The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000

Right; I promised I would talk about gaming, so here it is. (I generally talk about gaming on my gaming blog.) Today we’re going to talk a little about historical themes in Warhammer 40,000 and its various derivatives. Now, if you have ever played this game, or are familiar with its art and design, you’ll know that it tends to be covered in little Gothic flourishes — or, to be less charitable, that everything is made out of cathedrals. Imperial_Imperator_Titan Now, I remember when I was in high school I really didn’t like how everything in the 40K universe was encrusted with skulls and spires, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. Let me begin at the beginning: it’s obvious that the first edition of Warhammer 40,000 was a stew of many different influences. The most obvious of these is 2000 AD: you can see Judge DreddStrontium DogRogue Trooper and Nemesis the Warlock in its genes very easily. There are also a lot of other connections — Dune, obviously, Michael Moorcock, The Road Warrior, and earlier games like Laserburn and Dungeons and Dragons, not to mention the then-still-inchoate Warhammer Fantasy Battle setting. The Realm of Zhu has done some amazing work on tracing artistic inspiration in the Warhammer Fantasy Battle game. It also drew a lot of its inspiration from history. That’s no surprise: as this interview with Rick Priestley points out, several of the members of the Design Studio during the classic era had backgrounds in archaeology. (In fact, during my recent trip to the British Museum, I saw this book by GW and TSR alumnus/archaeology guy Graeme Davis, who also wrote the AD&D Vikings book [EDIT: whoops! He did the Celts one], in the gift shop. (Big hat tip to Orlygg for making me think about this stuff.) Now, in the 1990s, the design of the various aspects of the 40K setting took on explicitly historical models. For instance, the Ultramarines are pretty heavily modelled on Romans: Dow2r_ultramarines_dlc_02 While the Valhallan Ice Warriors are pretty obviously modelled on the Red Army of the Second World War: 2266_imperial_guard.valhallan But these aren’t the historical references I’m talking about, really. The early historical references are a bit messier, a bit more … playful, maybe? I think the best-known of these is probably the Dark Angels chapter. The Dark Angels were founded by a godlike being called a Primarch — this particular Primarch is variously called Lyyn Elgonsen, Lynol Jonsen, or (currently) LionEl’Jonson. Lion_kretschmann_by_slaine69 All of which are, of course, just ways of spelling “Lionel Johnson,” a 19th-century English poet who did all the usual 19th-century English poet stuff: repressed his homosexuality, converted to Catholicism, was Alfred Douglas’s cousin. His most famous poem is “The Dark Angel,” which seems to be mainly about fighting against temptation. Now, I don’t think this was part of a plan — I think the people compiling these books were well-read people, and when they needed to come up with the leaders of their chapters, they threw in a couple of literary and historical references (see also: Jaghatai Khan, Konrad Curze, Perturabo). It was only later that some people came along with a (perceived, anyway) mandate to systematise. But whether early throwaway references or later systematic exploration, I think both “generations” of 40K have this in coming: the setting is weighed down by its history. I think this aesthetic is not uncommon in British sci-fi of the 1980s. Consider this excellent article by Chris Sims about Judge Dredd’s costume. I think it’s all worth reading (I’m a fan), but here’s the key point:

Judge Dredd exists in the world of Thrillpower, the far-off future year of 2099 AD, in a society where every single thing has become monstrously overwhelming. Just the very idea of Mega City One, this towering post-nuclear metropolis that’s built on overcrowding and stuffing as many people into the only tiny space that can actually support life? That’s the core idea of Judge Dredd, and when Pat Mills, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra created him, they made sure to weave that into the fabric of those stories. There’s a good reason that one of the first ideas that comes up in a Judge Dredd story, once they’ve established this massive, teeming, crushing society where the fascists are the good guys, is the “futsies,” people suffering from “future shock” who just snap under the pressure of living there. Life in the future is just too much for people.

And that idea of too much is present in the art of 40K. Everything is covered in skulls, everything is a mile tall, everything is ten thousand years old or hungers for all life or iz kuvvad in Orky know-wotz — everything is just way too much to endure and stay sane. It’s a world where these are the good guys: warhammer-40000-art-песочница-Imperium-322656 Nothing in the 40K universe should be “efficient” without having “brutally” on there first. Even the Eldar, who are meant to be all lithe and elegant, are covered in trinkets and greeblies, literally encrusted with the souls of their dead ancestors, persistent reminders of the tragedy of their species. (This is why the Tau, a late addition to the canon, sit so uneasily with the rest of it.) I think this is a very interesting contrast to a lot of “classic” science fiction. A lot of the tradition of sci-fi art shows images that are clean and futuristic without a whole lot of visible past-ness: science-fiction_7d5c2c9b You know the kind of thing. Now obviously that’s not all science fiction art, but I think there’s an identifiable trend where the future is often portrayed without a past. But the 40K future is all about the past. Partly it’s about our past — although it’s the future, it’s decidedly primitive, with swords and whatnot. It uses the images of our past, but in romantic ways: so the Dark Angels, for example, aren’t medieval-like in their modern incarnation: they’re Gothic, using images of medieval monks and knights to create a moody, mournful aesthetic that doesn’t actually resemble the middle ages at all. DeathwingKnights (This is a new-ish look for them, but it’s been developing for well over a decade). I think this is a pretty interesting use of historical imagery: as a source of weird greeblies to cover every visible surface with. It creates this impression of the 40K setting as somewhere that’s almost rotten with history, encrusted with meaningless and cruel legacies from some forgotten era. tumblr_m4j033XucV1qhslato1_1280 tumblr_m5tab3jL3z1qhslato1_1280     And it’s interesting to me that as the setting’s been developed, it’s become more and more specifically obsessed with its own history — going back and mapping out every nook and cranny of the Horus Heresy, for instance, in an endless series of commentaries and footnotes on books written 25 years ago. If you want to consider this view of history something that very specifically comes out of Britain in the 80s, I wouldn’t argue with you. I certainly think that the fusion of the Gothic and the modern would come much easier to someone who lived in London or even Cambridge; I have referred in the past to the place in the New Museums Site where I used to work as “Necromunda.” To summarise, then:

  • The creators of the 40K setting borrowed liberally from everything around them (partly in response to a company mandate to reuse existing miniatures lines, partly because that’s how a game designer do).
  • A lot of this was from history or historically-influenced literature, because they were into that stuff.
  • This interacted well with their other influences.
  • The result was a mess of different historical influences …
  • … that greatly enhanced the setting’s theme of immeasurable antiquity and weirdness.


The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000

Liebster Award!

So, Edwin of Thoughts of a Depressive Diplomatist has nominated this blog for a Liebster Award.

liebster award (1)

Many thanks to him for the kind thought. What is a Liebster Award, you ask? I will let Edwin explain:

The Liebster Awards are a purely nominal award in which bloggers recognise their peers.  In that in turn it asks the recipient to make nominations, it is a little like a chain letter.  Given that it doesn’t have any of the dodgy moral pressures or other drawbacks of chain letters, and that the aim (to introduce readers to new blogs) is a worthy one, I’m more than happy to accept it and pass it on.

Over time the ‘rules’ of the award have evolved – some variants and supposedly ‘official rules’ can be found here.  It the true spirit of the blogosphere, I’m going to pick and choose the elements that appeal to me.

I now have to answer some questions posed by Edwin and then nominate some other blogs and add some questions of my own. I’m going to do the questions in this post, have a think for a bit about the blogs and do another post later for them. I don’t know if it has to be wargaming blogs — I don’t really follow that many and the ones I do follow are the ones everyone knows about or have already been nominated. However, just for the sake of anyone who came here from Edwin I promise I’ll have a post about wargaming in the near future!

Anyway, here are Edwin’s questions, with my answers.


How would you describe your blog?

The Gonzo History Project is a place where I write about odd parts of history, particularly those that haven’t risen to the level of full-blown obsessions. Although I might write about anything, I tend to write about history’s shady characters, strange events, ridiculous fashions — all that sort of thing — or else about the aspects of history the discipline that I find compellingly weird or disreputable. A lot of it is about the ways in which we interpret the past rather than the past as thing-in-itself.

Why did you start blogging?

I actually started the GHP back in like 1999 as a zine, of all things — I wrote about three of them before giving up. I revived the blog mainly because I write for my day job, but I seldom get to write things that I really find enjoyable or interesting. I felt like that part of my brain was getting a little bit rusty, so I decided to give myself a project to write on regularly. I maintained nearly a post a day for a couple of months, but I found the pressure getting to me, so now I just post as and when. It seems to work OK for me.
How do you relax (if it’s not blogging)?

Pretty much what you’d expect –reading, RPGs, painting miniatures, generally goofing around. I maintain a blog about gaming in addition to this one. I’m also a fan of terrible movies, which I, you guessed it, blog about together with some friends. I really enjoy poking about used bookstores, charity shops, car boot sales and so on to find books, games, figures and so on — this kind of bargain-hunting is a hobby I share with my wife. I make weird little craft projects sometimes. I believe in amateurism in a big way.
What is your favorite holiday destination?

Hard to say. My family and my wife’s family live in the US, so most big holidays are really trips back to California to visit them. When I travel, I’m definitely an architecture-and-museums guy rather than a beaches-and-scenery guy. I should travel more; a few years of being stony broke got me out of the habit and I haven’t got back into it.
Who inspires/has inspired you the most?

I don’t know! I tend not to have single role models or things that inspire me; like with everything else, I’m this magpie, taking bits and pieces of everything and patching them together. I’m inspired by obsessives like Eric Shanower, who really take the time to do a thing and do it right, even though I’m not one of them. I really admire people who work in jobs that should be hack jobs but who bring weird energy and creativity to them, like Jack Kirby. I admire people who speak well and humorously about interesting subjects — Helen Keen, for instance, Larry Gonick. I have writing inspirations — Ellroy, Wolfe, O’Brian, people like that. Even Alfred Duggan! I have archaeologist inspirations, again mostly people who did good work but also wrote well and enjoyably about it. But I don’t have one Gandhi-like figure where I can say “that person has inspired me the most.”
Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Is it possible to like things that are ridiculous but not things that are absurd?
‘Star Trek’ or ‘Star Wars’?

Star Wars for sure. Although I have been recently rewatching original Star Trek, and I think it is pretty good. The Star Wars spin-offs I can take or leave; I don’t really care about world-building unless it’s masterful. I’m a look-and-feel guy.
What was the last book you read and the last you bought?

Well, I am currently reading Beat to Quarters, because I found it in the free book rack at the bus stop, but I didn’t buy it. The most recent book I myself bought was probably The Archaeology of Identities, which I found cheaps in a Books for Amnesty in London.The most recent book someone (my wife) bought for me was Rough Magicks, a Trail of Cthulhu supplement. (Thank you!)
Who is your favorite fictional character?

Um … I don’t know! A lot of people seem to engage with characters more than I do. They imagine that they would like them as a person, or wonder what they get up to outside of the novel. I don’t really have that impulse — as I said, I seem to be all about look-and-feel. Just glancing over the bookshelf, let’s say Stephen Maturin from the Aubrey-Maturin novels. I don’t feel a great attachment to him as a character, but I find his dialogue just so much fun to read. I also like Silk from The Book of the Long Sun, although I’m well aware that he is much of a muchness with other Gene Wolfe narrators.
Which historical event would you like to visit?

I don’t know that I would like to visit any historical event, at least not within my period, but there are definitely events that I am curious about. I’d like to go to … I’d like to go to a funeral at Winchester Old Minster sometime in the 10th century. Any one will do, honestly, but getting to go to five or six would be great. I’d like to watch them and see what happened, and I’d like to be able to ask them just what in the hell they thought they were doing.

Liebster Award!

The Nazi Vixen Thing

(Note to readers for whom it matters: this post contains Nazi imagery. It’s used in a … historical? … context but if you don’t like that stuff or are worried about your employer or whatever, I thought I should warn you.)

A while back, reader Ian asked me to write about the whole “sexy Nazi” thing. He probably thought I forgot! I wish I had.

In any event: if you are at all familiar with any sort of modern pulp literature or games surrounding WWII, particularly “Weird War 2” type stuff, you will have been exposed to the “sexy Nazi vixen” archetype. It is … weird.

First, let me establish what I mean here. I’m not talking about a glamorous femme fatale who happens to be a Nazi, like this lady:


Or Dr Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:


Those two are perfectly ordinary examples of the pulp femme fatale archetype and could be subbed in for any old bad guy (although I guess Schneider looks all icily Nordic, so there’s that).

No, I’m talking about stuff like this:


Or this:



Or these miniatures for the game Projekt X (bonus points for having both the bondage-gear and inexplicable-decolletage-SS-uniform variants).

So: what the hell?

Now, the first thing that occurred to me was that this is a feature of pulp art, and could it in fact be a legacy of the pulp era? The answer seeeems to be that it isn’t. I haven’t conducted a thorough search, but I don’t see a lot of sexualised German uniforms, sexualised Nazi regalia, anything like that, in contemporary pulps or comics. The closest thing that popped out at me (hurr) is Valkyrie, seen above with unconscious Airboy. Now, while that’s a modern illustration (by the late Dave Stevens), it’s a pretty accurate rendition of Valkyrie’s 40s-era costume. However, you’ll note that there’s not actually anything particularly German about her uniform — even Airboy is in bright American red and blue, but she’s just in generic sexy villainess garb. (And if Airboy and Valkyrie remind you of Jetlad and Skywitch from Top 10: yup.)

But it isn’t until after the war that we get the traditional Nazi sex vixen. I think that in order to be a proper pop-culture Nazi vixen, you need some or all of the following:

  • An absurdly tight German uniform OR bondage gear festooned with Nazi insignia
  • A great big officer’s hat OR a jaunty little cap (almost never a stahlhelm)
  • High-heeled bitch boots OR jackboots
  • A riding crop
  • A gun: usually a Luger, an MP40 or something ludicrous like an MG34. Not a 98K.
INC205 Gretel von X large2

Now, the archetypal example of this character is:



The jaunty-capped ice maiden types in the background just round out the definition.

Apparently, this kind of quasi-porn started almost immediately after the war, I guess because it gave the usual low-budget slimeballs the kind of “educational” pretext they needed to wrap their movies in a veneer of social responsibility (especially important for the US, where most of them failed to pass anyway but whatever).

But from there somehow it seems to have crept into popular culture in a way that lots of similar stuff didn’t. Here’s an example from Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which is pretty mainstream:


I guess, in the end, the answer to “is it just a bondage thing?” is “yes.” It’s notable that there isn’t any comparable super-sexification of the other combatants — oh sure, there’s lots of bomber nose art and glamour art and pinups, but they don’t have the same cultural oomph as the Nazi Vixen.

What’s extra weird to me is that of course this is about as un-Nazi as you can get. I mean, sure, obviously the Nazis were into horrific torture and oppression, but their attitude toward women was not quite so decadent. Nazism rejected the idea of the modern “liberated” woman, and the party tried (with very little success) to force women out of the workforce and back into the home, where they would be smiley (or sometimes stern) and blonde and look after smiley or stern blonde children.





I mean, in a way it’s just indicative of how far WWII gamers have replaced the specific beliefs of the German government with a sort of expression of generic evil (evil overlords require sexy evil female sidekicks), but still.

As you probably know, the USSR had quite a lot of women fighting. Female snipers are famous, of course, but there were female pilots, female tank commanders, female military police, the whole bit. And yet those are seldom (sometimes, but not as often) as ridiculously sexualised as German women. Is it because Soviet women actually fought? Is it because Nazis have that whole “torture camp” thing going on? I honestly have no idea.

So, to summarise: the roots of the “Nazi sex vixen” thing? Porno, as far as I can tell. Its modern incarnation: maybe goofy and harmless, maybe weird and creepy.

As an aside: Valkyrie eventually switched sides and became a good guy; Secrets of the Third Reich has a female American super-soldier in a tank top and implausibly short shorts.


The Nazi Vixen Thing

Trip report: the Vikings


So, a scant two hours or so after going to the comics exhibit at the British Library (as documented in my last post), my wife and I went to the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibit at the British Museum. I thought it was pretty good.

I have mentioned before that the Vikings are one of those subjects in history that are full of romance, and if you want to tell people about them you have to actively work not to let the romance distort what you’re saying. And yet you have to have some element of the romance in it, because that’s partly why you’re doing the thing in the first place, right? I mean, look at the poster in the photo above.

So, the exhibit.

I went in with a bunch of friends and relatives, none of whom were quite as nerdy about early medieval Europe as I am. They enjoyed it as well, but obviously they didn’t get quite the shock of familiarity that I got when seeing things like the Mammen axe:

National Museum, Denmark

… or the Winchester Liber Vitae:


Me being me, I therefore got a little extra sort of sense of being in an Early Medieval Europe’s Greatest Hits type of environment. And the greatest hit of all, of course, is the ship, Roskilde 6. I say ship, but it is honestly not quite a ship — more fragments of one. It’s not as impressive as the Gokstad ship, but you do get to see that it was absolutely huge. It’s quite impressive.

As for the exhibit itself, there were good things and bad things. Here are the good things:

  • Pretty much the very first thing you see when you go in is a set of comparison artefacts from lots of different cultures that the Vikings came into contact with — Byzantine, Frankish, Baltic, English, Irish, and so on. So that’s really nice: you see the Vikings not as an isolated culture but as part of a broader European world. The same trick is done upstairs in the Sutton Hoo room, and I was pleased with it there.
  • There is a lot of talk about the Vikings in the east, and not a disproportionate amount (or at least not too much) about the Vikings in England. Given how important the Baltic and Russia were in the Viking age, this is nice to see.
  • There is a hell of a lot of neat stuff — that’s yer British museum for you.

Here are the bad things:

  • The first part of the exhibition, before you get out into the area where the ship is, is designed in such a way that the crowd tends to clog up. Fortunately, I am pretty tall, so I could see over people’s heads, but not everyone is. I guess that is a problem of popularity, but I didn’t feel like it was present in the second area — maybe people had figured out the appropriate pace by then.
  • That’s actually pretty much it. I thought the presentation was very British-Museum-y: kind of spare and restrained and a little dark. I mean, you know what you’re getting. I quite like it, but I know some people don’t.
  • I have heard some complaints about the catalogue, but I haven’t really had time to look at it yet.

The weirdest thing about the whole experience to me was the gift shop. They have a plastic Viking sword in there and it’s … I mean, it’s alarmingly accurate. Like, it’s got INGELRII ME FECIT on the blade. The toy swords I played with as a kid were some bullshit by comparison. On the other hand, it did cost like £14.99, so maybe it’s just that rich kids get good stuff? And the plastic Viking helmet you can buy is a nice little version of the Gjermundbu helmet. No horns in sight.

The exhibition hall has lots of quotes from various poems, histories and so on up on the walls and around the cases, which I liked. Makes good use of the space. My favourite was this one about a Viking warrior with some unusual ancestry:

The Stories of the ancients tell us that Ursus (a certain nobleman whom the Lord, contrary to what normally happens in human procreation, allowed to be created from a white bear as a father and a noblewoman as a mother), begot Spratlingus;Spratlingus begot Ulfius; and Ulfius begot Beorn, who was nicknamed Beresune, that is, “Bear’s Son”. This Beorn was Danish by race, a distinguished earl and famous soldier. As a sign, however, that due to part of his ancestry he was of a different species, nature had given him the ears of his father’s line, namely those of a bear. In all other features he was of his mother’s appearance.

I like that his badass feature is bear’s ears — not claws, not teeth, not a snout, ears. Here is how I imagine him.


I hope I get to hit someone with this club.  I'm a bear.
I hope I get to hit someone with this club.
I’m a bear.

So, yeah, I thought it was good. My relatives enjoyed it. I didn’t learn anything, particularly, but then I didn’t really expect to, and I suspect I’ll learn something from the book. It was mainly cool to see these things in person. Somehow in my mind “sorceress’s” staffs (staves?) were longer.

You should go if you can; it’ll be fun and informative. If you know something I don’t about it, you should tell me. If you think the Vikings have been done to death, well, you’re probably right, but we may not share the same assumptions.

Trip report: the Vikings

Hey Kids! Comics!



This past weekend my wife and I went to the Comics Unmasked exhibit at the British Library. It was pretty good, but somehow it left me feeling a little unfulfilled. poster-orig

Let me put my cards on the table here: I like my comics pretty mainstream, with the notable exception of Age of Bronze. I am a superheroes guy, broadly speaking. Nothing against the underground stuff, but that is what I seem to have wound up liking and I’m OK with that. I don’t love ’em uncritically, of course — I don’t do anything uncritically, as you may have noticed. But I think that the fairly widespread attitude of rejecting cape comics as “mainstream” or “conventional” or whatever is completely misguided. A Kirby issue of Fantastic Four has more non-mainstream content in it — in the form of weird, brainbending Kirbyness — than nine out of ten earnest, diary-style comics. Now, that may not be true of an issue of New 52 Justice League, but I’m just pointing out that while there’s a lot of garbage in there, I think it’s a big mistake to write off the genre.

And the impression I sort of got from this exhibit was a little bit like the one I got from the BL’s science fiction exhibit — that when they have this geeky material, they sort of handle it with tongs? I don’t know. Anyway, let me recount my experience.

So you walk into the exhibition room, which is this usual hushed, dimly lit sort of space, and there are the usual glass cases full of open books, such as you might find in any British Library exhibition. And there are also these mannequins in men’s clothes and Guy Fawkes masks standing around in packs and one or two other cool pieces of art here and there. The exhibit is divided up into various sort of zones — you proceed through the zones pretty linearly, but within them you can wander around and look at stuff. There are some tablets with comics on them attached to the benches, which I thought was cool, and there are some computers with interactive stuff near the end, which I didn’t really look at. Most of the zones are just exhibit spaces, but there’s one set up as a little artist’s studio where you can add your drawing to the ones other people have done and one that’s like a little faux office/studio space with reference works and stuff.

The zones are divided up thematically: there’s one on identity, one on politics, one on sex, etc.

OK, the good stuff:

  • It is the British Library, so they have everything. Little underground publications, typescripts, weird unpublishable 3D comics, super-collectible stuff, whatever. They’ve even got a Renaissance “pauper’s bible,” one of those brightly illustrated collections of Bible stories. It’s pretty cool. (I don’t think it’s that actual one, but you get the idea.)


  • They cast their nets wide in tracing the influences of comics — there’s a big spread-out front page of the Illustrated Police News (a Jack the Ripper headline), for instance. They’ve also got illustrated ballad sheets, children’s picture books, political cartoons, and so on and so on, to really give you a full grounding in the “illustrated trash literature” genre that comics grow out of. It’s thorough and it’s informative.
  • They nail some of the key things that are particularly British in British comics and that have since become standard in American comics, such as the kind of wry, cynical attitude toward violence (although you could argue that this actually existed in US comics but was just suppressed … what do I know?).

What’s not great about it?

  • One of the problems with British Library exhibitions in general is that people tend to spend a longer time reading a book than they would looking at a vase or something. This isn’t so bad when what you’re just looking at a medieval Bible or a Chinese scroll or something, but when it’s an Oor Wullie strip and it’s in English (or Scots in this case) people will stop and try to read it. And what this means is that if there are a lot of people in the exhibit, it can turn into one long line just veeeeeery gradually shuffling along in front of the display cases.
  • The thematic division is interesting, but it felt broken up to me. Maybe it’s just that I would have preferred to see it done chronologically, but it felt weird and bitty to me, and I felt like it obscured the connections between things rather than highlighting them.
  • It really lacked American comics. Now I know that this is the British library and they have British things, but I don’t think I saw anything (or barely anything) from Marvel UK, for instance. I just think that from the war onwards you can’t really understand what’s happening in British comics unless you see where the US influences are pushing them and how they’re responding to them.


I also thought there was a bunch of predictable silliness. Like, they show a two-page spread from “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and the sign says, I don’t know, something like “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, exemplified by this panel of him sitting on a bed crying.” Now I know that (hat tip to Chris Sims) it is impossible for DC comics not to try to create cheap pathos by having Superman cry, but what I can’t understand is why the card doesn’t say “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, embracing it as part of his humanity and settling down to raise a child with his beloved Lois in anonymous old age” since that is what happens literally on the very next page.

For Pete’s sake. I don’t think I saw the phrase “grim and gritty” at any point, but there were parts of it that were remarkably like the 1990s. And I’m not talking about the good Grant-Morrison-JLA 90s either.

Oh, and there was a display of HP Lovecraft paperbacks, because Lovecraft influenced British comics writers. Which of course he did — although not as much as they claim he did; they’re using “Lovecraft” to stand in for “spooky occult shit” — but if HPL gets in, why doesn’t Jack Kirby? Or Alex Raymond? Or or or or …

In short, while I think it was an interesting if incomplete look at UK comics as an art form, I think that if you were looking for an exploration of UK comics as a cultural phenomenon I think it was lacking in some ways. I realise Crisis was important, but there must have been half a dozen issues in there, and not one of Commando or Starblazer. I get what they’re trying to say — comics aren’t just for kids, they aren’t just superheroes, look at all this other stuff they have done. And maybe to an audience that’s not as aware of that diversity, that’s fair enough. Maybe all the stuff I took for granted is news to some people.

Enrique Goddamn Alcatena drew for Starblazer

Hey Kids! Comics!

In Search of the Historical Whatsisname


Tomorrow I am off to the Vikings exhibit at the British Museum. Well, I am seeing it on Saturday but I am going tomorrow.

I will post about it in more detail, but tonight I am struck by something.  I have been a fan of the Vikings for about 15 years now, ever since reading the Poetic Edda in high school. I do think of myself as a fan rather than an expert – I did them at university and I have studied the viking period in England but I am far from an expert.  And I think that a lot of research and writing is actually driven by fandom,  at least partly.

I think this is particularly evident when it comes to “In Search of the Historical X” stories. It may be that there was some 5th – century Romano – British leader whose name sounded a bit like Arthur. But if there was I am not sure what difference it would make.

I think that people care about post-Roman Arthur because of the medieval Arthur stories.  And yet even though the historical Arthur, if such a thing there be, wouldn’t have Lancelot or Camelot or Excalibur, he still takes some of his lustre from the romances. Or, to be mean, almost no one would care about history – Arthur without literature – Arthur.

Which is to say that although I have the training and have been something like a proper archaeologist at times I may be spending the weekend in the mental company of saga – vikings rather than history – vikings.

In Search of the Historical Whatsisname

The usual excuses

No posts lately, I know; my teaching workload has been really busy lately, and in the remaining time I haven’t had the mental energy to do anything other than sit like a lump playing video games.

I have been thinking — and this is not a post so much as the idea for a post — about the way in which historical imagery is used in science fiction, mainly visually in films and video games. I’m thinking of the Roman stuff in The Hunger Games, for instance, or the 50s imagery in Fallout (which I think started as a neat thematic idea to distinguish the game from other post-apocalyptic games and turned into something very subtle and intelligent). I think it’s part of the larger recasting of historical eras (which of course are their own problematic concept) as “genres” or “stories.” This is a simple way of communicating an idea — so when you hear the names of the characters in The Hunger Games you know that Capital is powerful, oppressive and decadent, even if you weren’t aware of that already.

On the one hand, this can be pretty cool — I really like that the Fallout universe is very much about how the past is at once this place of nostalgic memory, but also defined by a shoddy, soulless consumer culture, and a place of mistrust and oppression, which is more or less the generic American view of the 1950s.

Um. I might do this in more detail in a bit, but the interesting point, to me, is not so much the specific historical analogues in these specific historical products, but the way in which historical references are genre-ified. At its worst, this ends up with my frequent complaint about Hollywood history, where things that don’t fit a stereotype get changed to fit that stereotype more. At its best, though, it can create really thought-provoking and emotionally intense stuff.

Anyway, just a passing thought. I am going to try to do something a little more robust next week, but no promises.

The usual excuses

Non-movie Non-Monday: Vikings

I touched on the current History Channel series Vikings in my review of 1958’s The Vikings, not to be confused with my review of 1928’s The Viking. So as you can see there’s a certain amount of Viking presence on the blog already. I watched the first season on Lovefilm back when it first appeared there, and now that the second season is available and I have nothing in particular to do this evening, I thought I’d sit down and watch the first episode and just sort of … ponder on it.

Before I begin with the second season, let’s think about the first.

I’m not one of those people who complains when the change the history in — no, I can’t keep it up. I’m totally one of those people. But I usually try to understand why those changes have been made — to make the story easier to understand, to simplify things, generally to make a confusing mixture of circumstances more story-like. But I find some of the changes made in Vikings to be absolutely baffling.

I get that if there’s a famous Viking anti-hero, it’s probably Ragnar Lothbrok (Ragnar, I am not making this up, “Hairy-breeks”). And I’m _maaaaaaybe_ willing to accept that he is sufficiently famous that some people who don’t really know much about him have heard of him. (The real answer is Erik Bloodaxe, but his story resists being the kind of story this show wants to tell.) But I refuse to believe that there is anyone who has heard of Hrolf/Rollo/Robert I but who doesn’t know anything about him. Anyone who isn’t French, anyway. Robert I isn’t exactly Billy the Kid or Robin Hood, a name that stands for a certain type of adventure. So if you’re going to make him Ragnar’s brother and effectively a completely different character — and get his names inexplicably backward — why even bother making him Hrolf/Rollo in the first place? It’s really weird.

I’m not going to nitpick detail mistakes in this show, because we’d be here all night. But let me state before we jump in to Season 2 that my impression of Season 1 was that as history it was balls but as a show it was a lot better than I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting much, though, so will Season 2 suffer from the expectations raised by the previous one? I’m just going to blog my thoughts about this thing as I watch it. Necessarily this involves spoilers.

Anyway, we begin with Ragnar and his ally King Horik about to face off against Rollo and his ally Jarl Borg. Horik is Donal Logue, which is so weird. I know he was on TV in some show I didn’t watch, but to me he’s always Dex from The Tao of Steve, or possibly the guy from Blade.


I think it’s super interesting that this kind of desaturated, greyish colour has become the signifier for gritty, historical action-drama. It doesn’t have an earlier pedigree than Saving Private Ryan, does it? Because it’s in fucking everything.

Anyway, there are some tense pre-battle negotiations. I like Rollo as a character — this really capable, gifted guy who somehow can’t stop screwing up and feeling inferior. The battle is about to commence. The battle shows one of the reasons the show tells the kinds of stories it does: because its budget doesn’t stretch to proper battles. There are only a couple of dozen guys on each side, and it doesn’t look very impressive.


No doubt a lot of work and expense, but still.

The battle scene is nice and visceral, very dramatic and exciting, with even the ordinary vikings getting to show off a bit before Rollo goes Kung Fucking Foo on a bunch of guys, including weaselly little villain whatsisname, you know, Gustav Skarsgard’s character, The Crazy One.

The music here is like Scandinavian folk-rock stuff, which of course has shit-all to do with the Viking Age, but at least it isn’t the same old pseudo-Lord of the Rings bombast that’s in every movie. Can I say also that the opening credits to this show are great?

Damn, Rollo is going to town on these guys? I do not think it makes a huge amount of sense that he is behind Ragnar’s lines and no one is paying him any attentions, but it’s very dramatic.

Oh, the battle just went into ears-ringing-o-vision, just like Private Ryan again? Did a shell go off next to their 8th-century heads?

Rollo gives up and decides he isn’t gonna fight Ragnar anyway. It would have been nice of him not to kill like ten fucking guys first.

The battle ends inconclusively, I guess, and the two rivals hammer out peace talks, which I think is not too unreasonable. Ragnar suggests that they can team up and loot England rather than squabbling over Denmark. (One of my Norwegian students pointed out that this is a very stark and dramatic looking Denmark.)

Gustav Skarsgard’s guy is called Floki.


OK, this looks pretty good. I’m not gonna lie. The village looks pretty good too, and the outfits on the women and other civilians aren’t too terrible. I mean, not accurate in every particular, but, you know, wool dresses and cloaks and stuff. I know that the reason there isn’t a lot of T&A in this show is probably just that the History Channel can’t get away with it, but it’s such a relief in a way that you don’t notice until a few episodes have gone by without any gratuitous nudity. Also, did I know that Rollo’s wife is the actress who played Mrs Schuester on Glee?

Bjorn has a great Norman haircut. He looks like he just came off the Bayeux Tapestry, which is to say he looks pretty stupid, but almost-authentically stupid.

Ragnar’s infidelities are starting to come back to haunt him. His wife doesn’t take any crap. Part of me wishes she could be a take-no-crap character without having to swing an axe at people. I’m not wholly committed to that position, but I think there’s a case to be made. I like that Ragnar is kind of high on his own success and thinks that he can get away with anything.

The gold coin that Ragnar shows Bjorn is huge.

The “assembly” at “the law rock” has aspects of both town hall meeting and lynch mob, which I think is true to the sagas, although I have my doubts about its procedural accuracy.

What the hell do they sew up the seams of their clothes with? It looks like electrical cable. Ragnar’s simultaneous judge-bribing and goo-goo-principle spouting is inspiring. What a dirtbag. Rollo says “I wanted to step out of your shadow.” No shit, Rollo, everyone knew that but you.

Everyone in this show emphasises their t-sounds really hard. It’s strange. Is it because pronouncing them like ‘d’ sounds really American? Ragnar is sad about his dead daughter, in a scene that has this weird interesting blurry effect. The scenery is doing a lot of the emotive work here.

Oh Christ, then fucking Aslaug or whatever she was called shows up. I didn’t think much of her last season, but I have to say this is a nice shot. I like the kind of quasi-uniform her attendants are wearing, but also how they’re just four ordinary-looking women, not some nymph brigade, which is what I was afraid of. Aslaug is knocked up. Is she gonna be Ivarr’s mum? They said Ivarr was going to be a character, but considering he hasn’t been born yet they’ll have to jump pretty far forward …


Great touch: as Ragnar and his family get their shit together to receive the visiting princess, some little goats come along with them, mehh-ing through the welcome and all the social tension. Lagertha does a great job with the whole “I am being formal and welcoming because my status requires it, but I want to stab you” bit. There is a goat on the table at dinner! Ragnar cuddles it. It’s a bit exaggerated as a way of stating the whole “Ragnar may be hot shit, but he’s a hick compared to Aslaug” thing, but it’s pretty cute.


Ragnar’s “hoo boy this is awkward” face is great.

Aslaug’s father is Sigurd — the Sigurd. Bjorn deploys his murderface at full strength. I hope we do skip forward in time so we can see him grow up to be a stone-hearted son of a bitch. Ragnar — still cuddling a goat! — gives him an inspirational Viking speech about how unhappiness is more common than happiness and he needs to grow up because one day all his friends will be dead.

Lagertha and Siggy do their gossiping while weaving, which I thought was a nice touch.

Floki’s little-shit villainy is predictable, but it’s well-executed. He gives Ragnar a crazy-eyes sheep-murderer look and Ragnar’s just like “oh my crazy buddy Floki.” This isn’t going to end well. I straight up do not remember who this mid-hair-length, blond-beard Viking dude who keeps periodically turning up is, which I guess is why everyone else has silly haircuts, wears guyliner or (in the case of Rollo) is fucking huge.

Ragnar proposes some kind of polygamy set up. Check out his desperate face here.


I guess his second wife would be according to the customs of the Danes, except that of course so is his first wife. A little 11th-century humour for you there. I’ll be here all week.

He gives Lagertha a big spiel about how he has to take care of the ickle babby. Lagertha decides to leave instead; blonde-dude (is he Torstein?) is concerned. He gives Bjorn a talk about how he should stay with his father or regret it. Bjorn is not happy, but stays. Lagertha is not happy, but goes. I can’t imagine this coming back to haunt anyone. Ragnar comes back to find this all happening and goes hammering off after them on his horsey, but fails to stop them. Bjorn decides to go with Lagertha instead. The towering mountains of southern Denmark behind them are really distracting.

And that’s yer lot.

Because this is primarily a personal episode, there isn’t as much violence done to history in this as in others. Obviously, they’ve doubled down on the whole idea that discovering England was a new and radical thing in the 8th century, which, um, probably not. It might be the 9th century by this point, who knows? The battle was exciting but unconvincing. The ships were nice. The cinematography in this is good but kind of derivative. I like the performances. I’m gonna watch the next one.

I don’t have a dog in the fight over whether this show is good or a travesty, but I probably come down on the side of good. I have this … I have this weird compulsion to watch programmes and read books that have Vikings in them. This has lead me to watch Pathfinder. Once you’ve seen that filmic punch in the eye, anything looks good. But I think that, in its own right, this show is actually pretty good. The dialogue could use a little less bald literalism, but then on the other hand there’s precedent for that in the literature.

Anyway, it’s on Lovefilm so if you have that you can watch it online. I don’t know about Netflix, but probably. It’s worth checking out, if only for the smirks. It has a lot of good smirking. And goats.


Non-movie Non-Monday: Vikings

Things I Like: Age of Bronze

If you like comics and archaeology, and you haven’t at least taken a look at Eric Shanower’s epic Age of Bronze, you’re missing out.


Writer/artist Shanower is telling the story of the Trojan War in comic form, and I mean the whole story — the abduction of Helen, Achilles hiding among the women, Troilus and Cressida. Not just the Iliad, but everything that’s anything to do with the story. It’s an entirely human tale — no gods, although the characters certainly believe in them — and it’s compelling reading.


What’s really exciting to me is the amount of research that Shanower does to bring his Troy to life in honest-to-Schliemann Bronze Age glory. Age of Bronze is one of the only comics I love enough to collect it both in trades and in singles, and every time I’m somewhere with a good comics shop, I look around to fill in the gaps in my collection. The most recent time I was in the US, I picked up several back issues, including this special:


This is the special in which Shanower just talks about the research he did to prepare for the book and the decisions he made (such as basing the Trojans on the Hittite culture). There’s pages of great stuff like this:


I have a lot of time for this. Every issue of the comic also contains a section of literary and archaeological discussion — basically footnotes — in which Shanower goes behind the scenes of the book.

I love this comic a lot. So what’s wrong with it?

Well, the most important problem with Age of Bronze is that it comes out … basically every once in a while. I’ve been collecting it since about 2003 or so, and it hasn’t made it to issue 40 yet. The fighting at Troy has really only just started.

Now, if you want to read this book, all that means is that you should pick it up in trade, rather than trying to follow it “monthly.” The first volume deals with the origins of the war, while the second volume is about the buildup to the conflict and the Iphigenia story. After that, you have the third volume, in which the war actually starts. This is split into part one and part two. You can also pick up the first issues for iOS, with colour and annotations and all kinds of stuff.

Seriously you guys, it is pretty good. You can read my copies if you come to my house, but you can’t borrow them. They are mine.


Things I Like: Age of Bronze