This summer, three of Marvel's most iconic superhero teams will clash in AXE: Judgment Day, an epic event that builds on things that began when the Avengers conquered a new wave of Celestials, when the X-Men moved to their own island nation, and when the Eternals emerged from their last wave of deaths with new resurrections and a new energy. Each of these teams arrives with different stakes, different goals, and different things to lose, and for writer Kieron Gillen, it all began with the desire to do something new in his acclaimed superhero comics career.
Two years ago, when Gillen revealed that he was returning to Marvel Comics to launch a run on Eternals, he made it clear that what excited him about coming back to superhero comics was the chance to, as he put it in the press release announcing the book, do "something I've never done before." To that end, alongside artist Esad Ribic, Gillen launched an epic run that reinvigorated the Eternals as characters, and rebuilt their mythology as something that both honors their past and forges ahead with a new future.
Now, a year-and-a-half later, Gillen's poised to do yet another thing he's never launched at Marvel before: A massive, hero vs. hero event series that will bring the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Eternals together for one conflict with the potential to change the trajectory of all three teams. Written by Gillen with art by Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia, the idea that would become AXE: Judgment Day began with examining the current status quo of each group, then delving into each of those groups could interact with the others.
"Honestly, for me, speaking as a reader as much as a writer, there's nothing worse than an event that comes out of nowhere," Gillen says in an interview with ReedPOP. "It had to come from the books. So yeah, I was looking at the Avengers, what Jason [Aaron] has built in the mythology there. I was looking at the X-Books, the secrets of Krakoa coming to light, and I was looking at what I was doing in Eternals, which dances with both of them, the various tensions in Eternal society there. And now, that's stuff going to blow up. It's just that kind of 'Oh, look, these are three logical strains that are intersecting, let's then bring them forth and see what happens with them.'"
Secrets, secrets, and more secrets
On Free Comic Book Day, Gillen and artist Dustin Weaver laid out the key issues at stake that will launch Judgment Day this summer, cueing readers into how the Eternals view mutation in the Marvel Universe overall, and what certain Eternals think of the recently uncovered secret that mutants have learned to conquer death. Mutants who have claws and telepathic powers are one thing, but for certain Eternals, mutants who can simply reboot their bodies after death are a case of 'Excess Deviation,' the very thing the Eternals were put on Earth to stop. It's got all the makings of a powder keg of Eternals vs. mutants, with the Avengers caught in the middle of it all.
For Gillen, that positioning for Earth's Mightiest Heroes was key, not just because they're in charge of quelling conflicts around the world, but because any newcomers to both Eternal and X-Men affairs need characters they can discover these secrets alongside. And of course, the Avengers suddenly looking like the most mortal people in the room, caught between two races with their own means of resurrection, doesn't hurt either.
"When you eventually read Judgment Day #1, the Avengers are our viewpoint characters," Gillen explains. "Because if you're not reading Eternals or X-Men, you don't know the secrets. By following the Avengers as the detectives, you can go, 'What? The Eternals are doing what?'
"So, [The Avengers] being mortal makes [them] a really good viewpoint character. At the same time, it also [puts] them in a fragile position. And the idea that Thor could ever be in a fragile position, it seems contradictory in terms."
Building the world of AXE: Judgment Day
In teasing out the central conflict of Judgment Day, Gillen described the Eternals as the "aggressors," the powerful group who've decided they must eradicate the excess deviations of Krakoa no matter the cost, now that the secret of mutant resurrection is out in the world. But that's far from the only ingredient feeding the conflict. The Eternals, of course, have secrets of their own, namely the recent discovery that, each time an Eternal resurrects, a human life is lost in a macabre trade-off. Some Eternals are fine with that, while others struggle with it every waking moment, and it's not just going to be pushed aside for the events of Judgment Day.
"That's still a secret. No one knows that when Eternals die, they kill humans," Gillen explains. "That's interesting. That's all sitting there. So what secrets are going to come out? What happens when they do and how do we react? That's very much what drives act one. For me, it's like the start of Judgment Day is the Eternals and the mutant secrets starting to come out, and the Avengers and the rest of the world catching up. And this enormous Eternals/mutants war of two incredibly powerful peoples, possibly consuming a lot of this stuff. And how on earth can we possibly stop that?
"Which leads to act two, which is where the story changes shape slightly while still carrying on being about what it is. It escalates. And by the time we hit act three, everything's exploding."
To strike that balance between the very emotional concerns and secrets that drive Judgment Day, and the "everything's exploding" spectacle of a Marvel Comics event, Gillen turned to Schiti, an artist whose credits already include cosmic events like Empyre.
"Valerio is really good at design, really good at glam," Gillen says. "There's a design that popped, there's some new baddies we make up at a certain point in issue one. And when I had the idea for them, I pitched it a little bit and Valerio just came up with a bunch of ideas and then I integrated them and he came up with six designs.
"I saw these designs and I was like, 'We're fine.' Because so much in comics is that, like 'Is this a cool baddie?' Especially when introducing something new and interesting and weird, you need the, 'What the hell is that thing?' [reaction]. You need that excitement."
The excitement of AXE: Judgment Day is obviously in no small part due to its scope, as an event that ropes in the three most prominent teams in Marvel Comics at the moment. Gillen's very aware of that as a writer who's also handling both the Eternals ongoing series and the recently launched Immortal X-Men series. He's also keenly aware, as a writer who's worked on event tie-ins before, that working on such a massive scale means seeding ideas for the rest of the creators working in the universe, creating tie-ins that inform their own stories as much as the bigger picture of AXE: Judgment Day.
"If you go back to my first time at Marvel, I think like 75% of the things I wrote were abstractly tying in, because it was a very tie-in period," Gillen says. "From the writer's side, I was aware that the tie-ins I really like doing were [part of] an event which threw the ball. It doesn't necessarily need to derail your story, what it does is 'This event can be used in your story. Here's a useful problem. Here's a cool toy for you to have, you can play with it. You can play with it in lots of ways. It's customizable to your book.' Here's something people can have fun with. It's like a writing prompt, and that was important to me."
Eve of Judgment
Before the real action of Judgment Day can begin, though, Gillen and artist Pasqual Ferry will launch AXE: Eve of Judgment on July 13. A prelude issue for the event to come, the book also functions as a companion piece to Gillen's work in both Eternals and Immortal X-Men, as well as a primer for newcomer readers who want to get up to speed on the action.
"Weirdly, it's a sort of sister issue to Immortal X-Men #4. Immortal X-Men #4 is about after the Gala, it's about what literally happens then in terms of the X-Men dealing with the fallouts of everything that happens [at the Hellfire Gala]. And [Immortal X-Men #4] is also a prologue to what happens next.
"Eve of Judgment is almost the same thing from the Eternal perspective. As I said, the Eternals are the aggressors here. This is the Eternals about to go to war. You get to see the prime Eternals building their armories, working out how they're going to kill people, various plans and kidnappings, and the good Eternals perhaps being a bit more lost. It's preparation for war. That's what it is. I think that's the best way of describing it, as well as being also a really good restatement of what's going on in the Eternals. Because if you haven't read issues one to 12, this is like, 'OK, I don't know anything about Eternals. I don't know, why would [they] be going to war? Who are they even?' It's that as well. This is the preparation of the war happening and everything you need to know going in."
Read this exclusive four-page preview of AXE: Eve of Judgment #1 by Gillen and artist Pasqual Ferry ahead of its July 13 release:
There's a lot at stake in Judgment Day even if you just focus on the Eternals and the X-Men and how each of them stand to change over the course of their conflict. But that's just the beginning. The Avengers have secrets and issues of their own, including the giant Celestial thy call home, and the rest of the Marvel Universe will have to reckon with the event as it unfolds, with each of several tie-in books responding to things in a different way. After Eve of Judgment sets the stage, it all kicks off with AXE: Judgment Day #1 on July 6, the start of what should be a very interesting summer across the landscape of Marvel Comics.
"What I'm really hoping is that the fun we're having comes across," Gillen said. This is a serious story of epic scale and with real emotional content to it, but it's also something really pure about how we see the world. So, I hope people like it."
Read Popverse's full interview with Kieron Gillen (6000+ words) about Marvel's Judgment Day as a Popverse subscriber.