In the grim darkness of the 41st millenium, there is only war. Mankind’s galaxy-spanning empire is one of xenophobia, oppression, and planet-shattering conflict, with a nice big “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” sign to tie it all together. Well, you know… virtually no young women, romance, or sexuality allowed. Anything that introverted, pubescent boys would find intimidating in their hormone-addled state.
The Warhammer 40,000 universe, the setting for a number of table-top strategy games, has inspired a glut of comics and military science-fiction books. Their tone is usually reflective of their source: gothic, fatalistic, and terribly serious. Open up a cheaply-printed pulp comic that draws on all this mythology and you may have certain assumptions about what you’re getting into. What you get with The Redeemer – a three-part comic created by Pat Mills, Debbie Gallagher, and Wayne Reynolds – is an unsung masterpiece. Drawing on all the violence and lore of its setting but with a healthy dose of dark humour, The Redeemer is a gorgeously illustrated, tongue-in-cheek romp through a techno-archaic wasteland full of faux Latin and flame-throwers.
The eponymous Redeemer is Klovis, leader of a Crusade travelling the bowels of Hive Primus and the blasted wastes that surround it. Part of the Cult of the Redemption, he and his men have been charged with purging humanity of all that is unclean in the eyes of the God-Emperor. Which, according to their stringent doctrine, is just about everything. This purging is usually accomplished by converting sinners into penitent chunks. Unsurprisingly, the disaffected residents of the Underhive take umbrage with the Redemption’s zealotry, and united under the sorcerous Caller, seek to bring down Klovis and all of Hive Primus with him.
Just from that brief summary, it sounds like the Caller is a champion of liberty and the Redeemer is an unhinged fiend, and that’s bordering on correct. Pat Mills is no stranger to having enforcers of totalitarian systems as protagonists; The Redeemer could be another synonym for Marshall Law, Torquemada, or Judge Dredd. One of things that sets Klovis apart is his fantastically written dialogue. With a penchant for proselytising over the sound of a revving chainsaw, he tends to carve up his victims while assuring them it’s for their own good. Sermons are sung while swinging from a crane, verbose insults are hurled in the midst of combat, and thoughtful soliloquies are accompanied by the blast of frag grenades. Mills and his co-writer Gallagher have clearly seized on the history of the format, and mirroring golden-age pulp comics, all this text is overlaid on panels depicting a split-second of action. It’s refreshingly silly.
However, what truly separates him from the writers’ other creations is his double-act with Deacon Malakev, Klovis’s sycophantic sidekick. Like Klovis, Malakev is at the risk of being a trope. Yet he shares the limelight with Klovis in almost equal parts, and with a combination of snivelling and scheming, tries fruitlessly to worm his way into his sadistic master’s good graces. As the scribe of the crusade, Malakev’s best moments come when he’s trying to ignore the fact that the Redeemer takes tremendous pleasure in his holy work, his narration ranging from the impossibly rose-tinted to the wholly contradictory.
Bringing these memorable characters and their well-meaning brutality to life is the virtually unknown Wayne Reynolds. Snatched up by Mills after his work on 2000 AD’s Slaine, The Redeemer is only Reynolds’s second title in a very small portfolio. He now operates solely as a fantasy artist working in colour, and this is truly a loss to comics; his inkwork is meticulous and striking, tempering obsessive detail with dramatic shadows. Reynolds has not so much drawn The Redeemer‘s world as assembled it, from spidery lines and jagged black shapes. There is not an unintentional mark in this comic. There are no splatters or brushstrokes, no inadvertent thickening or tapering of linework, and hatching is used sparingly. Even marks denoting subjective movement – explosions, light, speed – are all tightly controlled.
Such a style has the potential to rob a story of expression and dynamism, and occasionally it does. Some pages feel like an exercise in concept art – showing the characters and their elaborate costumes from every conceivable angle – rather than guiding a reader through a story. There’s also not a lot of room for subtlety or pacing; every heavily embellished panel screams for your attention at once. But Reynolds’s style is a perfect fit for this tale: a world of moral absolutes, where everything snaps and jags at aggressive angles, steeped in decaying baroque detail. It also shows Reynolds to be a virtually flawless master of anatomy. And just as Pat Mills’s writing is flavoured with his anti-establishment sensibilities, Wayne Reynolds’s art is the perfect accompaniment. At odds with the post-apocalyptic setting, irreverent visual humour is hidden throughout and the facial expressions are often downright hilarious. It’s a pleasure to look at.
If you’re hoping for some intellectual merit, you won’t find it; with over half the pages given to action scenes, there’s simply no room. Yet not every comic worthy of praise has to be an experimental gourmet feast for the mind. Sometimes, all the mind desires is a night off and a filthy kebab. Printed on cheap paper with no budget for colour, loaded with violence, and aimed squarely at teenage boys, it’s undeniably pulp. But it’s pulp taken to an evolutionary pinnacle. A relentless virtuoso punk performance of writing and drawing, Klovis and Malakev’s quest roars along from one bombastic battle to the next. So grant those higher brain-functions a reprieve and sign on with the Redemption. I guarantee you’ll be amongst the converted.
The Redeemer was originally published in three separate issues in 2002, but has been collected in a full-colour graphic novel published by the Black Library. However, the colouring is poorly done and undermines the artist’s use of ink. If you can get your hands on the original black and whites, they’re a much better experience.