Dial H for History: NIGHTCRAWLER, Conscience of the X-Men

Dial H for History: NIGHTCRAWLER



It was a sad day for X-Fans yesterday, as one of Marvel's Children of the Atom met their end in the pages of X-Force #26. For those of you who haven't read the issue -- or our review on the Mothership -- feel free to check out one of the many other articles and columns Newsarama has to offer. Because this column is SPOILERS AHOY. But for all your True Believers, get ready to Dial H for History, for a true fan favorite X-character...

...Kurt Wagner. The blue mutant teleporting elf, affectionately known as Nightcrawler.

Kurt met his end at the hands of Bastion in X-Force #26, when the robotic mutant hunter shoved his arm in the middle of Kurt's teleport stream. Yet Nightcrawler didn't give up -- despite having Bastion's arm lodged through his chest, he had the will to make one last jump, carrying the Mutant Messiah Hope back to Utopia and disabling Bastion... at least for a little while.

While Craig Kyle and Chris Yost focused on this last issue on the religious side of Kurt Wagner -- with his final words being "I believe in you" -- that's far from the character's only facet. In many ways, Kurt has been the heart and soul of the X-Men for 35 years. He has been a comedic foil, a man of faith, the moral compass for a team that has occasionally been prone to bending the law. But where did he begin? Believe it or not, the character was almost born in the 30th century.

Perhaps that's looking at it a little glibly -- originally, Nightcrawler wasn't going to be an X-Man, or even a Marvel character at all. The character was originally designed by Dave Cockrum to be a member of the Outsiders, a new team set in the universe of the Legion of Superheroes. Originally envisioned during Cockrum's tour in the Navy, "this Nightcrawler wasn't a nice guy," the artist recalled. "He was nasty, vicious and animalistic. He ran up and down the sides of buildings... he came and went in bursts of flame and brimstone--I kept that part, later on--and he had a prehensile tail. He was a very frightening character."

Yet after Cockrum learned of Jack Kirby's character The Demon, Nightcrawler got a slight revision in 1973, as the artist hoped to bring him into the Legion universe. As opposed to being a demon, Nightcrawler was now an alien named Balshazaar, who came from another dimension. Although he "wasn't quite as nasty as the original Nightcrawler," the character in this incarnation was not meant to be, Cockrum recalled in an interview with Fantagraphics, as Legion editor Murray Boltinoff said Nightcrawler was "too weird looking."

 While it might been stinging for Cockrum at the time, it proved beneficial two years later, when another struggling team needed a little bit of Wagner in their lives. In 1975, the Uncanny X-Men weren't so uncanny. Sales had slumped for Marvel's merry mutants to the point where the series had been in reprints for years, and interest in the team was nil. And at that time, Cockrum, along with Len Wein, were able to introduce a brand-new band of mutants, bringing together Cyclops, Wolverine, Banshee, and Sunfire, and introducing to the world Colossus, Storm, Thunderbird and -- you guessed it -- Nightcrawler.

On his introduction, of course, Nightcrawler wasn't quite a nice guy. A circus acrobat who also doubled as the carny freak, Kurt Wagner was chased from the village of Winzeldorf, Germany by a torch- and pitchfork-wielding crowd. Just on the first page alone, you could feel the central premise of the X-Men begin to crackle: This was a character who was feared and hated because he was inexorably, inescapably different. "Monster, is it?" Kurt said, in his first words as a realized character. "The fools! It is they who are the monsters -- they with their mindless prejudices!" Yet the villagers' sheer numbers were ready to end Kurt's heroic career before it even began -- until Charles Xavier telepathically paralyzed them all. Making Kurt the offer of a lifetime, Xavier's words proved to be prophetic: "I can help you find your true potential."

And that potential ran deep. Within six months, Len Wein had left the title, and his co-writer Chris Claremont took the reins, ushering in one of the most popular runs of the X-Men of all time. And out of all the charsacters, Nightcrawler was the one who got the greatest personality makeover -- initially a combative, brooding type in his first appearance, he ultimately became the comic relief, a jester in demon's clothing, a swashbuckler who tried to laugh his problems away, even if had more reason than any to feel awkward and ugly. In other words, he was a character with whom many readers could relate -- as well as could his creator. "Frankly, Kurt was me in the X-Men," Cockrum recalled. "He was my opportunity to vicariously live the adventures in the company of a great bunch of characters. I always figured if I was blue and athletic as hell, I'd behave just like he did. So you see why I take it personally when somebody messes with him."

Through those halcyon days, Nightcrawler served as a member in good standing with the X-Men, as they battled the Hellfire Club, the Shi'ar Empire, and, eventually the Dark Phoenix herself. And while Claremont had played up Nightcrawler's comedic sense, he also began to bring up the question of faith -- when the X-Men battled Dracula, Nightcrawler wielded a cross on the Lord of the Vampires. While Wolverine had previously tried that to no effect, Nightcrawler managed to win out, shouting "I believe!" In a later arc, when the X-Men were impanted with embryos from the Brood, Kurt prayed for strength. While his colleague Wolverine said "I believe in nothin' -- never have, never will," Kurt replied "I never realized how utterly, inescapably alone you must be." In many ways, Nightcrawler and Wolverine were the ultimate odd couple -- the sinner and the saint, the killer and the hero, and the best of friends.

But all of Kurt's victories came to a screaming halt when he fought alongside the X-Men in the Mutant Massacre in 1986. With Mister Sinister and his band of Marauders systematically murdering the underground colony of mutants known as the Morlocks, the experience proved traumatic for much of the team. Having been previously weakened by a run-in with the future Sentinel Nimrod, Kurt was hit point-blank by the Marauder known as Riptide -- beaten and slashed hundreds of times, Kurt was wounded so badly that he lapsed into a coma. And while he was out... his worst nightmares came true. The X-Men, fighting a demonic being known as the Adversary, sacrificed themselves on live television. While the Children of the Atom in fact survived their ordeal, hiding away in the Australian outback, Kurt awoke to devastating news. He was a team player without a team -- at least, for a little while.

Adventure came calling for Nightcrawler soon, however, as he, Rachel Summers and Shadowcat joined Captain Britain and his girflriend Meggan on a mission in the UK to fight the Technet. The sword was drawn, and in 1987, the team Excalibur was born! While the series originally played on Captain Britain's alternate universes and Chris Claremont and Alan Davis's British heritage, the series began to have struggle after Claremont left the book. But as writers switched and the book began to jettison Captain Britain in favor of the former X-Men, Kurt Wagner became front and center, eventually succeeding the Captain as the team's leader.

The transition was not always easy, however -- while he found love in the Shi'ar native Cerise, the two were split apart when Cerise was found guilty of interstellar war crimes. Additionally, as the anti-mutant politician Graydon Creed began to exert more and more influence, Nightcrawler teamed up with Rogue to save his life -- all the while learning that the shape-changing assassin known as Mystique was his birth mother. As Warren Ellis took over the book, introducing a moodier setting and darker characters like Pete Wisdom, Nightcrawler's outlook became tinged, as well, as he jettisoned the original circus togs in favor of a pirate-inspired buzzcut and goatee, paired with two swashbuckler's swords.

Yet Excalibur was never able to maintain its sharpness -- or its sales -- and by 1998, on the series' 10th anniversary, the team disbanded. Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, and Colossus rejoined the X-Men, who battled a rogue Cerebro. The status quo would change quickly, however, as Chris Claremont returned to the X-Men, jumping the team ahead with a six month gap. In that time, Nightcrawler's faith became his defining characteristic, as he studied to become a priest. Like any dramatic change, however, there were plenty who were not happy -- including Cockrum himself. "I didn't approve when Chris Claremont turned him toward the religious business, but by that time I was off the book and didn't have any say any more," he recalled. "I hated the whole priest business, both because it offends my personal beliefs, and because storywise, it won't work. A potential priest has to spend years in a theological seminary first. When did Kurt have the opportunity? And is there anyone out there who believes the Catholic Church would ordain someone who looks like Kurt? I think not."

One of the more controversial stories to come out of that era was when Grant Morrison took over the X-Men line, adopting a more militaristic, uniform feel in keeping with the X-Men films. While Kurt Wagner didn't make the cut for Morrison's "main" X-team of Professor X, Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, and the Beast, he did get ample screen time under the controversial run of Chuck Austen. Austen's run on the character began with him fighting several religion-based villains known as the Church of Humanity, who attempted to manipulate his dual roles as mutant and minister to their own ends. Kurt, disillusioned by the Church's mental assault on him, ended his role as priest. Meanwhile, with the story "Draco," it was revealed that Kurt Wagner's father was in fact a "demonic mutant" named Azazel. The story proved controversial, and has not been referenced since. "'Draco' got some negative response, but we were trying to do our best and put out something that everyone would like," Austen said later to Comic Book Resources. "And we failed. [laughs] No one died."

Ironically, since that time, Nightcrawler has had less and less screen time among the X-Men. Joining Storm's team of the Uncanny X-Men, he served in the team in good stead until the X-Men moved to San Francisco. Yet the character's popularity never really faded -- allegedly even Dan Slott had requested to use the character for his Mighty Avengers team. But in many ways, Nightcrawler's appearances were less and less frequent, as Matt Fraction took over the book for the Manifest Destiny storyline. With Kurt's role as a teleporter being largely taken by new character Pixie, his appearances became more infrequent, even as he served on a team of X-Men who battled the hordes of Limbo during the X-Infernus event. Finally, in Second Coming, Nightcrawler met his end, as he saved the Mutant Messiah at the cost of his own life.

Of course, in an industry where death means nothing, I imagine that we're far from seeing the last of Nightcrawler. Kurt Wagner's appeal has taken him far beyond the mainstream Marvel universe -- he's had appearances as an abused mutant soldier in Ultimate X-Men, has been in several video games including X-Men Legends and Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and has been a beloved supporting character in X-Men Evolution and Wolverine and the X-Men. With healers, alternate dimensions, alien science and time travel, there's always room for another good story for another good character. And Nightcrawler, with his humor, his powers, his resonance with the social issues inherent to the X-Men and his unique visual style is not just a good character, but a great one -- but in any case, with his long and storied legacy, it's clear that Kurt Wagner went out not with a bang... but with a BAMF!


Twitter activity