Perfect 10: Nightcrawler by Anna Peppard

Perfect 10 is a series of essential recommendations that fully encapsulate a comic character – 10 desert island picks of runs, single issues, arcs, etc – curated by Comfort Food Comics.

  1. Nightcrawler Vol. 1 #1-4 (1985)
    Dave Cockrum (writer/artist), Paty Cockrum (colors), Jim Novak (letters)

I’m incredibly serious about this utterly ridiculous comic in which Nightcrawler and Lockheed the dragon fall through a holographic wormhole in the Danger Room into a series of alternate dimensions in which Kurt fulfills his lifelong dream of becoming a pirate, nearly becomes the consort of a beautiful princess, meets dozens of mini versions of himself, sword fights a sentient shark, and is nearly killed by a six-shooter wielding cowboy dinosaur named “Cretacious Sam.” In some ways, this story stars a relatively primitive version of Kurt Wagner. He’s not as complex as he’ll become in later stories (like the next one on this list), where his lust for high-fantasy swashbuckling will be tempered with self-conscious doubt. But in other ways, it’s the perfect Nightcrawler story, because it lets Kurt be his best self in a playground created specifically for him. That’s by design. Dave Cockrum, who originally developed Nightcrawler as a character for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes universe, had a special affinity for Kurt. According to Cockrum: “I originally pressed for the swashbuckling persona because that reflected my personality, and I felt that Kurt represented ME in the book.” This affinity helps make this series something of a treatise on the loveable-ness of Nightcrawler, who tends, in any era, to inspire especially intense and diverse affiliations. In the regular world of X-Men comics at this time, Kurt was an outsider among outsiders, the only active X-Man incapable of passing for human, and the first to be born with his physical mutations. Here, in this comic, no one bats an eye at Kurt’s tail and blue fur, but his experience as an outsider still informs his ingenious adaptability, which lets him roll with every punch and increasingly violent trans-dimensional displacement. Because he’s a deeply human monster—our variously eager, sanguine, baffled, and fed-up guide through an even-stranger world—Kurt’s capable of being at home anywhere, making friends anywhere, and being loved anywhere, by just about everyone, from grizzled space-pirates and metal-bikini-wearing princesses to nerdy teen girls and chibi armies of himself. I defy you to read this comic and not fall just as deeply in love.

  1. Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1 #204, “What Happened to Nightcrawler?” (1986)
    Chris Claremont (writer), June Brigman (pencils), Whilce Portacio (inks), Glynis Oliver (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

This Nightcrawler solo story is set in the aftermath of the X-Men’s encounter with the reality-warper Beyonder, and would be Kurt’s final major spotlight in Uncanny before he’s gravely wounded in the “Mutant Massacre.” Following the Massacre, Kurt would lie in a coma for two years of publishing time, before finally waking at Moira McTaggert’s research base in Scotland along with the also-gravely-wounded Kitty Pryde, who helps him co-found the UK-based X-Men offshoot Excalibur. All the best Nightcrawler stories include swashbuckling, and this one’s no exception. But in this case, the swashbuckling is set within a self-reflexive context that functions as a metacommentary on the increasingly gritty world of the X-Men franchise, and the fun-loving Kurt’s increasing incompatibility with that world. Not that Kurt’s not capable of darkness or despair. Parts of this comic are incredibly dark, including the opening pages, which feature a despondent Kurt perched on a balcony in the rain and drinking brandy for breakfast before feebly reenacting his adventures from the ’85 limited series, a performance which utterly fails to impress his girlfriend/foster sister (it’s complicated!) Amanda Sefton. An argument follows, in which Kurt agonizes about his purpose in the face of a world where godlike beings can rearrange minds and bodies on a whim. After Kurt accuses Amanda, a sorceress, of using magic to make him love her, she storms out. But Kurt’s not alone for long. Soon, he finds himself in Arcade’s Murderworld, where he has an adventure perfectly suited to his skills and fantasies, featuring guiltless fantasy violence and revolving around saving a beautiful (albeit decidedly modern) princess. This adventure helps Kurt “get his groove back,” but it doesn’t resolve his metaphysical doubts. In fact, it suggests metaphysical doubts are at the heart of Kurt’s theatricality, which functions as a means of finding some semblance of control in and out-of-control world. From this comic onward, Kurt’s pursuits of romantic adventure will be both silly and deadly serious, simultaneously performing and transforming trauma as Kurt fights an uphill battle to write his own story.

  1. Excalibur #16-17, “Warlord,” “From the Crucible—a Captain?” (1990)
    Chris Claremont (writer), Alan Davis (pencils), Paul Neary (inks), Glynis Oliver, Mark Rockwitz, & Nelson Yomtov (colors), Tom Orzechowski & Jade Modae (letters)

This story arc is once again heavily influenced by the ’85 Nightcrawler series—and it won’t be the last one on this list! These comics are set midway through the “Cross-Time Caper,” a twelve-issue-long storyline that sees the members of Excalibur jaunting unpredictably between dimensions aboard a dragon-powered train with the help of a disembodied robot head called Widget that’s imbued with the ghost of a future Kitty Pryde (yes, really!). Here, they find themselves on a sword-and-sorcery world reminiscent of the pulp adventures of John Carter of Mars. Basically: there’s lots of sword-fighting plus magic plus sci-fi, and everyone wears a lot fewer clothes. For much of Excalibur #16, Nightcrawler’s on his own after falling from the train onto a pirate ship. More specifically, he falls onto the body of a blue-skinned pirate named Kymri, who’s leading a similarly blue-skinned crew that seems to be menacing a beautiful blonde princess. After inadvertently knocking their leader unconscious, Kurt promptly dispatches the pirates, then finds himself in turn knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant. He wakes up naked in a large pool within a majestic boudoir with the princess wading in to join him, telling him that as a reward for saving her life, her body belongs to him. While there’s a certain macho-ness embedded in Kurt’s desire to be an Errol Flynn-style swashbuckler, the gender normative aspects of his performance are usually subverted through self-deprecation and gender play. In the ’85 limited series, he’s humbled and embarrassed in his moment of masculine triumph with the princess, when Kitty accidentally teleports away his clothes. In Uncanny X-Men #204, Kurt doesn’t kiss the short-haired, tennis-shorts-wearing princess, but does kiss a holographic version of Arcade in female drag. And in this story, the beautiful blonde princess is decidedly not what she seems. Neither is Kymri, who seems like Kurt’s soulmate, yet definitively rejects him in favor of nerdy scientist Alistaire Stuart. The self-deprecation comes from Kurt’s thought bubbles as well as the story’s sardonic narrator, who turns out to be Kitty Pryde. This is a fun, sexy, deceptively complex story that includes a scene in which a hungover and “besotted” Kurt wakes up face-down on a curved bed with his tail in a knot. If you like Nightcrawler even a little, and haven’t yet read this story—prepare to like a lot more of him.

  1. Excalibur Vol. 1 #62-65 (1993)
    Alan Davis (writer/pencils), Mark Farmer (inks), Glynis Oliver, Joe Rosas, Dana Moreshead &
    Michael Thomas (colors), Chris Eliopoulos (letters)

Dave Cockrum wasn’t the only influential creator who had a massive crush on Nightcrawler. Alan Davis is also an unabashed Nightcrawler stan, which is very obvious here, in perhaps his most fannish take on the character. At this point in the Excalibur series, Kurt had become the official leader of the team, and Davis had taken over both writing and penciling duties on the series he co-created with Chris Claremont. That meant Davis could basically do whatever he wanted, and one of the things he wanted to do was write a story in which scientists examine Nightcrawler and tell everyone why he’s great. Lots of other stuff happens, much of it deep-continuity storytelling that’s too complicated to get into here. But the gist is: Nightcrawler and Excalibur visit the secret underground lab of an ultimately nefarious organization that’s training/testing/experimenting on a group of mutants with graphic physical differences called “warpies.” Except, they’re not actually mutants. They’re actually dimensionally displaced leftovers from the “Jasper’s Warp” event, which occurred within Davis and Alan Moore’s Captain Britain stories for the Marvel UK imprint in the 1980s (I warned you about that deep continuity!). Part of this organization’s nefarious-ness involves convincing Kurt he’s dying of a degenerative disease. That gives them an excuse to run a series of tests, in which Kurt single-handedly defeats an army of monstrous adversaries, runs obstacle courses, and strips down to his tighty-whities to lift weights, to the delight of both the scientists and the warpies, who look on with admiration and actual devoted fannishness. The scene involving the obstacle course features some particularly glorious stan-ing. Partly, it’s an attempt to solidify certain details of Kurt’s powers, such as his often-neglected ability to blend into shadows. But it’s also a pure and simple celebration, with gray-haired dudes in lab coats examining X-rays and detailed scans of Kurt’s body while saying things like, “Remarkable! A perfect physical specimen. Phenomenal agility. Not a mutant ability. Just lots of hard work,” and, “Is there no end to his gifts?” Davis also, naturally, finds Kurt a very beautiful, very powerful new girlfriend in the Shi’ar warrior Cerise. If I’m being honest: there are better Nightcrawler stories. But there are few that are as devotedly in love with Kurt as this one, making it a must for any Nightcrawler fan.

  1. Amazing X-Men Vol. 2 #1-5, “The Quest for Nightcrawler” (2014)
    Jason Aaron (writer), Ed McGuinness (pencils), Dexter Vines (inks), Marte Gracia (colors), Joe Caramagna (letters)

This is the third story on this list overly inspired by the ’85 limited series. It begins with a white-robed Kurt in heaven, in the wake of his death three years earlier in the “Second Coming” event. He should be happy, but he’s not; he’s stuck lingering on the precipice of paradise, gazing at the earthy world below. When monstrous pirates show up—the first wave of a larger assault on the heavenly realm—he’s delighted, throwing off his robe and seizing a sword. Before long, Kurt’s joined by a cadre of old friends, including Logan/Wolverine and Ororo Munroe/Storm, and tearful, fan-service-y reunions ensue. This story, which sees Kurt resurrected though not-entirely-whole, is a love letter to the character’s swashbuckling past that joyously defies the grim tone of his adventures at the time of his death. In the lead up to “Second Coming,” Kurt was increasingly disillusioned with life as an X-Man. After learning Scott Summers/Cyclops sanctioned the kill-happy black-ops squad X-Force, Kurt even tries to quit the team. Scott guilts him into staying, because they need his teleportation powers to save Hope Summers, the purported savior of the decimated mutant race (the inevitable ironic twist being, Kurt later dies saving Hope). While it’s unfortunate to see Kurt’s misgivings about things like the X-Men use of lethal force all-but dropped from continuity, after years of languishing in the background of various X-Men events, Kurt needed a story that reminded readers how fun he can be, and taking him back to his pirate roots is an obvious way to do that. This story also makes a very heroic attempt to make something serviceable out of one of the most hated X-Men stories of all time—the Chuck Austen-penned “The Draco” (2004), in which Kurt learns his father is a demon called Azazel. There’s lots to hate about “The Draco,” but its main problem is the way it fundamentally contradicts Nightcrawler’s core metaphor, about appearances being deceiving. Kurt’s main thing is that he looks like a demon, but isn’t one; making him an actual demon kinda throws that all out the window. In Amazing X-Men, Azazel returns as a demon who might actually be a mutant after all, and serves as a meaningful foe for Kurt—an embodied symbol of everything he doesn’t want to be and never will, who Kurt gets to punch in the face. (In that moment, Kurt is all of us.)

  1. Age of X-Man: The Amazing Nightcrawler (2019)
    Seanan McGuire (writer), Juan Frigeri (pencils/inks), Dono Sánchez-Almara (colors), Travis Lanham (letters

While I completely adore this comic, I must admit: it does a much better job with Kurt’s psychology than that of its other star character, Meggan Pucceau. Kurt and Meggan were two parts of a long-running love triangle in the pages of Excalibur, but their romance in this story has little to do with that. While novelist McGuire, in her comic book debut, absolutely nails Kurt’s character, Meggan feels a bit like she could be anyone (including Wanda Maximoff, who I personally feel might have been a better fit in this tale about utopic reality-warping). That said—if you can accept this story as an alternate universe parable, there’s so much to love. The context is a bit complicated, but in the most basic terms: Nate Grey (the titular “X-Man”) warps reality to create a pocket universe where the X-Men are no longer outcasts. Instead, they’re beloved heroes, living “perfect” lives. But there’s a catch—being perfect requires denouncing family connections and sexual desire. This is an especially vexing proposition for Kurt, who, apart from his brief stint as a priest-in-training, has usually been one of the more sex positive mutants. In this world, he’s also particularly beset by temptations, because he’s famous both as a superhero and a Hollywood star in charge of his own studio, which churns out blockbusters starring himself and Meggan. By the end of the first issue, an illicit affair is underway, that threatens Kurt and Meggan’s careers, and the entire false utopia. Kurt becoming an actor is a bit on-the-nose, but it jives with Kurt’s history as a performer (he was a semi-famous trapeze artist before joining the X-Men), and the possible future presented in the Chris Claremont-penned X-Men: The End (2004-2006), in which Kurt similarly becomes a movie star after retiring from the X-Men (he also marries and has a family with Kymri). Plus, McGuire uses the movie studio context to offer commentary on Kurt’s own deep-seated utopic impulses, which this comic presents as both extending from and in conflict with his love of romance—both the adventuring kind and the sexual kind. This comic also explores the queer themes underpinning the X-Men’s mutant metaphor, while interrogating the relationship between sexuality and heroism, which we too often assume are incompatible. In this comic—sex is love, and love is heroic.

  1. Nightcrawler Vol. 3 #1-12 (2004-2006)
    Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (writer), Darick Robertson (pencils) Wayne Faucher, Jimmy Palmiotti & Rodney Ramos (inks), Matt Milla (colors), Cory Petit, Chris Eliopoulos & Rus Wooton (letters)

These days, most people probably know Aguirre-Sacasa best as the developer of the TV show Riverdale (2017-present), while Robertson is best known as the co-creator of the comic book version of The Boys (2006-2012). But before they did either of these things, Aguirre-Sacasa and Robertson teamed up for a Nightcrawler solo series that attempts to establish a new status quo for the character as the X-Men’s resident paranormal investigator. This series both reboots Kurt and reestablishes neglected aspects of his backstory, creating a new context for his adventures while also flashing back to his childhood and teen years at the circus. It also deliberately distances itself from Kurt’s turn toward priestly celibacy in the early aughts. Kurt showers a lot in this series, and has multiple flirtatious relationships, with Amanda Sefton, Ororo, and a very curvaceous nurse named Christine Palmer, who helps Kurt on his first mission before becoming a supporting character. The first six issues, which focus on Kurt as a plain-clothes investigator, are stronger the than second six, which see Kurt, Logan, and Christine travel to Germany to unravel mysteries related to Kurt’s past. Ironing out Kurt’s often-muddy and frequently re-written backstory isn’t a bad impulse, but this story ends up introducing more problems than it solves, while adding even more trauma to Kurt’s already-traumatic history. Still, this series stands out as a rare glimpse of Kurt living a more grounded existence, interviewing suspects, doing research at libraries, riding the subway, and dating; the aftermath of a Broadway date with Ororo, Logan, Kurt, and Christine, in which it’s not entirely clear who’s dating who, is a particular highlight. Sure, Kurt’s version of being grounded includes fighting demons and occasionally taking a jaunt down to Limbo to visit his ex and crack wise with her sassy snake doormen. But it’s an interesting take on Nightcrawler and his world that I’ve returned to often over the years, and would have loved to see continue a little longer.

  1. Classic X-Men #4, “The Big Dare” (1986)
    Chris Claremont (writer), John Bolton (pencils/inks), Glynis Oliver (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Self-acceptance is a hallmark of Nightcrawler’s character, but a key moment in that journey, in the form of Kurt’s decision to stop using the “image inducer” that lets him to disguise himself as human, first occurred off-panel, in a thought bubble in Uncanny X-Men #130 (1980). In the panel in question, Kurt thinks, “Boy, was [Professor Xavier] mad when I told him I was no longer using the image inducer. God—or dumb luck—made me what I am, and I won’t hide anymore. Not even for the X-Men.” Xavier forcing Kurt to use the inducer is a fascinating plot point that deserved more exploration, given how it reflects on Xavier’s flawed approach to diversity and inclusion. “The Big Dare” doesn’t offer that elaboration, but, like the other Classic X-Men backups, it does offer important context for previous stories, presented in quiet character moments set between superhero battles. Basically: over drinks at Harry’s Hideaway, Logan challenges Kurt to walk down the street as himself, without his inducer. Kurt’s reluctant, recalling a circus owner who wanted him to star in a freakshow, and the mob that nearly killed him the night Xavier recruited him for the X-Men. Logan uses the spirit of masculine competition to convince him, accusing Kurt of being scared or ashamed. So, Kurt does it, and for the most part, it goes well. He garners fascination from some children and admiration from an attractive woman before encountering the predictable bigots, who he dissuades Logan from gutting. Kurt doesn’t make a definitive decision in this story to stop using the inducer, and Logan effectively forcing Kurt out of the mutant closet isn’t unproblematic. But this imperfection and lack of resolution is true to what’s great (and even revolutionary) about the friendship between Logan and Kurt. Their relationship is complicated, and should be. It works because they respect each other’s differences, while also pushing each other, at key moments, to be better versions of themselves. If someone other than Logan dared Kurt to walk down the street, it would be a very different story. But sometimes, fuzzy elves need burly Canadians with weird hair and claws to help them find and have what they want. This is, ultimately, a story about the many ways friends can stand up for each other when they know each other well.

9. X-Men Unlimited Vol. 1 #38, “Yartzeit” (2002)
Greg Rucka (writer), Darick Robertson (pencils/inks), J.D. Smith (colors), Randy Gentile (letters)

This is more properly a Kitty Pryde story than a Nightcrawler story. It’s also not much of a superhero story; no one wear spandex, and no punches are thrown. But it is a perfect spotlight of one of my favorite friendships in comics, between Kitty and Kurt. As much as I enjoy seeing Kurt step out as a solo character, his defining emotional empathy means he often shines brightest within relationships with other characters. That’s certainly the case here, in a story that centers on Kitty—then attending college in Chicago—wrestling with grief on the one-year anniversary of the death of her onetime boyfriend Piotr Rasputin/Colossus. Kitty is sure she sees Piotr on the street, dressed as a police officer. She’s so sure, she calls Kurt at the X-Mansion, to ask if any shapeshifters or mind-manipulators might be on the loose with a grudge against her or the X-Men. The phone call ends with Kitty swearing at Kurt, but the conversation doesn’t end there. Because he knows Kitty too well, Kurt puts his superhero duties aside to be there for her, arriving the next day at her apartment to share Chinese takeout and talk—not about him, or them, but about her. Yet it’s Kitty who does most of the talking; Kurt mostly listens, patiently and without judgement, until Kitty finally lets herself cry—against Kurt’s chest, with his arms and tail holding her close. The promise of “found family” is a key theme of X-Men comics, and few characters communicate this theme as powerfully as Kitty and Kurt. Kitty was afraid of Kurt until his tireless empathy transformed her into his strongest advocate. And while Kitty’s Jewishness and Kurt’s German-ness is rarely foregrounded, it’s always present as subtext, especially in the comic at hand, which is named for Kitty honoring Jewish traditions of mourning. The day after that tearful hug, Kitty leaves a cup of coffee and a thank-you note for Kurt, who’s asleep on her couch in a tangle of blankets and blue limbs. The note reads: “Have to get to class. If you’re able to stick around, I’d love to buy you dinner. Thanks for being you.” This friendship is truly too good for this world.

10. Nightcrawler Vol. 4 #1-12 (2014-2015)
Chris Claremont (writer), Todd Nauck (pencils/inks), Rachelle Rosenberg (colors), Cory Petit, Joe Sabino & Travis Lanham (letters)

This series disappointed me when it came out, but it’s grown on me since. At the time, it felt undesirably retro for a series that was meant to re-establish Kurt in the X-Men universe following his resurrection in Amazing X-Men (discussed above). I still feel that way, but if you separate it from that larger context, and read it in isolation as a throwback, this series has a lot of charm. There’s some good Kurt/Logan moments (including Kurt grieving Logan’s death), and some equally good Kurt/Ororo moments (including a rainy embrace), as well as an epic callback to Paul Smith’s famous Burt Reynolds-inspired pinup of Kurt from Uncanny X-Men #168 (1983). It also features Kurt mentoring young mutants, most notably Rico/Scorpion Boy (who, as his name suggests, is a boy who looks like a scorpion). Kurt’s an obvious choice to counsel other visibly different mutants, and for the most part, it works, with Kurt introducing Rico to some of the exciting possibilities opened up by being an X-Man (and, of course, giving him relationship advice). True to form, Kurt also finds himself ricocheting across space and time alongside a sexy paramour, in the form of a space-faring bounty hunter named Bloody Bess. Nauck has a friendly, energetic style and clearly loves drawing Nightcrawler; his version of the character is elastic and cartoony with just enough grounded-ness, which comes in useful for the moments of melancholy set between bombastic spectacles. If you’re a long-time reader of X-Men comics, it’s hard not to read some of Kurt’s melancholy as Claremont’s, which lends added resonance to Kurt’s struggle to find a way to live in the present that honors his past.

Honorable Mention
Magik Vol. 1 #1-4 (2001)
Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning (writers), Liam Sharp (pencils/inks), Kevin Somers (colors), Paul Tutrone (letters)

Nightcrawler’s a BAMF, so his list goes up to 11. Kurt’s religion doesn’t play a particularly large role in most of his solo adventures. Even Amazing X-Men doesn’t so much delve into scripture as use heaven and hell as convenient settings for superheroic exploits. But if you’re looking for a fun story set during Kurt’s priest days, this is my “honorable mention” recommendation. You might think, based on the title, that this comic stars Illyana Rasputin. You would be wrong! At this point in X-Men continuity, Amanda Sefton was the ruler of Limbo and wielder of the Soulsword. Facing a demonic rebellion, Amanda goes looking for Kurt. She finds him at a church, doing priestly things. Within a few panels, Kurt tosses off his heavy black robes to fight at Amanda’s side; he’ll spend the rest of the series shirtless with at least one sword in his hand. The Kurt/Amanda relationship is controversial for obvious reasons; though they’re not related by blood, he often refers to her as his sister, which raises lots of questions that are never properly answered. But here, in this comic, she’s definitely a positive influence; Kurt looks and feels so much happier swashbuckling than sermonizing. This series is a bit hard to find; it’s not on Marvel Unlimited, and it’s never been reprinted. But for Nightcrawler fans old and new (or fans of Abnett and Lanning), it’s well worth a look if you’re able to track it down.

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