If you look up Judgment Day reading lists, you’ll probably get a list that more or less looks like this:
Everything in that screenshot is 21 issues, written by Kieron Gillen, with art by Esad Ribić, Matt Wilson, Guiu Villanova, Ryan Bodenheim, Chris O’Halloran, Dustin Weaver, Kei Zama, Pasqual Ferry, Dean White, Lucas Werneck, David Curiel, Michele Bandini, and VC’s Clayton Cowles. Expanding to Judgment Day we’d add 36 more issues to be fully completist (21 for more sane people, 15 for actually sane people). This is a ridiculous number of comics. I’m sure there are people who would argue against this point, but: it’s not only perfectly fine to just read this one collection, but is so far the way I would recommend reading the event.
The bloat described above is indicative of event comics, so I can pretty easily forgive A.X.E.: Judgment Day on that front. Sure, there’s an excessive number of issues directly related, and a bunch of lead-up ones too. That’s how events work! Unfortunately, it also has problems less objective, such as character utilization, thematic repetitiveness, and a somewhat lackluster ultimate message. All that said, I promise this is still a comic I did, in fact, enjoy.
Eternals is a comic that I think had a lot of flaws. It took too long to get going, and by the time it did, it really only got one more arc, half of which had to lead up to Judgment Day, where most of the preceding 15 issues were recapped to various degrees, because why would you assume anyone read an Eternals comic? The thing is, though, one of the core ideas of the series was that the Eternals are incapable of change, because they are designed to fulfill strict roles within a machine.
Thematically, this works perfectly with the idea of corporate superheroes. They can change within certain parameters, but ultimately, they need to snap back into place, right next to Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wolverine (or Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman). They can’t change; there are bottom lines, and pockets to fill.
Judgment Day extends the metaphor, initially by judging the characters for and within their roles. How have they done? Have they lived up to their own designs? I do think it’s more shallow than what we get within Eternals, but that’s what you get with event comics. It makes for a cynicism in superhero comics that’s less The Boys and more…thoughtful.
That all works for me, but it does fall flat in the end, where it effectively ends with the open-ended judgment by way of a new, eternal god. Which isn’t really any kind of development. As a metaphor, it’s certainly meta, but it’s also repetitive, within Judgement Day itself, the larger Eternals story Gillen was part of telling, his wider work, and even popular media like The Good Place which Gillen was certainly a fan of. At a certain point, the statement isn’t of value within the Marvel Universe, but instead a criticism of its own genre, where the larger—read “more important”—the story, the blander.
Okay okay, onto something I liked more; the Steve Rogers of it all.
Captain America might be my favorite character across Marvel. You can play him earnestly straight, you can play him as cynical as any, you can use him to represent the best that we can be, the horrors of American militarism and colonization, and you can mix and match to your pleasure. He’s versatile, has an amazing supporting cast that includes basically every Marvel character ever, and a lineage of characters that pair with him in entertaining and interesting ways, from Cyclops to Deadpool. It’s also incredibly easy to get all of those wrong, and end up with a boring or offensive story. Judgment Day manages to thread that needle, with a slight caveat.
Now, it took a while into the story for the Steve here to really click for me. It felt very hokey, very cheesy, played too earnestly optimistic for my taste. It’s a valid take, and, frankly, an easy one to run with, especially when contrasted with the more cynical Rogers of the ’80s. He’s a little annoyingly good. Things get more complicated once the judgments start getting handed out, though.
Captain America failing fits perfectly with the themes of the book, and it’s just a good chance to say America is a mess within and without. The judgment gets to reframe Cap from being the leader of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into being the romantic war hero fighting a losing battle. Sure, it loses some of its luster by having the heroes save the day, it loses its bite by ditching the tragedy, but at the same time, they didn’t really reverse the judgment, they just bought more time. And I do think the bad leadership allegations prove false across the series. But it ends up using Steve well, and I celebrate that.
There’s plenty of big and small stuff I liked and didn’t like throughout this event. I think Sersi is one of Gillen’s lesser murders, and isn’t really earned. The Proginator’s narration is delightful, and I wish it didn’t drop away in the one-shots. Was it really necessary to tell another story about Tony having feelings about his dad? Schiti and Gracia; does it get any better? Did we really need another mutant genocide? How great was it that we got an event that as branded as a hero vs hero (vs hero) slugfest and it turn out to go away from that two issues in? Do I ever need to see another giant monster in a superhero book?
Ultimately, this was a thoughtful event comic. Of course it was enjoyable, of course it was good; of course it could have been better. Maybe next time, I guess.
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