During our Warhammer 40.000 special week, we had the chance to talk about all things Warhammer with Kieron Gillen, writer known for The Wicked + The Divine, Darth Vader, Doctor Aphra, Iron Man and of course, his love of the grim dark universe of Games Workshop. Here is our discussion !
We really hope you'll like it as much as we do! Enjoy!
- Kieron Gillen, the Imperium Phase interview -
• Republ33k : Let's start with the beginning. Every Warhammer 40.000 fan has a story about how he or she discovered this weird universe for the first time. Personally my first contact with 40k happened in a toy store in which I found a Space Marine Bike miniature. I was blown away by the box art and did my best to learn more stuff about this Warhammer 40.000 thing on the internet. That was almost fifteen years ago! And I was curious to hear you talk about your first or one of your first experiences of the 40k universe and how weird, funny or cool it was!
Kieron : Well, Warhammer Guy, the thing you need to know about me, is that I'm incredibly old. I'm not even entirely sure how I discovered Warhammer miniatures. I saw an advert in the back of a magazine for citadel miniatures. I am unsure what the magazine was. It could have been a general RPG mag. It could have been a videogames mag. It wasn't White Dwarf.
Anyway, at THIS period - it would have been 1986/87 - you could write off and they'd send you, if not the whole catalogue, large sheets of paper (A3) with a selection of stuff. Maybe they were monthly newsletters? I don't know. I would have been 12/13. I knew nothing, least of all about the Grim Future Where There Was Only War.
So I looked at it, and saw how much it was, and went NO! I CANNOT AFFORD THIS! And I was. I eventually I took a plunge, got a handful of Dwarfs, and a copy of the rules. Unfortunately, the rules were RAVENING HORDES which was the army lists for the previous edition of Warhammer they were phasing out and so selling cheap. I thus started to understand their mythos via the medium of an expansion to a game I didn't own. Clearly, I loved Skaven even then, but that's outside the context of the conversation.
Of course, then 40k was out in 1987, so my first introduction were these weird miniatures in one of these A3 sheets of some kind of future warrior with a helmet like an aardvark. A well aardvark.
That joke is totally not going to translate.
After these initial flirtations, we realised there was a Games Workshop at the Birmingham Bull Ring, which meant that it was within a train ride of where we lived, and my best friend occasionally went there to buy comics (as neither comic nor game shop were in Stafford). This meant that Warhammer, from the off, was very grown-up and cosmopolitan, and definitely not enormously geeky.
I jest, but only slightly. It definitely felt to some degree illicit.
Anyway - eventually got the Rogue Trader manual and we started to play. With counters. As we could not afford miniatures. This would have been 1988/89, as I was reading White Dwarf by then, as I was following the Imperial Guard list there as it was first released, as the plastic figures hit in 89. Oh god. I bet I got the Rogue Trader manual for Christmas 1988. Or my Birthday in September.
The first Imperial Guard list was terrible, but I suspect this will be a major theme in this chat.
(Hmm. Honestly, looking at the release dates, and I'm not entirely sure we can't bring all of this forward a year and it was Christmas 87 when I got 40k, because 88 was releases for Adeptus Titanicus, Dark Future, Blood Bowl and 89 was Advanced Heroquest, all of whose release I was aware of, via White Dwarf. Man, I got into this stuff young, for the period. I was born in September 1975, for those who want to do math.)
(Man! Those early boxed games were joys. If you want the SHARP lasting memory of early games workshop was my Brother and I barrelling into the games shop we had found was in Cannock, and seeing they had those games. We had no idea what would be inside that shop, and everything we wanted was. Eyes wide, standing in the doorway, excitedly gaping. "They saw you coming" as my Dad put it.)
But I have to stress, let's not get distracted - the first Imperial Guards list really was shit.
• Republ33k : One of my first memories about 40k are those weird illustrations you could find at the time in some Codexes or in the Rules Book: cathedral spaceships, religious people with pipes going through their throats... I found these pictures fascinating but disgusting in the same time. Did your remember yourself experiencing this kind of mixed feelings while reading a 40k book or learning about 40k lore? We can also throw a few things on these guys who are taking this universe WAY to seriously here!
Kieron : Oh, absolutely. There's so much about that Blake-ean visionary aspect to Warhammer's art. Jon Blanche's best stuff just lingered. Ian Miller's stuff was like a haunted dream (with Warhammer Fantasy as well - that Gormenghast approach to fantasy was a long way from D&D, y'know?). The 1st edition Rogue Trooper was often weird and alienating and alien. That you're getting the hints of a universe means there's all these evocative gaps.
I mean - 1st edition of Rogue Trooper has more comedy and weirdness than much later editions... but it's also, without a doubt, the darkest it's been. Weirdly dark, and often comicly dark, but those images of the tendriled Adeptus Mechanicus dragging eggs containing clearly upset people... this is just a bewitching lunacy. It's a WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE?! on every page.
Then there were rules, which basically encouraged you to cut up tubes and stick wheels to it and make up stats. Hell of a time. We're a long way from Forge World stuff here.
I suppose if we're talking icons, we should talk about that first cover. Which is... well, has a cover for a new property ever managed to explain the utter OTP nature of its contents. A mountain of desperately firing metallic blue dudes firing off page at... who knows? You have to presume it's an ork, because one of them is holding an ork head, waving it around like a pom-pom. Maybe it's all about the fact that the Space Marines have some dude's head and are just not returning it? That'd just be like the Space Marines.
With them on the cover, and in such a startling fashion, the question why the Crimson Fists have never been a bigger deal is one of those big What Ifs that keep me up at night, along with "Will I ever collect a Jokaero army?" and "Why was the Imperial Guard list so shit? Didn't they even think about the costs of the minimums? What was WRONG with them?"
• Republ33k : Speaking about lore, I think we can rank our favorite things. Or the weirder piece of lore 40k has / had in the past. As a fan of the Imperial Guard I cannot tell you how much I love the ludicrous stories of some regiments, especially the barbarian ones. And let's not forget some characters like Obiwan Sherlock Rousseau, or Nighthaunter, who is pretty much "Space Batman" now that I think about it.
Kieron : It's funny how much stuff has just BUILT. It was just in just tiny moments, and each one has been explored, revealing more details. I mean, the original Horus Heresy? That's now nearly 40,000 books? It was three pages in the first REALM OF CHAOS book. Given a similar amount of space was a bunch of stuff about the Emperor, and the Sensei, who dance in and out of continuity depending how much GW are teasing folks. The Sensei, being the psychic-blank kids of the Emperor, who were basically Jedi Knights, kept trained and waiting by the Illuminanti for a final battle. Except, as this is 40k, there was no final battle. When the Emperor finally cracked, they were going to feed all the Sensei to him in a hope of rebirthing him. Which, as is 40k, was clearly never going to work.
Really, the mass of only-hope plans that were never-going-to-work is one of the funniest parts of 40k. 40k is like the first episode of (ironically enough) Red Dwarf, with Lister wandering about, innocently asking after every person he can think of, and being informed that They're All Dead.
I mean, we can talk about obscure stuff, but this is a world where Orks are literally fungus. This universe is bizarre from top to bottom.
• Republ33k : It did not strike me at the time, but almost fifteen years later, I cannot split up Warhammer 40.000 from a kind of britishness. As a British guy yourself, would you agree? Plus, I'm curious to know how the first (and probably British) fans of this universe lived the evolution of 40k. Because from my French point of view, I always thought that 40k did "hollywoodize" himself in the early 2000' before going back to its british roots these recent years. What's your take on this idea?
Kieron : I'd agree entirely. It's a black hyperbolic joke born of a land screaming under Thatcher. It comes from the same tradition of 2000AD - as in, the sort of sci-fi and fantasy which was coming from a far darker place than US fantasy... well, mainly as it WAS coming from a darker place. The working class was being annihilated. "We're fucked. There is no future. You have to laugh." is there.
(Fantasy and Sci-fi always leans middle-class, but it always seemed moreso in America than the UK. Part of me wonders if that's due to home computers in the UK being the primary gaming format in the US as opposed to consoles - consoles were dead for basically all the 80s in the UK. With dirt cheap computers, more people got to make games and be exposed to this shit, rather than having a higher economic barrier. But that's all very serious, and I'm digressing again.)
While GW weren't originally London, it's telling they settled in the Midlands. Midlands is core metal country, and the metal crossover - in aesthetics, in players, in whatever - was always there in 40k. Hell, they stuck a BOLT THROWER metal flexidisk on the cover of White Dwarf. Basically, to be male and white and of a certain age in the 80s, you were probably into metal - both music and tiny metal men.
(Unpacking the demographics of 40k is a whole other conversation, of course.)
40k had a lot of other influences in there (you can hardly skip Dune, for example) but the primary one, to the level that early art could just be 40k cityscapes, would be the NEMESIS THE WARLOCK comic in 2000AD. Strongly recommend people go look it up - the human empire of Termight, headed by the religious fanatic Torquemada (who claimed to be a resurrection of the historical one) off to perform genocidal war against weird looking but mainly nice alien species. Nemesis is 40k where it really underlines that the Empire are the bad guys. You can even see the catchphrase approach (BE PURE! BE VIGILANT! BEHAVE! and so on).
Pat Mills eventually actually did a comic which was basically a torquemada-like inquisitor in the 40k universe, which makes the inspiration all the more clear.
My general take is that 40k is a universe where everyone is a bad guy. That's the awful fun of it. We're doomed. That's a very British attitude. I can compare and contrast to Blizzard's work with WoW and Starcraft where they conspire to make all the player-factions feel like good guys, at least at the moment of play.
Everyone Thinks They're The Good Guys is obviously a true thing, of course, but it's also far less funny than a nihilistic shrug.
• Republ33k : I think my mind has been widely influenced by the 40k universe and its imagery, because I tend to find 40k-ish ideas in other Sci-Fi pieces (comic books, movies, video games and so on)! Do you experience this kind of moments? And to be even more precise, as a writer, do you use 40k as an inspiration or as a reference for your books? Or when you talk with your artists?
Kieron : Some people think less is more. 40k disagrees. 40k thinks more is more. That's what "more" means.
I describe 40k as a maximalist universe. It's meant to be impossibly big, so includes and consumes everything, while trying to render it in its own aesthetic. There's that contradiction - we al know what 40k looks like... but the very nature means that the universe includes infinitely more things we have no IDEA what they look like.
But, yeah, like anything that hits you at the right (or wrong) time it gets under your skin. It's helpful for thinking in terms of scale, and ludicrousness. There's images I come back to time and time again which speak to that sublime mixture of the dumb and the clever that 40k trade in - jump packs, chain guns, infinite space-scale objects, tableau-storytelling. Occasionally I can use it as part of my shorthand - my scripts are peppered with references to try and give artists a handle on the sort of aesthetics I'm thinking of. 40k elements are part of my toolbox, as much as stuff like Thunderbirds and Take On Me by A-ha.
The thinking I mainly do with it is reverse engineering it. Why do I care about 40k? Like, what's all that about? What's the appeal? And then, how can I take that and use it to my own ends. Not to create a dark future world, of course - but to create something which hits those buttons. WicDiv is all about building a mythology, and I take from all over the place - obvious real mythology and mysticism and pop-culture stuff. But it also takes from all the universes Ive loved, in terms of showing me how to do it.
Also, Baphomet and Morrigan from WicDiv play Warhammer in canon, so there's always that.
• Republ33k : You were talking about the Imperial Guard, now called Astra Millitarum, which is also my favorite faction in the entire 40k universe. Would you say it's yours too? I'm just fascinated by how normal these guys are, even if they're fighting is this ludricous universe! But your own love or fascination for the Imperial Guard comes from other places, and may be their first list, right?
Kieron : Oh yeah. I am an OG Imperial Guard fan, and it does come from basically the same place. The idea that in a world so bizarre, they're just a bunch of regular folks, dragged off random planets and thrown into an eternal meat grinder. It's like "Hi, I'm Tony. I'm pretty tough" "Well, tonight you'll be locked in a room with a 30ft piece of violent exoskeleton. You are armed with a flashlight. Good luck!"
That's fundamentally funny, but also heroic. I've always had a certain socialist leaning in my appreciation of fantasy. Even with irony, I wasn't going to play eight-foot genetically-manipulated ubermensch. I was playing a bunch of people I may see in my home town who had the misfortune to be shipped out to fight a tank the size of norway with their fists.
It was worse in the early days, of course - the first Imperial Guard list was basically an unplayable mess. This is from memory, so please forgive me, but the minimums were... 4 tactical squad, a command squad and a leader? Which is a minimum of... 200 points for the tactical squads, 280 for the command squad and 16 for the lowest level hero. So a minimum spend of 1096 points. So, in a time and a social group where 1000 point games were the norm, it was simply impossible to use. And if you did play it, it's got a Platoon coherency rules, which means that each unit has to stay within 12" of the command squad. So you have those 46 miniatures, all crammed together in a nice little mob.
Oh - and no tanks. We got sentinels shortly afterwards, but the best you got was a Rhino.
(I asked about that at Games Day, saying "Surely the Imperial Guard should have more heavy armour than less?" and got the answer - I believe from Jervis - that Army lists had to have differences between them, etc. Which is of course true, but irrelevant. I take the post-that-conversation Tankification solely to be inspired by that teenager's question. You can all buy me drinks later.)
The first Imperial Guards of Kieron Gillen
Thankfully, our group of friends let me play the list with more like a standard sort of set up - most lists had minimums of "one of the basic units and a leader." I ran a core army of a tactical squad, a command and a leader, and then got to spend on other stuff.
Then you could be an idiot. The cheese option was that you could outfit all your beastman (yes, loyalist beastmen) with flamers for something like 30 points a unit. You could have 10 of them for... 110, I think. So 440 points for a platoon of 40 flamerarmed goatheaded dudes. I never did that, but only because I couldn't afford 40 beastmen.
I was quite good, at least as far as my group went. I was also an amazingly bad painter. One of my friends - who is now a professional painter and winner of Golden Demon stuff - played exquisitely painted Eldar. There is nothing funnier than seeing beautiful freehand-banner Eldar dreadnoughts being over-ran by ogryns that are basically covered in glue and milliput.
• Republ33k : When you said "Some people think less is more. 40k disagrees. 40k thinks more is more" it reminds me of a tagline Games Workshop once put on a White Dwarf cover dedicated to the Tau Empire: "bring a bigger gun to a gun fight" or something like that! And everybody loves a giant gun right? 40k is full of crazy guns, like the Shokk (emphasis on the double 'k') Attack Gun who teleports, so to speak, snotlings in the body of their ennemies. And I was wondering if you had any favortie weapon(s) in the 40k universe!
Kieron : I certainly do. As you say, there is a wonderful array of things that go boom, but my favourite is actually from one of the armies I constantly mock as a point of pride. Namely, the Eldar. Specifically, the Harlequin kiss.
Ah, such a joy. It's a tube. You push a sharpened tube into someone you're a little bit miffed with. A monofilament tendril lashes out, puncturing the skin, and woooooooshes around the body, liquidising every bit of bone and flesh. The harlequin dances away. The victim collapses, like as if they are good held together by a thin layer of skin. Because they are a bag of goo held together by a thin layer of skin.
You can imagine whoever it was in the studio making that up and standing up and shouting HEY GUYS! I THINK I MAY HAVE WORKED THE MOST OVER THE TOP ONE YET!
Astounding. I can only applaud. My Harlequins bring your boys to the yard, and then makes milkshake.
• Republ33k : One other thing I remember now that we're talking about it is the train rides I also took for visiting my local Games Workshop store during high school. In a way it felt as religious as can 40k can be. It was like a pilgrimage for the kid I was! And every now and then, when I go to a GW (or ''Warhammer" ) store, I have those weird emotional flashbacks. Are you experiencing similar feelings when you enter a GW or just board games stores?
Kieron : That I'm playing more regular now sort of downplays it a bit. I pop in "Hullo" and head out. I basically am a JUST THE BUSINESS kind of customer. But I do like wandering into a games workshop with friends when we're out randomly, especially lapsed friends (always good to tempt and share silly stories) or friends who never have (which is always good to tell stories akin to the harlequin kiss). GW is a good thing to riff on, in terms of comedy with friends. There's always something to go WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT!!! about.
• Republ33k : You mentioned Patt Mills. And I think we already talked about this, because you once told me that one of your first jobs was a story for Warhammer Monthly (right?) but I was wondering if you have a dream comic book project set in the 40k universe. I feel like GW is wasting great opportunities on the comic book market, because like you said, Warhammer 40.000 is very British and very 2000 AD, and I will love to see them embrace this legacy with new and crazy comic books every month! Would you be happy to take the job and with whom? Side question: are you writing some shameful and nostalgic 40k fan fictions like I do?
Kieron : Hah. Well, they have asked, but I'm just not in a place to do work for hire at the moment. Even for stuff that I would love to do. Especially for that, in fact.
Horus, painted by Kieron Gillen
But the one I joke about doing - as in, not really a joke, as in, I've got the first three pages written - would basically be a ROGUE TRADER comic. Basically, Star Trek, but with complete genocidal shitheads. A five year mission: to seek out new life and new civilizations, and perform exterminatus on them from orbit.
• Republ33k : Talking about how 40k might help you and artists you work with, you said this universe was in your toolbox: do you know any other comic book professionals who are using 40k as an inspiration or a tool? I guess there is also a few fans here and there, like my friend Sebastian Girner, editor of Black Science and now writer of Shirtless Bear Fighter! And obviously the great Kev Walker, who is your artist on Doctor Aphra! I feel like what the world needs, right now, is a 40k lobby ruled by comic book professionals!
Kieron : I couldn't out a fellow professional, clearly.