Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #204

[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.]

“What Happened to Nightcrawler?”

In issue 196, Claremont began a very interesting plot thread involving Nightcrawler. Kurt’s experiences with the Beyonder in the two Secret Wars had seriously shaken him, and led him to a fairly reasonable question, given the events depicted in Shooter’s ridiculously unsubtle stories: Is the Beyonder God? Having grown up Christian, Kurt suddenly realizing that God might be a super-villain had greatly undermined his faith.

Here we finally see the follow-through on that thread, as Nightcrawler agonizes over why the Beyonder left him in New York when he transported the other X-Men to San Francisco two issues ago. Wondering if he was left out of the battle because he was judged “not worthy” by the Beyonder, Kurt is now that much more frightened and insecure. In the story’s opening scene between Kurt and longtime girlfriend Amanda Sefton, Kurt laments the fact that being an X-Man is no longer “fun,” and his depression is so acute that he even masochistically makes it worse by breaking up with Amanda – essentially driving away the person in his life who’s closest to him.

From there, the story morphs into a lightweight adventure story that pits Nightcrawler solo against Arcade and Murderworld. Kurt’s tangible victory over the most one-dimensional bad guy in the X-Men’s rogues gallery cheers him up, and by the end of the issue he seems to have recovered his joie de vivre. Importantly, however, Nightcrawler’s victory over his inner demons is entirely false. He hasn’t truly regained his sense of purpose – he’s deluding himself that he has. Judith’s comment at the end spells it out: “If creeps like Arcade didn’t exist,” she says to Kurt, “you’d have to invent him, just to give your life purpose!”

In a subtle way, Claremont uses this seemingly innocuous solo adventure to signal a change in his approach to X-Men that will take hold in 1986. The optimism that characterized so much of his work on the series up until now will slowly begin to drain into the gutters, replaced by an existential bleakness. Right down to the uncertainty of its title, everything in “What Happened to Nightcrawler?” works as a microcosm for where Uncanny X-Men is headed: Nightcrawler faces an existential crisis, but rather than face it head-on, he seeks solace in artificially recreating a now lost era of his life: a time when being a superhero was fun, and the villains were over-the-top gimmick-characters like Arcade. The artificiality of Nightcrawler’s hollow victory is symbolized in his use of synthetic X-Men – note that that the robot Colossus and Storm both wear their Cockrum-era outfits – the costumes they wore back in the “fun” days.

A few years earlier, Claremont would have ended an arc like this with Nightcrawler facing his fears head on and overcoming them (see: Wolverine in the Frank Miller miniseries or Storm in the “LifeDeath” issues). Instead, Nightcrawler gazes into the abyss ... and cannot bear it. He retreats into happy, colorful nostalgia, convincing himself that he’s gotten over his doubts while even Judith, a woman he’s just met, can tell that he’s kidding himself.

On its own terms, Uncanny #204 is not a particularly outstanding entry in the canon – a competent but uninspired entry in the action genre. But as Claremont’s first existentially uncertain X-Men comic, “Whatever Happened to Nightcrawler?” – published in December of 1985 – is more significant than it seems as first, prefiguring story arcs equally dark in tone and theme but much more extreme in scope, which Claremont will produce over the course of 1986.


ba said...

Having read this after the Mojo Madness TPB of Excalibur, a bit of that plot was cleared up for me (Judith, who has apparently since married the prince of england).

I always found nightcrawler to be a multi-dimensional character who they consistently display one-dimensionally. Here's a dude who was saved from being murdered by angry villagers, and yet he very quickly gets established as the jokester. Deeply religious, yet frequently portrayed as something of a ladies' man (or at least very charming with the women, though he's kissed a number of them while written by claremont). Yet, all writers, even Claremont, refuse to write him as all of those at the same time. It's either a "fun-loving" kurt issue, or a "religious" kurt issue, etc.

I'll be interested in seeing what Fraction is going to do with him (he is supposedly leaving the team, due to being "useless" since Pixie can teleport better than he can).

scott91777 said...

This issue left me cold, it didn't seem like it was even a Claremont issue; more like it had been written by a fill in. Also, even thought I haven't been reading along since the start and this was only the second or third Arcade Appearance I've read; I'm already completely bored with him.
And since when does Nightcrawler howl?


I totally agree with your point; he's a multi-layered character who only shows one layer at a time (although, the first appearance of him being mobbed by villagers contrasting with him as the Jokester was, as I'm sure Jason pointed out, the result of Len Wein originally wanting Nightcrawler to have a disposition a bit more like "The Thing" where he hated his appearance and was angry at his situation blah, blah... but it was Claremont and Cockrum who decided to make him into the swashbuckler)

Jason said...

Scott, correct on the Wein/Claremont divide. This is explicitly discussed in an interview with Claremont (I think in the Les Daniels "MARVEL" book.) As for this issue, true, it is not the greatest one in the run -- but doesn't my analysis make you appreciate it totally like way more than you did before?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Ba, what a great point. It seems to speak to a larger perception -- particularly among those stinking Commie liberals -- that religion and fun are not really all that compatible. I hope you'll check in here to let us know whether Fraction finds a new synthesis of Nightcrawler's two previously-separate layers. (Speaking for myself, I plan to eventually read Fraction's run in trades, but for now I only have a vague sense of what he's doing in Uncanny). It would be nice to see someone explore the mind-blowing possibility that a Christian can actually be a fun person to be around.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question that occurred to me an issue or two back:

How do you distinguish (if you do at all) between /Claremont's/ darkening and moral ambiguity and the general descent of 1980s mainstream comics into grimness and grit?

I mean: Judith's final line is an "insight" that was already on its way to becoming a commonplace around this time. We'd see it boiled down into its purest form just a year or two later, in Moore's _The Killing Joke_, but the idea that heroes need villains was already in the air by the mid-1980s.

Similarly, the X-Men going from conservative heroes defending the status quo to renegade - outlaw - anti-government mavericks... well, the renegade, vaguely disreputable super-team had been around since Steve Gerber's Defenders, but by the mid-1980s the idea of anti-establishment, anti-government heroes was all over the place. _Watchmen_ came out at almost exactly the same time as these issues, as did _Suicide Squad_ (a bunch of second-string supervillains working for the government -- IOW, DC's much more successful version of Claremont's Freedom Force). And even the very vanilla, mainstream Avengers had been chafing under a secret-agent minder and government-imposed edicts (remember when the Falcon was forced on them under a racial quota?) since, oh, 1982 or so.

I know you like to say that Claremont Did It First, and sometimes that's true, but in this case I don't think it holds. I think he was exquisitely sensitive to the zeitgeist, and was willing to nudge a mainstream superhero comic in an interesting new direction. The anti-government X-Men would have been impossible in 1966, transgressive in 1976. By 1986 it was... sort of novel, but not really groundbreaking.

Bringing it back to Nightcrawler, I never did like this issue. (I'd completely forgotten it until now.) I mean, Kurt has met Asgardian gods, heralds of Galactus, Proteus, various superpowerful dimension-walking sorcerors, and Dark Phoenix. It never made sense to me that he'd react to the Beyonder as anything but a /really powerful/ super-being. It felt like a forced and artificial interpretation of the character, and not one that led anyplace interesting.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Doug, none of the beings that Nightcrawler's met, with the possible exception of Dark Phoenix and the Molecule Man, is powerful enough to destroy a galaxy instantaneously, like the Beyonder did. And Dark Phoenix and the Molecule Man started out as humans, so he knows there's nothing divine about them.
That being said, it would have been interesting to see if Kurt's faith suffered from meeting Loki and Hela.

Jason said...

Doug, thanks, that is a good thing to keep in mind. I am always doing the Claremont Did It First thing, but in this case he was being more of a follower. Still, what I find intriguing about this issue is Nightcrawler's lack of self-awareness -- Claremont is so very fond of having his heroes overcome their doubts, but in this case Nightcrawler's existential triumph is actually just self-delusion. It is not so much the "heroes need villains" insight that is novel here, as it is the fact that Kurt is entirely burying his existential despair inside his fantasy world. That's why Arcade is such a perfect villain for the story -- his goofiness really doesn't have a place in the ever-darkening 80s, but for Kurt he is the ideal distraction.

And I agree with Michael re: The Beyonder. Partly because yeah, the Beyonder really was portrayed in Secret Wars as just miles beyond any other "cosmic" or "godlike" beings in the Marvel Universe. And also partly because it is just a more interesting reaction to the lame idea that is the Beyonder than what we saw in any actual Secret Wars issue. Shooter just had people react to the Beyonder with slack-jawed awe in the first SW, and in the second the character became a greasy-haired joke. Kurt's reaction was fascinating, I thought, as well as quite logical.

scott91777 said...

I thought the fact that your analysis made me appreciate it more than before went without saying :)

wwk5d said...

"due to being "useless" since Pixie can teleport better than he can"

Now that just made me cry. And not in a good way. Then again, Pixie was never one of the newer generation that I liked, so maybe that's it...

This issue isn't horrible, but is definitely the weakest of the post-200 issues. After the action and cosmic storylines of the last few issues, it's bound to fall a bit flat.

Bye bye, Amanda! We'll see you in a few years on Muir Island.

Teebore said...

Bye bye, Amanda! We'll see you in a few years on Muir Island.

Ha! It's funny cuz it's true.

Franklin said...

The Beyonder was like a child. And whatever else the Lord may be, a child He is not.

The Beyonder, true, may have wielded tremendous cosmic power, but remember that the Molecule Man destroyed him in the, Mephisto almost slew him, too...the Beyonder lacked maturity, discipline and a child toying with a loaded gun.

I think the true supreme Creator God is the One-Above-All.

Anonymous said...

This issue was the first X-Men book I ever read. My friend and I were in second grade and took it from his sister's room thinking it was a porn comic (The "X" and the romantic themed cover). I didn't stop reading Uncanny until the early 300's. It's quite interesting, re-reading it now, to see that I came on board at a very important tide change in the X-Universe. I never encountered the original X-Men (well, there was X-Factor) except in trades and flashbacks. For me, the 'darker' on-the-run X-Men were my team. When Mutant Genesis came along I started to lose interest. Very much looking forward to re-reading the next fifty or so issues.... In my memory Mutant Massacre is the high water mark of comic book lit. We'll see now if it holds up.........