One deep thinking gamer gets to the bottom of why skulls dominate the Grimdark – with a surprising discovery!
Why Are There So Many Skulls?
Why Do They Always Send The Poor?
by BoLS Lounge alum: YorkNecromancer
WARNING: this article contains spoilers for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’; make sure you watch the film before you read this.
Not even joking, stop doing everything and go watch it. You won’t regret your choice.
Dane and The Devil
If, like me, you’re old as balls, there’s a good chance that you’ve read seminal 90’s comic ‘The Invisibles’. Dating from the time when DC actually wrote comics for adults (come back Karen Berger!), ‘The Invisibles’ tells the tale of the titular group of super-cool freedom fighters as they take on the terrifying minions of the Outer Church. It’s a completely bananas storyline, and any attempt to summarise it is near impossible due to the fact that writer Grant Morrison basically replaced his blood with LSD and scorpion venom in order to get high enough to write the thing.
Pictured: if you’re like me, you too miss the days when a superhero team could be made up of a random American woman, a scouse chav, a time-travelling self-insert fanfic writer, Jerry Cornelius, and a gender non-conforming bruja. And that’s not a joke either. *sigh*
Anyway, one of my favourite scenes is in the ‘Black Science’ arc, where Dane – a Scouse thug and future Buddha – has been captured by the forces of the Outer Church in their super-science evil base of evil.
Now, by this point, Dane is essentially Invisible number 1. He’s not in charge, but he is the most important member of the group because he’s the most Enlightened-with-a-capital-E. The Outer Church put him in a cell with a chessboard. Then, a blind, unnamed character enters. We’ve seen this man before, and it’s been established that the Outer Church are terrified of him, because it’s clear (though never stated) that this is The Devil. As in the literal King of Hell. He sits opposite Dane, and the two of them talk, discussing their side’s respective philosophies.
And what the two of them do, is agree that the Invisibles and the Outer Church are, to all intents and purposes, the same. These two ‘enemies’, the diametrically opposed representatives of Freedom/Chaos (The Invisibles) and Order/Control (The Outer Church) are – in every way that matters – one and the same.
Because, for all their affectations of competence, all either side really does is kill people who don’t deserve it. The Invisibles may be the most literal freedom fighters in fiction, and the Outer Church may be trying to defend humanity from destruction at the hands of eldritch horrors beyond measure… But from outside the conflict, looking down at the tangible, concrete results of each side’s actions, it’s clear: neither side has any real entitlement to call themselves anything but the most self-entitled butchers. The Outer Church’s ham-fisted attempts at exerting control on the world are little more than massacres; the Invisibles’ attempts at liberation are barely more than bloodbaths. Why? Because neither side has any respect for the people they both claim to be ostensibly trying to save. Their soldiers and leaders have calcified inside their separate ideologies, and are now so justified in their pursuit of their goals, so certain that what they’re doing is justified, that they have utterly discarded any morality at all. The members of each faction sees themselves as above such things.
But Dane and the Devil? They don’t. Neither of them runs a thing, instead, acting as untouchable outsiders. As the apex of their respective factions, they stand apart. And it’s only if you pay attention to the scene, that you notice something about the way Dane and the Devil are sitting. They may sit at the table, across the game of chess between them… But they’re sat at right angles to the board.
Neither of them is playing the game.
Neither of them has ever played it.
Because, unlike everyone beneath them, they can see that, like all games, it’s only a diversion; it’s just a convenient way to ignore what’s happening in real life.
One of the best films of 2015 is ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. I mean, not very well and not very hard, but I’ll give it a damned good go.
If, like me, you were holding your breath through Imperator Furiosa’s desperate first escape from the War Boys, then there’s a bit that will doubtless have stuck in your mind.
I swear to Throne, when that happened, I very nearly pooped myself with awesome. I mean, seriously, that hardcore motherfrakker’s got an ARROW IN HIS BRAIN and he’s so full of UNFETTERED MASCULINITY that he stops, he takes a moment to PAINT HIS TEETH CHROME, THEN KILLS A CAR WITH A SPEAR.
No matter how any of us might go out, our death will never be that awesome.
And all those crazy motherfrakkers around him, before it happens, they’re all cheering him on, begging him to do it, because they know it’s going to awesome, just like we do. And then he does it and they’re like WITNESS and you’re watching going WITNESS along with them and there’s no blood left in your brain because you’ve got the kind of tumescence/wide-on that normally only arrives after 2oo millilitres of intravenous horse Viagra.
Pictured: Bill Murray knows how that feels.
Those of you who’ve seen my favourite film ever will know that the word ‘martyr’ originally meant ‘witness’.
The thing about war, is that war is simply the use of state-sponsored violence to accomplish political aims. And the thing about violence, is that it tends to make people dead. And the thing about people is, that for the vast majority of us, we don’t really want to be dead. After all, being alive, for all its manifold problems, is usually kind of awesome.
Which is a dilly of a pickle if you want to run things. After all, if people are more concerned with being alive than with what you want, well. No matter how much they agree with you, no matter how strongly they cling to their ideals, they might decide that the chance of being not alive outweighs their dedication to you getting what you want.
Historically, this has a bit of problem for governments generally. After all, people don’t really tend to care about politics unless it touches on their lives, which means that for most people at least, political ideals are kind of impersonal. Abstract even. After all, while a person might believe in the nationalisation of those services which benefit the public sector, well… A march is one thing, but unless they’re reaaaaally into The Cause, it’s not usually something people are ready to die for.
This is why armies have to use a wide variety of sophisticated techniques to break people’s brains.
We’ve all seen ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (and if you haven’t, you’ll have heard the quotes. R. Lee Ermey’s performance is the stuff of legends). The first half of the film is about the resocialisation of a group of new military recruits. It’s a little outdated perhaps, but the core ideas are the same as today: a group of people who’ve never fought professionally before are psychologically altered until they are capable of doing so.
All armies do this. It’s impossible to run a successful army that doesn’t, because if you don’t, people tend to decide that killing people they don’t know for reasons they’re not entirely clear on is a poor life decision, and so they end up deliberately missing the enemy. Or worse, they decide that continuing to be alive is more important than following orders, and thus they bugger off.
While you can introduce Draconian penalties to prevent your soldiers from scarpering, really, it’s better to convince them that they want – or better still, need – to be on your battlefield. As a result, armies have to convince their soldiers to be prepared to not live, which, on the surface, sounds like a really hard thing to do. After all life has great things in it. Family, friends….
Excessively complex coffee creations…
Which means whatever the army chooses to offer the soldiers instead of their life, it has to be attractive. Much more attractive. More attractive than being here any more, doing the things you love, spending time with the people you love, playing with your children. It needs to be something so attractive, you’d give all those things up willingly… All to help people in power you’ve never met in ways you’ll never personally benefit from.
As a species, we respond better to personal ideas than abstract ones, and so what the military has to do is takes the army’s intellectual, abstract political objectives, and translate them into emotive, concrete, personal motivations that the common soldiery can relate to.
There are many ways this is done, but for all their differences, they only really boil down to two things. Most armies offer both.
The first is the idea of being a protector. They work to convince their neophyte soldiers that through the army’s ministrations, they will become defenders. Of exactly what varies according to cultural and religious beliefs, but mostly? It requires telling the recruit that their actions as a soldier are of real, direct benefit to that soldier’s loved ones.
So, ‘We require you to go to this particular piece of land and attack these people who used to be our allies and to whom we have sold many, many weapons for a variety of reasons including renegotiated trade treaties, the religious factionalism of our allies and the political necessities of making concessions to certain industrial groups who have lobbied hard for this through thirty separate business channels’ becomes ‘You’re keeping your mum safe from bad men who want to kill her.’
This first motivation is enough for a lot of people. After all, who doesn’t want to defend their family? Who doesn’t want to keep their mum safe? Their husband? Their kids?
Of course, I’m going to be talking about 40K, so this positive motivation isn’t the one I’m going to be looking at today…
Why Are All The Slogans The Same?
In Britain, we have a thing called the Old Lie. Well, not everyone calls it that, but a lot do. It’s this: ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori.’
Translated, it means ‘It is right and proper to die for your country’. It was a standard sort of proverb, bandied around the best sorts of Grammar schools in the UK, and a generation of young men grew up believing in it. That the ideals of England were absolutely worth their lives. After all, they had been told so.
Then World War One happened.
There are only three villages in the whole of the UK who didn’t lose a member to the Great War. Every other city, town, village and hamlet – all 43,000 of them – has a monument in it to the men and boys (and that’s literal boys, not metaphorical ones) they lost on the battlefields. And every Remembrance Day, beneath the solemn thoughts and compassionate words, is a dark and terrible – and quite unspoken – conviction: that these deaths were pointless.
That these young men were lied to, died horrible, agonised deaths in the mud and mire, and it was for no reason. They didn’t save the world. They didn’t defend their country or their families. They just died.
That belief suffused so much of my experiences growing up and discussing the army. Whether it was with friends, family, relatives, the same ethos coloured everything: the military may be respectable, but they will kill you, and no matter what you died for, it won’t be enough.
I mean, when you talk about World War 2 you’ve got that funny little man and his funny little moustache. Him and his fascists remain an undeniable evil that needed to be fought. World War One had fourteen year old boys choking to death on their own blood in clouds of chemical weapons because the King of England and his cousin, the Kaiser of Germany, wanted to play at war with real lives.
So in the UK, you can’t use the Old Lie any more. It’s why the army says things like ‘Securing Britain in an uncertain world’ and ‘Get real qualifications, valuble skills and friends for life’.
But, there was a time, however alien that may seem, when ‘It is right and proper to die for your country’ is something that people absolutely believed in. During World War 2, Russia’s army had a similarly interesting motto.
‘Die for the motherland’.
Hmmm. There’s a lot of overlap between those two isn’t there? I wonder if there are other, similar phrases…
‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots’.
There are more. I’d be prepared to think most – maybe all – armies have used phrases like these, ones which extolling the virtues of dying. Why? Because if fear of your family dying is the stick, then this the carrot; an ego-massaging carrot of such deliciousness that for some, it seems impossible to turn down:
Proof that their existence mattered.
Many cultures have traditions of extolling the virtues of martyrdom: the idea that even if your life is worthless, your death can have value. You many have no money, no friends, no lovers, no hope… But you can always choose the method of your dying. To someone who’s lived a life of abject vulnerability, one without any real control at all, such a thought can be intoxicating. With the added impetus of a righteous cause in whose name to die, it can be irresistible.
After all, if you dedicate your life to a cause, and then die for it, you’ve not only protected it, not only demonstrated its virtue… But you’ve elevated yourself by inspiring others. In doing so, you change the nature of death. It goes from being a negation – a terrible loss, an undoable cessation – and becomes an act of creation. You generate new followers, new believers. New people to take up where you left off. You don’t even need to believe in an afterlife, to know – to truly know – that your death helped those you love. Helped preserve your ideas. Helped those you left behind, even if they don’t ever know.
In a world where people take photographs of their food and post them onto social media, all in the desperate hope that they’ll receive a ‘like’ and confirmation that their life has some meaning to others, it’s easy to see how powerfully enthralling the idea of a meaningful death might be. The idea of turning yourself from a person into a symbol.
You only have to look at the religions they’ve built around martyrs to see the appeal.
The Most Feminist Character in ‘Fury Road’.
There were a bunch of people who were angry that Mad Max wasn’t the protagonist of his own film. And they’re right – he wasn’t. It’s pretty much open knowledge now that the film doesn’t have one main character; it actually has a pair of them: deuteragonists, with equal agency in the plot, and equally engaging character arcs:
Imperator Furiosa and Nux.
There have been numerous articles explaining how the true protagonist of ‘Fury Road’ is Furiosa, and I have to both agree with them, and praise the film for that. Furiosa is awesome.
But I don’t think Max is the secondary character either, because he doesn’t have a character arc.
In simple terms, a character arc is the journey a character goes on. In the beginning of the story, they’re flawed in some way: Tony Stark is a selfish meatus. Thor is an arrogant turd. Bruce Wayne is scared of the whole world. We see them struggle to change, fail, but then, when the chips are down, and everything’s on the line, they confront their weakness, master it, and save the day. In doing so, they overcome it. Tony Stark starts to think of others; Thor accepts responsibility; Bruce Wayne learns to wield fear as a weapon.
Fear and a relentlessly potent masculinity.
Max starts mad and ends mad. He doesn’t explicitly defeat any of his personal demons… If you can even call them that. Sure, he sees a whole bunch of dead Australians, but I assume that’s just what happens if you live in the Outback for long enough. And he’s still seeing them at the end. He overcomes nothing. Maybe a refusal to help anyone but himself, but that’s arguable.
No, Nux is the real deuteragonist.
Nux starts the film as, effectively, an Ork. He likes two things: driving fast and blood transfusions. His only goal in life is to die gloriously. How committed to this goal is he?
Yeah, he’s pretty committed to it.
Over the course of the film, Nux is the way we learn about the War Boys. It’s a brilliant bit of world building, and an absolutely critical piece of the story. Because, looked at from the outside, the War Boys are f**king crazy. I mean, seriously f**king crazy. They’re a bunch of high-octane psychopaths, screaming lunatic mantras about Valhalla and chrome and living again… An insane cult of fruitloops who it’s perfectly okay to kill.
Because they can’t be saved, can they? They’re a lunatic death cult, drunk on religious fervour, ritual scarification and petrol fumes.
Over the course of the film, the director uses Nux to show us how wrong that perception is.
Because Nux isn’t some random madman. He wasn’t born like that. He was made that way, through systemic, structural, institutionalised abuse. Nux – and by extension, every single War Boy – is a victim.
In the opening of the film, we’re shown Immortan Joe’s stronghold, and we see hundreds of shaven-headed young boys, daubed in the white paint of the War Boys. Without one word, the film makes it clear: the cult catches them young. It takes little boys, and turns them into ravening monsters. It gives them things to do: cars to drive, wars to make. It gives them friends: we constantly see the War Boys screaming and laughing and cheering together. Even if they fight and argue, they work as one (and belonging is a critical need in life).
Most importantly, it gives them a philosophy: Immortan Joe is the best. Help him, and you will be rewarded in the afterlife.
The film shows Nux has multiple terminal tumours. He’s barely in his twenties, and he’s dying. He’s knows it too. He’s got no life ahead of him, no hope for the future; he’s never going to accomplish anything… and the film is very explicit about how unfased he is by this. It makes it clear: diseases like this are typical. In a world where you’re going die without ever getting a chance to live, what do you have to offer the world except your death?
“These War Boys have no choice. They’re culturally impoverished: There’s no books, there’s no internet, there’s no theaters, no radios, no music. All they have are the detritus of the past and they refashion it so a steering wheel becomes a religious artifact; they do the sign of the V8; the engine they scarified on their bodies, because an engine is much more permanent than the human body; they chrome their teeth, because chrome is such a rare thing. So like all cults this is another cult invented by the Immortan Joe in order to get people to die on his behalf.” – George Miller
And that’s how Immortan Joe keeps his power. Because for all his grandiosity, for all his fine robes and cool skull masks, the king of The Citadel is nothing but a fat, sad old rapist, riddled with disease, kept alive by life support machines. He’s not even capable of dressing himself. He’s in power because of his War Boys. Their absolute loyalty to him is his only power. The film makes it relentlessly, explicitly clear: Immortan Joe is completely self-serving. He doesn’t provide guidance, or leadership, or protection for his people. Maybe once he did, but that was a long-forgotten time ago. Now he’s just two hundred pounds of crap in a hundred pound sack; a useless sadist who exerts control in the name of his own self-aggrandisment. Everything he does is about him.
And his War Boys stay loyal to him because they believe his lies wholeheartedly. They don’t even know they’re lies, because there are no conflicting opinions. Like an internet echo-chamber, they support each other in their self-sustaining worldview. Look at the reactions to that first War Boy’s demand to be witnessed: they cheer him like a hero. Then look at their reaction when he explodes: they cheer even harder…
But who are they cheering for? After all, the nameless, martyred War Boy can’t hear it. He’s deader than fried chicken.
They’re cheering for themselves.
That cheer is every War Boy telling every other War Boy – including himself: ‘my death will not be pointless. My death will not be purposeless. My death will have value.
‘Which means I have value.’
Fundamentally, the War Boys provide one another with self-esteem – which is very near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and so of serious importance.
By building his cult around the negation of death, Immortan Joe keeps himself in power, able to starve his people, rape women, and generally be an irredeemably vile human being without the slightest constraint. And does he hold his War Boys in esteem?
Over the course of the film, Nux constantly fails. First he fails to die gloriously during Furiosa’s initial escape. Then, he fails again, even more horribly, as his lord, master and prophet watches him, and declares him ‘mediocre’. And it’s this absolutely breaks him. He curls up and waits to die, because there’s no more hope for him now. He’s never going to get to Valhalla.
Which is what allows Capable to reach him.
While everyone else freaks out at Nux’s appearance, only seeing the War Boy regalia, Capable doesn’t. She sees herself, reflected back.
Pictured: we call this a ‘metaphor’.
This is where the director uses Capable to show us that Nux is as much of a victim of Immortan Joe as the five ‘wives’ are. Capable explains it: Nux never had a say in his own life. He’s been abused just as fully, just as thoroughly as the wives have. Not in the same way – and it shouldn’t need stating, but it always does: Nux’s degradation in no way diminishes that of the wives and vice versa – but it creates an interesting parallel, and, in my opinion, an extremely brave one, because it shows that the War Boys are human. They’re not mindless savages, killing for the thrill of it by choice. They’re not orks, born for fightin’ and winnin’.
They’re what happens when you so completely groom a child that you convince him up is left and right is Thursday. You so reprogram and repurpose the totality of his mind that he can’t even conceive of a world outside the one you tell him there is. Nux isn’t a caricature; he’s a person, as fully realised and three-dimensional as Imperator Furiosa, both of them victims of the rapacious desires of a worthless old man.
Just like Space Marines.
And They Shall Know No Fear.
Take a boy from a world of violence. Tell him you’ll make him a god of the skies; an angel of death. He doesn’t understand the price until you implant him with twenty different transhuman organs, designed in a time when gods walked the Earth. By the time they shred the humanity in him, remaking his body into the weapon you need him to be, it’s too late. The work you’ve done on his mind, removing fear, doubt, any trace of even the slightest possibility of hesitation has left him incapable of anything except ferocious certainty. Give him the best wargear humanity ever invented and tell him he’s a righteous servant, fighting for a cause that is true against an enemy that is as relentless as it is despicable.
Because before you came to him, he was worthless. His world was dust. His people were dust. He was dust. All he had to offer the world before was his death. Now, he can offer that same death in the name of something bigger and brighter than him.
Of course, here’s the question: which Marines am I talking about? Loyalists or Traitors?
Dane and the Devil sit at ninety degrees to the chessboard.
The Imperium convinces its marines to die for the Emperor; Chaos convinces its marines to die for the glory of Chaos. But whether they’re the servants of the False Emperor or the Ruinous Powers, all Marines are victims, just as Nux is. They’re all the same. Lost men, dying in the name of power that’s not theirs, never was and never can be. Raised, indoctrinated and resocialised, Astartes and Traitors alike do not create. They do not form real, reciprocal relationships with communities outside their own. They don’t even interact with other humans in meaningful ways. After all, ‘chapter serf’ is just another way of saying ‘chapter slave’: even the best of the Ultramarines and Space Wolves and Salamanders still stand apart from normal humanity.
So, no matter how brave their deeds, no matter how heroic their actions, these remain emotionally mutilated men, only capable of seeing the universe in the wretched, amputated way they were taught to. Men who are in love with death, because that’s how they were built, programmed to never question why they’re dying, or for who.
In truth, they’re dying because it’s all they know. Asking why is as likely to occur to them as asking the Reclusiarch if he’d like them to bake cupcakes.
The Reason There Are Skulls On Everything.
Nux dies in the end of ‘Fury Road’. Despite everything, despite receiving and reciprocating compassion, his situation never meaningfully changes. All he has to offer is his death. So he decides to spend it on saving people who cared for him. He doesn’t die for his own glory. He doesn’t die as a way to aggrandise himself. He dies to save others. When he says ‘Witness me’ for the final time, it’s not the furious defiance of a man screaming in the face of a world that has denied him everything.
It’s a request.
Even at the end, his death remains the only value he thinks his life has – the only measure of control he can conceive of possessing.
And that’s why there are skulls on everything.
In order to convince soldiers to lay down their lives, you can either convince them to protect the things they love, or convince them their death will have meaning. When your civilisation offers no true love, no true connections, no personal things to protect, all that’s left is death. And so the symbols of death become ubiquitous. Yes, it looks badass. And yes, it’s useful as a tool to strike fear into the heart of your enemies.
But mostly? It’s a reminder: this is all you have.
And by constantly reminding your populace of that, it prevents them from ever thinking that there might be another way. By keeping them focused on the way of their death, they never think about the alternative.
They never even realise there is an alternative.
This is all you have.
And thus, the people stay under control forever.
So, this is my last blog of 2015, and I’m at something of a crossroads. My goal for this year was fairly simple: one piece of quality writing every month. One article of the kind that I’d like to read myself. Something detailed, developed, and hopefully engaging.
Going into 2016, I’m not sure what direction to take this blog, so if possible, I would like some feedback: what would you like to see? At the moment, I’m planning to keep things mostly as they are, but if people have alternative suggestions, I’m open to them. Should I try to make these shorter? Less rambling? I know a lot of people don’t like the TL;DR nature of my stuff, but I rather do, so I’m of two minds.
I’ve done game resource stuff in the past, but I don’t know if anyone ever read that or was interested in it. I’ve also done modelling and hobby tutorial articles; they seemed to get a fairly good response. So, I suppose the simple question is this: what content should I create going into the new year?
Also, I have been mulling over the idea of collating this years’ set of articles as a free ebook; is this a thing people would be interested in?
Suggestions gratefully received below.