Obscure Comic of the Month takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.
Warhammer 40'000: Hard Choices: What Happened on Algol? By Dan Abnett and David Roach – Codex Pictures 2010
It is the 41st Millennium, a grim and dark future where mankind must battle for survival in a galaxy riven by bloodshed and destruction. Humanity teeters on the brink of extinction, assailed on all sides by aliens, traitors and Daemons, and only the superhuman strength of the Space Marines and the uncountable numbers of the Imperial Guard stand between the slavering alien hordes and total annihilation...
Hard Choices was a comic prologue to Ultramarines, Codex Pictures first (and only) CGI Warhammer film. Only obtainable as part of the special edition collector's set, It was also probably the first of many lessons where I learned that if a special collector's edition of something comes with a bonus comic it's almost never worth it.
Hard Choices is a hardback, postcard sized, 32 page 'graphic novel'. When you pull it out of it's collectors box it looks laughably feeble.
But is it any good?
Naturally, as a prologue and companion piece, we're first going to need to talk a little about the Ultramarines movie itself. Ultramarines was undeniably a disappointment. It was over-hyped, under-produced and narratively unremarkable. Many were expecting the 40k universe's debut feature to look on par with the outstanding intro sequence to Relic's Dawn ofWar. Instead the animation was stiff, awkward and plastic looking. The visuals were bland and bare, the action short and muted. It was a world away from the detailed, complex art and models we normally see the 40k setting through.
And the writing. Golden Throne, the writing. This was Games Workshop's one chance to envision their most famous IP on screen, and the best we got was something that wouldn't pass for a Starship Troopers knock off. Nothing about what makes the 40k universe unique or interesting appears in this film, if you scrubbed the Games Workshop trademarks there's not a single thing to distinguish it from any other generic space military story.
Finally, to add insult to injury, Ultramarines has to be the single greatest squandering of a film's cast that I've ever seen. Terrance Stamp, Sean Pertwee, Donald Sumpter and the late, great John Hurt. It's a veritable who's who of actors you'd want to see in a 40k film, and the best lines they could give them were a load of nothing millitary tough guy jargon with the occasional reminder that, yes, this is a Warhammer film.
So Hard Choices has a distinct advantage here, where by actual comparison to the film it can only come out looking good. So ultimately if nothing else I can say reading Hard Choices is a damn sight more enjoyable than watching Ultramarines.
I have to feel for Abnett in a way (who also wrote the screenplay for the film). It's obvious that he was incredibly restricted by the project. The film clearly didn't have the budget for anything remotely ambitious, and the comic itself had to come across as less epic to prevent overshadowing it.
That being said, I think this was the point in which my opinion on Abnett started to shift. He gets a lot of praise for the sheer amount of stuff he's written over the years, but what I don't think people consider is that for every Gaunt's Ghosts he creates there’s bland unremarkable tripe like this being shat out as well.
And ultimately it's all for naught. Hard Choices ends up overshadowing Ultramarines anyway.
Hard Choices follows the actions of a bunch of Ultramarines fighting the Tyranid menace on the planet Algol. It's not going particularly well, Marines are dying in droves, and Captain Severus is chewing out the Governess for failing to act quickly enough. A bunch of neophytes bicker about missing out on glory and honour and stuff, but they get their wish when Severus decides to promote them to full marines in order to answer a distress signal from the shrine world of Mithron.
It's over pretty quickly, but there is at least a little depth to be found. Severus has to make the difficult decision of how to respond to the distress signal in the face of his duties on Algol. As excuses for character drama go, I’ve seen worse. There's a lot in Hard Choices that I'd have liked them to have expanded on. What exactly were the Governesses failings? What are the implications behind their duties to a shrine world? Why exactly are they the only ones capable of responding to the distress call?
I have no real complaints about David Roach's art either. It all looks suitably Warhammer, and the character's faces are all expressive and unique enough to feel like they have actual personality. That's when you can see them though, since most of the comic takes place in unrelenting
Ultimately, Hard Choices would have been a better plot for a film. Strange dogmatic future culture explored, divided loyalties between tradition, obligation and humanity, and an actual look at what life in the 40k universe is like. Sure it'd be a little lacklustre, but it would have been better than the nothing film we ended up with.
Despite my praises though, Hard Choices doesn't have all that much substance either. It's just more Space Marines talking about honour and duty. There are about a billion other Space Marine stories that cover this ground, there's nothing new to see here.
All in all I can't help but harken back to the days of Warhammer Monthly, where we actually got good and interesting Warhammer comics that wanted to take the setting in new directions. An ex-Sister of Battle fighting in the Dark Eldar arena, Valhallans and Space Wolves lost behind enemy lines, two unlikable back-stabbers combing the ruins of Mordheim.
A Titan crew stranded on a strange planet, separated from their war machine, written by an up-and-coming writer called Dan Abnett.
There was another Warhammer film in development once, long ago. That film was called Bloodquest. Sure it looked even jankier than Ultramarines did, but it at least wanted to tell a story that was unique and bold. A tale that didn't hide from the absurdity of throwing away a soldier's life to reclaim a dusty relic. A story that had real characters with real flaws, who had hopes and fears and temptations, not cardboard cut-outs spouting military sound-bites.
But alas it wasn't to be. Warhammer Monthly and Bloodquest were both casualties to a changing Games Workshop that was more interested in playing it safe. Ultramarines and Hard Choices are both perfect distillations of that attitude. Unremarkable, easily digested pulp produced to sell you plastic soldiers.
Jack Harvey 2017. Ultramarines and Hard Choices are (c) Games Workshop Ltd. Images used under fair use.