By Zoe Tunnell
Nightcrawler is the best mutant. There, done deal.
Shit, I have to write more, don’t I?
Look, best mutant does not mean favorite mutant. I love the X-Men’s resident fuzzy swashbuckling flirt, but he ain’t my favorite. Kate Pryde alone runs circles around him. But when I was asked, “Hey Zoe, who do you think is the best mutant?” Kurt Wagner immediately arrived as my gut answer. He’s not the strongest, or the smartest, or even the most influential. What he is, however, is the heart and soul of the X-Men, and nowhere is that more clear than in New Mutants #22.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “New Mutants? Nightcrawler isn’t even in that book!” And A) yes, you’re right and B) shut up, I know what I’m doing. Set smack dab in the middle of Claremont and Sienkienwicz’ iconic run with the team, New Mutants #22 is a relatively low-key issue that focuses on the Baby Mutants’ training at Xavier’s. While Sunspot brawls with Colossus and Xavier tries to figure out what exactly the newly-arrived Warlock is, Cannonball gets a trapeze lesson with everyone’s favorite blue-furred teleporter.
The specific use of the trapeze is essential here, as the high-flying show holds a special significance for Nightcrawler. If you’re not aware, Kurt’s origin wasn’t a particularly fun one. Abandoned as a child (thanks, Mystique) and raised by a circus, his immediately noticeable mutation was turned into an attraction for audiences to gawk at. To their credit, the circus folk loved and accepted Kurt as just another weirdo who society rejected – but that didn’t stop the angry, torch-wielding mob that nearly killed him before Charles Xavier’s intervention. After being recruited for the X-Men, he quickly found a new home and family with his fellow mutants and became a fan favorite along the way.
As of New Mutants #22, Kurt has been on the team for a good while and stepped into the role of proud teacher for the new class of children. By using the trapeze in his teachings, Kurt takes his own upbringing and experiences, pain and all, and passes it on to the next generation. His lesson with Cannonball is charming and fun, but the real essential beats come after. Wolfsbane, still nervous and shy, decides to spy on the lesson as she is Mega Crushing on Sam Guthrie’s gawky ass.
Rahne’s distaste of Kurt wasn’t a secret at this point. The potent combination of her own self-loathing and deeply religious upbringing makes for a pretty noxious view towards Kurt’s devilish appearance. In her defense, she is, like, 12 at this point. We were all awful.
As the lesson concludes, Nightcrawler takes advantage of the Danger Room’s capabilities and morphs the training arena into a circus, complete with clown outfits for himself and Rahne. As the spotlight focuses on Wolfsbane, Kurt (obscured by shadow and grease paint) asks her to dance. That choice: to greet a young mutant who has done nothing but spit venom and hate at him since they’ve met and offer her a smile and laugh? That is why Nightcrawler is the best mutant… because he could very easily not be.
Loads of X-Men are human-passing. Most of them, in fact. Of the big mainstay classics, only Beast and Nightcrawler stand out as immediately, indisputably mutant at all times. And even then, Hank McCoy spent years of his life as an( admittedly big-footed) human-looking nerd and only came to his blue appearance due to his own hubris. Kurt never had that luxury. From the moment he was born, he looked every inch a devil, come from Hell to terrorize innocent folks. Faced with a lifetime of persecution and bigotry, no one could blame Kurt for becoming cold and cruel. Other versions of him – such as the Age of Apocalypse incarnation – did just that. But our Nightcrawler, the one who has been bamfing his way through our hearts for decades, chose a different path.
Countless times throughout his many years on X-Teams ranging from Excalibur to the upcoming Way of X, Kurt has been the victim of hatred. Whether through casual tossed off looks and locked car doors as he walked by; or targeted attacks like Reverend Stryker, a self-proclaimed man of God who claimed that Kurt isn’t even human in the eyes of the Lord on national television. While sometimes he understandably gets frustrated and upset, he never stops trying to help people become better. Whether it is humans who have trouble seeing past his appearance or fellow mutants who don’t understand the struggles of their less Supermodel Hot brethren, Kurt will never stop trying to leave the world a better, more accepting place than he found it.
In New Mutants, once the illusion falls and Rahne realizes she has been dancing and laughing with the demon who lives upstairs from her, she shoves him away. Kurt doesn’t get angry or frustrated. He says, with those sad yellow eyes:
“I meant no harm. I merely wished to show you that you should never judge by appearances. What a person, or thing, looks like means nothing…it is what they are–inside their hearts and souls– that matters.”
Rahne, of course, refuses to listen and runs out of the room in tears. Nightcrawler stops Sam from following, as he knows the pain she is going through and that she will need to get through herself.
That isn’t to say Kurt is a push-over or, god forbid, a mutant centrist. He can, and will, fight for his people and take up his swords to stand against bigotry and violence. But he knows there are other ways. Even now, at the height of Krakoa’s powers and with mutants more dominant than ever, he is more concerned with the soul of his people than their role on the world’s stage. When superheroes and mutants are punching each other over whatever that week’s world-ending threat is, Kurt is left wondering if they could have done something to help people be in a place where that threat would never have happened to begin with.
Nightcrawler is one of comics’ perfect characters. He’s got everything: iconic look, cool powers, long history of great stories (we don’t talk about The Draco), and some of the most enduring friendships in superhero comics. He even has the perfect ironic wrinkle of being an ordained priest who looks like he could be Satan’s blue raspberry flavored kid brother. He is easily one of the best X-Men, and arguably Marvel characters as a whole, on these merits alone. But it’s his heart, his giant endlessly caring and forgiving heart, that makes him the best mutant.
The X-Men have dozens of leaders and even more warriors, spies and heroes. But they only have one soul, and that role is, and always will be, Kurt Wagner’s.
New Mutants #22
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
Colourist: Glynis Wein
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
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