Monday, 25 February 2013

Nightcrawler in the 616 Marvel Universe

Comic book fans are a strange bunch. We take the adventures of spandex clad fictional superheroes all too seriously, at times. It's a hobby we've invested a lot of time, money and ultimately, ourselves, in. We have our favourite characters, and dammit, we feel strongly about them! It's all in good fun, though, as is this blog.

I'm a fan of the Marvel character, Nightcrawler, (Kurt Wagner) of X-Men fame and originally created by Dave Cockrum. There are others I like, but this is the one that got me hooked on reading comics far too many years ago to bear thinking about. It's also the one that keeps me reading, and keeps the stories relevant. 

He's a novel take on a male superhero. Historically, he's been one of the only adult male comic characters to break out of the testosterone-fest stereotype. He showed a man can be a hero and still be compassionate, as well as get by on thinking rather than just brute strength. In many ways, he was the living embodiment of Professor Xavier's philosophy that acceptance of diversity(mutants, in this case) would only come about through education and understanding, not by force. Nightcrawler never had the option to just blend into normal society and speak out about acceptance when it was safe. That attitude, and the philosophy he espoused, were constants in his life from birth. He also does an incredible job of showing that you should never judge a book by its cover.  

I know I have some pretty strong opinions on how he should be portrayed, what the best era was for him, his current use in the franchise, and so forth. Most other fans I've spoken with seem to feel the same. We can be an outspoken lot. 

I started thinking about the various incarnations of Nightcrawler I've seen over the years, and how different they all were. The guy first introduced in Giant Sized X-Men #1 in 1975 by Cockrum was pretty different from the one who led Excalibur. The profoundly religious iteration used in the final few years -- and the basis for the film version -- was even more different. So, I decided to put a blog together to show his progression over time in the Marvel mainstream universe(616). At this point, I'm not bringing in the ones written as living in other universes. You won't find Nocturne's father here, or the now deceased Ultimate Nightcrawler. I'll bring up Kurt Darkholme (AoA Nightcrawler), and the bamfs because they were used in the main MU for a time. 

So, without further ado... 

As hard to believe as it may be, for the first few issues, Nightcrawler wasn't an especially nice guy. In that brief time, he had little sense of humour, made grandiose statements and seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He also looked far more goblinish or demonic than he did later. This was based on Cockrum's original idea of him being a failed demon with a bad attitude.

Giant Size X-Men #1

He wasn't especially happy with who he was in the beginning, it would seem.

Giant Size X-Men #1

However, shortly in, Kurt's sense of humour started to manifest and it took off. The character found his niche in the team, at the time. He was playful, fun-loving, a little on the irresponsible side and a trickster, but he was happy in his own skin. 

Dark Phoenix Saga

Don't worry, she'll warm up to you. They all will.
Uncanny X-Men #139

Those who knew what it felt like to be different were drawn to the character. Though often reviled and feared for his appearance...

God Loves, Man Kills
God Loves, Man Kills
UXM #139

 ...Kurt Wagner never allowed it to make him bitter.

This was something that really resonated with people. Anyone who'd ever felt like a misfit or that they just didn't fit in could see in Kurt this shining, positive attitude. The person who wrote the letter below says it far better than I ever could.

From UXM #149, letters page

Dark Phoenix Saga

He was given a love interest in the form of Amanda Sefton, a flight attendant. 
UXM #109

She was later used to reveal some of Kurt's mysterious origins, in the UXM annual #4, Nightcrawler's Inferno.

Shortly after birth, Kurt had been taken in by the gypsy sorceress, Margali Szardos, and raised as one of her own children, alongside her son and daughter. Margali practiced a school of magic called the Winding Way, with power that could potentially corrupt its adherents. 
When Kurt and his brother were young, Stefan had asked for a promise, fearful of the legacy he and Jimaine had both inherited from their mother -- that if he should ever go down the dark path, Kurt would stop him. Kurt's heart was broken when he was forced, years later, to keep that promise, resulting in Stefan's accidental death.
In the process of the story, Kurt's girlfriend, Amanda Sefton revealed herself to be his foster/adoptive sister, Jimaine Szardos, who'd been living in disguise for some time by then in an effort to get close to him and discover the truth of their brother, Stefan's fate. 

Ultimately, things didn't work out for them. It was probably for the best considering potential offspring might've felt the need to use labels like "Uncle Daddy" or "Auntie Mom". 

UXM #204

Another aspect of Nightcrawler was that he was a notorious flirt. It was done in good fun, though. It read much like the efforts of a class clown, ingratiating himself to everyone he meets. 
UXM #94

UXM #167
He took his popularity in stride.

UXM #153

The character's compassionate nature and deep caring for his adopted family became apparent early. This started him on the path of becoming, in many ways, the voice of wisdom and the heart of the team. 
UXM #109
UXM #109

His odd couple friendship with the hard-as-nails maverick, Wolverine, was a defining point used to develop both characters. It remains, arguably, one of the most compelling friendship portrayals in Marvel comics over the years.  

Classic X-Men #4, The Big Dare

Nation X #1: Road Trip

Wolverine #140

Another close friendship that developed was with Kitty Pryde. It started out rough.

UXM 144

But eventually became one of his closest friendships. 

Excalibur 83

Something not often remembered is that Kurt was the resident medic, aka a school nurse of sorts. 

UXM #164

As well as a mechanic.

Kurt did a brief stint leading the X-Men in later years, but was shown as not having the confidence to be a very capable one. It didn't go well.

As the X-Men title progressed to a darker tone, Kurt and Kitty were seemingly both considered excess baggage, and written out of the series due to injuries, Nightcrawler in UXM #211. 

They re-emerged a year or so later in Excalibur. 

From the beginning, Excalibur was a new take on Kurt. Many fans of the character, myself included, view this version as the definitive Nightcrawler. 

He was far more assertive. Whereas before, he'd been something of a passive "everyone's friend"type, now he was willing to state his mind emphatically. The character had been tempered by loss, and come out stronger for it.

Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn

He took charge almost from the beginning. Captain Britain was the team leader in name, but severe personal problems prevented him from doing well in the role. The team quickly looked to Kurt for leadership.  It was in this time that the "trickster" aspect of his personality was transformed into a cunning intellect by writers, which characterized him from then on.

Excalibur : The Sword is Drawn

Yet they were careful to maintain his characteristic sense of humour and devilish fun. 

Excalibur #1

Excalibur #1

Also, for the first time, too, he started being depicted as having sex appeal. This was new for a male character in the X-Franchise, and something normally reserved for only female superheroes in such a male dominated hobby. It worked well. Relationships played a dominant role in his character development during the series. He still maintained a universal appeal, but writing him in such a way to draw a female/gay male audience broadened the fanbase. In addition, it didn't detract from the concept any more than it does to write someone like Rogue or Storm to appeal to male readers. 

Excalibur #4

He had some adventures in the series.

Excalibur #16

Swashed a few buckles.

Excalibur #16

Took out some fiends.

Excalibur #62

And generally strutted his stuff.

Excalibur #63

Alas, he and Captain Britain did eventually come to blows over Meggan. So much for playing in the big guy's back garden.

Excalibur #43

His responsibilities in leading Excalibur left him busy. Anyone ever heard of a "bathroom break"?

Excalibur #46

Romance was in the air for him again, this time with Shi'ar alien, Cerise.

Excalibur #55

Excalibur #69

His romantic bliss was not to last, however.

Cerise was arrested and charged with war crimes by the Shi'ar empire. She was written out of the title.

The poor guy was really broken up...

Excalibur #74

...for about five issues. Amanda Sefton reappeared by Excalibur #75. His misery was soon forgotten. Apparently, this family reunion/booty call was just what he needed. 
Excalibur #89

They still had their issues. Among them was a lack of communication.  Another was the fact that their mother was up to no good. 

Excalibur #91
Again, it didn't end well. Maybe looking outside your immediate family would be better as far as romance goes?

It was about this time that something which had been hinted at for years was finally elaborated on.

XM 142

Kurt did have a connection with Mystique. She was, in fact, his biological mother who'd abandoned him at birth in a bid to save her own skin.

XM Unlimited 4
Kurt was overwhelmed with the revelation and the circumstances, though Mystique, true to character, left her feelings about her son ambiguous.

XM Unlimited 4
Their peculiar attitude towards one another has yet to be a focus in the books, though we've been given a few clues.

XM 174

And it was much later embellished further using an AU version of Kurt. It would seem Raven was not as indifferent to her son as she'd led him to believe.

UXF 32

Returning to Kurt's time in Excalibur now, Colossus eventually joined the team, with a mixed reception after pummelling Kitty's new sweetheart, Pete Wisdom.

Excalibur #96

Excalibur #96

Kurt was given a makeover.

Over the series, he eventually progressed to the point where he was a capable and confidant leader of the team. His style of leadership was again, something unique about the character. He was shown to be deep-thinking, he valued the contributions of other team mates, but could draw a hard line in the sand when needed. 

Excalibur #98
Excalibur #109
Excalibur #111

The ending of Excalibur had Kurt, Kitty and Piotr return to the X-Men. The final issue saw his romantic fun in the series catch up with him, poor Fuzzy. This was followed by an emotional farewell after Brian and Meg's wedding.

Excalibur #125
Excalibur #125

And with that, a great title ended, as did an age. Nightcrawler hasn't been depicted quite the same, again.

His initial homecoming to the X-Men proper showed some promise.

UXM #361

Nightcrawler was made a field leader, but old characterization crept back in very early. Things started going wrong and his confidence was undermined.

UXM #364

UXM #366

UXM #366

Then, the unexpected happened. Kurt Wagner and the rest of the team became human, and with that, he realized he'd spent most of his adult life as nothing but an X-Man. He had no idea what to do with himself, whereas the others were perfectly capable of a life outside the team.

UXM #380

Even once his mutation was restored, the revelation from his ordeal led to him eventually join the priesthood. 
UXM #389
This was a drastic change and a far cry from how the character had been previously portrayed, though his faith had been referenced in the past as early as UXM #165.

In and of itself, it might not have been that bad, but with the collar, he also lost almost all of his original personality. He was angsting and melodramatic. 

UXM #415

He was also bitter. Who was this guy? 

UXM #408

We were given some explanation; his head had been mucked with.

UXM #400

UXM #400

Gone was the sense of fun and flare for life, no more flirting swashbuckler and definitely not a down to earth leader. That baby got thrown out with the bath water.

Historically, Kurt Wagner did want to be liked, at least in the early years. He was a performer, after all. 

His fear that he might have been considered a mascot  in the past probably wasn't far off base, all things considered. 

Excalibur #45

However, this wasn't an issue during his stint in Excalibur. He was very capable, and had no trouble making unpopular or difficult decisions when it mattered. 

In my opinion, Marvel seemed more comfortable with Nightcrawler as a clown or background character, at least at the time, rather than someone who might hold a similar role of importance to Cyclops and Storm. If you want to go with characterization, maybe it could be read that he was simply intimidated by leading his old team mates. They certainly showed very little faith in his abilities, other than Kitty and Piotr.

Regardless, within a couple of issues after being called out by Scott, he stepped down as field leader rather than have a confrontation.

Credit where credit is due, however -- Chuck Austen at least got him out of the priesthood. It was via the tried and true method of mind control, but still. 

Welcome to the Draco story arc. It has proven to be one of the most controversial Nightcrawler story arcs to date.

It was intended to reveal Nightcrawler's true origins, but met with teeth gnashing and hair pulling from many readers. 

UXM #432

Meet Azazel. A fun fact with this one was that we never got a clear answer on exactly what Azzy is. He claimed to be a near immortal mutant who gave rise to the concept of Satan in ancient civilizations. He was a member of the Neyaphem, a group of mutants that were the "true" basis for demons, according to the character. Austen tapped heavily into existing Judaic lore with this story. Azazel is historically another name for Lucifer and Neyaphem are 
Nephilim in religious doctrine. With the stroke of the pen, Austen utterly discounts Judeo-Christian dogma as pure myth. There is no God, there is no Devil, only mutants. It didn't go well.

X-Infernus #5
Later, Kurt does refer to himself as the son of a demon, Azazel's comments notwithstanding. Personally, I know some fans who are stridently opposed to this, feeling like it takes away from the character for him to be something other than a straight up mutant. To me, it doesn't. If anything, it shows he was an even stronger man for being able to overcome a demonic heritage and still be the heart and soul of his team for over thirty years.

He became largely a background character following the Draco. There was a brief resurgence of the Excalibur era Kurt when Claremont returned. Again, it seemed relationships might be used for character development. It worked before, so why not?

UXM #450

UXM #445

We also got to see some swashbuckling. Hurray!

UXM #446

He returned to having moxy.

UXM #445

The Nightcrawler solo series, by Aguirre-Sacasa and Robertson, picked up on this vintage characterization and had Kurt as the team's paranormal investigator, a la Constantine.

Nightcrawler #1

Sex appeal and some resolution of old entanglements were forthcoming. 

Nightcrawler #5

Nightcrawler #2

As was some odd humour.

NC v3 #7

If the question has to be asked...anyway.

Some of his history was touched on.

Nightcrawler #7
Nightcrawler #11

And he was reunited with Margali.

Nightcrawler #10

Come to find out, some time ago Amanda had secretly stashed the demonically created and corrupting Soulsword inside her ex-boyfriend -- just for safe-keeping, you know. 

Nightcrawler #10

Nightcrawler #10

This year showed the character in an exciting, relevant light. However, it was too little, too late. The solo was in an already glutted X-Men market and interest was undermined by delays. It was cancelled after twelve issues. Claremont didn't stick around on the main XM title, either. Ultimately, Kurt was dropped back into the overly religious depiction and became nothing more than a very flat supporting character, also known as blue wall paper. This lack of depth and writer use plagued him until the end.

UXM #508

Wolverine Origins #46

There was a brief throwback to old times in the Divided We Stand arc.

Marvel also tried to retcon his origins.

Nightcrawler: Origins

By this, he spent his life before the X-Men in a cage, routinely drugged to perform on call. His name was Kurt Szardos, and it was a "Father Wagner" that took care of him, once he escaped. It really didn't serve to make his back story any less muddled.

Kurt did voice concern about the direction of the X-Men during the early days of Utopia.

Nation X 1

Nation X 1

But it hasn't yet really been followed up on. In the main title, his portrayal of being solely defined and characterized by his religious beliefs was cast in stone, collar or no collar. 

UXM #504

And there was hell to pay in terms of his fate in the franchise.

UXM #502

We waited on him to become relevant again.

UXM #501

Many of us guessed what was coming. The signs were there.

Wolverine Origins #35

X-Infernus #1

With a fun one-shot from Asmus, that sinking feeling was confirmed. As a last reminder of a once great character concept, we got to see a glimmer of the Fuzzy Elf we all knew and loved. 
Nightcrawler Manifest Destiny

He faced down Mephisto and then he got the girl, one last time. 

Nightcrawler Manifest Destiny

UXM #502
But the writing was on the wall.

This is what we got.

X-Force #26

X-Force #26

X-Force #26
UXM #524

My sentiments, exactly.

UXM #524

With Marvel's new policy to add "realism" to the genre, they wanted a death in the Hope Summers storyline -- one that would pull at the heartstrings of readers. Nightcrawler drew the short straw. 

Years of writer apathy had reduced a once outstanding character to someone used only to develop others, like Wolverine, Emma, Storm or Cyclops. He was the best friend, the confidant, the shoulder to cry on or the voice of reason. So, with his death, Marvel used him in that capacity. His "noble sacrifice" tried to make the Hope plot feel relevant and important. It took Wolverine in a new direction. It foregrounded Schism and it apparently gave Emma a few grey hairs. 

It was the end of an era and a brilliant character unlike any other Marvel had ever used. 

The books most assuredly lost something with Nightcrawler gone and no one has come forward to fill that niche in the team he carved for himself so thoroughly. The X-Men titles have seemed empty of both their heart and soul. That laughing, compassionate blue devil that DC once rejected as "too weird looking" was not to be replaced so easily. 

Which brings us to the time following Nightcrawler's death.

Wolverine and the X-Men brought us a school infested with bamfs 

Who apparently aren't bamfs.


Oddly enough, no one acknowledged how much they looked like miniature versions of a dead friend. 

We also saw the arrival of Kurt Darkhölme in the 616 Marvel universe, a somewhat older version of Kurt from an alternate reality.

UXF #11

He's the Age of Apocalypse counterpart to Kurt Wagner, and joined Wolverine in Remender's Uncanny X-Force back in 2011. He was originally introduced in a massive comic event from 1995, named, appropriately enough, Age of Apocalypse.

I found him to be a fascinating dark mirror to the original. Whereas Kurt Wagner's strength of emotion was centered around compassion and his capacity to care, Darkhölme's was wrapped up in rage borne of grief and depression. Kurt Wagner's righteousness became self-righteousness in Darkhölme and Wagner's unswerving determination to adhere to what he believed in became blind obsession in his AoA counterpart. In the interest of readability, I'll go into details about this version of the character and his role in the main Marvel universe in a separate post, as well as his fate in the crossover event, X-Termination. Suffice to say, he worked well to make readers appreciate how positive and lovable the original Nightcrawler had always been and what he might yet become, given the appropriate circumstances. 

In Wolverine and the X-Men #35, we received a hint of things to come. 

WatXM #35

And our patience is being rewarded at long last with the return of Nightcrawler in Amazing X-Men!

AXM #1


In recent years, there was a lot of question over who the "real" Nightcrawler was in reference to the use of a dark AU version brought into the main Marvel universe in Remender's Uncanny X-Force, and a plethora of miniatures infesting Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men

However, when the question of "who is the real Kurt?" does rear its head, it might be best to remember what we're really dealing with here. This is an intellectual property and a conceptual design, a fictional character no different from a concept like Captain Jack Sparrow or Han Solo from other franchises. There is no real Nightcrawler, there is only a character portrayal. That's kind of a no brainer, right? It should go without saying. Still, I thought I'd mention it.