Earlier this week deep thinker Larry Vela from popular news blog Bell of Lost Souls posited that – contrary to the beliefs of one of the principal gods of Chaos – we have reached the point where we have too many skulls in Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. Here is the article, and here is an excerpt:
“GW has already WAY overdone it in the skulls department in pretty much all it’s [sic] systems. It’s generally unwise to keep pushing cliches- else they move into farce territory.”
Personally, skulls are one of my favourite things about Games Workshop miniatures, and if a miniature doesn’t include enough skulls for my tastes I will generally add a few more.
The miniatures that Larry takes issue with are the Khorgorath, Korghos Kul and Archaon, three models that collect skulls for Khorne’s particular seating requirements, and though it does seem like an unusual way of carrying skulls around (compared to say, on a chain or in a manbag) it is not really out of character for daemonic creatures of Chaos and is relatively unobtrusive on the miniatures in question. I’m not a huge fan of the recent Chaos aesthetic but I think this is generally down to the fact that the ‘Eavy Metal paint jobs are not to my taste. I certainly didn’t think there were too many skulls.
I am not entirely sure if Larry objects to skulls in general or specifically to the skulls bursting out of skin. He uses some examples of earlier models and says ‘Sure – skull motifs, but not literal skulls themselves’ as if to suggest that it would be better if Chaos warriors just spent time drawing skulls rather than hacking off heads. Blood for the Blood God, pictures of skulls for the Fridge of Khorne. I suppose the point he is making is that it’s cool if Chaos warriors and Chaos Astartes want to adorn themselves with skull iconography, but when they decorate their armour with actual skulls it is excessive. Again, I disagree – I generally dislike elaborate armour which seems like the sort of thing a Chaos poser would wear (I worshipped Slaanesh before it was cool) whereas crude armour festooned with the skull of victims seems like the sort of thing that would be worn by the sort of Chaos worshipper that actually got shit done. In short – more skulls, less posing.
Games Workshop is sometimes mocked for its skull fetish, particularly when carefully excavating the topsoil from a Realm of Battle will reveal a substrata of skulls that would be entirely unsuitable for planting the sort of crops that a realistic Empire hamlet would need, and so forth. But to me the skulls in the ground are a statement and they say: this is no Hobbit village or Ewok treehouse; this is a fucking nightmare battlefield and you are treading on dead without number. The wars here aren’t about magical jewellery or trade embargoes, they are about monsters that will collect your actual head that you are using and possibly ingest it for ease of transportation. Or worse, your skull will just be put in a pile and forgotten about until years later when someone is trying to plant cabbages.
For a lot of people the iconic 40k figure is the Space Marine but I’d make a case for the humble servo-skull. Space Marines take these little flying memento mori around with them, constant visual reminders that these giant, armour-clad, warrior gods too will die. The Imperium of Man in the 41st millennium is fixated with death: they venerate the dead and are obsessed with martyrdom. They worship a corpse and angels of death and they surround themselves with living-dead technology. Whether you are an Astartes or a nameless wretch, a pointless end is inevitable and the best you can hope for in your useless existence is that someone makes good use of your cranium when you are done with it.
A vanitas – the word ‘vanity’ originally meant ‘futility’ – is an artwork that depicts symbols evocative of mortality; often skulls, but also the somewhat harder to model dead flowers and fruit. The art was intended to remind people of the impermanence of life and pleasure and the inevitability of death. Servo skulls, and the other macabre adornments common in Warhammer can convert a miniature to a form of vanitas: It’s not just a Space Marine miniature or Inquisitor warband, it’s a commentary on the futility of life. The super-heroic Astartes is just another doomed mortal and we are reminded that all this war and heroism is for nothing. This is something unique to Games Workshop, it’s a fundamental part of the aesthetic – not so much doom and gloom as a macabre celebration of death.
Lately the aesthetic has shifted away slightly from the all the nihilism: Space Marines have become more heroic particularly in 30k, which is slightly more of a traditional sci-fi setting and Age of Sigmar hasn’t had time to develop its dark underbelly yet. The Stormcast in particular are in need of some reminding about the meaningless nature of their existence in a war that can never end.
So contrary to what Larry says, I think we need more skulls in Warhammer: more reminders that everything is ultimately futile in these most grim and dark of fantasy universes. And if Chaos want to have skulls bursting out of their flesh, let’s not stop and complain about how that is ‘pushing a cliche into farce territory’ but rather let’s accept that skulls and the futility they represent is integral to Warhammer, even if that’s not an aspect you personally enjoy. And if there are too many skulls for you, maybe look at one of the factions that isn’t literally all about collecting skulls.
I would really love a Jason Stevia sculpture and I love the photos showing their construction in the Admech-style workshop. The Brian Kabusco sculpture entitled ‘Failed Lobotomy’ is also a favourite. All images used without permission and will be removed at request. Click to embiggen.