I Didn't Think Being Dead Would Hurt So Much
The Good, the Sad, and the Blue Velvet of Kurt Wagner, Nightcrawler
by Travis Hedge Coke
I miss Kurt Wagner. I know, we've got his angry twin from another reality and all that, but that's in comics I don't want to read, and it's a take whose primary purpose was to make us glad of the one we usually had. There are TV and movie versions, but those tend to focus on the elements I dislike, to the detriment, or removal of what I enjoy. So, it's back issues and old comics for me.
Old comics is good. I'm perfectly fine only having only old appearances by many characters, designed to be finite or designed for those big shared worlds as Nightcrawler was. But, would it kill Marvel to collect, say, Warren Ellis' EXCALIBUR run in a sensible fashion, or the Cockrums' great NIGHTCRAWLER four-issue miniseries in any form? I can't believe one of the best miniseries Marvel released in the Eighties has never been reprinted or collected. It's criminal. It's unfair. Unjust. It probably wouldn't sell, if they did release a collection, but still. (For me, Marvel, for me!) So, collections can be incomplete, and single issues are often ready to fall apart, because the single issues weren't built to last, they were built to have pop spilled on them, get rolled up, read in the bathtub, thrown around a waiting room for seven months. If someone took good care of the comic, maybe it's in good condition, but it may be costly, and you then have to take care of it, not enjoy it as a piece of entertainment so much as you're caretaking an artifact.
And, there is a drive for new stories of characters you love, right? Particularly serial characters. This drive fuels sequels, fanfiction, reboots, and a thousand million daydreams. But you don't always want alternate versions, sometimes you want your version. Combination of sentimentality, training, and recognizing potential.
Why Nightcrawler? It's a good question. Here is a character whose spinoff versions usually annoy me or I'm mild to, and who, half the canon approaches to Nightcrawler, I don't like. Maybe, more than half. I'll give you clues to which end of the Nightcrawler fanpool I belong to: Is he self-loathing? Is he pursuing the Catholic priesthood, to take vows of chastity and nonviolence? Then that's not my Nightcrawler. See? That's at least half his stories, right? It's most of his appearances outside comics.
But, swashbuckling, good-timing, ethical, insane, patient, sometimes-trying-too-hard Kurt Wagner, that's the stuff. The self-conscious, weird Christian mystic who accidentally killed his stepbrother and off-and-on dated his stepsister for something like twenty-five years' worth of comics. Whose best friends in the X-Men were the hundred year old amnesiac recently freed from government endorsed slavery, who he would fight for beers, and the teenage girl from Illinois who once made up a fairytale in which he was portrayed as a lust-crazed Cabbage Patch Doll. Someone later sewed that doll into actuality and gave it to another kid that hung around with the X-Men, Colossus' sister, Magik. Horny Fanged Munchkin is the best friend a little kid could ever have. (I don't think Claremont analyzed these things when he wrote them. At least, not very far down the extrapolation path…)
"But it doesn't make sense!" cry the Realist brigade. Sense is overrated. And, what doesn't make sense? Don't tell me he hates himself and needs to be superserious because he's German. Because he's had tragedy in his life. Because he's adopted. A lot is made of Catholic Guilt, but I know plenty of Catholics, plenty of religious and spiritual people, deep thinkers even who feel the weight of wrongdoing in the world, who know hurt thoroughly and personally, who aren't riddled with guilt and self-loathing. He looks like a demon to you and me? So does pick-an-ethnicity-out-of-a-hat to some bigoted guy down the road. Self-conscious is one thing, but self-loathing implies, the longer the character is used without it being examined as wrong, that it's somehow acceptable or right for him to hate himself for how he looks or how other people react. The hell, as they say, with that noise. And he wants to be a priest? Why? What part of sex-loving superhero says "Catholic priesthood"?
We trade sense for sensuality because it blooms better, particularly in entertainment.
When Dave and Paty Cockrum did their NIGHTCRAWLER mini, they nicely wiped clean everything I don't enjoy about the character, and they also skipped right past Realism and went with Why Not? Over four issues, Nightcrawler is sent willy-nilly on an adventure from one reality to another, all of them deeply shaped by puns, jokes, swashbuckling, and silliness. It's not an excuse to do "a boggie day in Lun Dun Tun" jokes and steal Kurt's clothes off his back with a teleporter, except in the way that a brick wall is an excuse to use bricks.
Alan Davis' Nightcrawler in EXCALIBUR was light on his feet, quick with his words, and so deeply empathetic and caring that the team's actual empath began to look like him and to say his name in her sleep, so powerfully was she touched by his caring and understanding. Cue her boyfriend trying to pound the brains out of Kurt's head, but this time no sexual overtures were being made and everything ended peaceably. Kurt was so cool and attractive people would flat out ask to feel the fur that covers his body and he just went around being dashing, fighting evil and flirting with everyone.
Greg Rucka and Darick Robertson did a good self-conscious priest take in WOLVERINE where the priest taking confession is in a bar, reminiscent of Erik Larsen's version (also in WOLVERINE) half a decade earlier. Both versions hinge on Kurt listening and in learning as well as teaching and comforting, not on "OMG! I look hideous! I'm a bad person for looking hideous! Christ save me!" which is dumb, will always be dumb, and sounds worse when you add scarification or a cheesy cartoon voice, even if you are Alan Cummings.
It's not that I don't think he should ever be written having a serious moment, or caring. But caring, taking things seriously is not the same as fatalism and self-loathing. Warren Ellis knew that, writing EXCALIBUR, and had Kurt take the role of team leader and moral center. Peter Milligan got it when he tried very sincerely to have a heart to heart in the cafeteria with his birthmother, Mystique, asking her if she'd considered him at all when she infiltrated his home at the Xavier Institute to ruin her daughter's life. Darick Robertson and Alan Davis definitely get it, when drawing him. Dave Cockrum's version almost always looks like he's about to burst into showtunes, but post-Cockrum, post-Claremont, a number of folks try for a balance rather than tipping the scale one way or another.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa skirted the edge with his NIGHTCRAWLER ongoing, but there was no real reason those stories featured Kurt Wagner except that it was, nominally, his series. The sequence of demonic mysteries were well-written stories, good comics, but you could cut and replace the title character with any number of other characters and not even had to restructure more than two beats over the entire series' run. At least he didn't make him a priest…
Joe Casey, for whatever reason, made Nightcrawler an actual, instant and/or secret Catholic priest. Chuck Austen used this to fuel stories of exploding communion wafers and the revelation that the character genuinely was the son of a devil, except, not a genuine devil after all, no, just another mutant who is really old and looks like a demon, too. Because looks.
And, sometime recently, in stories I barely glanced at, he died. And, then, an alternate reality version was brought into the fold in X-FORCE, a title tried to get into with the current writer, but found mostly to be single-note characterizations I sometimes didn't agree with repeated, out of other character's mouths, over and over until a reader, I suppose, is meant to throw their hands up in surrender and accept. No offense to fans of Age of Apocalypse Nightcrawler or of Remender's X-FORCE, but neither is for me, not in that context.
When the AoA Nightcrawler was developed, back in the day, by Warren Ellis and others, his conceit was that he was an inversion of the Kurt we knew. He was too deeply hurt, grown cold and mercenary, bitter and violent. He tears a man's finger off for pointing it at him, in his initial appearance, mocks religious practices in others, and yet, still manages to do good in his life, to be at the core a decent enough guy. It's a funny take, it's hard to weather for even the four issues of X-Caliber ("Named for a bullet. Remember that," as Mystique says in the story), but it's intriguing enough to sustain four issues. As a regularly featured character, it takes more selling for me, and as a replacement for our Kurt, he's at best a constant reminder of what is missed. Which, isn't a bad take, per se, simply not one I feel it necessary to pursue with dollars and reading time.