From the unforgettable Dave Cockrum design to the swashbuckling heart of the X-Men in the pages of Chris Claremont and company’s comics, Nightcrawler has long been my favorite mutant. I remain elated by the opening sequence of Nightcrawler in X2: X-Men United, and forever lament the character’s general absence in the 90s animated series. As the character develops in comics, Kurt Wagner’s Christianity becomes a more integral part of his story, not quite as integral as say Daredevil’s Catholicism, or even Kamala Khan’s Islamic faith, but certainly notable among the X-Men.
Today I’ll Answer:
- What has Nightcrawler’s religion looked like through comics history?
- Is there space for Christianity on Krakoa?
- What does this history tell us about what to expect in 2021’s Way of X and beyond?
In the present, Nightcrawler’s role as the religious thinker among Krakoa’s Quiet Council of mutant leaders leads into the new series, Way of X, in which Kurt’s quest for a mutant religion and finding meaning in this new era of mutantkind takes the forefront. I find it interesting to contemplate how Kurt’s Christianity has progressed through the decades, where it’s lead to, and what it means now for the Hickman era of X-Men comics.
The first time we really see Nightcrawler’s religion comes during the original Brood Saga, by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, particularly in Uncanny X-Men #164. Wolverine observes Nightcrawler praying – in Latin no less – and is surprised. It’s a really beautiful moment of developing friendship, as Logan and Kurt briefly examine their diametrically opposed views on finding comfort in religion, with Kurt lamenting how alone Wolverine must feel, and Wolvy saying “I ain’t alone, bub, I got you.”
Crawler’s religion resurfaces significantly during the Uncanny X-Men tie-ins with Secret Wars II (an atrocious Marvel event that disgraces the Secret Wars name, but Claremont is one of the original tie-in masters). Secret Wars II focuses on the nigh all powerful Beyonder coming to Earth, and for the X-Men this leads to events like a showdown with Rachel Summers, Phoenix, and the Beyonder unmaking the New Mutant kids basically on a whim. Following a confrontation with the Beyonder, Nightcrawler, then leader of the X-men, literally flees to church to talk to his priest: “I need to talk Michael, or I shall go mad. I fear have beheld the face of God – only to discover that he is a monster.”
It’s an interesting conversation because in the Marvel Universe beholding literal gods is very much a possibility! Kurt mentions as much, but notes that in comparison to the Beyonder they are as nothing. The Beyonder’s god-like powers, the absolute omnipotence of them, really makes Kurt question his faith, and in the absence of that faith, can’t help but sink into utter despair. I find this whole thread fascinating because growing up with religion, there are a lot of parallels and metaphors that make Nightcrawler’s relationship to God relatable. Drawing strength from prayer in moments of strife, resolving oneself to faith in a higher unknowable power for security… I get that. But when you start to work that relatable situation up against the flippin’ Beyonder, the parallels wash right out the door. In my day to day, the closest I’ve come to seeing the face of God is standing next to Patrick Ewing at an airport urinal. Not quite the same.
This definitely highlights one of the challenges with traditional religions in our world as carried through to the Marvel Universe, the sheer amount of cosmic and supernatural miracle heroes encounter over decades of storytelling. It makes me think of Daredevil in War of the Realms quite literally transformed into a God, and then returning heavily to his Catholic guilt and roots in the pages of the Chip Zdarsky written Daredevil shortly thereafter. Or of Reed Richards somewhat famously espousing a version of atheism or agnosticism to his children in the Matt Fraction written Fantastic Four, in a world where the Fantastic Four literally traveled to Heaven to bring Ben Grimm back to life in the Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo run.
Appropriately, The Beyonder *really* shakes up Nightcrawler. “Thanks to the Beyonder all the things that had meaning for me – that gave my existence purpose – are todt! dead! destroyed! I don’t know who I am anymore Amanda, or even why I am!” This is a recurring theme for me w/ Nightcrawler, and one of the things I admire most about his character, in that Nightcrawler is a Christian who questions. He’s a character with a tremendously empathetic heart, and a deep curiosity to explore and question the dogma and unwavering rigidity that can accompany the worst examples of religious manifestation. Nightcrawler *doubts*, and given everything he’s experienced, he should! Part of faith though – real faith as I understand it – is interrogating doubt, and coming out the other side with newfound perspective. This is often one of Nightcrawler’s greatest strengths.
Not too long after this point in comics, Nightcrawler is knocked into a long coma during the events of the Mutant Massacre, and when he recovers he joins up with Kitty Pryde, Rachel Summers, Brian Braddock and Meggan in Excalibur. There’s less focus on Kurt’s faith during this time period, as the team travels the Marvel Multiverse, in a cross-time caper that lasts long enough to at least make *me* question if there is a God.
I actually think one of the most influential moments in cementing Crawler as deeply Christian occurs in the X-Men 90’s Animated Series, in the opener to Season Four, appropriately titled “Nightcrawler.” Kurt isn’t a part of the 90s animated lineup – much to my eternal chagrin – so this episode gives us his origin. Instead of rescue by Charles Xavier and joining the All-New All-Different X-Men, Nightcrawler is rescued by a monastery after he’s abandoned by his mother (here canonically cemented as Mystique!), and raised to be a monk. Pretty religious! The episode really emphasizes faith and Christianity at the center of Nightcrawler’s world – indeed as viewers, that’s about ALL we see – and somewhat comically remixes the Kurt and Logan scene from the Brood Saga to the point that the episode ends with Wolverine praying in a Cathedral.
This rendition definitely influences the most notable mainstream media debut of Nightcrawler, in X2: X-Men United. I’ll always love X2, and the opening flash of the hypnotized Nightcrawler assassin absolutely astonished me.
This commitment to Christian Kurt extends As X-Men comics entered the 2000s, writer Chris Claremont returned to the franchise to write X-Men #100, and opened with a revelation: Kurt has become a priest! Now, if you’re thinking when in the wide world of Young Popes did Nightcrawler become a priest, don’t worry, it’s a frequently overlooked period that didn’t last too long! I’ll admit this one vexed me for a long time, too, because Claremont opens with Crawler’s priesthood as if that had been alluded to in previous comics, but as far as I’m aware it’s a sudden Claremont-verse development that begins here, as part of a Hickman-esque 6 months later mysterious time gap!
Nightcrawler’s serenity as a priest is quickly disturbed by Claremont’s introduction of the Neo (aka x-men theorists favorite go-to reference – it’s not happening neo-heads!), as he and Doctor Cecilia Reyes are repeatedly pushed into violent confrontation with the evolutionary up-and-comers. We see Crawler praying, espousing the gospel, and primarily requesting and attempting to grant absolution for the violence that comes as part of being a hunted mutant.
Priest-Crawler has limited appearances, and for my money, some of the most interesting come in the all but forgotten 4 issue 2001 Magik miniseries by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Liam Sharpe. The mini comes after Amanda Sefton – Kurt’s former romantic interest – takes over as the new Magik, ruler of Limbo, and brings in the new Priest into a eldritch adventure through all the splinter realms of demons and chaos, as Crawler and Amanda confront Limbo, Nightmare, Mephisto, Dormammu, and a whole lot more. The mini doesn’t dig too deeply into the question, but it’s yet another example of Nightcrawler literally bearing witness to the hordes of hell in all sorts of variety.
Now, as for why we don’t hear more about Nightcrawler’s time as a priest, that’s primarily because the most notable examples of story occur during the Chuck Austen run on Uncanny X-Men, and if you’re familiar with “The Draco” (when Austen tells us Nightcrawler’s father is literally the demon Azrael), you know this run is notoriously considered some of the worst Nightcrawler storytelling of all time.
I’m not willing to label myself an Austen apologist, but as I’ve discussed, since I didn’t experience this run in the moment, I definitely don’t have the same widely accepted resentment a lot of fans carry. And honestly, I’m regularly impressed, or at least surprised given the reputation, by Austen’s *attempts* to have real conversations and tackle real subject matters in the pages of X-Men. In “Holy War,” Austen opens with captions telling us more people have died in the name of religion than cancer (and we try to cure cancer), and is quite clearly wrestling with evil done in the name of religion throughout the story. Heavy topics, and not necessarily handled with kid gloves.
Of course, then we come to the *plot* and the wheels fall off. Or, more accurately, the communion wafers explode. Stay with me here because we are about to go *on a ride*. In “Holy War,” aka Uncanny X-Men #423 and #424, the Church of Humanity – a violently anti-mutant religious sect – literally crucifies a number of mutants on the front lawn of the X-Mansion, including Jubilee and long-time Gen-X’er Skin, who dies here. The grotesque murders are Austen’s way of showcasing how scripture can be manipulated and interpreted to cause widespread pain, malice and hate. Shortly after Cyclops dresses him down and shouts “Are you brain dead!” Kurt mentions his priesthood, and the X-Men all wonder why they weren’t invited to the ceremony. Kurt thinks *they were*, and it’s revealed that Kurt’s journey to Priest was all an extremely elaborate hoax by the Church of Humanity, part of a plot to make Nightcrawler the Pope. I’ll pause here to provide space for you to stop laughing.
Why did the Church of Humanity want Pope-Crawler, aside from the fact that those comics would have been INCREDIBLE? Well, they planned to remove his image inducer during a Pope-speech, revealing that instead of looking exactly like Jude Law in a speedo, Kurt was devilishly blue, and this would convince Catholics the world over that the mutant anti-christ had infiltrated the church, driving mutant hatred crusades everywhere. Oh, and exploding communion wafers would explode priests all around the world to make it look like the rapture happened, and enter revelations. It’s a WILD PLAN.
So yes, Priest-Crawler is actually retconned to have never happened (which is kind of hilariously ok with Kurt because he couldn’t give up temptations of the flesh anyway), and again, shortly thereafter it’s also revealed Kurt’s the son of a demon and Mystique. Plot insanity aside, I do find a lot of value in considering yet another example where Kurt placing his faith fully in God – literally to the point of an intended priesthood – is met with horror. To say Nightcrawler’s faith has been challenged is an understatement: Nightcrawlers faith is especially interesting when you see the direct ways Christianity is twisted in X-Men alone.
Religion is and will always be a sensitive topic for many readers, and I continue to find Nightcrawler’s positive, curious, and evolving relationship a benefit to the X-Men universe because it opens it up to the kinds of epistemological and cosmological questions we’re seeing tackled in Way of X. In the My Marvelous Year reading club, I’ve definitely seen religious readers bristle at the portrayal of Christianity in the Claremont-verse, most notably in God Loves, Man Kills, where evangelical preacher William Stryker manipulates his religious influence into an anti-mutant crusade. Despite his demonic appearance, despite everything he’s seen, despite so many examples of religion gone bad, despite literal temptation from the devil himself, Nightcrawler consistently provides hope in the face of all this.
One of the wildest wrinkles in all of Nightcrawler’s religious exploration is that following his death in the “Second Coming” crossover, Nightcrawler literally goes to heaven, which is where we find him in the quietly underrated Amazing X-Men story “The Quest for Nightcrawler.” Which to me sure feels like one of those “take the doubt out of the equation” kind of developments. Nonetheless, because Nightcrawler ultimately sacrifices his place in heaven to keep Azrael trapped, and Kurt returns to Earth (more or less fulfilling his own mutant death and resurrection well before Krakoa), the sequence puts him on a path to what we see in the Hickman era of X-Men. If the Catholic journey was always faith rewarded with a heavenly afterlife, what happens when that afterlife is actually just a part of the journey?
Given this development, and the “Death of Death” in the Krakoa era of X-Men, a new mutant religion makes a lot of sense. On one hand, I think it’s always made some sense, given human religions weren’t ever built for mutantkind, and that we see so many branches of Christianity vilify mutants. I don’t think all mutants should just instantly reject their faith, particularly as it pertains to their human culture and heritage, but it’s hard to look at a literal translation of known religions and see them fitting into the Marvel-verse, without even a mention or hint about how the teachings apply to mutants.
One thing I quite like about Nightcrawler’s approach to mutant religion in Way of X #1 is he looks at all these massive questions about mutant souls and the essence of being and says “Obvious questions. Stupid questions. Because they would not change how we truly live.”
Mutant religion as a path to purpose, as a foundational set of principle for living… this makes a lot of sense. And I think what we can expect Kurt to determine is that his purpose – remember, very much in question from our doubting Nightcrawler – is to provide others with purpose of their own.