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Why A.X.E.: Judgment Day Worked

It has been some time since a DC or Marvel summer event truly hooked me. In fact, I thought I might be over them completely. In my high school and college days, I loved both publishers’ big events. Infinite Crisis, Civil War, Final Crisis, World War Hulk, Blackest Night. I fell for those books hook, line, and sinker. (Though let’s not talk about Secret Invasion.)

However, in more recent years, events like War of the Realms, Dark Nights: Metal, and Devil’s Reign have not felt like they’ve hit the same heights. Maybe it’s me, I thought. I’ve just read too many comics or become too jaded to buy into a big superhero smash-’em-up anymore. That’s fine. There are a lot of comics out there, and not everything needs to be for me.

But it turns out, events still can be for me. This year, Kieron Gillen and a veritable smorgasbord of collaborators produced a Marvel event series that I not only enjoyed, but absolutely loved. A.X.E. Judgment Day made me feel the same feelings I felt reading events in my teens and twenties. It became the first superhero book I read each week, and the book I was most excited to discuss online. Now that the event is over, and I’ve had time to reflect on it a bit, I think I can explain why A.X.E. Judgment Day felt like a breath of fresh air, and why it spoke to me in a way other recent events haven’t.

For the First Time In Seven Years, Marvel’s Summer Event Was Actually a Marvel Event

Ever since 2015’s Secret Wars, Marvel’s summer events have just … happened.

Let me unpack that sentence a bit. Secret Wars was the last Marvel event that emerged from organic, multi-title lead-up. All that lead-up made Secret Wars itself feel central to the entire Marvel Universe. The events that have happened since then, from Civil War II to Devil’s Reign, have all felt like bolt-on stories. Sure, they happened. But they weren’t organic, universe-impacting extensions of Marvel’s ongoing stories. Instead, they either appeared out of nowhere and claimed to matter (Civil War II) or they were extensions of just one title’s story (War of the Realms, King in Black, Devil’s Reign). The latter category of events featured every Marvel character, sure. But they really only mattered to Thor, Venom, Daredevil, etc.

In contrast, Judgment Day emerged from multiple already-interesting ongoing stories. It did not invent new background or plot points used to pit the Avengers, X-Men, and Eternals at odds. Instead, it looked at where each of those properties currently stood and saw “Hey, these groups are all ripe to butt heads with each other. We just need to push a little.” Then, the push happened. And it felt almost like it was meant to happen all along, adding extra texture to both the stories that came before and the event itself.

For example, because Judgment Day had organic build-up, this teaser actually got me hyped.

Building an event out of multiple ongoings makes that event feel important, and purposeful, in a way that creating one from nothing or spinning one out of a single title just can’t. Building an event from Avengers and X-Men, in particular, immediately makes a book say “I matter!” in a way building it out of just Venom never will. Most of Marvel’s post-2015 events have still starred every Marvel character. But they’ve only truly mattered to a few, and thus they didn’t particularly matter to me. Judgment Day reversed the trend, and thus felt like it may actually push the Marvel Universe in new directions that mattered. And though I’m a semi-jaded comics fan, an event “mattering” apparently still matters to me.

Judgment Day Moved Fast But Didn’t Sacrifice Quality

The entirety of Judgment Day released within five months. This includes two issues in July 2022 and one issue in November 2022. The majority of the event released in just three months, a feat that feels impossible when you realize Gillen wrote 14(!) issues that released in those three months.

Judgment Day’s release schedule, neatly summarized.

Judgment Day was speedy in a way that “summer” events rarely are. Normally, an event begins in June or July and ends sometime in … April or May of the next year. By the time the event wraps, it feels like it’s been going on forever, and it’s also been replaced in fans’ minds by whatever event is coming next. In the Internet age, an eight- or ten-month periodical release schedule feels glacial. Discussions, and people’s interests, just move much more quickly than that.

So, whoever made the decision to condense Judgment Day‘s release schedule such that it wrapped before the end of the year should be applauded. (Though let’s also acknowledge, doing so likely put the event’s creative teams under a lot of pressure.) Not a week went by where there wasn’t an issue of Judgment Day or an essential tie-in (Death to the Mutants, Immortal X-Men, and even X-Men Red all felt like integral pieces of the whole) to read and discuss. This pace could have felt breakneck. Instead, it felt correct. It felt like enough happened each week to keep me invested in the story, and at the same time, that the story would soon drive to a conclusion that actually mattered – because the rest of the Marvel Universe hadn’t yet had time to move past Judgment Day.

It’s also worth mentioning that, even moving at the breakneck-for-event-comics pace that it did, Judgment Day‘s quality held up, on both the art and writing side. This could have easily not been the case. One reason Judgment Day‘s pace worked was Marvel’s decision to pull semi-important threads of the series into their own miniseries and one-shots. This allowed the series to use multiple artists without it seeming like a “downgrade” in quality for the main series. Marvel’s marketing emphasized that many of these miniseries and one-shots were central to Judgment Day‘s central narrative. But just by giving these books titles other than A.X.E. Judgment Day, it primed readers to accept that other artists would be handling those issues. In contrast, using, say, five separate artists on one issue of a series (looking at you Final Crisis) can prime readers to feel the series is a mess, regardless of its actual quality.

The Event Had Big Moments, But Ultimately Focused on Characters

Judgment Day shifted at least two of its major players’ status quos significantly. The X-Men are now sharing their gift of immortality with humans, at least in part. And the Eternals, ironically the most mutable of the event’s three parties, had entire sets of characters added to, taken from, or shifted significantly within their ranks.

This event did not lack for big characters, moments, and impacts. However, unlike some other recent Big Two events, which felt like set dressing served up solely in service of continuity changes or increased sales, Judgment Day‘s primary focus was on the characters taking part in the event, not the event itself. That focus on character pulled readers into Judgment Day‘s plot and made them care about the story they were reading, more than any shock death or change to the Marvel Universe’s cosmology could.

As an example of what I mean, I think A.X.E.‘s penultimate one-shots, which focused in turn on Iron Man, Jean Grey, and Ajak, may have been my favorite issues of the event. The A.X.E.: Avengers one-shot, which featured the judgment of Tony Stark, specifically spoke to me. It also wonderfully set the stage for Tony’s actions in Judgment Day‘s final issue. Nearly no other event I can think of has taken the time to slow down and zoom in on three central characters in this way, to examine exactly how they’re processing the event. (And in reference to my first larger point, Tony’s one-shot neatly incorporated relevant plot points from his ongoing, making Judgment Day feel like an extension of that story, too.)

The cover to A.X.E: Avengers.

But it’s not only these three characters who found time to shine in this event. Nightcrawler, Starfox, Captain America, Cyclops, Ikaris, Exodus, Sersi. Most everyone who showed up in Judgment Day got to do something that actually showed their character. Many of them, thanks to the story’s central conceit of being judged for your actions and/or mindset, also had that character challenged. This is where many recent events have failed. They focus on plot over character, hoping that the first being exciting enough can cover for a lack of focus on the second. They don’t examine characters deeply or challenge who they are. Instead, they use them as chess pieces that serve a certain function.

But seeing characters do the same thing over and over again is boring. Events, especially, should be where we get to see characters do something new, because they’ve never quite been in this extreme situation before. On this level, of giving its characters something new to do, Judgment Day succeeded immensely. (For example, never before have I seen Captain America seemingly give up and accept that he can’t stop the end of the world.)

Judging Judgment Day

Overall, I think Judgment Day was a huge success, on a story, marketing, release schedule, and in-universe-logistics level. To me, it is the first event in a long time that both a) felt like a proper event and b) actually kept me excited to read it throughout its entire run. When you also factor in that, including essential tie-ins, Judgment Day was nearly twenty issues long, it’s even more impressive that my enthusiasm for it never waned (and again, that every issue released on time within the span of just five months).

Whoever is writing the next DC and Marvel events could learn a lot from Judgment Day. I think all event writers would do well to think about why Judgment Day‘s meta-structure, release schedule, and insistence on focusing on character pushed it to a passing grade. Like the best events, Judgment Day set the stage for something new to follow. In this case, that something new is hopefully better Big Two events. But we’ll have to see if any future event writers pick up and run with Judgment Day’s successes.

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