The first time the Skaven appeared in print was in 1986 in the Citadel Spring Journal 86. The Chaos Ratmen debuted as one of the three antagonists in the scenario "Vengeance of the Lichemaster" by Rick Priestly, and then got their own article by their creator, designer and sculptor, Jes Goodwin.
Reading Goodwin's article now, it is amazing how completely realized the Skaven mythology was at the moment of its inception. It's like Athena bursting full grown from the head of Zeus, if Athena was an anthropomorphic rat and Zeus was a 26 year-old from Essex. All the iconic elements of the Ratmen were there from the beginning: the clans (Eshin, Skyre, Pestilens and Moulder), the addiction to Warpstone, the plague monks, the screamingbells, the skavenslaves and the 13 Lords of Decay. Goodwin has said that he collaborated with Rick Priestly on this background, but his achievement is still astounding in its audacity and longevity. His article formed the blueprint (with little variation) for what the Skaven would be for the next 30 years.
What gave Goodwin's initial vision for the Skaven so much power? I think the answer has to be the complexity of the Skaven. Physically, one Ratman pretty much looks like another Ratman. But socially, the Skaven were imbued with diversity and depth unlike anything that the Warhammer world has seen before.
|From the Citadel Spring Journal 86|
For instance, the Skaven present a twisted mirror image of monkhood. They have their "Plague monks" worshiping "the Horned Rat" and swinging "plague censors" and hauling their unholy "screaming bells". But the Skaven are not limited to this Christian religious imagery. They also have a Middle-Eastern streak, with jezzail rifles from Afghanistan, Assassins like the Syrian Hashishin, not to mention a tribal structure and a slave caste.
On top of this is Skaven technology. But even this is complex. On the one hand, you have the genetic manipulation and breeding programs of Clan Moulder, creating post-apocalyptic monsters like Rat Ogres and Wolf Rats. And on the other hand, you have the cadre of Warplock Engineers, who anticipated Steampunk with their devices of tubing and brass. The imagery behind the Engineers is specially rich: their flame throwers and gas masks evoke the worst horrors of World War One.
|From the Citadel Spring Journal 86|
I could go on with other strange elements of Skaven society: the Grey Seers, the White Rats, the worship of chaos. All these disparate elements prevent the Skaven from being reduced to one simple idea (like ratmen being a straightforward symbol of urban decay). At the same time, Jes Goodwin's powers as a designer (and sculptor) were so strong that he could unify this crazy quiltwork into one coherent vision. The Skaven of his illustrations and models all share an indelible stamp.
|"Splinter" by Kevin Eastman (1984)|
The miniatures are carved with lots of texture and deep recesses, creating plenty of room for shadow and contrast when they're ultimately painted. This chiaroscuro aesthetic (not to mention the tattered robes) betrays a deep debt to Splinter, the mutant rat from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984). But when the Skaven's alien armour and strange face-masks are added to the mix, the result is unique and unforgettable.
The success of Goodwin's early Skaven sculptures is born out by the fact that (like his mythology) they changed so little over the years. In the mid-to-late 1980's, Citadel churned out hundred and hundred of fantasy miniatures, constantly pushing old models into obsolescence. But not the Skaven. From 1986 to 1992, they range stayed almost exactly as it appeared in the Citadel Journal 1986. It was only in 1993 that radically new designs appeared, and even then the original sculpts persisted here and there into the new millennium.
Next week, we'll take a closer look at some of these Skaven miniatures - namely, the ones that feature in Vengeance of the Lichemaster...
If you enjoyed this analysis, you might also want to read about the evolution of the orc.