Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Batman Effect - Why Warhammer 40,000 Works

An unfortunate trend in many articles on this blog and The Founding Fields is that, beyond Black Library books, many articles about the setting tend to be negative. Looking back, the vast majority of codex reviews have been negative or moderate, with few times when anything has been truly praised with any great enthusiasm. So, in order to correct that somewhat, this article is going to look into why Warhammer 40,000 works as a setting. This will specifically look into just why the universe is so great, and it can ultimately be put down to one thing: The Batman Effect. Something it does even better than the caped crusader himself.

Anyone who has actually looked up Batman, or most superheroes for that matter, will know they've run the gambit in terms of themes, styles and presentation. The character has had such a varied number of artists, authors and creators working on him for so long that he can be molded into just about any story and someone, somewhere will still find a way to make it work. 

Think about it for a minute. First of all he was quite a dark, serious vigilante still using guns to bring down the cowardly and suspicious criminals while dressed as a winged rodent of the night. Then, during the Silver Age and Adam West TV series, he turned into a bright, bold, colourful character who often operated during the day and did little to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. Since this time, presentation of the character has gone back and forth continually, occasionally angling towards the serious portrayal while others veer towards the Shark Repellent Bat Spray look.

What makes this specially notable however, is that both work equally well with the character and have their own kind of charm. The very idea of a billionare dressing up as a bat is just that very specific kind of ridiculous that it can pass itself off as a Christopher Nolan film, or something like Batman: The Brave and the Bold without any problems. This same element can be found within many franchises over the years which have seen surprisingly solid writing despite their origins, but I'd honestly argue Warhammer 40,000 is the setting which truly exemplifies this. Why? Because it can simultaneously pull off ridiculously satirical parodies of grim dark futures, while at the same time telling fantastic downfall stories.

This is the universe which features both the Horus Heresy and Ork WAAAGHS! after all. One is a genuinely well told tale of downfall and tragedy which saw the death of a truly hopeful future for the universe and a slow, grinding conflict which turned the Imperium into a true dystopia. The other consists of a massive swarm of cockney accented humanoid fungi who constantly engage in a hybrid between a pub crawl and a holy crusade. Both exist alongside one another, yet neither is out of place and they manage to fit together without any problems.

Admittedly, the universe does veer from one presentation to the next when it comes to these factions. You wouldn't see the Eisenhorn series featuring Doomrider or the like in all their manic glory, and when orks have shown up in the more seriously told books they have often been shown in a more outright dangerous light. The Soul Drinkers series, Rynn's World and a few other novels have done this, but no fan bats an eye because their characterisation is broad enough to allow for a portrayal without so much intentional humour. The universe is flexible enough, adaptable enough, that each portrayal can work without any real contradictions. When it really comes down to it, you can compare the Gaunt's Ghosts series with Ciaphas Cain books and, despite the differing tones, there's never any difficulty in seeing them be part of the same setting.

The few times when things go wrong in terms of writing are not down to the universe in question so much as the writers covering it. Just going back to Batman for a second, Batman and Robin was made to emulate the Adam West series, but it seemed not to realise why any of it worked. It kept the same campy elements but it lacked the same truly manic charm and seemed unwilling to truly embrace it so wholeheartedly. This is to say nothing of Batman himself, who was more based upon later incarnations than the 1960s version. As such, while it gravitated towards the old TV series, it was ultimately stuck between two very different ideas.

The same can be seen in the worst of Games Workshop's codices, especially those which take elements from the Second Edition. In the case of many, much of the original idea was still there but it was played too straight faced, and without any effort to really make jokes at an army's expense. You can probably guess the specific codex which truly shows just how bad this can be at times.

Overall though, its for this reason that I would argue the setting works. While established canon and certain points in its history need to be maintained, at least those which are well written, it has enough of a range and is broad enough of a setting to become what an author needs at the time. You can argue the same for Warhammer Fantasy, but in all honesty that setting seems to work better when played a little more straight faced on the whole. Admittedly though, that's also a universe which has Gotrek and Felix still merrily slaying anything they come across.


  1. This really shows that the people that create these worlds really love the universe they have created. For Example, Space Marine was a linear, stunted, unprofitable game and a nail in the coffin for its makers, but it was a labor of love.

  2. There's some very good points here about why it works, a little while ago I remember trying to explain the setting to a friend and initially he had a kind of whiplash asking about the Imperium, the Orks, and the Tyranids, and for a while thought they were part of different game types, but then he wrapped his head around it.

    I would also definitely argue this works for Warhammer Fantasy, look up the 6th edition Vampire Counts for a really well put together Army Book about the undead and all of their horrors, and then look up the Ogre Kingdoms, both look like they belong in the same setting, but in Vampire Counts you have a knight breaking into a dungeon to rescue a princess who turns out to be a vampire who then kills the knight as soon as he turns around, and in Ogre Kingdoms you have the lines: "We told them we'd grind their bones to make our bread! Course dem's just idle threats, grinding takes to long and the boys are happy to eat them raw." Which was said by a tyrant in a meeting with other tyrants on how to make humans pay you tithes. The Ogres also have an Ogre who was hired by the Orcs, then fired by the Orcs once he drank all of their beer. They also have a tribe so stupid a Goblin chief was able to trick the Ogre tribe into paying HIM to allow them to fight.

    It's all in who you look at, the Fantasy Orcs aren't as ridiculous as their 40K cousins, that spot is reserved for the Ogres, and I'd still believe that this takes place in a setting where Arthurian Knights fight Vampires.

    1. Okay, I wanted to re-read the Ogre Kingdoms book before replying but i've got to agree that you definitely make a good point about them. While i'm nowhere near as familiar with Fantasy as I am 40K, they have that same kind of mix of seriousness and brazen humour that the Orks have under Phil Kelley. It's played just straight faced enough to make them menacing while at the same time it can rapidly delve into the same brand of insanity and humour at a moment's notice. To add to the examples you've already listed, there's another one there which has an ogre tribe be effectively bribed by Imperial engineers to let them live by giving them decent sanitary systems in return. Plus, of course, there's also the skaven who can go either way at a moment's notice. William King and the Gotrek and Felix series in general often uses them as a humourous army of backstabbers, but there are enough tales which have them remain a serious threat quietly striking and retreating as and when they're needed.