[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
John Romita Jr. has drawn hundreds upon hundreds of gorgeous images in dozens and dozens of Marvel Comics, including an underrated run on Uncanny (which I’ll cover eventually, of course). So it’s hard to imagine that he ever produced something that wasn’t beautiful. But, back in 1980, he penciled X-Men Annual #4, one of the least exciting X-Men stories in the Claremont canon.
The issue is an extended riff on Dante’s “Inferno,” right down to the baroque chapter notations: Part the Second, Part the Third, etc. (Claremont will notate his chapters of the 1988 “Inferno” crossover in the same fashion, but the only thing the latter “Inferno” shares with Dante is the title.)
The story is notable for the partial origin of Nightcrawler, revealed at long last in the comic’s final few pages. But before that is a monotonous team-up between the X-Men and Dr. Strange -- whose series Claremont also wrote at the time -- as they slog through a dreary recreation of Dante’s conception of Hell (actually an illusion by a sorceress out for misconceived revenge on Kurt).
Though Romita Jr.’s storytelling is ambitious in places, his figures are awkward throughout, and the choreography of his action sequences is far below the standard set by John Byrne. Bob McLeod’s inking is much softer than Terry Austin’s, and while this leads to some very expressive faces in various close-up shots, it more often contributes to the visuals’ overall mushy feel.
Claremont hardly seems more inspired. With the exception of one of Hell’s demons quoting the emcee from “Cabaret” at one point, the dialogue demonstrates little imagination or flair, the characters simply stomping through the requisite action sequences in tedious, by-the-numbers fashion.
Still, the story has a place in X-Men history. It is the first comic to reveal that Kurt is a Christian (and, of more incidental interest, that Colossus is an atheist). The contradiction is rather fascinating – a Christian who looks like a demon – and will be explored shrewdly (if at little depth) several times over the course of Claremont’s run.
As for “Nightcrawler’s Inferno,” the more absorbing material occurs at the end, when Claremont reveals that Nightcrawler was raised by an adoptive mother, a gypsy witch called Margali Szardos, alongside her two maternal children, Jemaine and Stefan. Kurt eventually became romantically involved with Jemaine, and later still was forced to kill Stefan – who’d somehow become a murderer of children – in Winzeldorf. This is what led to Nightcrawler’s first appearance in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 (the villagers were chasing him not simply for his appearance, but because they thought he was guilty of Stefan’s crimes).
As backstory for Kurt, this all is more convoluted than it probably needs to be, though the strangeness of it all would be mitigated if there were a sense that Claremont wanted to take all this somewhere. There are hints that he does (Dr. Strange is intrigued by the existence of Margali and her family, and asserts that he must investigate them further) but, at least in the pages of X-Men, Claremont never goes on to explore any of this.
The only lasting effect of X-Men Annual #4 is the revelation on the penultimate page – that Jemaine (or Jimaine; both spellings are used in the story) has been dating Kurt for months, in the guise of Amanda Sefton. That comes completely out of left field (although it was retroactively foreshadowed in an interpolated page in Classic X-Men #6).
Since she is a witch like her mother, we eventually see Amanda using her powers in the occasional X-Men comic over the next few years (the first instance occurring after the departure of John Byrne, who disliked the whole idea). Amanda’s new status as a witch is the only change wrought by “Nightcrawler’s Inferno.” If not for that, the entire comic would be entirely inconsequential to the canon. It almost is anyway.
The issue also features the most cringe-inducing final panel of any Claremont X-Men comic. It’s too painful to quote at length; suffice to say it ends with Dr. Strange and Professor X looking with admiration upon the assembled heroes. Dr. Strange intones, “They are heroes.” “They, my dear Stephen,” comes the professor’s tautological riposte, “are the X-Men.”
Let’s move on.