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Marvel’s Warhammer 40,000 comic is taking a big risk with an iconic hero

In October I praised Marvel’s Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar #1 for dotting its Is and crossing its Ts. The tone of that first issue was spot on, with all the grim darkness that the far future deserves. Best of all, the art was perfect — right down to the number of rivets on the chapter master’s Mark X Gravis power armor.

What I didn’t expect was writer Kieron Gillen getting the green light to take one of the franchise’s most beloved characters in a new direction. The U.K.-based author, former journalist, and a noted Warhammer fan is attempting the impossible. He’s trying to make the Ultramarines — perhaps Games Workshop’s most vanilla faction — actually interesting.

And he might just pull it off.

Image: James Stokoe/Marvel

The Ultramarines take a lot of shit from the larger Warhammer 40K community, mainly due to their overexposure in the tabletop franchise’s marketing. In a universe filled with 1,000 legions of powerful warriors, the vast majority of which remain unnammed and unknown, the Ultramarines have nonetheless become the poster children for the Adeptas Astartes. The blue-armored beefcakes turn up on the covers of boxed starter sets and cardboard standees the world over with unerring regularity. Haters deride them as Smurfs.

Even in the lore of 40K, Ultramarines are sorta boring. Their primarch, Roboute Guilliman, literally wrote the in-fiction book on how to train and assemble a Space Marine legion. All who came after are defined by how their chapter differs from Gulliman’s treatise. As far as the servants of the God Emperor of Mankind go, none are so good at polishing buttons as the Ultramarines.

[Warning: What follows contains major spoilers for Warhammer 40,000: Marneus Calgar #2]

Somehow, writer Gillen has gotten the greenlight from Games Workshop to turn that on its head. In the final pages of Marneus Calgar #2, he reveals that Marneus Calgar — currently chapter master of the Ultramarines, the high mucka mucka of the Smurfs — is an imposter.

Image: Kieren Gillen and Jacen Burrows/Marvel Comics

Image: Kieren Gillen and Jacen Burrows/Marvel Comics

Millennia ago, during his childhood training on one of the harshest moons orbiting his home planet, Marneus Calgar was killed — stabbed through the heart by an agent of the gods of Chaos. The only witness to his death was his serf and servant, a young boy named Tacitus, who took his name. It’s a poke in the eye to the squeaky-clean image of the Ultramarines, and injects a bit of class warfare into the largely feudalistic futuristic dark age. In my opinion, it’s one of the most exciting things to happen in the 40K universe in years.

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In the series of two pages of this comic book, I suddenly went from not caring one whisker about the life and times of the most generic super soldier ever created to hungrily wanting more of this story as soon as possible. All the while, artist Jacen Burrows and colorist Javier Tartaglia, keep up a steady stream of on-the-money renders of the 40K kit that I — and millions of other fans — are intimately familiar with.

Well done, Mr. Gillen. And good on you Games Workshop for taking a risk with your famous blue space boys. The next issue of Marneus Calgar comes out Dec. 9.

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