Judgment Day writer Kieron Gillen explains how to build a Marvel crossover worth reading
Earlier this year, EW's Summer Preview gave you a sneak peek at some of the biggest movies, TV shows, and books hitting pop culture this season. But as all readers of superhero comics know, it's not really summer without a huge crossover event. The one Marvel has planned for this year is a real doozy: It's called Judgment Day, and it's set to bring together the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Eternals in a clash that will ripple across all three continuities.
The architect of this apocalyptic event is writer Kieron Gillen, who recently succeeded where even the Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn't in making the Eternals interesting. Gillen knows his way around summer crossovers: His first major Marvel work was Journey Into Mystery, the Loki comic that served as an inspiration for the recent MCU series and was constantly bouncing off various Thor-related events over the course of its run. His run on Uncanny X-Men was all about tying in and out of events like Schism and Avengers vs. X-Men. And now Judgment Day marks the first Marvel event written and built by Gillen.
"I've never written an event," Gillen tells EW. "A lot of my peers have, I've seen them go through it. I've seen their experience of it. I've read the lot and I've absolutely had my own takes on them. I said, 'What do I like in an event? What do I think is fun and interesting and poetic?'"
Guess what? He told us his answers. Check out Gillen's thoughts on Judgment Day, and how best to write a Marvel crossover event comic, below.
Step 1: Create complexity — and accessibility
Early superhero crossover events like DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel's Secret Wars pitted the publisher's superheroes against a universe-threatening array of villains. In the 21st century, these gave way to hero-vs.-hero events like Civil War and Avengers vs. X-Men. Gillen is taking Judgment Day to the next stage, where it's clear who the enemy team is but they're not a unified bloc.
"Up front, I've black-hatted the Eternals," Gillen says. "Not all Eternals are bad guys here, but mainstream Eternal society are the aggressors, and for very 'understandable reasons.' That's the first act, basically: The Eternals go to war, and then we build up from there. But the Eternals are a complicated group of people. Especially since I'm writing both the Eternals tie-ins and Immortal X-Men, I'm always writing the complexities."
Despite the moral complexity, Judgment Day is written to be understood by any reader who's curious about this clash of iconic characters. That's where the Avengers come in. The Eternals are angry at the X-Men for engineering a new kind of immortality for mutants — something the Avengers didn't even know about yet.
"An event book comes from everything that's been built so far, but it's also a place people can jump aboard like, 'What the hell is this new blockbuster event of the summer?'" Gillen says. "So the Avengers not knowing as much as the other two players is great because they're reader surrogates. They can come in and ask, 'Wait, you did what to who?'"
Step 2: Have the event come out of the comics, rather than be imposed on them
Summer events can be annoying for readers who just want to keep up with their favorite heroes and suddenly find those characters' comics overtaken by another story for issues at a time. But because Gillen has already been working on Eternals and X-Men comics for more than a year now, he made sure Judgment Day would come directly out of those storylines rather than be placed on top of them.
We know from Gillen's Eternals comic with artist Esad Ribić that the Eternals have made many rash decisions over the course of their millennia-long history, and that some of their past leaders have taken their mantra "correct excess deviation" to genocidal extremes. To those points, we saw Thanos rig the Eternals' leadership election and assume primacy over this race of superpowered angelic beings — which should provide part of the answer to why they're now fighting other heroes.
Plus, we've seen the cost of the Eternals' immortality. These angels can bounce back from death (which explains how they've rebounded from their deaths at the beginning of the current Avengers series), but another human being has to die in exchange.
"For me, the core reason why the Eternals didn't work in the Marvel universe is they had no fundamental tragedy," Gillen says. "Spider-Man didn't become Spider-Man when he was bit by the spider; Spider-Man became Spider-Man when Uncle Ben died. This is opposed to DC characters, which (in broad strokes) are more about a fallen world. Wonder Woman is literally sent from heaven to earth to save us all; Thor is sent from heaven to earth because he's a dick."
Gillen says he asked himself, "What can I do to make them feel more Marvel? That's where I got the cost of their immortality. That's obviously also in conversation with what Jonathan [Hickman] was doing with the X-Men, taking death off the table in order to make death more interesting."
When asked about the Eternals election, Gillen says with a laugh, "I know it's a strange fantasy to imagine that, right? That democratic politics might possibly go wrong? One of my favorite bits in Eternals was that double-paged spread where we showed the gerrymandering of the Eternals. My favorite thing is when people go, 'The Eternals would never elect Thanos!' No, I've just shown you how they have, and the answer is 'Most people didn't turn up.'"
Meanwhile, the X-Men have been taking steps on this journey ever since 2019's House of X/Powers of X showed the foundation of an independent nation-state for mutants on the living island Krakoa. Now Marvel's mutants are less a superhero team than a society, and society means politics. In the first few issues of Immortal X-Men, Gillen and artist Lucas Werneck have been diving deep into mutant politics by showing the inner workings of the Quiet Council, Krakoa's governing body.
"One reason why this crossover is really interesting is the X-Men are new immortals, while the Eternals are very old ones," Gillen says. "The Eternals are a really awful portrait of how Krakoa could end up. Magneto says something in the first issue like, 'Did you think the powers-that-be would give up eternity without a fight?'"
No indeed — and the Eternals know how to hit where it hurts. In the preview pages above, you can see them targeting Hope Summers and Fabio Medina, who are both integral to the mutants' resurrection protocols.
Step 3: Create blockbuster art
Just as blockbuster movies depend heavily on entertaining special effects, so do superhero crossovers rely on eye-popping art to sell their climactic action. Gillen has the good fortune of working with artist Valerio Schiti and colorist Marte Gracia on Judgment Day. Both have already proven their skills at drawing X-Men comics like SWORD and Inferno, the latter of which was Hickman's climactic farewell to the franchise (for now). Gillen says we haven't seen anything yet.
"Valerio and Marte really are good. We're talking about events, and it has to have the art to feel like an event," he says. "If it's going to be a summer blockbuster, it has to look like one, and if it's comics, it's got to look even bigger than that, because comics always have to be what can't quite be achieved on the screen yet."
Gillen continues, "Showing someone fly through the air, from the ground, makes you put it in perspective. In Judgment Day you have a Greek chorus of real people living their lives, and Valerio makes it all real. Then he draws 800,000-foot killing machines. He can literally draw anything and turn into a single aesthetic unit."
As an example of what Schiti and Gracia can do, check out the preview art above. It looks like Professor X's Cerebro is about to come face-to-face with the Eternals' Uni-Mind, and the results look nothing short of epic.
The prelude issue AXE: Eve of Judgement is set to hit stores July 13, with Judgment Day #1 following on July 20.