Monday, 11 February 2013

In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, There is Only the Retcon War

This is something which has been mentioned on the site more than once but we've never gone into it in-depth. In part because I try to at least make the effort to avoid things which will end in me ranting, but also because this is a borderline conspiracy-theory. Something where I'm joining the dots and pointing out how one event seems to lead directly to the other. 

There are no outright statements supporting this theory by any involved, confirming this is taking place. None the less, because this has seemingly been going on for several years now it seems only right to point out how two authors seem to have continually clashed with one another in their writings. So consider this to be a record of the retcon war surrounding the Ultramarines for the last five years between Graham McNeill and Mat Ward.

If you've missed any of the controversy or previous articles detailing this then here’s a summary. The Ultramarines are a very important aspect of Warhammer 40,000's history and have a place within Games Workshop's company effectively as their mascot. Having appeared on the covers of all but one edition of Codex: Space Marines and a vast multitude of boxes for the company's plastic products. In universe they are noted to have had a major role within the Imperium's history. With their primarch having split the legions, implementing a new leadership to guide the Imperium and having been outside the worst of the Horus Heresy's fighting. Besides their adherence to their primarch's codex they are notable for their small empire of Ultramar, high number of successor chapters and, at least with some leaders, a surprising degree of humanity for post-human killers.

This led to two interpretations of the chapter.

Having mostly been written by Graham McNeill for several years in both codex form and fleshed out in six novels, he presented them as being important but ultimately equal to other chapters. The Ultramarines were by-the-book fighters to a fault, highly disciplined and capable but not being inherently better than any other astartes. While respected as battle brothers, other chapters did not instantly bow before them and some of their successors were isolated to the point of having no contact in centuries. None the less they were also depicted as being able to inspire hope and loyalty which could unite forces of a myriad of different backgrounds.

When they fought they fought to victory, taking losses but were shown to win in spite of them and overcome great odds through skill, discipline and courage. While lacking the great craftsmanship of the Salamanders, the stealth of the Raven Guard or the elite siege warfare of the Imperial Fists they had none of their shortcomings. Something backed up by their high recruitment rates which allowed them to recover from significant losses faster than other forces.

When written alongside other chapters they would be presented as being different but equal. Most notably in the novel Warriors of Ultramar where both the Deathwatch and Mortifactors fought alongside them. The only exception to this was the Grey Knights, the elite of the elite. When written in the fourth edition of Codex: Space Marines, they would only be glorified to the same extent of other forces. Displaying stories of valor no better or worse than those of the other first founding chapters. While their role in the imperium's history was focused upon in the briefly detailed Horus Heresy this seemed to be to save space, the book not being large enough to detail the events of the great betrayal in full. Events such as the Siege of Terra were left to be detailed in the codices focusing on the forces directly involved in their events, Codex: Black Templars for the aforementioned battle.

Ultimately they were presented as being important but not innately better than other chapters.

When Mat Ward took over he had a very different interpretation of the chapter. The Codex: Space Marines he single handily wrote endlessly glorified the Ultramarines at the detriment of other chapters. Rather than being equals, he wrote all other chapters as looking up to his favorite marines and constantly aspiring to be them in every possible way. Successors of their kind were reduced to being simple extensions of the Ultramarines to come at their beck and call. Other first founding chapters were written to emulate the Ultramarines in every way and worship Guilliman even over their own primarch. Those who didn't follow the codex such as the Space Wolves were being written as degenerates, mutants and failures slowly dying out because they took after their own primarch's teachings rather than Guilliman. A huge contradiction to everything in the last two editions.

Every story about a chapter besides the one on the cover featured them taking horrible losses. Constantly either being wiped out, barely clinging to life, barely able to work together or being written as utter sociopaths. The Ultramarines meanwhile were written to easily towel flick their way through wars, barely took losses and easily crushed the sorts of opposition which the other stories had chapters barely being able to defeat. Even their supposed loss to the necrons on Damnos was written in such a way it read more like a draw, emphasising upon the Ultramarines' victories against all odds. To put it simply - they were no longer fallible.
Ward effectively abandoned any of McNeill's approach to the chapter and wrote them as being some of the most blatant Mary Sues ever to be internationally published. Ignoring any of the previous portrayal, making no effort to show other chapters anything but the smallest degree of dignity and simply dumbing down those in the book to a one-dimensional shadow of what had come before.

McNeill meanwhile continued writing his novel series as Ward created his version of the chapter for the codex. After writing the Killing Ground in 2008, a novel which seemed to only serve to tie up loose ends and is only worth mentioning due to the presence of the Grey Knights, he produced two books. The graphic novel Defenders of Ultramar and Courage and Honour. Both embraced the ideas that McNeill had previously shown in his interpretation of the chapter. Displaying the Ultramarines as a competent force but one which needed to fight its way through to victory and think its way out of situations.

Defenders of Ultramar showed the Ultramarines in their role as defenders and, whereas before the focus had been largely focused upon three characters in the company, allowed the lesser characters of McNeill's books a chance to shine. It displayed and commented upon how quickly they could recover from losses but also how the chapter was more humane when compared to many of the imperium's forces. Willing to forgo their previous plans against an Ork horde vastly outnumbering their company when it became clear it would result in the slaughter of those they were trying to protect. At the same time it was made very evident that this choice was not without consequences, and displayed the losses they took due to defending a city in the Waaagh's! path. It balanced their capabilities and humanity with flaws and casualties.

Courage and Honour showed the Ultramarines 4th company fighting a vastly superior force but managed to force them into retreat by singling out their HQ. Presenting them with a no-win situation and using the sorts of tactics which the space marines were known for. Sudden elite strikes which could bring a much stronger force to its knees and eventually winning through a last minute gamble which eventually paid off. It showed the Ultras fighting an uphill battle, how they could attain victory without they author resorting to declaring they were simply being better than everyone else. Not to mention a surprisingly dark ending for the series. Even when they won it wasn't necessarily for the better with the world they were fighting for, and if anything life would likely only become worse for its population. The sorts of endings which the fifth edition codex only lumped upon other chapters, never the Ultras.

Both of these resembled nothing of the Ultramarines present fifth edition codex but nor did they directly contradict its portrayal. That would come with the next novel.

In the series' final installment to date, The Chapter's Due was a culmination of the the Iron Warriors' plot to assault Ultramar in revenge for Captain Ventris' successful mission to Medrengard. While the full review can be found here, all that's relevant for this is it read as a huge effort to repair the damage Ward did. It kept character facts from the past but gave them personalities. Turning the likes of Sicarius into a person whereas the codex used his fluff as a simple boast about how much better the Ultramarines were than everyone else. It showed that the Ultramarines were elite fighters capable of defending their worlds, but they could not handle every force on their own. Uniting with the Raven Guard, Mechanicus and Inquisition to achieve victory. When they did achieve victory, with overwhelming odds against them, it was not without loss. The fight actually had impact upon them and over three hundred astartes lay dead, with the chapter needing time to rebuild.

What is especially notable is one of the book’s chief villains, the daemon prince M'Kar.
M'Kar, who was in essence Ward's punching bag. Whenever he needed someone to be buffed upwould wheel out M'Kar and have his new favorite character casually defeat it. The events present in the codex listed Calgar, single handily slaying an eldar Avatar, contained repeated mentions of him repeatedly beating and crippling it. None of the writings ever suggested this was with any losses or effort. None ever presented him as a capable threat and he was beaten down so frequently it was quite frankly cartoonish.

McNeill's depiction of M'Kar changed this. As well as being given a distinctive background to expand upon, at least some of M'Kar's losses were eventually suggested to be Imperial propaganda. The truth behind at least one of the Ultramarines’ victories had been hidden even from them by their chapter master, with Calgar revealing that M'Kar had not been banished. Their last duel, despite Sicarius' claims of his leader having ripped the daemon limb from limb, had barely ended in a stalemate. Calgar had only been able to, with help from the Ordo Malleus, bind its essence to the star fort it had taken as its flagship, and hurl it into the Warp.
It was made extremely clear that M'Kar was not some creature which could be punched out by anyone but a being of great power. When it returned it managed to bring down one of Ultramar's worlds within hours of arrival. The fact that its defeat had been propaganda left the potential for other moments in the obscenely long list of Ultramarines victories to have been edited or fabricated to make the chapter look more impressive.

Well, strangely enough Ward’s next codex, the fifth edition of the Blood Angels rules, just happened to outright contradict the novel. Not just that but it seemed to be trying to retcon certain events from existence. M'Kar was brought back in one very small bit of text, this time in an effort to shoehorn in the "Mephiston is corrupt beyond redemption" idea. Specifically at a date when he was supposed to have been locked within the star fort. It's also worth noting it furthered Ward's favoritism and efforts to force everyone to emulate the Ultramarines. Specific examples being bits like this - 
"Indeed, it was Guilliman who would have the greatest lasting effect upon the now leaderless Blood Angels. Through the Codex Astartes - that great treatise on the restructuring and ordering of the Space Marines - Guilliman's legacy would reshape the Blood Angels Legion into the Chapters that defend the Imperium to this day."

On the one hand this might be forgivable for a lack of communication between writers and an honest mistake. Codex: Blood Angels was printed a month or two before the Chapter's Due hit the shelves after all.
On the other, McNeill had taken efforts to build up hype M'Kar's involvement in the upcoming invasion in his short stories. For example the Iron Warrior novella which specifically dealt with M'Kar being freed was released in the same month as the codex, with details emerging even earlier than that. In addition to this the multiple previews online and in the Black Library's catalogue advertised M'Kar's involvement and that he'd recently been freed. Also extracts containing M'Kar's early victory were freely avalible to anyone who looked for them. They also specifically made it clear that this was set after the preceding novels of the series, so it could only take place in 999.M41.

Considering Chapter's Due repaired a vast amount of Ward's damage, it seems possible this was an effort to retcon the book out of existence. He was willing enough to ignore criticisms of his mechanics, favoritism and other flaws by the entire fandom after all, so it wouldn't be a stretch to believe he would to this to another author. Something which backs this can be seen in Ward's following books.

Following on from Codex: Blood Angels Ward took over writing for the Grey Knights. If the quality and content of the last two books had been signs of trouble, this was the one where he proceeded to completely jump off the deep end. The fifth edition installment of Codex: Grey Knights was, to put it simply, bad. From both a critical and a fan perspective it consisted of broken rules, overpowered units, abilities which could easily beat others into the ground. This would only proceed to get worse with the FAQ section.
The fluff was equally bad, at best self-contradicting, ignorant of the rest of the universe and the end result of a badly thought out pre-pubescent power fantasy. It continued Ward's apparent vendetta against the Sisters of Battle, tried to remove both them and the Deathwatch from having any involvement with the inquisition, and introduced Kaldor Draigo. A character which I would need several weeks of solid writing to fully explore every single thing wrong with him.

Among its many problems was the fact it removed a huge number of books from the canon. After so many writers had remained relatively loyal to the Grey Knights' overall image, despite minor retcons and changes, it had become a pillar of consistency within the franchise. Multiple novels written around them were Ben Counter's Grey Knights trilogy, several major events detailed in White Dwarf such as the First War for Armageddon and the Killing Ground for the Ultramarines series. All of which were effectively made non-canon with this change, due to the vastly different methods in which the Grey Knights operated, their beliefs and even their most basic abilities.

Atop of this M'Kar started turned up multiple occasions. Many of which again took place when he was supposedly locked away in the star fort, and trying to implement him as a rival to Draigo. Even going so far as to ignore his final death in Chapter's Due and apparently write him as still being alive after that book's events. All of these now seemed to suggest that the War for Ultramar had never happened.
So now there were two codices which were directly contradicting key elements of McNeill's works.

In the meantime however McNeill continued with his own works on the Ultramarines. Working on the Horus Heresy series he wrote the short story Rules of Engagement which did two things:

Firstly it preserved his idea about the Ultramarines' greatest strengths and weaknesses both extending from the codex astartes and how they regarded it. Specifically that while the tactics, doctrines, recruitment methods and maneuvers listed within the book were to be adhered to by his legion, they were guidelines. The Ultramarines legion itself still required innovation of individual commanders and not to adhere their primarch's ideas religiously. Preserving the idea that seeing the codex as sacrosanct in every aspect was to lead to predictability and stagnation. That a commander's role was to know when and when not to follow it. Something which completely contradicted Ward's statements about the codex in his own books.

Secondly it presented some interesting ideas behind Guilliman himself, and his actions following the Horus Heresy. This was due to the existance of stratagem which he referred to as Imperium Secundus. Something he planned to implement as he believed the Emperor's vision had failed, apparently to introduce his own empire in its place.
While few details about it are given, its very existence throws some of what Ward lauded into question. How easily Guilliman was able to take control of the Imperium following the Emperor's entombment. How willing the other legions were to follow his ideas and how they have come to regard him as their "spiritual liege". Rather than being the result of innate glory or such nonsense, it made the idea viable that he could have planned his takeover in advance. That the Ultramarines arriving too late to save the Emperor might have been intentional to open the way for his advance. 
The story didn't portray Guilliman in any outright negative light but it left the possibility open for a manipulative dark side. Something that, again, suggested the Ultramarines were far from perfect. Or being the figures Ward's Codex: Space Marines had presented them as being.

Ward meanwhile moved onto another codex. the fifth edition Codex: Necrons. The book not only retconned the faction's entire background, attitude, mythos, history, culture and leaders but proceeded to do the same with the entire universe. The eldar War in Heaven was rewritten, becoming a convoluted mess of a background event. The involvement of the Chaos gods is now suspect at best and the hints of what came before the Horus Heresy are barely comprehensible.

Worst of all the Necrons themselves were turned into a joke. No more were the silent silver legion of ancient star devouring gods, the complete antithesis of the forces of Chaos, and unknowable Lovecraftian horrors. In their place Mat Ward wrote the new Necrons AKA Space Tomb Kings. Groups of robotic cyber-toffs who pranced into battle and gave long monologues as and now had strange benevolent codes of honour. Something likely included to justify Ward's infamous screw-up with the Blood Angels. They were, quite simply, no longer intimidating or terrifying. Not so much horrific, unknowable evil creatures as rusting remains of an old empire.

As with before this rather questionable action by Ward had resulted in a huge number of novels and books which could now be considered non-canon. The Soul Drinkers series, specifically Hellforged, several Ciaphas Cain novels, the Word Bearers trilogy, multiple short stories; and oddly enough the first Ultramarines novel - Nightbringer.
Going from the name i'm sure you can guess that it focused upon one specific C'tan, displaying its re-awakening and ability to command Necron warriors as its servants. Well, for no discernible reason the role of the C’tan had been completely rewritten by Ward into something else. Rather than being shadowy godlike beings they were the Necrons’ Pokemon, creatures they had captured and threw out to kill things when they needed it. Rather than being slumbering creatures waiting for the galaxy to repopulate to devour all life once more they were shattered remnants which had no authority, control or sentience.

So not only for the third time in as many codices had Ward retconned an Ultramarines novel from existence but he had completely written out the series beginning. By extension making every preceding novel which build upon it and referred back it it likely non-canon.

To make this clear: Every codex Mat Ward had written close to and following the release of Chapter's Due made at least one of Graham McNeill's novels non-canon in some way. All of which were from the same series.
McNeill meanwhile has written at least two stories which seem to be trying to repair the damage Ward has continuously caused. To reinstate the more favorable image he was presenting which did not outright state "they can never be Ultramarines" as some detrimental failing of other chapters.

Again I’ll point out that these are based upon their content and how and when they were produced in relation to one another. There are no definitive statements to back this up by either author nor by Games Workshop. However, considering how many years this has gone on for it seems unlikely this is unintentional. Some early conflicting mistakes between the two might have been understandable but at this point it after a multitude of books? It would be a surprise to learn that neither author honestly knew they were retconning out the works of another person.

At the very least however, it does show an apparent lack of communication between writing staff working on Warhammer 40,000 and a lack of respect for the works of others by Ward. This was not a problem prior to this and codices seemed to contain frequent mentions of certain books directly related to them. With the fourth edition Codex: Necrons specifically referring to the Ultramarines’ encounter with the C’tan and the Tanith First and Only being present in Codex: Imperial Guard.

With McNeill still producing books and Ward apparently set to work on the codices for the Tyranids and Orks, GW apparently still ignores the complaints of fans. Time will tell if further work is produced backing up this apparent conflict.


Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop and Black Library. 
Futurama is owned by 30th Century Fox and Matt Groening.


  1. I'm not sure if you'll see this given the age of the article, and I know you're busy so it's low priority, but now that we are four years later, what is the state of this war?

    1. It's odd by this point unfortunately, as technically neither of them are working for GW but both still are. Ward left a couple of years after this, with End Times being his parting shot to screw up Fantasy a little more on the way out, but was later confirmed to be writing for them again some time later. McNeill meanwhile kept writing for quite some time, but has confirmed he's putting most of his efforts into writing for other companies. That said, he has confirmed he still has several upcoming books including one on Magnus.

      The actual "war" itself is just as perplexing, but it seems like they have mostly stuck with Ward's version unfortunately. They keep mentioning a war in Ultramar at the end of M41, but state that only M'Kar is leading it and that it's one of these major threatening events which needs to involve multiple chapters. You know the sort, like Cadia and the others where it's a big explosive event which needs to be untangled and dealt with if they move the story onward. Unfortunately for us, it looks like that is going to happen though.