[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.