Monday, July 25, 2022

Them Guys Ain’t Dumb 01 (AXE: Judgment Day #1)

What I’m struck most by is the economy of the issue. The efficiency. A modern superhero event comic is an exercise in efficiency. The old maxim of “arrive late, leave early” taken further than it probably should is the rule of thumb. A balance is attempted between telling a story that stands on its own for those that just want the main event, and one that leaves enough space for the various tie-ins to feel important when they fill in the gaps. I think Kieron Gillen hits that balance, albeit in an unexpected manner by both putting as much dialogue and narration into the issue as possible, overlapping scenes, and leaving large tie-in-sized gaps. There are a lot of words on the pages as the goal is to both tell this new story, while also providing enough history and context for that story to make sense to those who haven’t been following the X-line and Eternals. And, more than Gillen, what really makes it work is Valerio Schiti’s layouts and line art. This is an information-heavy issue that requires a lot of dense pages and he pulls off his balance act between fitting it all in and making it look good quite well.

Given that this is a superhero comic, surprisingly, it’s the big action scenes that get cut down the most. There are three possible action scenes in the issue: the Avengers’ surprise attack on Sersi (the most Avengers-friendly Eternal, particularly since she was once on the team); the Eternals’ surprise attack on Krakoa (the mutant island nation); and Uranos’s surprise attack on Arakko (Mars). The first lasts a page; the second takes place over, roughly, six-and-a-half pages (over 20% of the comic, to be fair, though one page is mostly the end/retreat of the Eternals) interspersed with Druig discussing the plan; and the third is three panels of the attack about to happen and then only implications from Druig and the aftermath.

The Avengers’ attack on Sersi doesn’t come off as truncated in any way. It’s quick and brutal in its violence, meant to incapacitate the Eternal before she can mount any defense. This action scene is given exactly the right amount of space to convey what it needs to.

The Eternals’ attack on Krakoa, while taking up a sizeable amount of the issue still feels slight and rushed. Much of the action is implied through carefully chosen images and Druig walking Moira MacTaggert through the plan back in Los Angeles. The two overt attack fronts, psychic and physical, are given introductory panels, while the true point of the attack, the covert attempt to have Jack of Knives kill the Five (thereby ending the mutants’ ability to resurrect their dead) is given two full pages, bringing its importance to the forefront. A solid third of the space given this action scene is devoted to a detailed showing of Jack of Knives already killing Egg and being stopped by Wolverine before he can also kill Hope. Much of the rest of the space is divided between large establishing panels of the other two fronts (the appearance of the Uni-Mind to attack the telepaths of Krakoa and their counterattack, or the X-Men coming through a gate to engage the Eternals in their war armour). So much of the action is implied – and it’s almost taken as a rule that readers have seen enough of these fights to fill in the gaps themselves. But, they’re also not necessarily important fights. They were distractions and the focus on Jack of Knives and Wolverine makes it clear where our attention should be focused. There are two main reasons given as justification for the Eternals to attacks the mutants under the reasoning of “correct excess deviation,” their third principle: mutants have, effectively, become immortal, and their colonisation of Mars. This entire attack on Krakoa is the attempt to eliminate their ability to resurrect the dead.

While Druig sending Uranos to Arakko is the attempt to destroy the off-Earth colony. Aside from three brief panels of the very beginning of the attack, we only see the aftermath of Uranos’s decimation of Arakko in this issue. Uranos the Undying is the former leader of the Eternals whose attempt to take “correct excess deviation” to its frighteningly logical conclusion caused a civil war and resulted in him spending the subsequent millennia in the Exclusion. He is ancient, he is cruel, he is the monster that Thanos aspires to be. So much of his power as a character comes from implication. He’s so dangerous that Druig has programmed the Machine to ensure he’s returned to the Exclusion after sixty minutes no matter what. He is built up as a monstrous living weapon that Druig has deployed against Arakko.

The three brief panels of the beginning of the attack go from calm to panic immediately, followed by Druig countering Moira’s point about the danger of Arakko with its “over a million mutants from a war-torn existence, hardened by centuries of siege,” by smirking over his shoulder, “For starters, there’ll be a lot less than a million by now...” That’s all we get of the attack until its over. First, Nightcrawler barely makes it back to Krakoa, the Five resurrect Cable (who died on Arakko) and he demands to know what happened, which cuts to a page of Uranos on Arakko, counting down his final seconds before he returns to the Exclusion. He holds Cable’s skull in his hand, crushes it and blows away the dust before walking away from a pile of bones that include Magneto’s helmet, and the page ends with a large shot of a barren destruction with huge dust clouds and a blotted-out sun, the remains of what Uranos did in an hour: “I gazed at stars. I killed.” The page of Uranos counting down as we get to see the aftermath of his attack is fantastic work by Schiti and colourist Marte Garcia. The use of close-up shots before pulling back in the final two panels teases out just how bad it was, while the overwhelming tinge of red both reminds us of where we are, but also gives it all a sickly feeling of death.

The specifics are left intentionally blank, for two reasons. Firstly, as I said, Uranos gains power as a character the more we see the effects of his actions without the actions themselves. He practically destroyed all of Arakko in an hour. By himself. Seeing that happen wouldn’t necessarily take away from the character, but not showing it only enhances him. Moreover, it adds to the dramatic impact of the issue where the attack we saw the most of was the unsuccessful one. The Eternals took a shot at Krakoa and didn’t pull off what they wanted, and we saw that failure... whereas, their other attack was more successful than we would expect and we only see the effects.

Secondly, by not showing Uranos’s attack on Arakko leaves a large gap for tie-in issues to fill. From the looks of things, that will be X-Men Red #5’s focus. Gillen has talked up that issue a little and, if it does indeed show what happened on Arakko when Uranos the Undying came, it now has a lot to live up to. Now, Uranos’s attack has certain expectations in our heads for its brutality – it will have to be something akin to The Infinity Gauntlet #4 with the sheer ineffectiveness of all defence against this monster of a god that rains down nothing but death on everything in his path. I’m actually quite excited to see if it can be pulled off... (The only other tie-in that looks to come out prior to issue two of Judgment Day is Immortal X-Men #5, written by Gillen, and, I imagine will expand upon the Krakoa attack. When I say “I imagine,” that’s only because I didn’t read too many of the solicitations for upcoming issues of the event. Beyond my usual not reading solicitations of comics I’m going to buy anyway, I made a specific effort with a lot of the Judgment Day issues written by Gillen, as I want to remain as fresh as possible going into each one. I did glance a bit more at some of the tie-ins... mostly to see how much they look to balance between doing their own thing and working with the event.)


There are a little over four panels per page. Only 13 panels are without words and are all silent for specific effects (violence, important moments of emotion, the destruction of Arakko, the emergence of the Hex...). Kieron Gillen, to get across all of the information, writes a lot of dialogue in this issue, probably more than I’ve seen from him in quite a while. Pages are plastered with word balloons, no doubt to his complete frustration and best efforts to cut them all down to the essentials (how many puns were lost to the chopping block?). Even the seemingly ‘inessential’ bits of dialogue serve to introduce characters and their personalities. So much of the dialogue is a balance between infodump and advancing agendas and perspectives. A standard question that writers try to ask and answer is “What does the character want?” With Gillen, I usually find that the question posed is “What is their agenda?” A subtle difference that doesn’t just take into account what they want, but what their current goal is (and how it may conflict with their true desire). For example, does Druig want to eliminate the mutants? Sure, but only as a means to solidify his power. He wants to eliminate the mutants, to “correct excess deviation,” but it must happen under his terms and in a manner that showcases his brilliance as Eternal Prime.

What Valerio Schiti does best, in this issue, is convey the overwhelming chaos of what’s happening. When the issue gets going as the Eternals attack, it’s chaotic, jumping between Krakoa and Los Angeles, and Schiti somehow fits it all on the pages, gives it a flow, and also does some fine character work in the process. Things like Jack of Knives’s body language and facial expressions, which we get for all of three panels tell us a lot about his flamboyant personality in comparison to the brutal aggression of Wolverine (and in comparison to his supposed attempt to remain completely hidden). Or the wide array of expressions that Druig makes throughout the issue... language is his tool, including body language. What apparent is that a lot of thought was put into laying out these pages so the issue would flow and confusion would be minimal, but, then, once that macro task was done, Schiti put a lot of thought into the micro of each panel.

The choices of Marte Garcia intrigued me throughout. Like the way Uranos is coloured when we get the first big reveal of him in the Exclusion with his head/face obscured a bit. Or the way the X-Men are coloured in a manner that feels a little incongruent with the issue, harkening back visually to his previous work on the X-titles, particularly reminding me of work with Pepe Larraz. I’m really struck by how individual panels and the approach to the colours bring out possible influences. Like when the Eternals first appear in their armour, the blues and pinks and yellows with the green energy somehow add a Jim Lee quality to Schiti’s depiction of the Eternal in the front. Or, there’s a panel where Schiti’s framing of Druig combined with the colours remind me of Olivier Coipel’s version of Xavier back in Avengers vs. X-Men... just a bunch of little connections that may or may not be there, but flare up for me...


The issue begins with a splash page of a generic ‘day in New York’ shot of tall buildings and cars and people walking as, presumably, the not-yet-created new god of the Eternals narrates/speaks to humanity. The issue ends the same way, albeit with the narration occurring over a shot of the dead Celestial that makes up Avengers Mountain. This narration spells out the large idea of the event: “Who are the heroes here?” It’s a fair question, one that reminds me of Avengers vs. X-Men (and, honestly, many modern Marvel events, as the recurring theme seems to be hero fighting hero). Who were the heroes of that event? As a reader, I thought that the stronger case was made for the X-Men, specifically Cyclops, as the heroes; the writers of that event, though, seemed to think that the Avengers were the heroes and the plot played out accordingly. I can’t help but be curious if this event will play out similarly. Will I consider one set of characters the heroes, while Kieron Gillen and company will think that a different set are? In AvX, given that the plot revolved so heavily around mutant-specific concerns and ideas, it was hard for them not to come out as sympathetic and in the right; the Avengers wound up being generic agents of the status quo. Here... well, it’s not clear yet.

Who is/are the hero/heroes of Judgment Day #1?

There aren’t any good options, to be frank. It’s not the X-Men/mutants of Krakoa. At best, they’re victims that suffer horrible loss while managing to avoid even greater tragedies. It’s not the Avengers. At best, they’re bystanders who are playing catchup, standing in for the reader as both providers of exposition and receivers. It’s not Sersi and the other Eternals that have left Eternals society as, like the Avengers, they’re bystanders (and only Sersi actually appears in this issue). It’s not Ajak and Makkari as they only appear at the end with pivotal roles to play, just not yet.

That leaves Druig. Druig the schemer. Druig the leader looking for a common enemy to solidify his position. Druig who let loose Uranos the Undying. We spend a lot of the issue with Druig talking about his plans. He uses his voice as a tool. He manages to portray himself (and the rest of the Eternals by association) as a hero to humanity, advertising his newfound war on mutantkind. He is the closest thing we have to both a protagonist and a hero in this issue. Somehow, I don’t think that will be the case by the final issue.

Especially as Ajak and Makkari know the true purpose of the Eternals and Druig doesn’t. The Eternals were created by the Celestials to keep the Deviants from destroying themselves and humanity so that, over time, the two would intertwine their genetics until a stable hybrid of the two could occur. Now, I know I’m not the only one who read the infograph page in Eternals #12 outlining this plan and had a word pop into their head... right?

In two weeks: Immortal X-Men #5 and X-Men Red #5.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Them Guys Ain't Dumb 00 (Free Comic Book Day 2022: Avengers/X-Men #1, X-Men: Hellfire Gala #1, Immortal X-Men #4, and A.X.E.: Eve of Judgment #1)


“All of which is to say that Kieron Gillen is the secret weapon writer of Avengers vs. X-Men. He wrote the lead-in, the lead-out, and some fairly good tie-in issues. He even wrote the expanded Hope/Scarlet Witch fight in AVX: VS #6. He’s like the Fifth Beatle of the event. He’s quiet and works around the edges, and, ultimately, makes all of the best points.”

—Riding the Gravy Train, Chad Nevett

Ten years ago, we were about halfway through Avengers vs. X-Men, the ‘years in the making’ event lead-up by ‘The Architects,’ a group of five writers seen as Marvel’s best and brightest. The main series was 12 issues with three of the architects writing two issues (Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, and Jonathan Hickman), while the other two wrote three each (Brian Michael Bendis and Jason Aaron) along with a slew of tie-ins across the Avengers and X-Men lines, including a title solely devoted to fights titled AVX: VS. It was a massively overblown affair that purported to pay off several long-running plotlines, most notably the Scarlet Witch’s “No more mutants” moment from House of M, a previous event, that dropped the mutant population down to less than 200. It marked Bendis’s transition from Avengers writer to X-Men writer, while Jason Aaron would begin his landmark Thor run, Jonathan Hickman would take over Avengers and chart the course towards Secret Wars, Matt Fraction would take over Fantastic Four with an eye towards the Inhumans, and Ed Brubaker would quietly finish up his longstanding work on Captain America and depart completely to creator-owned comics and TV/film work.

It also marked the end of Kieron Gillen’s time as writer of Uncanny X-Men. Maybe I’m remembering things differently from my current perspective, but there was a feeling at the time that Gillen was going to be the next ‘big writer’ at Marvel. He had done some minor runs, picking up where J. Michael Straczynski left off in Thor and made the book his own before transitioning to the Kid Loki-centric Journey into Mystery, which was quite the cult hit. At the same time, he went from Generation Hope where he defined the first group of new mutants post-M Day to writing Uncanny X-Men post-Schism after a period of co-writing with Fraction. Add in his creator-owned bonafides and, as absurd as this sounds when I write it, hailing from England, and he seemed like the Next Big Thing.

And he was. Just not in the way that I (and others?) thought at the time. He took over Iron Man and... well, that’s a book that no one seems to talk about much (cue critical reappraisal in three, two, one), did Young Avengers with Phonogram partner Jamie McKelvie and everyone still talks about that, co-wrote Angela’s solo title, continuing his surprisingly large body of Asgardian work, and did some Star Wars comics that I assume loads of people read (I guess I’m underselling how big a deal it was at the time for him to write Darth Vader – and, then, co-create an insanely popular character in Doctor Aphra and launch her solo title). But, as all of those things eventually wrapped, his time at Marvel kind of came to an end without any super high profile non-Galaxy Far Far Away titles. From the outside, it seemed mostly by design on Gillen’s part as he skewed heavily to creator-owned work (I think some folks have heard of Wicked + Divine and Die). It seems like a move that decreased his profile in some places, while only making him an even bigger deal within the circles I run in. Somehow, he seemed to get more popular after leaving the likes of the X-Men and Darth Vader behind.

And this is a gross oversimplification of everything, of course. Let’s take the last ten years of the man’s career and cram it all into a couple of glib paragraphs...


2021 began with the release of Eternals #1, Gillen’s big return to Marvel with artists Esad Ribic and Matthew Wilson. Partly another redefinition of Jack Kirby’s characters that seem to get another redefinition every decade or so, partly a response to some of what Jonathan Hickman had done with the X-titles, and just a gorgeous book (you saw the art team, right?), it felt like Gillen was returning with some swagger. He had left Marvel, done some very good comics, and was returning to tackle a title that always failed with a show of utter confidence stylistically. Over the ensuing year-and-a-bit, Gillen, Ribic, Wilson, and a few other talented artists would make, for me, consistently the best Marvel comic. Gillen built upon the mythos of the Eternals, added depth and tragedy into their core, and also brought clarity (of a sorts) to their purpose. He also wrote a Thanos that I didn’t hate (except in the ways I was meant to).

Then, he succeeded Jonathan Hickman on X-Men by writing Immortal X-Men post-Inferno, Hickman’s exit (for now?) from the X-line. Focusing on the Quiet Council, Krakoa’s ruling body, Immortal X-Men is the quasi-lead title of the line with, probably, X-Men as the only other contender. A bit over nine years after ending his time on Uncanny X-Men, he was back.

And the announcement of Judgment Day soon followed. Or, as I called it to only my own amusement: “Avengers vs. X-Men 2: Vs. Eternals.” A decade after he was the “secret weapon writer” of Avengers vs. X-Men, Gillen would be writing an event book at Marvel, coming directly out of Eternals (literally) and tying into Immortal X-Men (presumably), it seemed... shockingly well-conceived as far as events go. A lot of events spring up out of nowhere, while this one was, literally, an Eternals story taken to a larger scale and involving characters Gillen had just began writing again.

Before the event proper begins, we’ve gotten four lead-in books of varying importance to give us some idea of what this event will be about. The basic premise is this: Druig is the new Eternal Prime and, looking to make his mark, has turned his eye towards the mutants of Krakoa. One of the Eternals’ principles is “correct excess Deviation” and Druig is viewing mutantkind as a form of Deviant, and their mastering resurrection and colonising Mars as signs of excessive Deviation. So, the mutants must die.

Given that we know this as the premise and this is an event book, we know there will be a twist (or several) coming. Gillen delivers a couple in the most important of these lead-in books, Eve of Judgment. Druid attempts to destroy Krakoa completely with a bomb beneath the island as an efficient manner in eliminating most of the mutants. This strategy, however, falls afoul of one of the other Eternals’ principles: “protect the Machine.” The Machine being planet Earth and, somehow, Krakoa is an essential part of the Machine. It’s a clever little hand-wave away of the obvious and simple solution where Druig accomplishes his goal before the event even begins, thus negating the need for the event. The lead-in ends with him going to his grandfather, Uranos, for assistance. (Uranos, he was a former ruler of the Eternals and sought to “correct excess Deviation” through massive, genocidal methods. He has been in the Exclusion (Eternals jail) ever since the other Eternals stopped him. He appeared in the Free Comic Book Day comic advising a younger Odin (who then led a version of the Avengers) that they were going to wipe out a primitive primate that had developed a telepathic hive mind, if you needed a bit of foreshadowing for the event.)

Another major seed planted is that two Celestial Priests, Ajak and Makkari recently invaded Avengers Mountain (aka a giant dead Celestial body), learned the truth of the Eternals’ existence and mission, and have decided to build their own, new god. In Eve of Judgment, they obtain Phastos’s freedom from the Exclusion to gain his insight into their project. While he objects strongly to their plan, he can’t help but slip the feasibility of it, leaving the two ready to proceed with creating a new god(/Celestial?). Oh, and they kidnapped Mister Sinister at the end of Immortal X-Men #4 to help somehow. This is one of the more difficult plot to foresee in how it will develop over the course of the event. We know that Celestials will be involved and there will be judgment... but... what Celestials?

There are also “The Lemurian Mission” Eternals made up of the Eternals that most people know and associate with the title: Ikaris, Sersi, Thena, Kingo, Phastos, and Khoryphos. These are Eternals that, upon learning that their resurrections happen at the price of a mortal’s life, have gone to the Deviants to try and find a new way to live and be Eternals. They don’t want to carelessly crash through life, causing nothing but pain and death. We see them helping to rebuild Lemuria after Thanos’s attack. What role will they play in the event?

And, on the other side are the Devia—sorry, mutants. Krakoa’s secret of resurrection has been exposed, the mutant-hating group Orchis continues to find new ways to attack, aided by Doctor Stasis, a Mister Sinister lookalike (save for the clubs symbol on his forehead in place of a diamond) that claims to be the real deal, and the robotic Moira MacTaggert who now seeks the destruction of all mutants. At the same time, Destiny has seen many possible futures, and Mister Sinister has been using clones of Moira to replicate her ability to ‘reset reality’ when he feels the need to give things another go. The revelation of their resurrection abilities has placed the nation in a weirdly defensive position just as their were trying to champion the good their drugs have done the world in a bid for further recognition. And they don’t even know Druig and the Eternals are coming for them...

All that leaves are the Avengers. Much like in Avengers vs. X-Men, the group seems like a secondary concern here (tertiary even). In the Hellfire Gala one-shot, there are some Tony Stark scenes that seek to position the Avengers as apathetic bystanders, unwilling to step into mutant affairs except when it’s to contain them. As I said a decade ago, I’m not a fan of using past mutant tragedies against the Avengers given that the true reason for the lack of Avengers assistance is that it would make for less interesting comics. If every time the X-Men and other mutants got into trouble, the Avengers showed up to rescue them, readers would (rightly) tune out. The Avengers didn’t stop Genosha because the story needed the destruction of Genosha to happen. To, once again, frame that as something character-based strikes me as disingenuous and misguided. But, I’ll admit, it’s hard to reconcile the characters with their lack of action within the world of these stories. Basically, the real world needs to craft interesting stories for mutants can’t help but position the Avengers and other non-mutant heroes as anti-mutant by implication.

Which is to say that the Avengers will appear in this event in some capacity. They recently tangled with the Lumurian Mission Eternals when Ajak and Makkari sought to commune with the dead Celestial that the Avengers currently live in, so there is a connection between those two groups as well. As it stands, this event is currently skewed towards an Eternals/X-Men conflict with the Avengers in the middle somewhere. Looking at the slate of tie-ins, the Avengers side of things is fairly light, though, so we’ll see how much of a factor they really are given the large multiverse story Jason Aaron is currently building in his two titles.

What I’m really looking forward to is how Kieron Gillen handles his first event. After doing so many tie-ins and assists for other events, most notably the excessive story bolstering work in Avengers vs. X-Men, it’s exciting to see him get a chance at his own event finally. He comes off as someone who has thought long and hard about how to approach something like this, structuring the main series and story in a way where there’s freedom for others to join in and expand upon certain plot points. Moreover, he’s writing a large chunk of the overall event. If you go off the checklist at the back of Eve of Judgment, there are 37 comics listed; from what I can tell, Gillen is writing 18 of them, basically half. For an event this size, that’s an incredibly large proportion of the comics and speaks to how much this event is driven by him. I think we’re in for a treat with a talented, smart writer like Gillen telling this story on such a large canvass.

Next: Judgment Day #1.