How the hell has Kieron Gillen never written a summer event comic before?
Gillen is the writer behind Eisner- and Hugo-nominated comics such as perennial Den of Geek favorites Once & Future and The Wicked + The Divine. But even before that, he was part of that mid-aughts wave of Image writers who took over Marvel’s flagship books. Gillen wrote a couple of excellent Utopia-era X-Men books (Generation Hope and Uncanny X-Men), as well as a beloved run with Kid Loki that helped inspire one Disney+ show and a relaunch of Young Avengers with Jamie McKelvie that is likely going to have an impact on the MCU further down the line. And yet, somehow, his first blockbuster comics crossover is out in 2022.
AXE: Judgment Day is a six-issue series that ties Gillen’s work on the recently completed Eternals series with his story in the ongoing X-Men flagship title, Immortal X-Men, along with what Jason Aaron has been building toward in Avengers.
“I’m just interested in writing consequences,” Gillen tells us when we ask about the crossover. “The starting point [of AXE] is this is the book that emerges from the tensions between [Eternals and Immortal X-Men].”
Gillen launched Immortal X-Men earlier this year with art from Lucas Werneck. There, mutants are at the pinnacle of their power: they control Krakoa, one of the most powerful nations on Earth; they terraformed and colonized Mars with a million battle-hardened mutants from a hell dimension; and they are, as the title says, functionally immortal—each time a mutant perishes, they are resurrected by the combined mutant powers of The Five, who are hard at work bringing back every mutant who has ever died. The book follows the ruling council of Krakoa, the heroes (like Storm and Nightcrawler) and villains (like Mister Sinister or Mystique) who govern all mutantkind. “What I love about the X-Men is… the extended cast of mutantdom, they’re all the same team. They just occasionally disagree with each other,” Gillen says.
So too do the Eternals. The question with hero-versus-hero crossovers like this is inevitably, “Which side is right?” Each team has its fans, and even the heroes on the wrong side need to at least look slightly sympathetic. In AXE, Gillen tells us, “the Eternals are bad guys here,” a journey that started when he relaunched their book last year with Esad Ribic and Matt Wilson.
The Eternals are superpowered beings sent to Earth ostensibly to protect it from the Deviants, an offshoot race subject to uncontrolled expansion and mutation. Eternals are limited in number, vastly powerful, and also functionally immortal. They discover in the series, though, that there’s a catch to their immortality: each time one of them dies, a human is killed to resurrect the Eternal. This discovery, in the pages of Gillen’s run, leads to a schism where the more heroic Eternals such as Ikaris (think Superman, but less subtle) and Thena (often mistaken for the Greek goddess Athena) abandon Eternal society, opening the door for their less scrupulous brothers and sisters, like the power-hungry cynic Druig or the imprisoned religious fanatic Uranos, to take control of Eternal society.
“The Marvel Universe is in desperate need of good villains,” says Gillen. “The Eternals are a complicated group of people, some of which are as bad as Apocalypse or Sinister. And sometimes they’re in charge.”
As AXE dawns, Druig, who schemed his way onto the Eternal throne after manipulating Thanos (yes, that Thanos) into a near-extinction level event, tries to consolidate control through his genocidal, imprisoned uncle, Uranos. Uranos’ heresy takes the Eternals’ programming to “correct excess deviation” to a logical, genocidal extreme. In the past, he used it to justify making entire classes of animals extinct, defining them as “excess deviation.” In AXE, Druig uses it to justify the mass slaughter of Krakoan and Martian mutants.
There are, of course, multiple sides to the Eternals’ internal conflict. The heroic faction that walked away from The Machine that resurrects them is living with the Deviants and trying to find a way to break their own programming. The Uranite maniacs left behind and led by Druig are another—they see value in Uranos’ methods, both in his broad application of the rule on “excess deviation” and in his belief that the gods who created them and required their service are idiots who should be torn down.
But there’s a third faction, and it’s one that harkens back to Gillen’s first time writing the X-Men.
“If you read the Eternals story [beginning with Jack Kirby and through] the Neil Gaiman/John Romita Jr. run, into Charles and Daniel Knauf and Daniel Acuña’s run, that story is basically them building the Dreaming Celestial and this whole new religion for the Eternals,” Gillen says. “And then a series of X-Men writers just chop up the Dreaming Celestial for parts. Like me.”
Ajak and Makkari are a counterpoint to the Uranite heretics—rather than loathing their gods, they’re just going to build a new one, and they show up at the end of the issue in the Avengers base (the husk of a different dead Celestial) with Gillen’s butcher of the Dreaming Celestial and Krakoan ruling council member, Mister Sinister, in tow.
The Avengers have mostly been innocent bystanders in the bubbling conflict between the Eternals and the X-Men. Well, other than the fact that they’ve made the corpse of a dead Eternal god their headquarters. Or that one-time Eternals Ajak and Makkari broke into that dead god-slash-Avengers office space to try to talk to its ghost, revealing to the Avengers that the world was on the verge of destruction at the hands of the new Prime Eternal, Thanos. It was a rough patch for everyone involved.
Things aren’t all sunshine and roses between the Avengers and X-Men, either. By the time Judgment Day starts, the secret of Krakoan resurrection has been revealed to the world.
“There’s some tension between the Avengers and the X-Men at the moment, especially with the reveal of the secret of immortality,” Gillen says, “but I don’t think the Avengers are gonna go to war for that.”
And they don’t, at least at the start. Their role is more expository at the beginning: they’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Post-Thanos, Eternal society remains a mystery for the Avengers, and Judgment Day opens with Tony Stark and company doing something about it: bringing Sersi back to their base for interrogation and finally discovering how out of the loop the good Eternals really are.
Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia are the art team for AXE: Judgment Day, and what we see on the page is immaculate summer blockbuster comic art. “I was very conscious of trying to encourage what I consider a modern, state-of-the-art blockbuster aesthetic,” Gillen says. So the opening shot of the issue will certainly evoke that same sense of wonder as the establishing shot in House of X #1, but it also goes back a bit further. “For me, the opening shot, I was thinking of The Ultimates,” Gillen says. “[Ultimates co-creators Bryan] Hitch and [Mark] Millar, they regularly did an opening shot of New York. They were trying to ground it… treat it as Earth and remind people all that stuff is about people.”
The people-level consequences will probably be felt most acutely through the main characters of the book: Ajak, Druig, and Sersi on the Eternals side; Captain America and Iron Man on the Avengers; and Nightcrawler, Exodus, and Mister Sinister for the X-Men. Gillen will also be writing several tie-ins: AXE: Death to the Mutants with Guiu Vilanova will tell the conflict’s story from the Eternals’ point of view. “Phastos is a bit-player [in the main book], but he’s much more important in Death to the Mutants,” Gillen says. “Ikaris is doing cool stuff in the main book, but the real story of his utter desolation at this situation [is there].”
He’s also writing the tie-in issues of Immortal X-Men. Each issue of that series has focused on a specific member of the Quiet Council, and those perspective shifts will continue during the AXE tie-ins. “Immortal X-Men #6 is basically Exodus versus one of The Hex,” says Gillen, referring to the giant Celestial-looking Eternals from Uranos’ armory rising from the Pacific Ocean during AXE #1. “I get to do bits of each one’s perspective. Both sides think they’re losing.”
Immortal X-Men #6 will be through Sebastian Shaw’s eyes, the ruthless former head of the Hellfire Club who is now one of the more politically savvy members of the council. And Immortal X-Men #7 comes during the third act of the crossover, so that means hero time. As Gillen teases: “Everyone’s backs are against the wall, it’s tight, and can Nightcrawler hold it all together?” It’s not clear if he can, but if the first issue is anything to go by, it should be a hell of a ride.
AXE: Judgment Day #1 is out today, with issue #2 arriving in August. The story continues through September.