Last Saturday marked my 33rd birthday, and among other fleeting moments of introspection befitting such an occasion, the date made me realise that I’ve been in the business of messing around with little plastic men for about 20 years now — which seems pretty unreal, to tell you the truth. But instead of getting all sentimental and contemplative on you, let me take this opportunity to present you with a “blast from the past”, as it were, granting you a look at my very first army for Warhammer 40k — an army that, in many ways, started it all.
Before we do that, though, take a moment to marvel at the birthday image shown above which Annie sent me, totally making my day in the process: Not only did she put most of her Blood Bowl models to work on wishing me a happy birthday, but the picture also hints at some finished (or near finished) models for her new Piratz team — very awesome, and definitely something to look forward to! So, once again, thanks so much for the amazing surprise! 🙂
So yeah, back to the past. Before we take a look at this venerable project of mine, let me give you a little background, okay?
It was October 1998, and a new edition of Warhammer 40k had just been released. 2nd edition had been straining to accomodate hobbyists growing armies for a while, but in the end the rather cumbersome ruleset that had originally been designed for skirmishes, above all else, finally gave out. 3rd edition, then, brought some thorough streamlining to the system, and even then, this turned to be a bit of a divisive direction.
Back then, though, I didn’t know anything about this: I had gotten into WFB a while earlier, raising my first tabletop army ever. But even then, I realised that 40k called out to me, maybe even more than WFB did: I had been in love with what little of the setting I had been able to grasp from the butchered German version of Space Crusade, and a weekend spent blazing through the wonderful books from the 2nd edition starter box sold me on the setting.
So the new edition arrived at a time where I was contemplating a closer look at the 40k universe anyway. I eagerly gobbled up all the information about this new version of 40k, discussed in detail on the pages of (German) WD 34. Possibly even more important than any rules changes was the giveaway miniature the issue came with: A brand new plastic Dark Eldar warrior, the first representative of a completely new faction for 40k, and also the model that would launch my very first 40k army, pictured below: The Kabal of the Black Sun.
In all fairness, it’s a rather boring army in many ways, because, like so many other first armies, it was build on what I could afford to buy from my weekly allowance at the time. So the army was assembled piecemeal, whenever I could afford to drop a bit of pocket money into my growing collection of spiky, pointy eared Space pirates.
This clearly reflects in the somewhat lopsided army composition: Lots and lots of plastic warriors (because these were the easiest to get hold of and delivered quite a bit of modeling bang for the buck), a couple of metal models (bought one at a time, except for the squad of Wyches), a squad of jetbikes (a rather expensive combi-kit back then, so I had to save up in order to be able to buy it) and, lastly, a Raider (the biggest purchase in pure monetary terms, and also possibly the most disappointing: I really only bought this model because it seemed to be absolutely compulsory for running a Dark Eldar army, but I was never all that fond of it, and it shows in the shoddy paintjob).
Anyway, even then, this army wasn’t really collected as a fighting force supposed to win any games (which, fittingly, it didn’t), but rather as an ongoing attempt at creating something cool. And while pretty much all of the models are horribly outdated – especially when compared to their modern counterparts – and while I am fully conscious of the technical shortcomings of my painting (which was even worse back then, if you can believe it…), I still think there are quite a few things to be proud of in this army, so let us take a closer look at some of the squads and individual models:
First up, one of my warrior squads. This one was supposed to serve as some kind of honour squad for my Archon, if the situation demanded it:
In hindsight, I do of course realise that the true Stars of the show in the 3rd edition release were the multipart plastic Space Marines — as evidenced by the fact that it took a whopping 15 years for the kit to be substantially redesigned, and even then, today’s Space Marines still follow the basic recipe laid down by the 1998 release. The Dark Eldar Kabalite warriors were merely the byproduct of this process, and while they did help to pave the way towards a future of wonderful plastic kits to come, their first incarnation was probably a bit lacklustre even back then: The sprue only held the bare minimun of parts, with only a single special weapon and not much extra bitz to speak of: If you wanted different special weapons or more interesting squad leaders, you had to buy additional (metal) models — or you had to get creative!
And that’s exactly why I’ll always be indebted to those venerable plastic Xenos: It was both because they looked so samey and because they were so easy to convert, that I discovered how immensely fun it was to kitbash and convert plastic miniatures — still my favourite hobby activity today!
I can say without any hyperbole that I really went to town on the unassuming Kabalite Warriors sprue, creating an endless stream of conversions from it: running Kabalite warriors, more impressive Sybarites — I even used it to build a squad of Mandraks, because there weren’t any official models available for them back then. I also discovered the joys of kitbashing! For instance, this guy is a conversion I was enormously proud of for a very long time:
Not even brain surgery, really: I just cut off the blades from a couple of Dark Eldar weapons and glued them to an old Craftworld Eldar power fist (that old CC weapons sprue was the best!), creating a very sinister and Dark Eldar-ish bladed gauntlet:
This seemed like such an enormously fiddly conversion back then, but it filled me with a nearly unprecedented sense of achievement. And it also taught me something else: That converting each and every model in a given army in order to make each model special was a very worthy endeavour indeed! So where I had mostly been content to assemble the models by the book for my Warriors of Chaos army, the Dark Eldar taught me to be more adventurous, to try and push the envelope on my hobby projects!
But even I arrived at a point where I had burned myself out on the plastic Dark Eldar warriors and started to look for other resources. My eyes fell on the – then brand new – Eldar Guardians, and so I built a huge squad of kitbashed, bigger and meaner Kabalite warriors:
Here’s the Sybarite for the squad of “Not Guardians”:
Let me take this chance to address the paintjobs for a minute here: As you can see, I chose a very simple approach for my Dark Eldar: They were undercoated in black, then the armour plates were simply coated in gloss varnish, giving the models a slightly insectile look. The details were painted in gold and silver. Turquoise served as a spot colour (a habit I still keep up today ;-)) And while such a bare bones approach to painting might no longer fly today, I still think that this army made me realise that simple, striking colour schemes are the way to go. Sure, none of the models are anything to write home about from a painting perspective, but they still manage to look rather coherent and striking as a collection. At least until you get closer to them… Also take note of the classic 90s basing recipe: Goblin Green and green flock FTW! 😉
But back to the models themselves: My experience with these plactic kits even made me slightly more adventurous when it came to filling up the lack of official Dark Eldar models with my own creations. For instance, I added a Dark Eldar bit to an old Dark Elf plastic Sorceress in order to create a subcommander for my Dark Eldar:
And while we’re on the subject of army commanders: The – rather limited – collection of (metal) characters and specialists was, of course, the other thing that defined the Dark Eldar back then. These models created some much needed variety and also seemed so cool in those days. Not all of them have managed to age all that gracefully, but I suppose that’s a given. Anyway, let us take a closer look at that side of my army:
First up, my Archon. I used GW’s stock Archon model which is very much a product of its time, of course, with huge shoulder pads and an almost ridiculous headdress (and I am still not sure whether I like the flayed face…), but I think it’s also a pretty apt representation of the Dark Eldar’s essence: The model is spiky and undeniably evil, but it also has this sinister, slightly depraved elegance. It’s also important to remember that this particular niche didn’t exist in 40k back then (because the Slaaneshi Chaos Space Marine models were far too bulky and out there to truly register as elegant). Plus I do have a soft spot for this guy!
The lances glued to the model’s back were originally intended as a trophy rack. I would have added a new trophy for each defeated enemy. A neat concept, but, alas, it never came to that: I never defeated a single enemy, for one. And looking back now, it was probably for the best, because the quality of the bitz back then would probably have made the trophy rack look absolutely hideous!
There’s also this model, a Sybarite for the Kabalite warriors:
And, to be honest with you, this may be one of my favourite tabletop models ever, and one that I still love. Sure, it looks to big and bulky when stood next to the regular Kabalite Warriors. Sure, the thickness of the various blades and the model’s claws harken back to a different period of casting. And yes, the pose is a bit clichéd. But it’s still an all-time favourite of mine, because it perfectly embodies what the Dark Eldar are about. It’s really a shame that this guy looks even bulkier when placed to the new (2010) Dark Eldar, because he would be an essential addition to any pointy eared army, otherwise. Oh yes, for the record: I am none to happy with the crappy blending on the claw 😉
Of all the models in the old Dark Eldar catalogue, I think it’s the Haemonculi that have best managed to hold up by modern standards. In fact, if I were to start a Dark Eldar army today, I would seriously consider using them as “regular” Haemonculi, with the floating, multi-limbed new Haemonculi only used as elders or army commanders. Anyway, take a look:
First up, the older version of Urien Rakarth. I am still reasonably happy with my paintjob — especially so since the model was actually repainted at one point to bring it more in line with my Kabal’s colour scheme.
And here’s his colleague, a regular Haemonculus (insofar as the term “regular” can be applied to these guys):
This model was also pretty much the first instance of really stepping outside my comfort zone during painting. It may not look like much now, but painting the face by highlighting the prominent areas in ever more delicate layers of paint really showed me that there might be more to painting than just doing the bare minimum. Sure, I could probably do much better today, but it still started here.
I actually own the third unique Haemonculus sculpt as well, although I haven’t painted the model yet. Perhaps I should, though, because these guys would probably work equally well in a radical INQ28 retinue…
All in all, the Haemonculi were one of the most original and new concepts about the Dark Eldar back when they were released, and it’s cool to see that these models still hold up — at least in my opinion.
Another model that I am still rather fond of is the older incarnation of Lelith Hesperax:
Sure, there is much to be said for the much more restrained, modern version of the model, but I cannot help feeling fond of the sci-fi dominatrix look of the old model. Plus this model holds a special place in my heart for the challenge it presented painting-wise: Getting the contrast between the spiky armour and the softer, organic shapes of the unarmoured parts just so was quite a challenge for someone only used to painting bulky Chaos Warriors — and probably especially difficult for any lad still mired in the late afterpains of puberty 😉
Alas, her accompanying retinue of Wyches has not fared quite as well:
Again, the are just a little too 90s, with their unbelievably big hair and clunky, retro-futuristic musical performer design — especially when compared to their gorgeous modern incarnation. They are still good fun, of course, but in a slightly corny way. Still, these guys and girls make me scratch my head in wonder at how I managed to paint all those tiny pupils back then — this seems to be one of the things I have actually managed to unlearn since those simpler days…maybe it’s the onset of middle age?
We all know the rest of the original story, of course: The Dark Eldar went through a pretty rough patch, being kept at arms length by GW for a very long amount of time. It took until an – admittedly spectacular – relaunch in 2010 to finally update the army, and even though that relaunch was one of the factors getting me back into the hobby after a longer hiatus, it didn’t see me return to the army: Although I did try to continue where I had left off, I realised that my heart was no longer in it, despite the amazing new models. So I turned to the forces of chaos instead, my other great hobby love. And you know the rest (or can at least read up on it on this blog in case you don’t).
In the larger scheme of things, however, this army is still immensely important for my personal hobby life, not only because it was my first 40k army, but mostly because it managed to teach me so many important lessons that are still helpful today. Granted, many of my growing pains of my hobbyist are clearly evident in the models themselves. But the army was instrumental as a means of departing from the slavish adherence to the pretty pictures on the boxes in many ways, and for that alone, it marks an important step in my personal hobby history.
So yeah, the things you think about in the aftermath of your birthday, right? 😉
Anyway, I hope this little blast from the past has been as enjoyable for you as collecting my thoughts on the matter has been for me! It goes without saying that I would love to hear any feedback you might have!
And, as always, thanks for looking and stay tuned for more!