The world of Warhammer 40k is not like our own. That really should be clear by now but sometimes I feel it’s still overlooked. There may be super-soldiers, space battles, teleporters and lasers aplenty but this is not the future. In spite of the knights, the medieval and monastic overtones, the zealotry of the Inquisition and the daily burning of heretics this isn’t the past either. This is its own beast, a complicated fantasy where daemons really do walk amongst us, legions of ten thousand year old villains plot eternal revenge and elves laugh from the gulfs of space as the realms of men crumble. Dying heroes are locked within walking sarcophagi so they might march out and fight again. The power of wizards is a known, albeit rarely trusted, element in the fabric of society. The Imperium of Man is a crumbling fortress, a bastion of civilisation surrounded not by the dark depths of the wildwood but the even darker depths of space. It’s just that some of the wolves that lurk out there in the wild places are not devils but heroes.
Some would accuse modern 40k of being sterile, of lacking the feral intensity it possessed back in the early days. Leaving the shackles of nostalgia aside for a moment (and let’s be honest, that has a lot to do with it) do they have a point? Much as the oldhammer crowd might love to keep the spirit of the elder (not eldar) models alive there’s no shaking the fact that modern sculpting blows the old stuff out of the water. Want proof? Take a look at the old Bloodthrister, the one we suffered until less than a year ago. Sculpting, however, does not equate to spirit.
Old 40k was weird and rebellious. New 40k is nuanced and complex. We’ve pushed back the boundaries of the known, filled in the blank spaces with official cannon and driven the wild beasts of our imagination into the darkest corners. Now even those dark weird corners are coming under the spotlight; the strange things that make 40k different and iconic are being realised in modern plastics. We’ve had the eldar’s clown-actors that guard a secret library. We’ve had the priest-engineers that coax life into the troubled ghosts of ancient engines they no longer understand. Now it’s the turn of the barbarian super-solider knights who’re actually werewolves.
Any drunk fool can come up with ideas this mad, hodgepodgeing concepts together into a messy lump of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’. The brilliance has been in making it compelling.
I know people, and I’m sure we all do, who struggle with fantasy and science fiction. They flounder, unable to stretch their imaginations around it all. Please keep in mind that I mean to cast no aspersions here – it is what it is. They’re flustered by it. “But it’s not real”, they cry, “It’s just a fantasy. Orcs and elves don’t really exist!” Most, if not all, of us reading this blog do not, I suspect, suffer from this problem. We almost certainly find orcs and elves altogether too real. Nonetheless when someone told me, via the pages of a very old White Dwarf magazine, that some heroic werewolves had spent 10,000 years hunting down a (compelling if regularly villainous) baddie through a weird patch of space where actual daemons lurked around every corner and I bought into it without missing a beat… Well, suffice to say that was a fine day for the imagination.
I loved Abnett’s shamanic portrayal of the Wolves in Prospero Burns (and in spite of the book’s flaws it remains a standout from the Horus Heresy series). I have high hopes that when I sit down to read Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s depiction of Ragnar Blackmane I’ll be similarly enthralled. Beyond this however the poor old Wolves haven’t had the best of times in recent years. Whilst other factions have developed layers of complexity and depth the sons of Fenris have turned into Space Vikings who somehow manage to maintain close friendships with wolves – whilst at the same time wearing wolves. Then again this is 40k where the average serf dreams of someday finding work as a servo-skull so maybe things aren’t so different for the average wolf who hopes that, if he works hard and dedicates himself to the Allfather, he might end up becoming a Space Marine’s coat.
There’s a bit of a recurring theme of Space Wolf miniatures showing good ideas shoddily executed. I rather like the current crop of dreadnaughts – and Murderfang, much though he is hated in some corners of the internet, smacks of raw genius to me. Whoever thought “Hmmm…. Wulfen are cool. Dreadnaughts are cool. Let’s put a Wulfen in a Dreadnaught!” and then actually pulled it off is owed a pint by me. I’m also rather fond of the Stormfang (I known right, everybody hates that model, whatever is wrong with me?). In fact I continue to believe that covering the front end of it with orky-buzzsaws and turning it into a World Eaters attack craft is one of the best things I haven’t built yet.
Sadly the GW team are still struggling to design decent looking wolves. The Fenrisian wolves may be better than those awful lumps that the Warhammer goblins have to ride around on but they still look fairly ropey to anyone who’s seen an actual wolf. Or a modern miniature for that matter. The Thunderwolf Cavalry are a bit better but not to such a degree that they can carry the show on their own. As for Logan Grimnar’s wolf-drawn flying boat – I want to love it, I really do. If we’re going to have space Vikings then let’s really go for it with a model that’s burst out of Norse myth via the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium. I keep trying to tell myself that the model itself isn’t too bad, that it’s the studio colour scheme and cartoony style that lets it down. Some days I almost believe myself…
I want to like the Wolves. Maybe it’s fair to say I want this too much. They are a proud, feral warrior brotherhood, a holdover from more heroic days. They are the Imperium’s outsiders, the noble savages who go their own way. Regardless of who tells them otherwise they stand together and fight for what’s right. Heroes are thin on the ground in 40k. Outside of a dog a wolf might just be man’s best friend. When the Wolves drove off the agents of the Ecclesiarchy I cheered with the best of them.
None of which changes the fact that, more often than not, the complexities of these shamanic warriors are pushed aside and we end up stuck with the cartoon Space Vikings – and none of the nuance of real Vikings. At times it all feels a little cut-and-pasted. They feast in mead halls (in space!), they worship Space-Odin, they cover themselves in Space-runes. It brings us back neatly to the discrepancy between complex-40k and simplistic-40k. Sometimes the people of Fenris appear as a shamanistic hardship culture, tribal, totemistic and predator emulating. Other times they live in a Hagar the Horrible theme park. And can someone explain how a planet with no obvious plant life still manages to support such a large population of alpha predators – all of whom have nothing to do all day but battle each other? Far better the haunting glimpses of beasts in the icy wastes and the chilling question – if there are no wolves on Fenris then who howls in the night?
In the most recent codex the fiction took another turn for the worse with the introduction of a crudely bolted-on ‘magical-winter’ theme. Glimmerfrost crystals are used to power ice-weapons and at one point the wolves even battle a pack of Ice Trolls. One feels that smart-arse remarks like “World of Warcraft just called, they want their IP back” might send GW’s layers into a flurry though so let’s move swiftly on.
The background fiction for the Wulfen has always been pretty unequivocal – their return to real-space heralds the Time of Ending – or more accurately The Wolf Time. Obviously, given what’s happened just across the wall in Warhammer itself, this has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst those who think that GW may be about to kill the golden goose. What about the models themselves though? Are they worthy of all the hype and consternation that surrounds them?
Well, at first glance I’ll admit I was a little disappointed. Overall it’s undoubtedly a mixed bag with some definite hits and, unfortunately, a few misses as well. Take a look at this one for instance:
Overall I think he’s rather impressive and a lot of boxes are definitely being ticked. The snarling expression is suitably fierce and animalistic and the hair is a wildly dishevelled mane without the appearance of being styled that way (some of the ‘standard Space Wolves’ undoubtedly spend too long in front of the mirror applying gel). The armour is battered and has clearly been subject to numerous field repairs down the millennia and all the expected trinkets and trophies are in place. The pose is full of power and energy and those wolf skulls on the backpack are dying to be snipped off and used as helms for your wolf lords, wolf priests or whomever else.
On the other hand the gun on the backpack looks a bit tacked on and impractical and GW still haven’t worked out how to transition between bare flesh and fur (having presumably learned nothing from the fantasy beastmen and their chest wigs).
Not all of them however are quite so successful. The squad’s leader, for instance, appears to be the victim of the creative team trying too hard, robbed of instant-classic status by his weird dancer’s pose. All the components are in place, and the paint job is considerably better than on his squad mates (more on that later) but his stance suggests landing with style rather than launching with ferocity and that’s not right. It’s all about displaying the character of the creature depicted, rather than simply what it’s capable of. Yes, a Wulfen does have the poise, balance and acrobatic skill to make an excellent ballerina – it’s just that it would rather be ripping your head off.
This one in particular bothers me and one has to ask if the studio team were having an off day when they put it together. Unfortunately the only image I’ve managed to find of it so far is rather small – it’s almost as though GW were hiding it at the back and hoping we wouldn’t notice. Hopefully once better images start to circulate I’ll be able to update this post with something easier to make out.
Of course there’s a lot to be said for the twisted, animalistic super-warrior looking into the dead eyes of the skull and recognising the humanity that both have lost (regardless of the fact that they undoubtedly nicked the idea from me). However why would he do that whilst running full pelt? Is he in fact just throwing the skull over his shoulder? What’s going on with his other paw – swatting at a fly? If someone had put this together as a conversion I’d suggesting they swapped out a few components to make the model more cohesive and give it more direction – as a part of the studio showcase though I’d say it’s unacceptable.
Oh and I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when he saw the first blurry images that ‘leaked’ online, thought this wolf was looking at himself in a little hand-mirror or possibly taking a selfie?
The last time the Wulfen were roaming our tabletops this was how they looked. I’m not going to pretend, out of nostalgia or otherwise, that they were without their flaws but they’re still models I remember fondly. The teeth on the blade of the leader is a nice touch and the faces are generally far superior to most of their modern counterparts. The biggest difference though is in the legs. Where the new Wulfen have bestial hocks and paws the older models simply had the legs of ordinary Space Marines. Whilst the latter lacks a little in terms of imagination I actually prefer it to the new iteration which at times seems overly obvious and equally uninspired. Surely something midway between the two could have been possible? After all this is the studio itself were talking about, the creative fountainhead from which Games Workshop’s world renowned product line springs. Surely when there are people out there creating Space Wolf models as good as these GW should be rising to the challenge of making models that are even better, even fiercer and more impressive. They’ve shown time and again recently that there is a reason that they still stand at the top of their field – the Blightkings, the Bloodthirster, the Ad Mech, all have proven their skills as leaders in miniature design. There is no need to aim low here, these are the Wulfen. Any potential customer already knows what they are buying into, knows that we’re off the edge of the map, into the dark corners of the 40k universe. Here be dragons indeed. The lowest common denominator have no place here. In the end I almost feel that the designers have acted like the Adeptus Mechanicus themselves – not fully capturing the creativity of yesteryear, merely replicating it.
It’s become a bit of a cliché but I suspect that the Wulfen would look better painted differently. The studio scheme makes them too clean ad that robs them of a lot of their impact. I understand the need to maintain visual cohesion across the range as a marketing tool but just think how much more impact the Wulfen would have if they were painted in heresy/pre-heresy-era colours. Let’s take a look at the two schemes; first the Heresy era…
… and then the paler 40k scheme.
Regardless of whether the 13th Company paused in their marauding, set aside the hunt for Abaddon and Magnus and sat down to repaint their armour, wouldn’t the darker scheme alone give them greater visual impact? Right now they are too bright, too heroic, too much like cartoon characters. Look again at the first piece of art I showed above. That to me is how the Wulfen should look, the Imperium’s own monsters, equal in their ferocity and rage to the daemons they battle. These are creatures of nightmare, monsters who come tearing out of the darkness and never for a moment seem like golden heroes. There is no glorious war here, no champions, just vicious, rage-filled animals tearing their victims apart with their hands.
Overall though I’d call this kit a success, although it’s not one that will reach its full potential painted to the studio style and assembled to match the figures on the box. Swap a few components in, paint them darker and grubbier, emphasise their monstrousness and you’ll be well on the way to creating your own pack of werewolves truly worthy of the 41st Millenium.
The Wulfen have always been exemplars of everything that makes 40k so magnificent, everything that pulls me back to it time and time again. The models themselves could have been better executed but there’s always room for clever converters to make improvements. 40k was missing its wolves, it was weaker without them and regardless of their flaws I’m glad to see them back.
All images, unless otherwise credited, belong to Games Workshop and are used with a flagrant disregard for permission.