Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Not So Grim and Perilous

Comics writer and professional Gavin Norman impersonator Kieron Gillen rambles here about the aesthetic of Warhammer, how the original Warhammer setting is probably racist, and how Games Workshop may not be the Evil Empire it is often portrayed as, and -- to be fair -- was for a good number of years.

It's worth reading, but the first bit jumped out at me because it's something I've been saying for years: yes, the Warhammer games are all about the GrimDark™ but that this is supposed to be funny, because, by gosh, how could it not be? It's so over the top that I cannot understand how anyone takes it seriously.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay characters are rat catchers and students pushed into fighting the legions of Chaos by bad luck and poor judgement. Is that not self-evidently funny? Both Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Age Battle of Sigmar are full of puns and ridiculous names; one of the Space Marine primarchs -- the most super duper of the super duper genetic soldiers -- is called Lionel. You can stick a random 80's trash fantasy novel apostrophe in there but it's still not a name that evokes the image of a hardened killer of alien scum.

The other, more famous, KG sort of blames the Americans, which I don't think is quite fair, but the obfuscation of the essential joke at the heart of the Warhammers does seem to have gone hand in hand with Games Workshop's global success. I don't begrudge the world these less comedic versions of the franchises -- and as Coop says here, Games Workshop has done its fair share to move away from the humour -- because if what you like about 40K is that everything is festooned with skulls, then good for you.

I don't think I'm trying to make a point. What I'm not saying is that anyone is doing Warhammer wrong. I think what I am saying is that to me there's an essential humour at the heart of the game lines -- even more so in some of the spin-offs like Blood Bowl and WFRP -- and it always baffled me that few people seemed to recognise it, so it is good to see someone of Gillen's profile also pick up on it. It's simple validation, I suppose.


  1. Interesting stuff! I don't know much about the WH (or 40k) lore, so a lot of the details of that piece are lost on me, but I think you're right on. I think there's a certain approach to satire that maintains enough respect for its targets - out of recognition of its appeal, even if not out of agreement - that it doesn't even feel like satire.

    That was really obtuse. Hmm...okay...I'll put it this way: I'm a (very) casual metal fan, and I gravitate toward the most ridiculously epic stuff, like melodic death metal and power metal. I love bands like DragonForce. There is NO WAY they take themselves seriously (in my opinion), but they value the power of the music they play enough to act like they do. Taking a different approach, they could end up being Spinal Tap...good for funny story, but not enough for a lifestyle. I prefer it the way they're doing it.

    I hope that made some small amout of sense. Oh, and if we Americans really did f it up for y'all...well, that's looking pretty minor on the grand scale of our snafus these days, isn't it?

    1. I was thinking about Spinal Tap today in relation to this, because that, surely, is what Warhammer is; a gaming version of Spinal Tap.

      And of course, Spinal Tap is American, which shows that Americans do, in fact, Get It.

  2. I don't know. Puns and silly names have their place, but the humour seems to lack any satirical bite, it simply parades images of fascism then fails to provide any critique.

    For an example look at McDeath where the Good downtrodden working class dwarves face military oppression from the Evil military fascist Orcs. Compare with the recent Deathwatch Overkill, where the evildowntrodden working class alien-genestealers face military opposition from the good military fascist Space Marines.

    Even if you accept 40ks fascist worldview that 'everyone is as bad as each other' as a joke, the identification of the industrial working class as the Other (alien, inhuman, contagious, disease), and the military oppressors as 'humanity' (heroic, natural, superior) is a direct inversion of the class struggle portrayed in the '80s. Something is very different in Warhammer now.

    Thing is McDeaths puns and names are actually funny because they have precise and recognisable targets, it mocks authority. With current Warhammer, I just can't see the joke, and I'm not at all sure there actually is one.

    1. I think the humour is still there, and I think it's in the over-the-top nature of the settings. Both -- 40K more than WFB I would say -- are full of ridiculous cock rock posturing; the reference to Spinal Tapabove is quite apt, I think.

      That said, I do think you're right in that there used to be more; there was a political, satirical edge to things in the beginning that isn't there now, and that's a shame, because it makes what humour there is feel empty and superficial.

      I imagine that this is all so as to not upset any shareholders.