Thursday, 24 December 2015
Why Are Warhammer Fans Obsessed With Malal?
As with every franchise, Warhammer 40,000 is a junkyard of old or forgotten ideas. From lost Black Library novels to retcons, every edition seems to lose something for everything it gains, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. You've no doubt heard of a few of these, but it's always the big retcons which stand out: the infamous Spiritual Liege declaration, the obliteration of the Squats from all books, the introduction of the C'Tan, and Malal. It's that last one which seems to have endured the longest and retains a surprisingly strong following among fans, but you'd be hard pressed to find out exactly why.
For those not in the know, Malal is effectively Chaos' self-destruction and internal conflict incarnate. Known as the Hierarch of Anarchy and Terror, his warriors were dedicated to the annihilation and destruction of other Chaos followers, hunting down and waging war against Chaos itself. It was for this reason he became known as the Renegade God, and his few followers consisted of outcasts, exiles and madmen deranged enough to follow in his pact. Often such warriors served as lone berserkers rather than the massed warbands of the other powers, seeking the heads of other champions.
If Malal sounds like the patron or origin-giver to a bad 90s anti-hero, you're sadly not far off of the mark. One of the big pushes to hype his popularity came into play with The Quest of Kaleb Daark, which followed the blood-soaked tales of a Malalite champion. Created by famed 2000AD authors John Wagner and Alan Grant, it ran for three issues with a fourth unprinted script resigned to oblivion. In all honesty though, it wasn't much of a loss. While rightfully acclaimed for their work on Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog and Judge Dredd, Daark was hardly a genre defining character. Woefully generic, broody and spiteful, he was akin to a bad parody of Sláine at the best of times.
The unfortunate thing was that, with Wagner and Grant's departure, they took with them several rights to the god himself. As such the name and use of Malal in future editions was barred to Games Workshop, preventing them from using one of their main Chaos Gods. They would again try to bring him back in several forms, but none have really stuck around all that well, and there's an obvious reason why: In the established pantheon, Malal was a third wheel.
Malal's ultimate role in the setting might seem awesome at first, but once you really break it down many of the elements which define this god are ultimately superfluous. Hell, some actually limit storytelling potential for the setting as a whole, especially when it comes to Chaos. The whole point of Malal is arguably that he gains followers via Faustian pacts, using the hatred of Chaos to recruit new servants to carry out his will. In this regard he could be seen as a twisted dark mirror of justice, seeking out those whose hatred or determination to hunt down Chaos overrides all else in their lives. This could either be victims of Chaotic raids or even Witch Hunters themselves, and it links into the idea that anyone touched by Chaos could be dragged into his service.
The problem with such a god is that Malal effectively runs a monopoly on the "He who fights monsters" storytelling tropes. In many regards this beginning is Chaos' bread and butter, as many of its monsters start of with either sympathetic beginnings or gradually turn towards darker tendencies as they embrace the Ruinous Powers. This isn't always true of course, and many stories have shown a deep shade of grey in the world lately, but at the same time the likes of the Horus Heresy, Eisenhorn, Trollslayer, and quite a few others show how well this stands out. It produces characters, heroes or villains, with a great deal of depth. If we were to limit this element purely to Malal, many of Tzeentch and Khorne's most famous turns would have never come about. Many other characters, major or minor, with surprisingly sympathetic histories or tragic fates would have never come into existence; the end result of which would have robbed many books of powerful one-shot villains or supporting characters.
Another, much bigger, problem is that Malal represents an aspect of Chaos which can all too easily be seen as outright heroic. There's room for heroes on every side of each setting, even among the most unlikely groups like the Dark Eldar and Skaven Clans, but every side needs a deep shade of black. In Malal's case, the fact his whole purpose seems to be to thwart Chaos itself just seems too heroic. While he might be a dark god, it's a goal which aligns far too closely with the likes of the High Elves or Witch Hunters. This is a problem which was exemplified by the comic, where all too often Kaleb happily joined forces with the Empire to defeat his foes, turning him into your common or garden hero with dark powers.
Even with all of the above problems in mind however (and i'm sticking to the big ones here to save on space) there's still one which thoroughly undermines Malal's very role within Chaos: His meaning. Say what you will about the other four powers, but each is distinct from one another, each opposes one another equally and you can see the role they play as a cornerstone within the Ruinous Powers. This is largely thanks to how they link into some primal force or another, from change to decay to euphoria and bloodshed. These are very grey subjects, dark ones once again but with streaks of positive elements such as Khorne's martial honour or how Tzeentch's core emotional force is thought to be hope. Destruction though? While that is certainly a primal force, it lacks some of the flexibility of other subjects here. Destruction and anarchy are simply that, a neutral force driven by the will of the person behind it, and there's little room for variation here. It proves to be remarkably shallow and, to make matters worse, too many distinct traits cross over with other gods. As such, rather than being a power unto himself, Malal can just seem like a tacked on addition.
So, with all that in mind, why do players still keep bringing up Malal?
The most obvious of these is the simple fact that he was removed from the canon. The odd sudden disappearance of certain factions and elements can drive fandoms crazy. It leaves those hungering to know more about the lore desperate to hunt down every shred of info they can. If something so massive as a Chaos god or faction is removed from the game, it will stick in their mind. Upon discovering it, upon learning that the universe is that much bigger than they first realised, it will help to stay in their minds.
Chaos Dwarfs and Zoats continued to be talked about among groups of of lore obsessed fans, thanks largely to the sheer impact they should have had upon the world. Hell, if you want the quintessential example of how this can help an army live in infamy, just look at the Squats. Unpopular and relatively ignored (to the point where Games Workshop employees even called them out of place in the setting), their time in Warhammer 40,000 was hardly glorious, and they were seen as unremarkable creations. Yet after being hit with the retcon hammer so hard that their own creators refused to acknowledge their existence, they actually grew in popularity. This really is that one spark of a fan thinking "I wonder what they're trying to hide from us?" driving them to look into older ideas.
However, unlike the Squats or Zoats, Malal was not something willingly removed from the canon. It was merely an idea authors were barred from using again, against their own will. As such, Games Workshop and other writers kept trying to find ways to sneak him into the game. Ignoring the other efforts to directly replace him for the moment, many armybooks or codices kept giving the dark god shout-outs or even trying to insert him purely by altering his name. Perhaps the most famous of these examples was during the late Third Edition, with the introduction of the Sons of Malice and the Dreadaxe. The former were effectively a warband dedicated to Malal (now called Malice), driven by betrayal and famous for their viciousness while combating Chaos warriors. The latter, meanwhile, was Kaleb's infamous weapon. These hints didn't stop there either, and every new Edition brings with it some subtle hint or another. Even the Forge World books are hardly immune from the odd shout out:
The fact Games Workshop writers kept drawing attention to this forbidden god allowed Malal to retain the attraction of a major retconned faction, but kept it in general awareness.
Of course, Malal himself is hardly without his own benefits or appeal to hobbyists. While, as was pointed out above, many of his concepts were flawed or underdeveloped, there was no denying he retained some very interesting lore tidbits. The big ones tended to stem less from Malal's role within the setting or the nature of his followers so much as his power and realm. One of the more enduring images describing Malal's place of power was one of total torment to rival daemons; with tortures ranging from trapping a Changer of Ways in an immutable realm it could not hope to comprehend, to victorious armies marching past a crucified Bloodthirster. While he desired anarchy, focused upon destruction and desecration of others, the idea of Malal's home being a place of torment even to daemons was fascinating to consider. This was, after all, a place feared by the primordial night terrors of humanity, and a concept fascinating to behold. Atop of this, the idea of Malal's followers acting as individuals, spreading anarchy and destruction in their wake, suggested a very different kind of warrior. With so many other warbands gathering together, using their skills to venerate their dark gods however they could, allowed for the idea of a very different kind of warrior. One who, unlike the more structured hordes and forces of Chaos, truly embraced the anarchistic nature of the Warp itself.
Even the very images we were given of Malal's daemonic host was extraordinary different from the mobs of Screamers, Bloodletters and Unclean Ones seen before. Masses of gnarled bones and hollowed scales seemed to make up his Greater Daemons, and the others were equally disturbing, retaining an incredibly Gothic mixture of bone, scales and insectoid elements which surely would have given the developers of Bloodborne nightmares for weeks. Even the most basic of these, a giant tick with a skull's face, still looked oddly horrifying thanks to the artistic talents which had brought the creature to life. They looked different, weird and bizarrely out of place against Chaos, and in many regards that was Malal's greatest strength.
You'd be hard pressed to find a Warhammer fan who isn't aware of the four great gods of the Ruinous Powers. The mention of Khorne, Nurgle and the others instantly brings distinct images of certain daemons to mind, and certain characteristics tied into their very nature. While certainly versatile as a subject and open to interpretation, it's hard to shake that sense of familiarity. Quite often these days, Warhammer stories will gravitate back to the same variants of daemons and same powers for each of these gods. Even those which try to buck this trend will, ultimately, often gravitate back to the same core themes or basic elements. This leads to the obvious problem - The more we know of a great power, the more we see of it and the same traits, the less scary and less unknowable it becomes. This ultimately robs Chaos of its major edge and as a result the Warp becomes less like a sea of souls and more "that place daemons from from". Just look at Draigo to see how harmful that can be.
The big question, as a result of familiarity with the big powers, has always surrounded the rest of the Warp. Only small hints have ever been offered, but we know of elements not bound to the four gods. These have ranged from whale-like creatures the size of worlds to more bizarre things like the Enslavers, but there have also been hints of other gods. Prior codices mentioned (almost humorously) several by name and the Raptor Cult itself is known to worship a minor deity of Chaos. With that bigger world out there, with that vaster realm lurking just out of sight, Malal served as a glimpse into what lurked beyond. While he might have been retconned, he reminded others that even at the most basic foundations of Warhammer 40,000's lore there were still known, stranger realms to yet be explored.
Of course, this is all just opinion. While this is, admittedly, going off of more personal thoughts and observations of fans than any in-depth long-term analysis, but this seems to ring true no matter which fan I speak to. If you have your own thoughts, opinions or even ideas to throw into the hat however, please feel very free to come forwards and suggest a few ideas yourself. Given the age and obscurity of this subject, it would be interesting to see what people come up with.