Kieron Gillen on Warhammer: Crown of Destruction

Gillen on Warhammer at Boom

BOOM! Studios' Warhammer: Crown of Destruction#1 hit store shelves across the nation last week . It is the first Warhammer comic written for BOOM! by indie sensation Kieron (Phonogram) Gillen, and the latest in their popular Warhammer fantasy line of comics.

Randy Lander, noted comics reviewer from Comic Pants (www.comicpants.com), proprietor of the Austin, Texas based store Rogues Gallery Comics and Games (www.roguesgallerytx.com) and long-time friend of Newsarama, sat down with writer Kieron Gillen to discuss his work on Warhammer: Crown of Destruction, his history with the Warhammer games, the differences between Skaven and Orcs and more.

Randy Lander: In a nutshell, what is Warhammer: Crown of Destruction about?

Kieron Gillen: A tiny Empire army investigating disappearances in their country's hinterlands stumble across an enormous Skaven army. Outgunned and outnumbered they have to hold off this verminous horde while working out what's actually going on. In other words, it's a siege story without a castle - oh, do the Empire men wish they had a castle - with a splash of mystery. As the title may suggest, this may involve a certain crown. As the title doesn't suggest, it involves steady escalation of stakes. I kind of wanted the four issues to move from bad to worse to worst to even worse than we thought worst could be. Warhammer, for me, works best on a catastrophe curve.

RL: I've noticed that about Warhammer. Is there an appeal, or particular challenges, to writing stories where, more than likely, the heroes will win a pyrrhic victory, if they manage to win at all?

KG: Well, as I suspect will become terribly apparent over time, my basal state for narrative endings is Pyhrric victory or tragedy. If you just leave me to it, the story will end with most of the cast dead or wishing they were dead, and I have to fight against that instinct. Sometimes it's entirely correct, but often it's just not true - for example, my OGN-for-Web Busted Wonder originally ended with the lead dying until Charity noted I'd kind of undermined my central point. The twist towards bittersweet was really the wise thing to do, and it'd have been a far weaker work without it. Same with Phonogram, really - the shard of optimism is absolutely required.

In other words, no, probably the Warhammer two-seconds-past-midnight-we're-all-going-to-die thing is perfect for me. Primarily, as it keys into my beliefs on heroism and heroic action fiction specifically. Heroes shouldn't logically be able to triumph against the adversity they face - that they persist is what makes them heroic. Going off at an angle, it's my main reservation with a lot of superhero fiction - if the lead is the most powerful person in the world, they're fundamentally not heroes. Appropriately, most of my favorite moments in that genre are based around when someone does something which is absolutely hopeless, but do it anyway - Ben Grimm is always a more admirable character than Superman, for me.

The main thing being, when the odds are stacked so drastically against them, if the heroes manage to pull it off, it's a real victory and I feel all the better for them. And a world like Warhammer, where it's about as bad as it gets, is perfect for either turning Pyhrric, tragic or surprisingly optimistic. And the "surprise" is the key point, as that keeps people interested.

RL: I remember a thread from The Engine a few years back wherein folks were talking about Warhammer, and I seem to remember you being quite an enthusiastic fan of the game world. So I guess my first question is, what's your history with Warhammer?

KG: Oh, we go way back. I suspect the two Warhammer universes are the definitive gaming universes of my teenage years, and they've warped my imagination more than I suspect would be wise to admit. The first Warhammer book I bought was the Ravening Hordes army-lists, which I picked up cheap even before I'd got the Warhammer Battle rules. I played Imperial Guard in 40K when their army list's minimums were over 1000 points. I played all the way through the Empire Within campaign in Warhammer fantasy as a Halfling demagogue. Oh yeah: I played Blood Bowl, Space Hulk, Advanced Space Crusade, Adeptus Titanicus, whatever. And I even stole my friend’s copies of the two Realm of Chaos books, which proves that I'm truly corrupted by the dread dark powers.

Of course, this is all gibberish to anyone other than proper hardcore Warhammerites, but I'm doing it for O.G. Points. This stuff is in my genetic code.

RL: I only understood about half of it. And I run a game store for a living. So mad gamer props to you, sir.

KG: I kind of drifted out of the hobby in the nineties, bar occasionally playing a game or two - and any time they were lobbed into a videogame. When I was starting writing for comics, I found myself pitching Games Workshop a couple of stories towards the end of their Warhammer Monthly run: I figured that it was a good idea to transform this headful of teenage spiky-violence into a small pile of cash. This was scuppered by after writing the script I found myself spending most on the money buying a Necron army. Pah!

This almost repeated with Crown of Destruction, actually. I've been pricing up a Skaven army while writing it, and only the knowledge that I don't have time to paint any of them is stopping me. Oh - and I suspect Warhammer Online is working as an agreeable methadone too.

In short, me and Warhammer have a history that isn't quite history.

RL: How did Crown of Destruction come about? Did you pitch to BOOM!, did they approach you...?

KG: Well, I spent the 2006 SDCC sharing a table with Matt Fraction, Steve Saunders and McKelvie. Saunders and I, between hyping our hyper-credible indie comics, giggling about Warhammer and 40K and considering storming Boom's table and starting to slice bits off editors unless they publish our story. After the show, I dropped them a line saying that if there was a hole in their schedule, I'd like to pitch some stuff. Right then, there wasn't.

A year later, they mail me and ask if I want to do a mini for them. I say yes. Win!

RL: There are some familiar faces in Crown of Destruction for those who read Forge of War, the first Warhammer fantasy story from BOOM! Any other characters who might be familiar to readers of the comic, or players of the game?

KG: It's actually a completely new cast bar the character you refer to. People who know the Warhammer universe will recognize the archetypes we're using, but I wanted to write something with as small a barrier to entry as possible. While Warhammer fans will hopefully like what we're doing, I wanted something that would entertain anyone who was interested in a grim fantasy story of War. In fact, maybe even WAR! Capitals are very Warhammer.

The lead is Frohlich, who's a Greatsword of the Empire and was actually a secondary character in Forge of War. When reading it, I thought the guy had a lot of potential. Greatswords are elite warriors, who've sworn an oath never take a step back in battle. Except in Forge of War, they did. This is an enormous disgrace. Now, while the other Greatswords arguably may have redeemed themselves by charging off into battle at the story's close, Frohlich hasn't had that chance. He wasn't there. He was sent off to get help by his Sergeant. Now, his arm was broken. He'd lost an eye. And he was ordered to go and do it. But fundamentally, to the Greatswords, that doesn't matter. Not only did he run away... he ran away twice. His nature is deeply suspect.

Frohlich trying to prove himself to his peers is kind of the emotional heart of the story, which kind of ties into the themes of personal loyalty, duty and enormous massed battles featuring devastating arcane warpstone technology. You know, the big issues that keep us up at night.

RL: The Skaven have shown in BOOM!'s comics before, in the recent Condemned By Fire story, but this is their first outing as the big bad guy of a story. For the benefit of those who don't know, what are the Skaven, and how do they relate to the omnipresent forces of chaos in the Warhammer world?

KG: Skaven are an underempire of mutated humanoid rats who wish to conquer the world. This undersells them in the same way that describing Batman as some guy who beats the living crap out of criminals would. For me, they're the most interesting race in the whole of the Warhammer Fantasy world. I stress, Warhammer Fantasy. The great motif of Chaos spans Fantasy and 40K, while Skaven are native to Warhammer, and there's nothing quite like them anywhere else.

If you're thinking analytically, you could argue they're the dark mirror of the Dwarfs - clan-obsessed underground dwelling creatures with a taste of mad technology. But in terms of practice, the idea of a slave-driven society of dozens of warring clans under the rule of the Grey Seers is a singular creature. They're sadists and cowards in equal measure - when fighting Skaven, they'll throw masses of Slaves at you to immobilize your force then unleash some of their warpstone firepower into the melee and kill everyone. Life is cheap, especially when it's a Skaven other than yourself. Their experimental weapons are as likely to blow themselves up as other people. The masters don't care. They crack the whip and the horde moves on. They manage the novel trick in the Fantasy universe of having comic touches without undermining their true oppressive horror in any way. Orcs are monstrous, but kind of likable. Skaven are never, ever likable.

They're both born of Chaos, and standing slightly to one side of it. Rather than the big four Chaos Gods, they have their own - The Horned Rat, whose desires are inscrutable to say the least. In other words, they're mainly on their own side. This is another trait that makes them ideal as antagonists. Chaos and Orcs invade, you can understand why they're doing it. With Skaven, it's rarely that simple. They're here for a reason. The question is, what is that reason?

RL: I've seen in previous interviews you mentioned that you write heavy scripts... is that true for Crown of Destruction as well? And is it all panel descriptions and staging, or did you pack in some Warhammer game detail as well?

KG: My Warhammer scripts are nowhere near as heavy as - say - my Phonogram scripts. They're about 10K (word count) a shot, while the Warhammer ones are 5K - which isn't exactly a short script, but far less heavy-going than Phonogram. It's a matter of what they do. Phonogram needs to have that much detail for all its literary gubbins. With Crown of Destruction I've tried to leave more room for Dwayne to riff, as I think a more action lead comic works best when you leave room for your artist to go to town. Give them something to inspire them, and sit back. That said, much like Phonogram, I've been talking to Dwayne throughout the process, and thinking of ways to tweak each page to maximum effect every step of the way. I've put increasing amounts of Warhammer detail in the script too - it's normally photo-ref details and similar. Have to have our Stormvermin looking fancy, after all.

RL: So do you have a greater fondness for Warhammer Fantasy or Warhammer 40,000? Any chance of doing some 40,000 writing for BOOM!?

KG: Tricky. I think I'd be betraying my teenage self answering either way. Either my Imperial Guard or Dwarfs are going to be scowling viciously in my subconscious, and I don't need the guilt. As a (relative) grown-up however... well, Warhammer Fantasy is world setting. Warhammer 40K is a universe setting. There's just a lot more room for novel things a writer can get up to. Every city or town in the Empire is detailed, in a lesser or greater way, but the Imperium is so vast, you're able to invent something novel, as long as it fits into galactic stage. It's just a bigger playpen to cause trouble in. And I do like causing trouble.

So, yeah, if the opportunity presented itself, I'd give it a shot. Or several thousand bolt-gun shots.

Warhammer: Crown Of Destruction #1 (COVER A &B) is currently in stores. The four issue mini-series is written by Kieron Gillen, with art by Dwayne Harris retails for $3.99.

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