Discomfort Food Comics: Everything You Wanted to Know About Warhammer 40k (But Were Too Heretical to Ask) by Justin Partridge

DIS-Comfort Food Comics Presents

Everything You Wanted to Know About Warhammer 40k (But Were Too Heretical to Ask)

Warhammer 40k! 

It’s not just for hunched, pock-faced, and far too serious edgelords anymore! 

Arising from the grim, foggy streets of England in 1987, Warhammer 40,000 has grown into a mammoth pillar of the gaming community and science fiction publishing world. Strengthening itself from a game of miniatures into a sprawling multimedia conglomerate, branching across novels, video games, TTRPG modules, and comics. Armed with all of that, 40k, from the outside, looks like an uncrackable obelisk, unyielding in its relentless violent and labyrinthine lore layout.

It also doesn’t help that most of its American audience and hardcore players are…shall we say, less than welcoming when it comes to trying to get people into it. I myself, have faced the particularly trenchant gatekeeping 40k seems to invoke in it’s self-acclaimed “Experts’ ‘ having found myself in a Pathfinder campaign with one in my younger days. He always carried around these odd tomes with screaming, Power Armored soldiers on the covers, crossing massive battlefields hanging in space. I would ask what it was and told that it was only for “serious” people. Those who had a certain number of miniatures, painted by their own hands, had logged a certain number of hours “on table”, and had at least read A,B,and C novels of the Black Library

Which is weird…because now that I know and love 40k, independently immersing myself finally away from his judging gazes (aided, ironically enough, by An Actual Fucking Big Deal Comic Book Writer who just…answered my questions when I asked, even when they didn’t have to. FUNNY THAT, huh?). I know that…Warhammer 40,000 isn’t the least bit serious. Nor is it the homework laden slog that that “expert” always told me it was. Instead it’s a tremendously broad, occasionally quite beautiful slice of English science fiction culture. A hodge-podge of genre influences, injected with the jet black humor and over-the-top ultraviolence that makes stuff like Judge Dredd and Hellblazer just sing. And the best part? It is ready and waiting for new souls to experience it. Unfettered by any real “right” way to experience it, either on the page or on the table. 

And so, with that in mind, Dis-Comfort Food Comics Presents…a Warhammer 40k Primer. Courage and honor, yon Dreadful Readers. 

(Also A Semi-Disclaimer: I am in NO WAY claiming to be an expert in 40k and a lot of this is detailed in a very conversational, anecdotal recounting of the lore, novels, and materials that I myself have consumed and now relay here for the benefit to more sell the vibe of the franchise and comment on the more user-friendly, readily accessible elements of 40k; just for those curious about trying it out or those that want to know just HOW and why this stuff might consume every moment of someone’s day like it has for me in the last few months. We are having fun here and that’s what this should be, fun (and informative) but not considered “doctrine” Okay? Okay!) 

THE BASICS

So most every 40k novel of the Black Library (the name provided to the extensive “lore” attached to the miniature games and core rulebooks) comes with this wonderful little introduction prose. Just a taste of the dark delights of the 41st Millennium. It follows just to give you a sense of the kind of stuff we are working with here:

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immoble on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of His inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting corpse writhing invisibly with the power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that He may never truly die.

Yet even in His deathless state, the Emperor continues His eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest among His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bioengineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Astra Militarum and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are hardly enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods. 

Just cheeriest, right?

I mean, it literally SAYS “grim dark”. Just how much more on the nose can you get?

But at the same time, ignoring the fact that this is just a TREMENDOUSLY cool and textured piece of ad copy, this should tell you about the sort of ultra-heightened and operatic tone that a lot of 40k stuff operates within. As well as just how varied and angled this whole universe can be. But what it DOESN’T tell you is one of the grander, more tragic elements of the core lore. And for that, we have to go back to the 30th Millennium, into the foundations of this future.

The Warp and The Heresy  

So as our introduction text tells us, 40k history is lousy with war and ultraviolence. That even goes so far back into the earliest recorded histories of the universe, even before the emergence of Man. 

Like most things, it starts with Old Ones, massive star gods that float throughout the universe using something called the “Webway” to bend space and time, allowing instantaneous travel throughout the immeteria of space. Obviously these are pretty heavily influenced by the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft (the first of many, MANY major wells 40k openly draws on for material and texture) but seemed to operate in a more semi-altruistic and magnanimous way toward the outer universes. So much so that they actively participate in the advancement of different races throughout reality. Mainly the Eldar, who look like this.

The Eldar are basically “what if Dark Elves just REALLY fucking loved to party?” Though pockets of Eldar, at this point mainly, are sophisticated, scholarly, and adventurous sorts (being the only race at this point who had mastered interstellar travel thus earning the favor of the Old Ones), a lot of Eldar are slipping into violently hedonistic ways, as they had exhausted “terrestrial” knowledge and pleasures and wanted to…ya know…really go Hellraiser. Worse still, their massive psychic energy and blood-magicks had seeped into the Old Ones’ Webways, turning it from a relatively benign way to teleport throughout the systems into a hellish, roiling scar across the edge of space that seems to wake into sentence and randomly spit out horrors and creatures beyond the ken of understanding.

One such race are the Necrons, who look like this.

And their god-like techno-masters, the C’Tan, who look like this.

Part Borg and part Rocka-Fire Explosion, the Necrons, led by the guiding hands of the C’Tan, start pouring from the edges of the Warp, emerging from dormant and massive Tomb-Ships, along with a bunch of other seemingly endless horrors and starts what is known as the “War in Heaven”, scarring the Webway and forever changing the physical landscape of the 40k

Universe by literally ripping the Warp into the landscape of space, forever segmenting the whole of the 40k universe and exposing its citizens to the horrors of the Warp. The Warp ITSELF then starts to feast on the collective misery and despair and violence of the universe, spawning it’s OWN pantheon of Gods that now plague the whole of 40k! More on them in a bit.

Much of this is ancient history even in the “present” day of 40k, but I tell you this to really establish that when they say there is “only war” in this franchise, they absolutely fucking mean it. Even before and after the Imperium of Man “civilises” the universe, there is ALWAYS some kind of conflict happening. It’s history is filled with empires rising, conquering, and then falling in operatic, almost hilariously large-scale catastrophes; conflicts that shake reality and forever change the landscape of the grounds and worlds they are fought across. Much of this is used in service of huge action set pieces, but more often than not, the authors and writers are commenting on the futility and cyclical nature of violence and war on such a large scale. Just one of the many banners of self-reflection and comment that 40k effortlessly weaves throughout tales of hulking Space Marines chainsawing apart the faces of screaming Orks and Chaos Cultists. 

But if there is one defining moment and figure of this ancient time before the 41st Millennium, it is the Emperor of Mankind and Heresy that soured the founding of His Imperium. 

So with the Webway soured and now feasting on the negative psychic energy of the universe, birthing new horrors every day, humanity was on the brink of permanent extinction. Terra (aka Earth) was a wasteland, dominated by roving warlords reaving and enslaving those weaker than them. The universe itself was also in a tailspin, constantly in a state of flux and danger thanks to the increasing fevor of the Webway turned Warp.

But from the darkness, a light emerges. In the form of the Emperor of Mankind. He’s the big hulking chap in gold above. His origins are purposefully murky, even in the provided “official” texts. Some say he was born of a mass-psychic-suicide, where all the most powerful psychics of the old Earth, wanting to protect the universe from the foreseen souring of the Warp and it’s horrors, all killed themselves en mass in order to summon into being A Being that could protect reality in their stead. Others say he is the last surviving Old One, revealing himself only when the old pantheon had been long dead and forgotten in order to rule their creation of the universe in solitude.

But what is FOR SURE known is what happened after his “revelation” on Terra. After emerging, the Emperor wandered the planet for thousands of years, saving and reforging it’s civilizations with an iron (or maybe gold I guess) fist and dispensing a rationalist, science based doctrine of self-reliance in his wake and restoring the planet’s massive technological capabilities thanks to a timely alliance with Mars, the seat of the mighty Adeptus Mechanicus, a machine based faction of tech-priests who control and manipulate wondrous technology that they worship as deities. After Terra had been restored, The Emperor of Mankind turned his gaze to the rest of the universe, launching across the stars to reunite the planets and their peoples under the banner of Mankind. 

To do so, he created the Primarchs, immensely powerful and highly genetically engineered super-people, largely mapped on the template of mythic gods. From their genetic template, he then created the first Space Marine Legions, spawning 40k’s most iconic profile and setting into place one of the stalwart loadstones of the whole 40k experience. They look like this.

Odds are, if you have seen ONE thing from 40k, you have probably seen a Space Marine as they are pretty much the quintessential “figure” of 40k and usually make up the bulk of someone’s mini collection, depending on what faction they play. SO, with the Primarchs acting as the banner and the Space Marines acting as the fist, the Emperor of Mankind started the bloody task of uniting the planets under a single standard, blessing the deed with the not at all ostentatious moniker of the Great Crusade.

But a crazy weird thing starts to happen during this. Namely that the Emperor of Mankind, though a monarch leading and ruling with a rationalist platform, is starting to be straight up worshipped as a god. So are his Primarchs and Space Marines, as they descend on world after world beset by horrors, beat back the darkness, and then basically restore civilization directly afterward.The Emperor of Mankind is REALLY not into this, nor does he really truck with religion at all in general, having actually scoured all traces of theistic religion from Terra in his first wanderings and planning to do so with the rest of the universe in kind. But dissension starts to spread throughout the Primarchs and their Marines. Are they not gods? Are they not the only thing powerful enough to stand against the Warp and its horrors? Why SHOULDN’T they be worshipped?

This dissension is further metastasized by the Warp itself. Because it had not been idle as the Emperor of Mankind completed his Carradine-like wanderings around Terra (aka Earf). As more and more people despaired and died in the wilds of the pre-Imperium, the Warp sucked down this pain and suffering like it was hosting nickel shot night at the local Buffalo Wild Wings. As it supped, it birthed a whole new pantheon of evil to just slightly shitty gods, who now represent another huge loadstone of lore; Chaos. 

Chaos, also known as the Ruinous Powers, is the 40k equivalent of a Renegade Mass Effect playthrough or really leaning into making your wood elf Chaotic Evil in the Keep on the Borderlands. Infecting, either obviously or subtly, as many people as possible, Chaos feeds both the Warp and it’s hellish pantheon, fueling the constantly grinding war machine of the universe and keeping the fires of hatred and ignorance alight in service of the “Great Game” the Chaos gods obsess over which is little more than a constantly shifting game of dick-measuring between the lot of them.

I would go into more detail about them here, but that would be easily another thousand words. Suffice to say, they are a very cool aspect of the lore and should you have the time and inclination I would definitely look into them deeper. What I WILL say though, is that the Ruinous Powers, to me, are set apart from normal TTRPG gods, in that worshipping them and doing missions in their name doesn’t guarantee their favor or support. They even will sometimes actively fuck you the player character over JUST to see what happens or to escaltae the conlfict to a more satisifyable (to them) outcome.

Largely representing the Seven Deadly Sins and drawing power from actions taken in that vein, like ambitious murder or coveting someone else’s mini horde, I am hard pressed to think of a “relgion” system that so gleefully hates it’s player characters and offers such little real positive influence on gameplay than the Chaos Gods. It just adds to the overall grim cheek and darkly wry humor that is mostly at play here in 40k stories and scenarios. 

But the real claim to fame of the Ruinous Powers is how it started to sway more and more of the Emperor’s legions. Most importantly Warmaster Horus Lupercal, the Emperor’s Favorite and most powerful warrior of the Empire of Mankind. He looks like this.

The most favored of the Primarchs, Horus Lupercal was the Emperor of Mankind’s standard bearer and so skilled in battle he was, that he was awarded the title of Warmaster by the Emperor and given leave to lead his legions of Space Marines however he saw fit. But as more and more planets greeted Horus and his legions as deities (a feeling slowly fostered and whispered in his ears, fellow Primarchs, and other higher-ups in the Space Marines by Chaos), the more he started to believe it, wondering if the Emperor was actually a God unto himself (despite his ardent insistence he was NOT) and pondering further if HE might have make a better God for the whole of Mankind.

There is also the matter of Horus allowing his Space Marines to splinter into cult-like cells amongst their Legions. See, back in the day, Space Marines were grouped together in mighty single “Legions”, ranging into the thousands in a single company. These Legions usually followed one specific Primarch, and as their “godhood” grew in the eyes of the Marines, the more that started to bleed down into their own lives, infecting them with the Chaotic notion that they THEMSELVES were also instruments of divine light. After Horus allowed the Space Marines to conglomerate into more intimate further groupings, usually specific to each individual company, this blasphemous thought grew and festered, sowing the seeds for the first examples of the Chaos Space Marines, another “iconic” figure of 40k lore. The bright, heretical opposite (painted a passionate red) of the noble and unbending (and usually blue painted) Space Marines.

If you are getting some real Lucifer Morningstar vibes from this whole deal, trust me you aren’t projecting as it ends largely as you would expect. With Horus betraying the Emperor, fighting on scale barely any mere mortal could comprehend, launching the Horus Heresy and the colossal Assault on Terra that would eventually take the life of the Emperor of Mankind. 

But wait, you say! They worship and follow an ACTUAL CORPSE, you scream-ask?! To which I say, you bet your ass they do! After the battle is over and both the Emperor and Horus are mortally wounded, agents of the Emperor place his bleeding body onto the Golden Throne, a huge, impossibly complex life-support structure that will place the Emperor’s body in status until he able to “resurrect himself” and lead humanity into another golden age. 

The only trouble is, in order to POWER said impossibly complex life-support structure, they must feed it’s machinery 1,000 souls A DAY in order to keep the increasingly desiccated husk of the Emperor of Mankind “alive” to light the way across the Warp; the fabled Astronomicon of the intro text, which serves as a sort of psychic lighthouse for the Imperium forces. It’s…fucking bananas, I know, and serves as the main crux of the Horus Heresy novels of the Black Library, a massively popular and ridiculously lucrative arm of their mighty publishing empire. I have started the first of these novels, penned by a major source of 40k wonderfulness Dan Abnett, and they are a distinctly different flavor than the “present day” 40k stories. 

But that said, this sweeping saga provides a neat Lord of the Rings-meets-Clive Barker sort of feel to the saga, which is spread across numerous volumes and various other side stories. Most, if not all, of these novels are set during the “Unification Wars” wherein the forces of the Imperium launched a still ongoing war against the “Separatists”, hoping to stamp out the Warmasters’ turned legions and reunite the universe under the standard of Mankind once again. Which brings us to…

The 4o Thousand in 40k

Centuries have passed since the Heresy. The Imperium of Man holds a tenuous line against the Warp and all manner of other heretical factions and xenos races. Xenos, as you can probably tell, stands a catch-all term the Imperium uses for anything that isn’t a super-engineered clone of some legendary figure or an Emperor fearing member of His reality. 

The Eldar are still kicking around, acting as the petty, magic-throwing high and dark elves of these realms. As are the Necrons, but they are a bit rarer of a find in the 41st Millennium. Joining them are the vicious Tyranids and there heralds the genestealers. They look like this and they are usually the last thing you ever see.

They burrow themselves into whole planets, turning the crust of the world into their gene-hives, spawning millions and millions of clawed death machines into anyone and anything that dares intrude on their territory. There are also the Orks, who lash together impossible junk ships made of the massive broken bows of Imperium and Eldar ships, and aim them at populated systems just HOPING for a fight. The Orks are kinda stock baddies to be honest and they kinda smack of the Fallout Super Mutants, but they have an oddly fun sunny disposition and existentialist philosophy on violence that is really charming when stood against the more solem and duty bound characters of the Imperium and His various factions. They look like this, by the way.

This is where the main crux of both the game and main character based novels are largely based. Though the Imperium has “healed” from the Unifcation Wars, culture, society, and science have ground to a halt, transforming the Imperium from a god-like culture of rationism and enlightenment to a xenophobic, hilariously breuacratic, and often immensely violent seat of power, spread across a bunch of absurdly powerful arms, like the still intact Mechanicus (weilding huge, building sized mecha armors), the Inquisition (sort of super-psychic-spies who purge and collect “heretical” Chaos knowledge and artifacts), and reformed Space Marines (who now are strictly controlled across smaller company-like Chapters instead of legions).

Complicating matters further is that there is NO new innovation or creation, as to create or to improve upon “holy” weapons systems and vehicles is deemed heresy and quickly stamped out. As such ships, Titans, and various other Imperium hardware stretch into centuries of service, doomed to only be constantly repaired and refitted and never completely replaced. It’s an odd turn and a weirdly crunchy detail to set into ALL the novels. I’ve run into a few examples of this, most notably a Space Marines ship called the Vae Victis, which has been referenced in several Horus Heresy novels as well as the main Space Marines focused franchise of the Uriel Ventris novels, meaning that it would now have to be almost a million years old by this point in the lore. But it just goes to show just HOW committed to the “bit” 40k really is.

Because if there is one thing you should REALLY know about 40k, especially the “present day” game and stories, it’s that it knows PRECISELY how ridiculous it is and therein lies the charm. Operating on the same scale and timbre as a Paul Verhoven movie or a particularly trenchant 2000AD prog, these novels, settings, and protagonists are always the right level of dumb and dumbly entertaining, bringing you deeper and deeper into the weird, fussy details of this franchise before you ever really truly realize it. While also managing to deliver some pretty sweeping storytelling and character building along the way! I was kind of shocked, to be quite honest, starting these things in earnest. I was expecting a lot of super macho “hard science fiction” and what I got were a lot of tales of people just simply trying to survive and prosper in this truly insane universe and the horrors that plague it.

Oftentimes this sort of self-awareness and cheek goes unnoticed by some of the more “hardercore” fans. It’s a bit like those idiots who think Frank Castle is an aspirational character. Which is probably why I was expecting all the macho-machy-ness heading into these. But I feel you, Dear Dreadful Reader, are probably of a sort where you can realize just where and when someone is commenting on violence and when they are reveling in it. 40k, though proudly sporting it’s “grim darkness” on it’s sleeve, never revels (though the same could not be said for the self-important “experts” who will die angry and miss everything worthwhile in this world).

SUMMATION AND FURTHER READING

So what have we learned here today?

Mainly that gatekeeping fucking sucks and when someone asks you how to get into something, you shouldn’t hand them a goddamn homework assignment to be graded at your lesure.

But besides that, I hope you now see that 40k is just kinda super silly and there isn’t really any real “right way” to try and get into it. Aside from other than just GETTING INTO IT, much like I did. Obviously, there are ways that y’all can go about it that are more suited to what you want from it and/or what you respond to (of which I will provide some explicit examples of below, just to give a roadmap to those that want to jump in) but honestly, I really hope this just gives you a taste of the true crazy fun of 40k and the potential it has to surprise you with its poetry and wit. 

It’s weird, you wouldn’t think a franchise that houses such things as evil Machiavellian gods and hulking superhuman soldiers, designed only to kill, could be described as “poetic”, but that’s the real beautiful thing about Warhammer 40,000. It contains so much and covers so many genres, that it wields the capacity to do really anything it wants. The rare thing that says it has something for everyone, and then actually does contain something for everyone.  As long as it does it in the biggest, most ridiculous way imaginable. In the future there may be only war, but there is also only fun too.

Happy Halloween everyone. Be seeing you…

FURTHER READING:

FOR THE LORE OBSESSED: Horus Rising by Dan Abnett. This is the first of the Horus Heresy novels, set shortly before Horus’ turn to Chaos and the splintering of the Emperor’s forces. It was one of the first “samples” I read on Kindle, but I bought the book itself shortly thereafter just because of how deeply this thing hooked me. Think Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as recounted by Otomo and H.R. Gieger. It’s often called the “best place” to start once you have a handle on 40k and it’s pretty easy to see why once you start it.

FOR THE ACTION OBSESSED: The Uriel Ventris Chronicles Volume 1 by Graham McNeill. The first trilogy in the Ultramarines saga and a hard-rocking, immensely readable introduction to the Space Marines. Following newly promoted Chapter Captain Uriel Ventris, these novels take readers across blood-stained Marine campaigns and introduce them to all manner of threats to the Imperium and His citizens. I’ve been describing them as “Jack Reacher if Jack Reacher was a ShadowRun Tank character”. I started this series since Kieron Gillen’s Marneus Calgar comic, which is launching a whole line of 40k comics for Marvel, is heavily focusing on the Ultramarines and Calgar himself pops up a few times in these, but I’ve been truly shocked at how much I’m enjoying what is essentially “military fiction”. 

FOR THE SCI-FI OBSESSED: Titanicus by Dan Abnett. A far off “Forge-World” of the Imperium is under attack and the massive Titans and Knights of the Adeptus Mechanicus march to answer. Focused solely on an outfit of Mechanicus soldiers and mech-operators, Dan Abnett basically delivers The Big Red One but starring Martians Mech Pilots. This was also another of the first “samples” I read of 40k and the way Abnett eases you into the fascinating and highly textured life of the Mechanicus and their god-machines is just ten pounds of fun in a five pound bag. and precisely the kind of highly weird science fiction worldbuilding you can see yourself sinking a lot of time into (as I clearly have).

FOR THE BINGE OBSESSED: Luetin09 on YouTube. So obviously, we don’t have time to burn through a 60+ book run of novels or drop everything to speed through an 800-page omnibus centered around a faction (like I tried and failed to do with the Eisenhorn books, which are ALSO SUPER FUN). But luckily, the highly skilled and immensely talented youtuber Luetin09 has us covered. Condensing the massive sagas and plethora of details that is 40k into slickly produced, binge-worthy videos, Luetin09 has provided basically a walking tour of the 40k universe, ready and waiting for us to simply press play and enjoy the sights. I highly recommend his [40K LORE IN ORDER] playlist, which goes into far more detail than my silly ass did here while also commenting on the material from a fan’s and player’s perspective, which was highly valuable to not only this specific piece, but my wholesale entry into the property overall. 

SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS: Xenos by Dan Abnett, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr (available for most systems and PC), Titan Comics and BOOM! Studios’ Warhammer 40,000 comics (the latter containing Kieron’s first American comics work!), and First and Only by Dan Abnett (the first Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, which is a sort of a Horatio Hornblower-esque, on the ground infantry story. People have told me these were boring but I loved the hell out of what I read. Very excited to get deeper into these eventually).

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