ rather than ‘placebos’, and it doesn’t undermine the drama of the act at all. We laugh at his mistake, but cheer on his courage all the same. So it is with all of the Losers, our admiration for them only growing as they slowly rise to the challenge of defeating a monster who is, once all the superpowers are stripped away, nothing but a schoolyard bully. Pennywise loves to scare kids for the sheer fun of it, and when they finally overcome her, there’s something truly primal about the narrative. It’s a story of empowerment in the face of an oppression delivered at the most fundamental level, and there is no more universal human feeling than joy upon the recognition of our own, unrealised potential.
‘IT’ also works to engage the audience through its overt and deliberate use of nostalgia. As we watch the Losers, we’re watching ourselves as kids, remembering all those childhood joys and failures. As we watch the Losers grown old, we’re seeing ourselves again, remembering the distinctly beautiful pain that comes whenever we dwell on our lost youth. Sure, that youth may have been bad, but there were good days in there too, and ‘IT’ is clever enough to use this sense of loss to make us empathise for characters whose spectacular and disproportionate success in adult life might otherwise have made them deeply obnoxious.
And yeah, there’s some deeply problematic shit regarding the presentation of Bev – especially in the modern version’s ugly decision to make her a survivor of sexual abuse who is then relentlessly sexually objectified by literally every male character she encounters throughout the film. But, taken as an object lesson in engaging audience empathy, ‘IT’ is almost peerless. The Losers manage to be underdogs, points of audience identification, and symbols of repressed minority groups without it ever feeling heavy-handed, and whilst holding our sympathies throughout.
If ‘The Fly’ is an example of how to have a horror film which includes character’s we’d cheer for without ever falling into ‘good guy/bad guy’ clichés, and if ‘IT’ is an example of how to have ‘everyperson’ characters without falling into the trap of the ‘Generic White Male lead’, then the final film I’m going to look at is how to have relatively lightly drawn characters whilst still telling an engaging, profoundly upsetting story.
‘Martyrs’ is my favourite horror film, and if you can make it to the end without being in bits, then you’re stronger than I am. Using a three-part narrative structure, it begins with two protagonists: one, Lucie, who’s a woman who may be murderously crazy; the other, Anna, her friend and carer, who’s genuinely sweet. The film is so much more powerful because of this.
As the narrative progresses, we learn why Lucie, who seems at first to be the main character, murdered a family of four. We learn she is justified in her crime, and are shocked by her sudden, mid-film death. When the film’s villains show up and announce their plans to do to Anna what they did to Lucie, I don’t think I’ve ever known such a gut-tugging sense of anxiety from a film.
Over the remainder of the film’s duration, in excruciating, horribly slow detail, the film purposely goes about showing graphic, appalling violence happen to Anna until we’re as desensitised to it as her tormentors. By the end, I was shaking, sickened and near tears at what had happened to a character who absolutely did not deserve it.
‘Martyrs’ works because rather than having well-developed characters like ‘The Fly’, or underdogs like ‘IT’, it is simply relentless in its savagery. It doesn’t hide anything, doesn’t flinch from showing the sadism of its villains, and isn’t afraid to do truly awful things to its heroes. In a world where everyone seems impressed by ‘Deadpool’s 15 certificate, ‘Martyrs’ looks over, says ‘Hold my beer’, and shows us just how bad things can get when you don’t give a shit about making a film for kids.
And unlike more critically deplored fare like ‘Hostel’, or the films of the ‘Saw’ series, the awful violence of ‘Martyrs’ never feels like it’s simply happening for the sake of it; instead, the film uses it to make a point about the nature of violence – and our inherent human weakness in that we stop caring about it.
Making Better Horror.
At its most basic level, what’s true for all stories is true for horror. If we care about the characters, the narrative is more effective… and, more importantly, the horror itself is more effective. Directors and film-makers who want to make truly powerful horror need to understand this. They need to understand that to make truly powerful, enduringly horrifying imagery, they need to inflict horror on the kind of characters they don’t want to see suffering.
There’s an immediate drive in creative people to make narratives karmic. To ensure that those who die are also those who deserve it; that those who are damaged are damaged because they have it coming. But as much as it’s about fear, horror is about one of the things audiences don’t like to acknowledge: that bad things happen to good people. That it’s entirely possible to suffer unjustly.
That’s why it remains my belief that if you’re going to tell a horror story, you need to be prepared to hurt any of your characters… especially the ones who really don’t deserve it.
If you don’t, if we’re laughing at someone as they get hurt, well. It’s not horrifying, is it? It’s grue for grue’s sake. If you want to make that, maybe just make a gif instead? After all, it’ll have exactly the same minimal emotional impact.
‘The Mist’ doesn’t fail because it pisses on the LGBT+ community, or because it insults rape survivors. While it might be hateful, as ‘Game of Thrones’ demonstrates, a show can make mistakes while doing other things well. When it comes to ‘The Mist’, I read its errors as coming from a place of deep fucking stupidity rather than actual malice. Later series could correct that path, and retcon the errors which paint vulnerable communities as being worthy of the violence meted out to them.
‘Game of Thrones’ has, by and large, achieved that. After some awful misjudgements, it seems to finally have its shit together, and even discussed its mistakes in-series.
But when it come to ‘The Mist’, honestly, it doesn’t deserve a second series. Without a single character worthy of attention, it’s wasted its duration, succeeding in nothing more than being harmful, badly-made trash. Because it’s not horror. There is not one moment in the show is horrifying, scary, or even mildly tense, because the only reaction any of the characters elicit is ‘Christ I hope this one gets eaten by an uberlobster soon…’
Overall, it serves only as a useful reminder of the most important rule of stories: the only thing that matters is character.
Four People At A Costume Party.
So you’re all set for the party.
Costume parties are always a chance to shine, but this one’s pretty much The One. After the horror of the ‘Hawaiian Beach’ party, and the humiliation of the ‘Vicars and Nuns’ party, tonight’s the night, dammit! With the theme set at ‘tabletop gaming’, you’ve finally had the chance to rock out your very best costume: an Astra Militarum one.
I mean, at first you thought of modding a set of American Football armour and rocking an old-school Rogue Trader Imperial Army costume, but the grey-and-orange tiger stripe camo was just too ugly. Great as a model, but terrible in real life. Then you thought of maybe doing something based on the old 2nd edition metal Catachans, but… nah. Too Rambo. Even with your sweet converted las-nerf, everyone’ll think you’ve got confused and not understood what the party’s theme is, and you can’t be bothered explaining that no, I’m not Sylvester Stallone a hundred damn times.
Briefly, you flirted with the idea of the classic nineties plastic stormtrooper, but the look was just too conventionally military. You considered a few of the Forge World model lines as well, but they were just too obscure; not to mention, dressing as a Death Korp infantry soldier would mean having to wear that hot-ass gas mask all night and forget that.
So, having finally discounted the idea of dressing as a Commissar (because who needs to spend the night explaining that no, you’re definitely not dressed as an SS officer, and please, please don’t put on social media that I love Steve Bannon and all his demonic little helpers…), you decide that you’re dressing as a Cadian.
And you spend aaaaaages getting the costume just right. You dye the materials to get the colours perfect. You take time fabricating the armour plates from fibreglass and getting it right. You include a few nods to the past lore – alternate shin guards, styled on the old Kasrkin armour, to suggest veteran status. You also hide a few references to the current lore – a talisman bearing the likeness of Saint Celestine, as well as Belisarius Cawl’s name etched into the las-nerf you spent two solid weeks converting for yourself.
In the mirror, you looked great; at the party? You look even better. Your costume’s really got people excited, and everyone wants to know about it. You get to explain the lore, explain the background, explain the culture…
…then fucking Chris shows up.
Chris, along with three more of his jock friends, is dressed in a set of mismatching camo trousers and jacket; the trousers are CADPAT, the jacket’s that dappled German camo you love so much you painted up an entire Steel Legion force with it. Separately, each item might look good, but together, they just grate. The fact they’re from two entirely different nations would be bad enough, but the colours clash in a deeply unaesthetic way.
His ‘cuirass’ – if you can call it that – is made of cardboard, quickly painted with poster paint. In the centre, there’s just the most ridiculously huge Imperial Aquila… but the heads are facing each other. For some reason, he’s got a can of deodorant, and insists on spraying the air with it every few moments.
The weirdest thing though, is the fact he’s stuffed his normally wiry frame with a huge pillow. It distends his clothes and armour to the point he looks pregnant.
“Hand me the dice!” he shouts, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, and all his jock friends laugh. Then, turning to you, he says: “Hey! You came as a Warhammer too!”
“Yeah, you know. Those little dollies you play with. Shopkins with guns. A Warhammer. I thought it’d be a cool costume. It got a laugh out of the lads.”
You wonder if you should correct him, but with all his friends around you, it suddenly feels a little scary. They probably won’t beat the shit out of you again (they haven’t since year 8), but the risk isn’t worth it. Neither is making yourself the target of their mockery.
“Yeah,” you say. “Umm… Chris, what’s with the deodorant?”
He laughs, lifts your arms, and sprays them.
“Went into that Games Workshit place to get some inspiration, and Christ those gamers stank. I mean, do they hand the B.O out at the door, or is it some mark of honour to reek like a tramp’s ass? Like, a way they can spot each other when they’re out with normal people?”
Fighting down the urge to deck the much larger man, you grit your teeth, knowing you’re going to regret asking even as you do…
“And the beer belly?”
He turns to his mates, and they all laugh.
“Those gamers in the shop, they’re such fat fuckers, innit? Christ, the beardy ones’ would catch fire if they ever stepped in a gym. I mean, have you ever seen such a disgusting crew of hideous turds? It’s like a babysitting service for clueless manbabies. No wonder you never see a girl in there… and I bet every lad in the place thinks it’s only because women don’t like competition.”
Trying not to seethe, you nod, smile, and sip your drink, when that uniquely nasal voice grates right into you.
“Alright boys, how’s it all going?” asks Alex.
You’ve known Alex a few years now. His mum’s pretty well-to-do; paid for private tutors to make sure he excelled, which he did. The problem is, he knows he did, and isn’t shy about letting other people know about it. But of a know-it-all to be honest. Sure, he can be a nice enough guy; he’s clever and funny. You’ve just learned it’s only so long as you let him think he’s right about stuff. Thin skinned, he can’t stand to be shown up and his defensiveness means he gets aggressively rude if he ever is.
A few weeks ago, back when the party was announced, he asked if he could pinch your Chaos codex. Initially, you’d wondered if he was interested in getting into the hobby. Nope. Turning, you realise what his reasons were. Alex’s outfit is… well.
You couldn’t call it 40K. Or Age of Sigmar. Or even WHFB. It’s not quite right.
But it’s close. You can see which bits have obviously been inspired by the background.
“What the bloody hell are you supposed to be?” asks Chris, chugging a couple of mouthfuls of Fox Hunter.
“A cultist,” Alex replies. “They’re really pretty cool. I based my outfit on The Bloodzerker of Khrone from this other game called Ages of Sigmar.”
And yeah, the moment he says this, you can kind of see what he was going for.
Alex’s recognisably supposed to be halfway between a chaos cultist and a Khorne Berzerker. The skull helmet’s right, as is the belt made of plastic Halloween skulls. But the closer you look, the more mistakes you start to spot.
The first issue is the Slaanesh symbol in the centre of the belt. Alex is also carrying a huge, ornate staff with the Slaanesh symbol on the top.
“Why did you put that symbol there?” you ask, trying to make it sound like you’re just interested, rather than annoyed by the inaccuracy.
“Just thought it looked cool,” he replies. “Slaanish is the God of Excess, you see, and I liked the idea of a Khrone worshipper who worshipped harder than everyone else, you know? Kind of a way to show how excessive his worship for Khrone is, yeah?”
“Oh. Um. Okay,” you reply.
And you know you shouldn’t, but it’s bugging you so much that you can’t help yourself, even knowing the answer’s going to frustrate you.
“Why a staff?” you ask. “I’d’ve gone with an axe, myself.”
“Oh, I didn’t want to be clichéd. I decided, I’d theme my costume around a Khrone psyker. This is my Force Staff. I thought it’d be cool, you know? A way to show how well I’ve understood the different bits of the game’s setting but do my own thing too.”
You do a little bit of a double-take.
“Ummm… You do know that Khorne doesn’t have any magic users?”
“They’re called psykers,” replies Alex with a patronising wave of the hand. “Oh, and it’s actually pronounced Khrone.”
Not wanting to cause a scene – especially over what might be an honest mistake – you decide to fudge.
“Honest Alex, it’s not. It’s pronounced Khorne.”
“No, it’s Khrone. I checked on the internet.”
“Wait, don’t you believe me? Look I’ll show you.”
And as they start tapping ‘KHRONE’ into the Google search bar, up steps Grace, and by the Throne, her outfit is amazing.
You were a bit worried about Grace. Not because of anything about her, but since she’s just broken up with her girlfriend, things have been bad. You’ve spent more than a few nights as a shoulder to cry on.
However, she’s not let her personal situation get her down. Looking in genuine wonder at her awesome suit of full Astartes armour, you can’t help but be amazed. Even for a semi-professional cosplayer like her, it’s an incredible piece of work… especially when you know for a fact she’s never played a game of Warhammer in her life. She’s dressed perfectly. It’s a full Mark VI suit, fabricated from a combination of materials so cleverly executed that you’ve no idea what they are. They might honestly be ceramite for all you know.
It’s the little details she’s gotten right too; purity seals with legit Latin phrases (which you know she’ll have researched). A chainsword whose teeth rotate. The service studs she’s wearing, glued to her forehead, each with make-up around it to make the skin look aggravated.
They you spot the chapter markings, realise she’s come as a Marine from the Rainbow Warriors chapter, and burst out laughing.
“You get the joke then?” she asks, smiling.
“Yeah. Good pun,” you say.
“Thanks. Spent ages researching everything. I’d seen a couple of Space Marine builds online, and wanted to see if I could get it right. When I found out there was a chapter of Astates legitimately called the Rainbow Warriors…”
“Girls don’t play Warhammer,” says Chris.
“That’s true. Games Workshop don’t make any female models for that reason. And even if they did, you can’t have female marines,” adds Alex. “The lore doesn’t allow it.”
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture. If we want to be legal about it, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defined cultural appropriation as follows:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
So far, so complex. What the hell does any of this have to do with the party you just went to?
Well, Warhammer 40K has a culture. As a (presumed) fan of that culture, you’ll know it inside and out, be familiar with the lore. As a result, when you see something that’s Just Not Right, ordinarily created by someone who knows nothing about the game, something that runs counter to the culture (be that established lore, established fluff, or canonical events), it’ll probably grate with you. It might even make you angry.
That’s a similar experience to the one that people from minority and ethnic groups experience when they see their cultures being appropriated – that is, used by people who are not members of the relevant minority or ethnic group.
In our party, Chris represents blatant cultural appropriation. He’s just not bothered. Having got a vague, general sense of what the hobby entails, he honestly doesn’t care about representing it properly, because why should he? He’s just taken the aspects of things that interest him, or that are useful to him; in this case, the parts he can use to get approval from his friends. The fact that he’s mocking and insulting another person’s culture doesn’t matter to him; he just wants to have fun, and doesn’t care who he pisses off. You’re just a joke to him. He’s laughing, which means so should you.
Alex, on the other hand, represents a more subtle kind of cultural appropriation. We normally see this from people who actually genuinely like the culture they’re appropriating, so they often get super defensive when you call it that. They prefer to use the term ‘cultural appreciation’, because they feel that what they’re doing is showing respect for your culture by taking it and making it theirs. From their point of view, they’re not being dismissive of the culture; they’ve actually taken the time to learn about it. So how can it be insulting? Well, because their research is usually incomplete, their understanding only piecemeal. What makes it worse is that, because they’ve done the research, they can feel like they’re an expert on the topic. After all, they did the research! Hence, they may be arrogant enough to try and ‘correct’ members of the culture they’re appropriating, unable to see that they’re not the expert they think they are.
Finally, Grace represents someone who’s not culturally appropriating. She’s treating an unfamiliar culture with the respect it deserves. As a genuinely talented individual, she’s brought her own skills and talents to create something which honours a culture she’s unfamiliar with. The key difference between her and Alex is that Alex is like a magpie; he only takes the pieces he likes and ignores context. Grace doesn’t. She’s taken the time and really done her research. She’s gone and identified those areas of the culture which she most identifies with, and she’s utilising them carefully and respectfully. If there is an option to do something unique and personal, she’s done it within the existing framework.
Real World Problems.
Of course, 40K is an optional culture. One essentially chooses to be a fan of Warhammer 40,000, rather than being born into it. So imagine what it must be like to see your actual, real-life culture misrepresented.
Growing up British, I never understood why every British person on American TV and in films a.) spoke with an RP accent and b.) was the baddie.
Firstly, where were the Liverpudlians? The Yorkshirewomen? The Geordies? The Essex lads? The Cornishmen? Why were working-class men from London talking like they’d been to Eton? My dad was a working-class Londoner, and they didn’t sound anything like him.
And why were we always, always the villains? I mean, Tim Curry’s great as Pennywise, but as he memorably put it “The only roles they ever give me are butlers and bastards.” (This is before HBO realised that quality British actors are very happy to work in TV, unlike their American counterparts and so put them in everything. Seriously, can you imagine Tim Curry in his prime on ‘Game of Thrones’?!) As a kid growing up in the nineties, the only people I ever saw on TV who sounded like me were trying to blow up John McClane.
Only they didn’t really sound like me. Or themselves. Or anyone, actually. They sounded like an American’s vague idea of how the rest of the world sounded.
It was really, really weird.
Was it offensive? Nah. Did it make me want to become a crazy man with a plot to blow up Nakatomi plaza? No, not at all.
It was just unrealistic. And, more importantly, stupid. Like, really, really stupid. When every British person on American TV pronounces their greetings like they’re saying ‘AIR HELL AIR’, all you think is that Americans must be stupid.
Of course, it starts to really grate when you see the way that British culture is represented by non-Brits. Christ alive, that fucking episode of The Simpsons where they visit England. It’s not offensive it’s just so fucking dumb. There’s nothing in it that’s recognisably English. Well, not to me, anyway. Sure, Tony ‘Actual War Criminal’ Blair might’ve been in it, but it’s about as representative of genuine English culture as ‘Game of Thrones’.
At least in that, you’ll hear actual English accents.
Of course, being English, one of the advantages I have is that my culture used to rule the world. The British Empire may be long gone, but its legacy – and the English culture that it disseminated – retain HUGE levels of cultural capital. Americans might speak American English, might try to change the way they spell honour, aluminium and autumn, but there’s no such language as American; it’s still English.
English culture has a disproportionate level of value worldwide relative to our size. And, importantly, I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I raise this point to demonstrate that when an American appropriates my culture, I can raise an eyebrow, sip my tea, and shake my head at the silly little colonials and their funny ways. When an American gets my culture wrong, well, why should I care? It doesn’t affect me. No-one’s going to think any less of me because of a Hollywood film. No-one’s going to make powerful, negative assumptions about my character because of some nonsense they saw on telly.
The same option isn’t true of other cultures. Especially ones which, historically, have not had similar levels of power.
The various Native American Nations have been the victims of horrifying genocides, corralled into the shittiest, most worthless lands, stripped of their assets, and treated as though their foreigners in their own lands… Meanwhile, the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the people who savaged them make money by copying their fashions.
I’m not going to go into detail about the ways in which the fashion industry has disgracefully plundered Native America cultures, but it’s worth reading about. It makes for sobering reading. One of the simplest examples of the harm cultural appropriation causes comes from the way fashion designers recently ‘copied’ (read: stole) the idea of Native American headdresses.
I mean, you can see why: those feather headdresses look awesome. All those feathers? They’re just so damned cool, especially when they flow down the back.
Of course, depending on the Nation the headdress belongs to, there will be deep, widely differing religious, cultural, and spiritual significance to the style, the feathers, the colours… Those headdresses aren’t just cool; they have meaning too.
From the Native American Nation perspective, having some twenty-something hipster with bored, dead little eyes draping across the symbols of their culture is a little… well. We might hate to use such a powerful word, but it applies: what these fashionistas are doing, it’s despicable. People outside the Native culture just see the cool clothes; the people on the inside see their culture being spat on.
Like a holidaying family taking a smiling family selfie by the crematoria at Auschwitz, the whole thing’s just…
Well, it’s not evil.
But it is not cool. It’s shitty.
People with power often feel like they’re not powerful. Dominant cultures rarely feel like they’re in charge. As a result, they often don’t see that what they’re doing is so wretched.
“I thought it’d be a cool costume. It got a laugh out of the lads.”
“I thought it’d be cool, you know? A way to show how well I’ve understood the culture.”
Every one of us – every single one – has some culture we regard as sacred. Our nation. Our religion. Our sport. Our books. Our music.
Some of it we choose. Some of it is chosen for us, by family, by life. So when someone comes along and misrepresents that – or worse, actively disrespects it – that can be more than simply offensive. If something’s offensive, well, who cares? Who cares that you’re offended?
Offense is just a feeling, and while unpleasant, feelings get better.
The problem isn’t that cultural appropriation is offensive. It’s that it’s damaging. By taking the culture of others for ourselves, we can control how those others are seen, and, in turn, how others people will approach them.
What’s truly difficult is that cultural appropriation isn’t always (or even often) driven by racism. Oftentimes, the cultural appropriator doesn’t mean any harm. Usually, they saw something in the other culture that was just too awesome, and felt entitled to make it their own.
But just like Jack Skellington, while we didn’t mean to ruin Christmas, we still did, because we didn’t understand what we were doing.
A Broad Spectrum of Influences.
So how does this relate to Warhammer 40,000?
Well, 40K has always been a magpie setting. The writers of 40K, like most writers of sci-fi, are constantly pinching ideas from other media and historical settings which they think are cool, or funny, or most often, awesome. Unavoidably, then, there is the chance that some of what they pinch might lead to cultural appropriation, because that’s simply the risk we run as artists – nothing is original.
It has to be said, that 40K seems very much like a place this could happen. After all, the setting has a longstanding problem with the way it presents anyone who isn’t male and white. Women get pretty shoddy treatment, not to mention that in the grim darkness of the far future, we apparently exterminated all the black people. (Well apart from that one Inquisitor in the first ‘Dawn of War’ game with the SUPER weird accent. Oh, and that one Culexus who was sent to kill Horus. Oh, and the Minstrels of Nocturne… although they’re not exactly of African descent, are they?)
So are there any problems with 40K in this regard?
Honestly? I’m not sure.
The Dark Angels originally had roots that were influenced by Native American iconography – hence the Native-inspired headdress helmet. The very first story about the Deathwing is even clearer about this, with characters obviously named in a style meant to echo Native American naming conventions.
Over time, of course, the fluff took the Dark Angels to a more monastic-inspired theme, with the feathers being the only real remaining indicator of the more tribal roots. As a result, there’s clearly no real-world cultures being inadvertently referenced any more.
This everywhere in 40K; it’s a setting which revels in broad strokes, rather than specificity. You can always kind of see where the designers got their inspiration, but it’s never quite specific enough to be noticeably ‘real’.
The Blood Angels have Renaissance-inspired aesthetics… but they’re also Space Vampires, and there’s Astorath, with his Coppola-Dracula armour. The World Eaters are kinda-sorta Visigoth berserker barbarians whose original chapter colours match the Finnish flag… but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Striking Scorpions have those Rasta-inspired dreads… but they’re obviously not hair, instead being segmented armour plates. The Necrons have a distinctly Mesoamerican feel, what with the shape and style of the swords, shields and helmets… but you’d be hard pushed to say they were definitively based on the Aztec, Incan, Mayan, or any of the great pre-genocide South American empires. Orks are… well, working-class Englishmen.
So while I feel that you can definitely see the influences the designers have drawn upon, so far, Warhammer 40,000 hasn’t really appropriated any other cultures for itself. However, with that said, it’s important to remember: I’m a white Englishman.
I’m not remotely the expert on the myriad real-world, culturally significant specifics that the designers might potentially have drawn from in order to create their models. It’s entirely possible that there’s plenty of things in the game universe that I’ve missed.
And I think that this is the real point: when you’re from the dominant culture, you’re not the one who should be talking.
We’re the ones who needs to listen.
Because cultural appropriation does cause harm. Is it as significant as other forms of racial or ethnically-driven unpleasantness? No, of course not. But just as with all forms of less obvious racism and stereotyping, it causes harm. How? Because people who know nothing about the culture being represented look at the Hollywood images on their screen and assume they’re true.
‘Die Hard 2’ made the claim that [url=http://diehard.wikia.com/wiki/Glock_7]a gun called a Glock 7 exists, made of porcelain, which can pass through metal detectors[/url]. They used a Glock 17 as the prop for this fictitious gun, and from that point on, there were people who believed that a Glock 17 could go through metal detectors. If you’re a gun expert, that scene makes you cringe, but Glock’s sales went up in the US because of that film and the nonsense claims it made.
The problem is that people believe what you tell them, because researching things takes effort and learning is hard. Reality is complicated and difficult and strange, working in ways that are convoluted and unexpected. There are places in the world where people are buried in the sky. One of Rome’s Emperors was black. When wrestlers bleed during a match, it’s because they’re really bleeding. A million strange things happen in this world a day, and the stories we use as the roadmap of our expectations will always be insufficient to the task of explaining the complex realities of our lives.
We don’t know it all.
As a result, we, as fans, need to use our ears more than our mouths. We need to understand how painful it is for a person to see their culture insulted. We need to stop being defensive, because an unintentional mistake is only okay if we correct it. Finally, we, as people with power, need to demand that those artists and creators we respect are held to account. Cultural appropriation may seem like a minor problem when weighed against wealth inequality, climate change or war, but it is a problem nonetheless, and one that’s entirely avoidable.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
So if you’ve been following my Instagram feed for the last week, you’ll know that I’ve been teasing a free Deathwatch Army giveaway competition. I’ve had more than a few people asking how to win. Well: here’s the details on what you need to do.
The prize is a full beginner’s Deathwatch army: two Deathwatch veterans squads; two Venerable Dreadnoughts (one with Multi-Melta and DCCW, the other with Plasma Cannon and Missile Launcher); a Deathwatch Librarian; a Deathwatch Techmarine with C-Beam on a bike (no longer game legal, true, but still awesome); three Deathwatch Bikers; and a Vindicare Assassin. All the models are fully painted, based, and converted, and will be sent to the skilled (not lucky) winner.
On Friday, the 21st of July, the competition goes live. It will run until Midnight GMT of the 31st August 2017; efforts submitted after this point will not be considered (though they will be deeply appreciated). Judging will take place the week following, with the winner to be announced on the 7th of September.
THE COMPETITION ITSELF
The competition will be based around the first part of my debut novel, ‘Alpha Sequence: DEREVNYA’. The criteria is simple enough: write a review of my book and post it to my book’s page on Amazon. The person who writes the ‘best’ review wins.
The link to my book is here.
Now, ‘best’ doesn’t mean ‘most flattering’; if you’ve read ‘Sinister Pinion’, you know that I’m interested in proper cultural critique. You can praise my work, sure, but there needs to be thought behind anything you say.
So, the person who provides the most thoughtful, interestingly-written critique will win.
Not to mention, from the 21st July 2017, the eBook version of my novel will be available to download for FREE for five whole days, so you don’t even have to spend any money. Just download my book, read it over your summer holiday, and write a review. It’s that simple.
And if you win, a one-of-a-kind, fully painted, completely unique Deathwatch Army could be yours!
So, good reading, better writing, and best of luck!
I really like the new Primaris Marines.
There’s a bunch of reasons.
I mean, I could talk about the aesthetics. How I honestly think the new armour looks great; the way the additional armour plating really gives the models heft, and the more ‘realistic’, faux-truescale sculpting lends them a real dynamism. Maybe I could explain how I think the actual armour stylings themselves are really good – the way there’s clear visual links between the pre-existing Heresy-era sculpts and Adeptus Mechanicus lines of models. The Primaris equipment really feels like a fusion of the greatest era of Astartes technology, and cutting edge Martian engineering. Not to mention, the actual weapons they have look great – the picatinny rail-inspired greebling just makes everything look that little bit more ‘military’. Personally, I think that in every way, the Primaris figures are a rousing success.
Not that you’d know it from the comments online.
“I’m so sick of Space Marines being released. When are they going to do <insert personal army here>.”
“These look shit.”
“Games Workshop’s replacing all my old marines.”
“The new fluff is shit. Fucking Gulliman spiritual liege Matt Ward blah blah blah…”
I’d say I get this negativity, but honestly? I really don’t. As an AdMech player since 1993, I know better than most what it means to have to wait for new models to be released. Sure, it’s annoying, but that wait can be a positive thing; it encourages hobbying, because missing models means more conversions. Plus, it’s not like GW’s pattern isn’t known at this stage. Astartes will always have more models than any other faction, for the same reason Batman will always fight the Joker more often than Two-Face. Some things are just more popular than others. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. If we want more models more frequently, we have to accept that we either change our army to one which is updated more frequently, or swallow the bitter pill that by choosing a more esoteric army, we’ve made an implicit agreement to wait longer for new toys. The Szechuan sauce might be amazing, but the vast majority of people just want burgers. Businesses need to follow the money, and that can’t be helped; it’s the ugly compromise between having an artistic vision, and getting paid for it.
As for the people arguing that the models look dreadful, I mean… seriously, if you think they look shit, I’m sorry, but you’re subjectively wrong. They look great, so long as you’ve got the same love of the Astartes aesthetic as I do. And it’s not like you have to buy them. I mean, I think every Chaos model ever released looks like warmed-up ass; doesn’t mean they’re a shit army or that people who play them are stupid. Just means I personally don’t buy Chaos models. I’ve got a new Dark Imperium Death Guard army I’m going to be eBaying, doesn’t bother me none. We don’t have to like everything, so we shouldn’t make people defend their aesthetic choices in the name of salving our own egos. That’s just a dick move.
However, where these first two complaints are just kinda obnoxious, the other complaints are a little more interesting and bear a little more merit, and warrant a little more analysis, because with them, we’re kind-of getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes 40K what it is.
As we all know, the fluff is everything.
Changes to the fluff are inherently controversial. Especially with a group of humans as naturally conservative as gamers. Changing the fluff is like putting a plastic castle in a piranha tank: doesn’t matter how nice the new toy is, the moment you put your hand in there, you’re losing a finger.
The thing is, not all gamers are unthinking as piranha. Sure, there’s a type of gamer who hates any and all change, but we can ignore her. After all, we can’t help her out. She’s stuck hating anything new because she remembers The Good Old Days ™. We can’t help her and honestly, we shouldn’t try; these are the kind of people who saw the automobile and decided they’d rather take a horse. And, you know what? Fair play to them. Nothing wrong with being a Luddite; the only person it hurts is you. So we can ignore them, because their problem isn’t actually with the game, it’s with the fact that time is happening, and they lack the self-awareness to realise that.
No, the gamers we need to talk with are the ones with the active critical thinking skills. The ones who’re actually prepared to engage with the new work, rather than simply regurgitating whatever hate their local club is currently steeped in. This gamer, she’s actually approaching the fluff from the perspective of good vs. bad writing, and that’s great. I mean, again, like aesthetics, that argument’s a question of taste; you either like it or you don’t, so I’m not sure there’s any great understanding to be had from the discussion of whether Bellisarius Cawl’s introduction is a bit out of nowhere, or the fact that YET AGAIN the Ultramarines are the centre of everything and YET AGAIN their Primarch is shown to be the best… Either you like that, or you don’t.
However, where I think there’s utility is in considering why these new changes have been made. In asking why Primaris? Why Ultramarines? Why Gulliman? The reason being, once we’ve analysed why these decisions were made, it develops the discussion in a more helpful, constructive way.
The answer to this is obvious, but it needs stating, because all the other decisions descend from it. If we proceed from the baseline, the simple reason for the Primaris Marines’ existence is this: Games Workshop created the Primaris Marines because it wants to make money.
You can see why they made the call to introduce the Primaris line for Astartes and not, say, Drukhari. Astartes sell better than anything else, because of course they do. They’re concentrated awesome, and if you disagree with that, then you basically need to stop lying to yourself and ask exactly why you’re interested in Warhammer 40,000 at all. No matter how much we might love Orks, they’re simply not the face of 40K in the way Astartes are.
Thing is, while Astartes are awesome, after thirty years, Jesus Christ, what’s left? The Astartes product line is FUCKING MASSIVE. Seriously, how many models are there? There’s Greek statue marines, Roman legionary marines, mediaeval monk marines, skull-faced marines, awesome flame decal marines, bat-wing head marines, cyber marines, dragon marines, Viking marines, vampire marines, werewolf marines, Mongol marines, special forces marines, wizard marines, Egyptian marines, Skeksis marines, barbarian marines, zombie marines, junkie marines, marines riding bikes, marines riding wolves, marines riding in Santa’s sleigh…
This, all before we get into breaking down the types of marine. Because there’s flying marines, big gun marines, big marines, bigger marines, bigger marines with two big guns, marines in cloaks, marines with swords, marines without power armour, marines inside robots, big marines inside robots…
It’s fucking insane how big the Astartes product line is. Take a step back and compare it to any other game line, and compare the audience response to the release of a new product. Warmahorde fans cheer when they get a new army box with two robots and a single, one piece dude, all cast from that awkward plastic resin crap which never gets the mold lines out. Poor Infinity fans celebrate whenever just one single new model comes out. When GW releases a box of ten models that can be built as two different squads, with multiple weapon variants, special weapons, helmets, heads, ammo pouches, bandoliers, grenades, add-ons, spare kit, customisation parts and details, 40K fans tend to wail like the end of the world has come.
So, when it comes to Astartes, how does GW do anything new, and worse, how do they do it without being vilified? Look at how many Astartes models there actually are. How can they actually introduce a new product into that line? They’ve done every kind of Astartes there is. About the only option left is pith helmet Astartes vs assegai-wielding Astartes. Either that or, you know, female marines, but when your community’s values are so messed up that they regard daemonically-possessed psychopaths as less abhorrent than half the population of the Earth, well. Here we are – Primaris Marines, models with the one thing GW has never done before aside from acknowledging that women are humans: marines in a scale appropriate to the background fluff.
Returning to the core problem is, having decided to create such a massively divergent model line, how does GW then introduce those model lines without making every one of their existing customers furious?
I mean, obviously they can’t, because there’s a significant portion of the 40K community that’s thrived on hatred since the game’s birth. No matter what they do, some dipshit’s going to get angry and burn their army, because that’s just how parts of the 40K community are.
So that means the question isn’t so much “how does GW introduce these new marines without making everyone furious?” as “how does GW introduce these new marines without making the sensible people who happen to have invested a lot of money and time in the 40K hobby and will therefore be deeply upset to find their time and money, essentially, wasted?”
Because that’s not a small thing. To be a 40K player is to have an Astartes army somewhere. Probably quite a large one. Probably more than one. Possibly even a fantastically expensive one that’s been literal decades in development.
As a result, GW’s options are seriously limited. They can decide to go ‘truescale’, but they can’t just say ‘this is what Space Marines are now’ without full-scale riots breaking out. Their only option is to incorporate the models into the existing fluff, and say they’re a new type of Astartes. It’s all they can do; their hands are tied.
I sympathise with them, I really do. With a community this notoriously impossible to please – one that’s been neglected and borderline insulted for many years – making a decision like the Primaris one is genuinely ballsy. The fact is, though, the way they did it was the only way they could do it. They HAD to come up with a way for Astartes players to both keep their old models and have incentive to buy the new ones… so the Primaris Marines couldn’t be retconned; they had to be introduced as new Marines. They couldn’t replace the current Astartes; they had to be introduced as ‘the same, but different’. And, given the Imperium’s fluff-rooted hatred of anything new, there were the twin problems that they had to be introduced by someone with serious authority, and someone with serious, heretical-level science. The Primaris needed to be introduced by someone with Heresy-era technology levels, and someone with authority approaching the Emperor’s.
In essence, the Primaris could only be introduced the way they were. It couldn’t just be Chapter Master that introduced them, or the new model line would end up Chapter specific, with gamers complaining that they couldn’t use the new toys. It couldn’t be some AdMech guy, or the fluff fans would be up in arms, asking ‘How does the AdMech have the authority to impose this on the Black Templars?!’
It had to be a Primarch, and there had to be an uber-AdMech character involved. It couldn’t just be one of them; it needed to be both.
The change – as all real things in 40K are – was driven by the model line, because it’s a story driven by toys. It always is. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad; the idea of a Loyalist Primarch coming back is an awesome one. The idea of him coming back with uber-marines is equally badass.
There’s so much hate for the Primaris story arc in some areas of the community, and no matter how much people complain, no matter how many reasons are given, I’m of the opinion that the root of all that hatred can be summarised in two simple words.
‘Chapters [not descended from Guilliman’s geneseed] are disciples who owe their genetic inheritance to another Primarch, but follow the Codex Astartes as keenly as their divergent heritage allows. While primarily composed of successor Chapters, this group also includes several Chapters of the First Founding – notably the Imperial Fists, White Scars and the Raven Guard. These chapters can never be Ultramarines, for their gene-seed is not that of Roboute Guilliman. Nevertheless, they will ever aspire to the standards and teachings of the great Primarch’
– Matt Ward
It was the fifth edition Space Marine Codex was when I first became aware that people really hated the Ultras. It might seem like it’s always been that way; that the Ultras were just the very worst, most godawful of all the types of Astartes you could possibly play, but it wasn’t always that way.
Way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, back when I first began playing, the Ultramarines weren’t anything special. But then, neither was anyone else. They were just… well, marines. The Ultras were the blue marines, Blood Angels were the red ones, Dark Angels were black, Salamanders were British Racing green… none of the chapters were terribly different from each other. The names were just names without any real Chapter culture attached. The fluff wasn’t fully developed. The Ultramarines certainly weren’t the Face of The Imperium like they are now. They were just what you called your Marines if you painted them blue.
While other Chapters were developed, their backgrounds expanded into interesting and varied cultures, the Ultramarines stayed undeveloped for ages. Most of 1st edition, actually, and a significant portion of 2nd. They were Just Another Chapter. There were no named characters as we’d think of them today – Calgar, though he existed, was a fat little hobbit-looking dude on a weird chair with twin powerfists, intended as a display piece, not an actual battlefield model. The only Ultra-specific model which had any of the more ‘modern’ stylings was a single Marine captain with vaguely Roman details.
Now, the Ultras weren’t alone in having a limited line. For most of 1st edition, the Blood Angels had a single Captain in proto-Sanguinary Guard armour; the Dark Angels had a single captain with a strange, sort-of Native American headdress-inspired helm; the Space Wolves had a single captain with a wolf helm. Well, that and a terrible model of Leman Russ which was somehow even worse than the seated version of Calgar.
The hilarious thing is that it wasn’t even the Ultramarines who were the first Chapter to be fully fleshed out. It was the Space Wolves. The releases of the Blood Claws, Long Fangs, Grey Hunters, Ragnar Blackmane and the rest absolutely dominated the summer release window they came out in. It was like no other marines mattered. For a length of time which might surprise modern players, the Sons of Russ were as ubiquitous in 40K as the Ultras are today.
After the Space Wolves were given their ‘All Wolves, All The Time’ gimmick, the gimmick train couldn’t be stopped. The Blood Angels gained the Death Company and became vampires; the Dark Angels were liberally dipped in the simmering homoeroticism of their real-world origins, and became penitent warrior monks. It was getting to the point that there were so many non-Codex compliant Chapters that the idea of a Chapter who did follow the Codex had become a novel idea. In fact, the current, modern ‘popularity’ of the Ultramarines could be read almost entirely as a direct response to the historical proliferation of ‘snowflake’ chapters that came to define 2nd edition.
So it was, that the Ultras were finally allowed to have a genuine gimmick of their own, and it was the one gimmick no-one really wants: to be the ‘standard’ chapter. To be the yardstick by which everyone else’s awesome is measured. The reason why this ‘honour’ fell to the Ultras and no-one else seems – to my mind, at least – to be a combination of unpopularity, aesthetics and poor real-world paint technology.
All the other chapters had, by 2nd edition, got special rules and awesome models of their own. By contrast, the Ultramarines had received nothing. No special characters, no unique units, nowt. This had lead to an obvious lack of popularity, meaning they were ripe for development. Coupled with a lack of narrative development – they’d emerged from 1st edition with almost no fluff to call their own – made them the perfect blank slate, making them ideal candidates to be slotted into the role of ‘the Codex-compliant Chapter’.
Also in this era, Games Workshop was undergoing something of a reinvention. This was the period where they first realised there was big money to be made selling to tweens, and so they were now interested in pursuing this untapped, lucrative younger market. It’s a curious quirk of nature that children and younger people’s eyes respond best to bright primary colours – they ‘notice’ them before subtler shades and tones – and, aesthetically at this point in 40K’s life, GW was all about painting everything red. As a result, the Blood Angels were GW’s go-to choice for their ‘Face of The Company’ Chapter, and they were plastered all over the 2nd edition boxed set.
But this didn’t stick.
Why? Well, we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Giving up on the Blood Angels, 3rd edition 40K tried to make the Black Templars A Thing. Templar Knights IN SPACE should be an easy sell…. But the Templars choked. It’s easy to see why. Their colour scheme is simultaneously boring, but really hard to paint well. You can’t make Black Templars look good with minimal skill – you need to actually practise painting to do that, so they’re terrible for beginners. Plus, their emphasis on swords detracts from the futuristic feel of 40K, and they’re just so goddamned GRIMDARK that the whole thing starts to verge on farce. Plus they hate psykers. Much as I love the Templars (and I really do), you can’t blame GW for giving up on them as the Chapter designated as The Face of Games Workshop.
So, for fourth edition, GW’s forced to go back to the drawing board. They return to their initial ideas of a simple, primary colour scheme that’s easy for beginners to paint, and which looks great with minimal effort. With the Blood Angels on the outs, GW’s desire for a would have to be filled by another Chapter.
This is where painting issues in the real world get in Games Workshop’s way. With red no longer an option, all that’s left is yellow or blue. Yellow is an infamously tricky colour to paint well, and paint technology? Well, this was back in the days before decent shades and washes were commercially available. As a result, the Imperial Fists were out as a potential choice.
And so it was that, after nearly twenty years, the Ultramarines finally get invited onto the dance floor. Picked as the Face of The Company, not because they’re the best choice, but because they’re the best of the available options. The Ultramarines are the ugly, rule-abiding nerd who’s always picked last for everything, chosen only because he’s well-behaved.
So it is that from 4th edition onwards, the focus has finally – and seemingly permanently – shifted onto the Ultras as the Face of The Company. It’s easy to see why. All the things which made them ‘vanilla’: the colour scheme, the Codex-compliance, the fact they’re the closest thing to a genuine ‘Good Guy’ the Imperium has… all that stuff’s turned out to be actually kind of essential to selling the fucking product.
Maybe you’re asking why? Why the Ultras and not the Blood Angels?
Well, remember how I said we’d come back to that?
It’s because 40K scares the shit out of the Muggles, that’s why. If you’re like me, you love it because it’s so relentlessly bonkers, so utterly crapsack, so horribly, horrifically dark. Coincidentally, these are also the exact same list of reasons why parents hate it. Trying to explain that their children are playing a wargame where the good guys are Nazis because the whole game’s a complex satirical critique of utilitarianism and the human drive towards fascism and oh, also the baddies are actual fucking demons?
Seriously, you can tell a straight boy that being anally fisted feels amazing, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to huff some poppers and tell you to get stuck in. No matter how much fun a pastime might be, some things are a difficult sell. So it is with 40K.
When some parents won’t even look past the word ‘war’ that preceded the ‘game’ part of the equation, well, you can see why the Blood Angels were dropped. While they were obviously GW’s preferred Face of The Company Chapter from the get-go, the fluff meant the Sons of Sanguinius were just completely unacceptable for the role. Vampires are one thing, but the Death Company? A literal squad of suicidal murder bastards?
And this is why the Ultras are GW’s main chapter. They are, for want of a better description, the perfect camouflage.
Look at the colours. Blue has connotations of goodness and heroism, as well as the fact it’s almost always combined with red or yellow on their pauldrons. Those primary colours just pop, and their heavy associations with childhood toys are not accidental. Ultramarines are overtly heroic; much moreso than the vampiric Blood Angels, the berserker werewolves of the Space Wolfs, and the furious monking of the Dark Angels. Not to mention their name screams ‘Good Guy’: Ultra Marines. They’re like regular marines, only… Ultra.
The Ultramarines are a con. A scam. Everything about them is calculated to make the Chapter – and by extension, the game – seem ‘safe’ to the parents who will inevitably be shelling out hundreds of pounds for handfuls of grey plastic. They’re a way to make a game about Space Nazis fighting Space Demons palatable to people who won’t look any closer than that, and who aren’t interested in trying.
Of course, these same ‘safe’ qualities are – inevitably, really – those same qualities that make them so despised by the ‘hardcore’ gamers. Ultras will always have connotations of being ‘for the kids’ (conveniently missing that this is literally their point) and Christ knows, the one thing teenagers and twentysomethings hate is stuff that runs the risk of making them look childish. They’ll scream and shout and rant for hours about how a hobby about little plastic spacemen is, in some way, Not For Children.
When of course, that’s exactly what 40K is. And only a fool would take that statement as criticism.
Of course when you couple our community’s all-too-frequent, lamentable insecurity alongside the fact that many of us were drawn to the GRIMDARK specifically because it has no heroes, because of the moral complexities the Imperium presents, well. It’s no surprise that the Ultras are despised. And it’s not like Games Workshop’s had a history of exactly helping themselves on this front. Matt Ward’s 5th edition fluff (quoted above) seemed almost wilfully engineered to enrage fans of other, non-Codex chapters by outright stating that the Ultras are objectively The Best Chapter. I cannot imagine a more flamboyant middle finger to anyone who, like myself, plays other Chapters.
An Unfortunate Series of Events.
It’s not surprising that the Primaris Marines are getting a poor reception. A new idea introduced to a community that distrusts new ideas; background material connecting them to a wildly unpopular Chapter, and a less popular Primarch… And given the game’s history, background, everything, honestly, there’s no other way they could’ve done things. The continuity of 40K is too well-established at this point to allow for any other options, and the sad thing is that all that’s happening? Is that the community is being given new toys to play with.
Ultimately, I’m not saying you have to like the Primaris, or that you shouldn’t bash them. We’re all allowed opinions, all allowed to like what we like, hate what we don’t. I’m just saying, maybe we need to think about why things are, the history of where they came from, before we start rushing to attack. The Primaris fluff isn’t great, sure, but there’s complex historical reasons why it is what it has to be.
As I’ve argued before, young people are the lifeblood of the hobby, and getting angry at the fact the game’s made for them is like getting angry at the tides. Shout at the waves all you like, but be prepared to get wet. And while the Ultras are, without question, the lamest of the Chapters, there’s no point being angry at them. Our game needs them. They’re the necessarily safe entry point the game requires, and that’s actually a good thing. More gamers overall, means more money, means more development of those other, more esoteric models, factions and species. Their success means you’re more likely to get the less popular toys you actually want.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.