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Friday’s Wall-to-Wall Violence

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday’s Wall-to-Wall Violence

Technically, there’s supposed to be a zero-tolerance policy in school for violence. No knives, no guns, not even toys. Since my cartooning students are making comics and the boys often want to portray violence, knives and guns, this occasionally creates a quandary for them, because they don’t want to get in trouble.

So they come and ask for my permission. Frankly, I think a blanket zero-tolerance policy is stupid, you should always look at this sort of thing on a case-by-case basis; and anyway, a drawing is not endangering anyone on school grounds. On the other hand, I’m not going to give the kids an unlimited license to spatter the book with gore, I don’t want them doing snuff comics.

What I tell them is usually this: “Give me something defensible and I will defend it. Be sure you have a story. Two guys fight, one falls down, the end — that’s not a story. If you’re going to have a big fight you better be able to show me a reason for it. If it’s legit I’ll go to bat for you, but just doing mindless mayhem is stupid by itself.”

Some folks differ, I guess. It appears there’s a market for mindless mayhem after all.

At least, that’s what I decided after Boom Studios sent me this book.

 

That’s a bit snarky, I suppose, and I should own up — there are a few mayhem-driven comics I have really enjoyed, none of them for their intellectual content.

 

Certainly there’s a place for what Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson once termed “fun fascism.”

Once in a while, sure. Just for the hell of it. Everybody likes to jam the volume up now and then. Even Scott McCloud.

 

But most of these examples had some sort of story, and all of them came with a leavening of dark humor. Let’s just say a little goes a long way.

Now, full disclosure: I’m not a gamer guy. I have zero interest in RPG’s of any kind, online or tabletop or video. Not my thing. Those of you that enjoy that stuff, more power to you — but I am not among your number. So a licensed book based on a game is unlikely to get any traction with me on that basis.

On the other hand, these things ought to be able to stand on their own merits, and often do. I never played Tomb Raider but I enjoyed the movies well enough as popcorn flicks. Atari Force was an entertaining comic book. And lots of people have fond memories of the various Transformers and G.I.Joe comics. “Licensed” does not automatically equal “bad,” even if it’s from a toy or a game.

Nevertheless, I am at a loss as to why anyone would get anything out of the Warhammer book. Story-wise, it was…. well, pretty bad.

 

All I could think of, reading it, was the adage I tell my students about mindless fighting not being a story. But that’s basically all the book is: a bunch of steroid-case soldiers committing brutally violent acts on adversaries so monstrous there’s no need to feel sorry for them when the soldiers are hacking them up or blowing them to bits or whatever. There’s no sense of the horrors of war, or even any of the dark humor of a 2000 AD-type story… it’s just fighting.

By itself that’s bad enough but honest to God, it was damn near impossible for me to figure out what the hell was going on half the time.  Who are these guys? Why are they fighting? Why are they so fanatical? What’s the war about? None of these questions are answered in the story itself. Ever. The review copy Boom sent wasn’t the actual trade copy, it was the six indvidual issues that will make up the trade… and it included the recap pages of those individual issues. Those helped, but you know, it’s pretty ridiculous when you have to look at the Cliff Notes to a comic book to figure out what it’s all about.

Here’s what Boom’s web site says about the book:

In the nightmare future of the 41st millennium, Mankind teeters upon the brink of extinction. The galaxy-spanning Imperium of Man is beset on all sides by ravening aliens, and threatened from within by malevolent creatures and heretic rebels. Only the strength of the Immortal Emperor of Terra stands between Humanity and its annihilation. Foremost amongst servants of the Imperium stand the Space Marines, mentally and physically engineered to be the supreme fighting force, the ultimate protectors of Mankind. The Black Templars are fearless champions and unforgiving crusaders against the enemies of the Emperor. Forged from the Imperial Fists Space Marines in the aftermath of the Horus Heresy, the Black Templars have undertaken the longest crusade the Imperium has ever known to prove their loyalty.

That blurb is actually MORE exposition than we ever see in the text of the story itself, and about equal to what’s on the recap pages. Not much help; most of it still sounds like random gamer jargon to me. Note the absence of motive for anyone: the good guys are good because they’re human, the bad guys are bad because they’re not.

I looked a little further and here’s what I found on Wikipedia about the Black Templars.

In the game Warhammer 40,000, the Black Templars are a Second Founding chapter derived from the Imperial Fists and their Primarch, Rogal Dorn. Their origin can be traced back to the Imperial Fists’ defence of Holy Terra. Since this time, the Black Templars have been on the longest crusade the Imperium has ever known to prove their loyalty to the Emperor.

Uh… okay. Still not helping. By now I’ve spent, oh, half an hour looking around web sites and so on and you know what? That’s too much time to spend looking up an explanation for the events of a comic book story I’ve just read. It ought to be right there in the damn book. And it’s not.

The plot, and I’m using the term loosely, follows three different members of the Black Templar division, or brigade, or whatever: Raclaw, an unwilling recruit, Gerhardt, a more experienced soldier, and Tankred, a sort of immortal cyborg robot thing.

 

We alternate between the three as they fight nasty alien hordes. For six issues. And that’s it. Nothing is ever really explained — we see Raclaw go from barbarian to Templar, we see some perfunctory training scenes (mostly an excuse for more fights) but at no point is it made clear why Raclaw goes along. Does he actually believe in the cause? Was he brainwashed? No clue, because we’re not even told what the cause is. Just more blather about how devoted the Templars are. “Devoted to WHAT?” was what I kept asking. But all I got was another horde, another defiant roar, and ensuing mayhem.

 

There’s a little bit of a plot twist in the last issue — in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the first real plot development we see IN the six issues — and though it’s a mildly entertaining twist, it does nothing to explain any of the questions I had about WHY everyone is doing what they’re doing. Certainly it’s not something worthy of a six-issue build, it’s more like the kind of Gotcha! twist you’d get in one of the old EC science fiction 8-pagers. After six issues I think they could do a little better than that.

The art is well-crafted, but it’s not much help in terms of the story either.

 

The soldiers are not that well-differentiated as characters, making it hard to follow the fight scenes, and truthfully all the slavering alien hordes start to look alike after a while.

Normally this would be it. Read it, didn’t like it, thought the storytelling was murky and the plot was thin, not recommended, end of review. But it bothered me to dismiss the book because usually Boom Studios does such great work. I enjoyed Cover Girl and Potter’s Field so much I added them to my own personal pull list based on the samples I had seen, and I was quite impressed with Left on Mission as well. The Cthulhu books they’ve sent me certainly were a class act too: I’m not a big Lovecraft fan and I think his stories are not a great fit for something as visual as a comics adaptation, but clearly the folks working on those books are putting their whole heart and soul into the effort. I have some reservations about the price point on the single-issue comics and I think most of Boom’s output is a better deal in trade, both in terms of the price and the way the stories read. But on the whole I think it’s a remarkable bunch of talents gathered there and they do really good comics in a delightful variety of non-superhero adventure genres.

Apart from all that I generally enjoy Dan Abnett’s and Ian Edginton’s writing. So what was it about Warhammer that wasn’t doing it for me? Is it just that I was coming to it cold? Do you have to be totally into the game to ‘get it’ with this book?

I decided that I would be completely fair-minded and let someone who knew something about the game look at the book as well. The only people I know who are interested in this kind of RPG are my students, so I took it to class.

“Do any of you play Warhammer? Who here would be interested in a Warhammer comic?”

Several hands shot up… all boys. Then when they saw it was only a tape-bound review photocopy, they were less interested, but Marcus and Andrew were still eyeing it with lust. Cam announced, ” You gotta give it to Andrew! If you don’t give it to Andrew he’ll jump off a cliff or something!”

“Well, I’m done with it, if one of you fellows wants it,” I said. “I’m interested in what you think of it, though. I don’t know anything about the game and I am wondering if that’s why I don’t really get it.”

Marcus and Andrew played rock-paper-scissors for it and Marcus won. But he relented and gave it to Andrew anyway, acknowledging that Andrew’s Warhammer love was such that it would be unkind to deprive him. In fact, Andrew already had one of Abnett’s Warhammer tie-in prose novels in his book bag.

 

So obviously Andrew was the perfect audience for this, he knew the Warhammer universe backwards and forwards. I told Andrew that if he wrote up his thoughts on the comic I would print them here. So he settled in with fierce concentration to read Damnation Crusade. Andrew is a thoughtful, soft-spoken kid, and he took this responsibility very seriously.

Here’s Andrew’s review.

Damnation Crusade Review

If you’re a Warhammer 40,000 fan, this comic book is for you. If not, I would not recommend reading this comic. It is full of action and dialogue but the story is hard to follow. There is also no real “main character” in this comic. It’s sheer violence to the core. The reason 40K fans will like this book is because only they will understand the reason behind all the violence. The art is pretty good as well. 

Andrew H. (age 12)

So there you have it. It’s not just me. Even the hardcore Warhammer fan thought the plot was on the thin side and the storytelling was hard to follow. If you’re an uninitiated old fogey like me, Damnation Crusade is nearly incomprehensible.

Pretty, uh… ‘damning,’ seems like. Boom puts out lots of good books and Abnett and Edginton have written lots of good comics. But Damnation Crusade clearly isn’t one of them. Check out their other stuff, but I’d say you can safely skip this one.

Oh well. At least I got a column and a student extra-credit project out of it.

See you next week.

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