If you look at the history of Kurt Wagner AKA Nightcrawler with the X-Men, you’ll find that two very different versions of the character exist. There’s the mutant we met way back in 1975's Giant Size X-Men #1, a kind-hearted German who has been through a hell of a lot and is also a hell of a lot of fun. This is 'Fuzzy Elf,' the guy who has your back in a fight and the stool beside you at the bar. This is the guy who loves a passionate romance, the chance to entertain, and the occasional pirate ship. He was the first X-Man who couldn’t hide who he was, and often suffered for it. Yet somehow he found a way to celebrate life for the friendships and adventures that it has to offer.
Then there’s Kurt Wagner the Catholic. This is the earnest believer who clutches rosaries, prays in empty churches, and loves a self-pitying monologue about faith almost as much as he enjoys lecturing people about morality. This Kurt pops up after everyone’s favorite extradimensional deity the Beyonder shows up in Uncanny X-Men #196, casting Kurt’s faith in doubt. (There has never been a bigger hint that Kurt is bisexual than the fact that after just one look at a hot guy in a white suit he’s wondering if he’s worshipping the wrong God.)
Catholic Kurt fully metastasizes years later in X-Men #100 when Chris Claremont, who had just come back to write the X-Men for the first time in nine years, decides to make him a priest-in-training. You’d think I would have liked that, because at the time I was a Catholic priest-in-training, too. But I found it pretty much the worst thing ever done to the character, and I’ve hated everything about it ever since.
How to ruin a good mutant
I’ve been an X-Man fan since Claremont and John Romita, Jr., and while Kurt was never my first fave, I always liked him. He was a constant leaven in the storytelling, somebody who seemed to make every story better.
Making Kurt a priest did not emerge from pre-existing developments in his story; in fact that was the whole point of doing it. X-Men #100 began a six-month time jump in the X-line, as well as Claremont’s first issue back. He wanted to shake things up. And so we see Kurt on page one of issue 100, decked out in altar server robes, praying and looking positively beatific. It worked alright at first, as he and Cecilia Reyes fight the Neo, the latest in Claremont’s series of 'Whole New Teams of Super Powered Characters Who Come out of Nowhere and Inexplicably Want the X-Men to Die.' His warmth and generosity remain clear. But warning signs loom; every single conversation with Kurt ends up having something to do with faith or God.
As Kurt’s story continues first under Claremont, then Joe Casey— who imagines Kurt graduate from being seminarian into a full-blown priest, his costume begins to include a clerical shirt under a sort of jaunty cassock. He gets more and more angst-ridden and preachy. Suddenly every Kurt story is a crisis of faith, and his plotlines always involve churches, crucifixions, demons or angels, sometimes ridiculously so. When a bunch of kids overdose. on the newest street drug, where does Kurt find them? In a church, of course. You know, where kids always go to get high.
In the end, Chuck Austen, who took over from Casey, retcons the entire priest plotline into an elaborate hoax. Kurt’s belief that he had been ordained a priest was a complete fiction; the racist Church of Humanity had used a mutant psychic to brainwash him into believing this had happened and he was now serving at an actually-abandoned church in Brooklyn so that they could eventually make him the Pope. Once they accomplished that apparently-way-easier-than-anyone-realized feat, they would shut down the holographic image inducer that Kurt used to make him look like an ordinary person rather than a blue furry demon at a key moment. And this—*deep breath*—would supposedly cause Catholics worldwide to believe Satan now ran the Catholic Church (that’s right, Satan is actually blue), and so all the Catholics would reject the faith, turn instead to the Church of Humanity and together murder all the mutants and rule the world. Also there would be a fake rapture that involved church communion wafers, because it just didn’t seem like their plan had enough parts without that…
Given how confusing this whole plot (and that last paragraph) was, you might think that would be the end of Kurt and Catholicism for a while. But Nightcrawler’s stories going forward kept on hammering religious themes. There was the time nobody likes to mention when Kurt found out his dad was an actual demon or the time that he died to save the mutant messiah Hope Summers and went to Heaven for his good deeds but then had to leave after his demon dad used him to invade Heaven or the years after that he spent depressed because he lost his soul when he left Heaven. What had been just one aspect of his character became pretty much the only thing most writers saw in him.
Everybody dance now
And here’s the thing I hated: Kurt's faith was devoid of joy. Basically, he was a sad dude with a rosary.
Don’t get me wrong: there is a strain of Catholicism and also the Catholic priesthood that is all about self-flagellation and condemnation. And it is just as sick and soul-killing as most of the last 30 years of Kurt’s publication history.
But at the heart of Christianity is the belief in a God who created both the world and us in all our complexity, absurdity and messiness. We even say God created us “in God’s own image.” That’s an incredibly bold claim to make. And with it the life of faith becomes in part about believing that our lives are fundamentally good, and that our experiences, including not just the all-ages stuff of family and friends and puppy dogs and sunsets, but hot sex and cold beer and all the messiness of real life, are blessings from God, gifts. It’s true, we worship a God who died on a cross, but as a result, we believe sacrifice should be an expression of love and hope, not of self-hatred. Our faith is most fully lived out not in obeying some guy in a funny hat (or helmet) but in having the courage to be ourselves and to help others do the same.
Fuzzy Elf Kurt, AKA the guy that Logan drank with and Amanda Sefton slept with and Rachel Summers absolutely did not sleep with (do not get me started), the guy that wasn’t afraid to feel stuff and have fun and take risks for love or friends—that’s exactly what a happy Catholic is meant to look like. Honestly, he’s the kind of guy I’ve aspired to be as a priest, too, someone open and funny and free.
When Marvel made Kurt an actual priest they took all of those qualities away. Watching him careen depressed and confused through years of publication was like seeing Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Someone please get this poor man a pillow.
Let us retire to the crucible of repair
When I heard Si Spurrier was going to build a whole book about faith on Krakoa around Kurt, I died a little inside. I love Spurrier’s work on X-Men Legacy, Legion, and elsewhere (his recent Hellblazer run was so damn good), but come on, man. Give us back our Fuzzy Elf.
Gradually, though, Way of X won me over. It’s true, at the beginning Kurt lives in the attic of an abandoned building with nothing but a crucifix, his journal, and a Bible, and spends a lot of time telling people what they shouldn’t want, like he’s decided to live in the delusion he’d been fooled into by the Church of Humanity. Might as well paint it black and call it the Shame Spiral.
But one of the clear missions of the X-Office in the Krakoan Age has been the resurrection not just of dead characters, but ruined ones. From Greycrow, Lorna, and Betsy to I-can’t-believe-I’m-saying-this but Vulcan, Nanny, and Fabian Cortez, the new line of X has persistently taken characters that got broken somewhere along the way and tried to repair the damage.
And so over the course of Way of X we see Kurt learning that his dogmatic way of thinking about life - AKA the pigeonhole he’s been boxed into by writers over the years–is just plain wrong. Death on Krakoa can truly be a means of liberation and rebirth; sex is neither just for procreation nor just “empty desire,” as he says to Stacy X in Way of X #3–seriously, Kurt? It is company and companionship. And the fact that Kurt thinks his motives are pure doesn’t mean he’s not capable of being a pretty bad guy, as he discovers after repeatedly ignoring the struggling mutant Lost because he’s busy “saving” Krakoa.
Confronted repeatedly by his own failures and arrogance, by the end of Way of X, Kurt finally begins to let go of a lot of his melancholic narcissism in favor of a wise generosity, a renewed daring to "Try. Something. New." He even allows himself to be playful, saving a more and more overwhelmed Gorgon from accidentally killing bystanders in Central Park through a series of pratfalls that distract him from his fear. In the end Kurt decides his mission is to help nurture "the spark" of life in Krakoa, the "innovation and risk and mischief and courage." That is the Kurt I met in the ‘80s in a nutshell, the character that I know and love.
As a priest I deeply appreciate the X-writers’ insistence that no one is beyond salvation, that past all our crucibles lies a chance at new life. As a fan I also admire the hell out of the work they’ve done to make those resurrections feel earned. After all these years I’ve finally gotten to see the real Kurt again; he really is one of the best Catholics I know.
Interested in the future of the MCU? Check out this Popverse piece-- As Marvel Studios plans the next decade of the MCU, it's time for them to forget phases and think bigger.