The galaxy of the far future depicted in Warhammer 40,000 has room for an uber-gothic Imperium of Mankind ruled by a dying Emperor kept on life support for centuries, and also a horde of green-skinned alien Orks straight out of Tolkien, only with big guns and the attitudes of soccer hooligans.
Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 line of games (and countless spin-offs) draws much of its inspiration from that venerable old workhorse 2000 AD, living proof that science-fiction and anthologies can both work in comics. Those who grew up reading 2000 AD like I did may wonder at this; its series have covered a wide variety of different styles and moods over the years, from the xenophobic future mankind of Nemesis The Warlock to the social commentary soap opera The Ballad Of Halo Jones to the fascist police procedural Judge Dredd. Apart from displays of over-the-top violence and British humor, not much binds these diverse series together. So how does a setting manage to reconcile all of these inspirations? Cleverly, it doesn't.
As Douglas Adams memorably summed it up, space is big. Really big. The galaxy of the far future depicted in Warhammer 40,000 has room for an uber-gothic Imperium of Mankind ruled by a dying Emperor kept on life support for centuries, and also a horde of green-skinned alien Orks straight out of Tolkien, only with big guns and the attitudes of soccer hooligans. The serious and the sublimely silly sit side by side, cast into stark relief by their differences. Unifying the disparate elements is 2000 AD's good old blend of straight-faced humor and ultra-violence. And the Warhammer 40,000 universe, especially as depicted in Damnation Crusade, is a very violent place. Half of the population seems to be suffering from testosterone poisoning, and none more so than the Space Marines, genetically engineered protectors of the Imperium of Mankind who split their lives between monastic contemplation and killing everything in sight like an army of gun-toting Conans.
Damnation Crusade follows one such chapter of Space Marines, the Black Templars. We see the rawest recruits being tested as the veterans advance into battle and, amusingly, an ancient and cantankerous giant robot is cajoled into joining the fray. This is only the first issue, but it sets up an interesting view of the no-doubt epic conflict to come from a multitude of angles. Writing duties are taken by Dan Abnett and Ian Edginton; both have had turns at writing for 2000 AD in the past. Abnett also worked on the Warhammer comics back when Games Workshop was publishing them under its Black Library imprint, a hit-and-miss period that produced some good work alongside some that was embarrassingly incompetent. It will be interesting to see how BOOM! Studios, chosen by Wizard magazine as Best New Publisher, treats the license, though it's too early to say yet.
Art is by Lui Antonio, who does well with battle scenes and heavily muscled men, but we'll have to wait a few issues for him to be given the chance to prove himself by drawing a greater variety of scenes and characters. Some of his characters are difficult to tell apart -- is the young recruit Raclaw supposed to be one of the older Marines we see, in a flashback? It's not obvious, especially since the dates are all relative ("Thirteen years before the Sanguin Liberation." "Eight years into the Landred Pacification."). JM Ringuet's painterly colors, however, are immediately impressive. His use of light effects is arresting, ranging from thick smog to blinding light that makes you want to squint at the page. The oddly colored alien skies look truly alien, and subtle motion blurs add to the action. I suspect Ringuet is going to become a name to look for, and there aren't many colorists you can say that about.
The issue closes with a section of backmatter, a two-page glossary explaining the distinctions between various grades of Space Marine. It's a good idea and obviously useful to those unfamiliar with the setting, but it's tragically short. Two pages isn't enough to get much across, and seems like short-change compared to the extensive backmatter contained in issues of recent books like Fell or Phonogram.
Overall, this is a promising first issue. War stories have a tendency to either focus on the common soldier at the expense of the grand sweep of strategy or focus on decision makers in situation rooms at the expense of the humanity of the troops used like playing pieces in a game. If Damnation Crusade keeps its focus split it will be an unusually interesting, as well as beautifully colored, portrait of warfare in the future.